When asked about Newcastle's championship chances, Alan Shearer would smile, sigh and say: "Have you seen our fixture list in December?"
Chelsea still await but Ipswich, Blackburn, Arsenal, Leeds and now Middlesbrough have been beaten in a string of consecutive victories that has not been seen on Tyneside since the glittering, almost unreal days of Kevin Keegan. Even when they were putting together seven straight wins in the autumn of 1996 to race into another lead they could not sustain, it would be difficult to argue Keegan's teams played any more entertainingly than Bobby Robson's side has this season.
"Isn't that what you are supposed to do; entertain?" said Robson after a ridiculously comfortable victory in the Tyne-Tees derby which kept his side top of the Premiership. "I learned that at Ipswich more than 20 years ago when we became one of the best sides in Europe. The name of the game is to play good ground football.
"Sometimes here we embellish it too much, we sometimes take one pass too many. But we played some lovely football today. We were a bit too good for them."
This was being very kind to Middlesbrough; they were a lot too good. Robson estimated the balance of the match as 60:40, whereas Newcastle could easily have doubled their score without much effort. Craig Bellamy squandered a clear one-on-one. Laurent Robert, breaking away from a typically feeble Boro attack and running virtually the length of the pitch, merely had to pass to Kieron Dyer to present him with the most straightforward of goalscoring chances, but chose, mistakenly, to shoot. Alan Shearer's headed goal moments from the end was ruled out for a push.
Shearer, nevertheless, had already found his way onto the scoresheet in the 28th minute to settle nerves. Franck Queudrue disastrously lost possession to the Newcastle captain on the edge of his own area and, though his shot was very well saved by Crossley, Shearer's boot latched on to the rebound before Gareth Southgate's and from then on the result was not open to debate.
The goal arrived after one of the few occasions in which Middlesbrough suggested they might make a fight of things. Sylvain Distin failed to control a long ball aimed for Alen Boksic, allowing the Croat to wrestle his way into the area, only for his shot to be well blocked by Shay Given. Steve McClaren argued that Robbie Elliott had given away a penalty when challenging Jonathan Greening for the rebound. Mark Halsey thought otherwise and Boro were not to go so close again.
"I told Andy O'Brien beforehand: 'If you knock Boksic out of the match, we will win the game'," Robson said. That moment apart, O'Brien was as good as his word, although Newcastle would probably have won even if Boksic had reproduced his form for Juventus and Lazio.
With Dyer producing a princely performance in his first start at St James' Park in nearly 11 months, the Middlesbrough midfield was shredded on a two-tone pitch, one half of which had been relaid. "We did not pass the ball and we did not look organised," McClaren remarked in a precise, pithy summary of his team's problems.
The Middlesbrough manager was probably thinking of Newcastle's second, for which Gary Speed, running in with his head down, was allowed to knock in a straightforward corner from Nolberto Solano. McClaren had not gone into the dressing-room immediately after the half-time whistle but remained in his dug-out to ponder team changes.
Replacing the ineffectual Noel Whelan with Andy Campbell and reverting to a rigid 4-4-2 formation was sensible enough but his side has now managed one goal in six games and can feel the breath of the relegation-zone teams on their faces. Their heaviest away defeat of the season was confirmed by a Bellamy cross aimed for Shearer which found the feet of Olivier Bernard, who finished in a manner both strikers would have appreciated.
"We are better than this," said McClaren, who a few weeks ago seemed to have repaired a start that had seen Boro lose their first four games. "We are in for a tough spell in the trenches."
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 6; Hughes 6, O'Brien 8, Distin 7, Elliott 6; Solano 6 (Lee, 79), Dyer 8 (LuaLua, 84), Speed 7, Robert 6 (Bernard, 79); Bellamy 7, Shearer 7. Subsitutes not used: Barton, Harper (gk).
Middlesbrough: (4-2-3-1) Crossley 6; Stockdale 5, Ehiogu 5, Southgate 6, Queudrue 4; Ince 5, Mustoe 6; Greening 5, Marinelli 5 (Okon 81), Whelan 4 (Campbell, h-t 5); Boksic 4 (Ricard, 81).
Referee: M Halsey (Welwyn) 8.Reuse content