Shearer given lift ahead of 'biggest game of career'

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In the space of 90 enthralling minutes at Hull City on Saturday, Newcastle United and Middlesbrough saw their season move from being nervously dependent on others to being again reliant on themselves. Tonight at St James' Park, any win for Newcastle or a three-goal victory for Middlesbrough, would ease either club above Hull and out of the bottom three with two games to play. The incentive has been increased significantly.

Newcastle's temporary manager Alan Shearer had accepted that a Hull victory would have been sapping. But Shearer also spoke of the possibilities offered by a Stoke win. "Psychologically it'd be fantastic if we were three points behind," Shearer said. "It'd be a huge benefit. Six points is a hell of a lot more than three."

Newcastle's superior goal difference means that any sort of win – which would be Shearer's first as a manager – would take them out of the relegation zone. Given that survival could be pivotal to his future employment, Shearer was asked where tonight's game ranks. "It's the biggest of my career," he replied. Does that include Euro 96? "Absolutely."

The Middlesbrough manager, Gareth Southgate, was Shearer's team-mate in that tournament. He was more circumspect about tonight – "big, bigger, biggest? It's the next big game," Southgate said – but Boro's inferior goal difference means that defeat would make escape from relegation harder. Hull want a draw.

Neither Newcastle nor Middlesbrough are in form. Newcastle have one goal in Shearer's five matches in charge, Middlesbrough have not scored in the last three and have nine league goals away from home all season. Both lost convincingly in their last match, Newcastle at Liverpool, Middlesbrough against Manchester United. Shearer dropped Michael Owen for the trip to Anfield – and then had to deal with the eruption that is Joey Barton – but Owen is expected to return.

"It was right for that game," Shearer said of Owen and Liverpool. "I went through my reasons. His reaction was as you'd expect it would be with the places he's been to and players he's played with – very, very professional."

Owen will possibly partner Mark Viduka. The big Australian is Southgate's former colleague at Middlesbrough and scored on his return to the Riverside last season. Teesside is wary of the 33 year-old, even though Viduka has no Newcastle goal for 13 months.

"Mark is a fantastic player," Southgate said. "We would like to have kept him. He wanted a different challenge." Viduka personifies Newcastle's experience, but the team lacks pace. Middlesbrough have youth and energy. A Tyne-Tees derby atmosphere will be intense.

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