Shearer strike punctures Leeds' survival balloon

Newcastle United 1 Leeds United 0
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The Independent Football

Eddie Gray has had it worse in football management before. In his time at Rochdale he had to mop the dressing-room floor before the players came in because of the holes in the ceiling. After a third successive defeat, the roof is threatening to fall in on Leeds United's troubled season. Their caretaker needs all the brushwork skills he acquired in the basement division.

The deadline for a financial rescue package is just 11 days distant now for the former Premiership aristocrats and, on the pitch, Leeds are losing the hope of salvation they stirred with their five-match unbeaten run before their visit to Wolves on 28 December.

At St James' Park last night, they lost David Batty to a jarred ankle after half an hour and were as potent in attack as their veteran midfielder, who last scored in his Newcastle United days, five years and 10 months ago.

They took 59 minutes to force a save from Shay Given and, despite a predictable bout of second-half nerves in the Newcastle defence, they had the profligacy of their hosts to thank for escaping a sound thrashing. As it was, a fourth-minute goal by Alan Shearer proved sufficient to beat them.

"The game could have been finished by half-time," Gray acknowledged. "It's disappointing. In our position, we've got to pick up points and we can only do that if the players believe in themselves."

That belief was absent right from the kick-off last night. With Alan Smith also absent, starting his two-match suspension, Leeds were playing catch-up after three minutes and 20 seconds.

Newcastle sliced through the left side of their defence, Nolberto Solano advancing to the edge of the penalty area before slipping an invitating pass out to Shearer. The Newcastle captain duly accepted his chance, angling a first-time right-footed drive past Nigel Martyn and into the far corner of the Leazes End net.

It was Shearer's 17th goal of the season in all competitions, his first in five matches, and his 20th against Leeds in Premiership matches for Newcastle and Blackburn. It was also the prelude to a period of sustained Newcastle pressure that ought to have yielded further reward.

Kieron Dyer, though, shot wide, Paul Robinson saved superbly from Jermaine Jenas, and just after the half-hour the referee, Phil Dowd, astonishingly waved for play to continue after Robinson tripped Dyer just outside the Leeds penalty area. "The keeper should have been sent off," the Newcastle manager, Sir Bobby Robson, later complained. "He came out and clattered Kieron."

It was not all one-way traffic, but Leeds failed to register a shot on target in a lamentable first-half performance. Still, it would have been worse for them at the interval, had Shearer not shot wide in the 43rd minute, or Dyer done likewise in injury-time.

It left Leeds still in the hunt going into the second half and they had their chances, Dominic Matteo screwing a shot wide, a Mark Viduka header forcing a save from Given and the substitute Michael Bridges miskicking after engineering a clear opportunity for himself.

Newcastle remained the dominant force, but without getting themselves into the comfort zone. Gary Speed came the closest to a second goal, the Leeds old boy directing a header against the near post from Laurent Robert's right-wing corner in the 61st minute.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 5; Hughes 5, Woodgate 7, Bramble 4, Bernard 5; Solano 6 (Ambrose, 82), Jenas 6, Speed 6, Robert 5 (Viana, 80); Dyer 5, Shearer 6. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), O'Brien, LuaLua.

Leeds United (4-5-1): Robinson 5; Kelly 4, Duberry 6, Kilgallon 5, Harte 4; Pennant 5, Batty 4 (Olemba 3, 31), Matteo 4, Johnson 4 (Bridges 4, 69), Milner 5 (Sakho, 89); Viduka 5. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Richardson.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffs) 3.

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