Shearer's return illuminates the gloom

Newcastle United 1 Sunderland 1
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The Independent Online

The howl of pride sweeping around St James' that greeted Alan Shearer's return was the only truly lasting memory of this Tyne-Wear derby. Peter Reid joked that the only thing that pleased him was the referee's final whistle and in this the Sunderland manager was not alone.

Newcastle are a side that both craves and lacks heroes and in a perfect world, Tyneside's greatest footballing icon would have scored against the bitterest enemy, preferably in front of the same Gallowgate End where he had missed a penalty against Sunderland in November. ''It means everything to be back," he said, sentiments which nobody at St James' would have doubted. ''The last five months have been the most frustrating of my life." However, the three glittering chances of a second half Newcastle dominated fell not to Shearer, who played the final quarter of an hour after months recovering from a debilitating knee injury, but to Nolberto Solano.

The Peruvian made a mess of the lot; in turn, skimming a header wide, treading on the ball and then shooting tamely at Thomas Sorensen. ''If Nobby goes to Peru and scores a hat-trick on international duty, I'll have him," said his manager, Bobby Robson, who following his penchant for extraordinary metaphors, claimed Newcastle ''should have won this game by a cup of tea''. Reid didn't disagree but the Tyne-Wear match is one of the strangest derbies. Not since 1993 has either the side that scored first, or the side playing at home, won it.

It is not a fixture that Shearer has especially enjoyed; only once has the man, who used to walk several miles to St James' to see Peter Beardsley and Kevin Keegan play, scored against Sunderland.

Kevin Phillips, by contrast, had only the haziest idea of what a Newcastle-Sunderland fixture meant to the north-east when he came to Sunderland in the summer of 1997 and yet in five Tyne-Wear derbies, he has scored five times.

Yesterday, his goal was stolen, rising above Nikos Dabizas, who is a good five inches taller, to glance in Stefan Schwarz's centre which was one of the very few attacks Sunderland mustered, reaffirming goalscoring qualities that Sven Goran Eriksson has again ignored.

Phillips's header left Shay Given, whose simple errors had been highlighted against Chelsea and Troyes, in what the former England batsman Ken Barrington used to call ''t'woman's land'' and his positioning would have stretched Robson's faith in the Irish keeper still further.

"We were disappointed not to have won but careless defensive errors have cost us,'' was Shearer's assessment. Careless defensive errors have been a feature of Newcastle's play that successive reshuffles under Robson have failed to cure and which the old Sunderland partnership of Phillips and Niall Quinn have ruthlessly exploited. Reid gave Quinn, who was effectively dealt with by Dabizas, his head in place of Lilian Laslandes, his £3.5m signing from Bordeaux, whom he claimed had not adapted to the paced of the Premiership.

Newcastle have no such doubts about Laurent Robert, who cost three times as much and whose first Premiership game was full of driving runs and one gorgeous crossfield ball that split the Sunderland defence and on to which Craig Bellamy came sprinting. Robson had said the Welsh international would have to turn his penetration into goals if he was to have a real future at Newcastle and the beautifully-timed shot supplied the answer.

Another low, swinging cross in the 53rd minute was flicked over the bar by the same silver boots, Dabizas forced Sorensen into a reaction save and Rob Lee's tenacity ensured the home side controlled the midfield in the second half, although Newcastle failed in football's most basic alchemy; turning base possession into goals.

Goals: Phillips (34) 0-1; Bellamy (44) 1-1.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given 5; Barton 5, Hughes 6, Dabizas 6, Elliott 6 (O'Brien 6, 40); Solano 5, Lee 6, Speed 5 (Acuna 5, 42), Robert 8; Ameobi 4 (Shearer 6, 75), Bellamy 6. Substitutes not used: Lua Lua, Harper (gk).

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen 5; Haas 5, Craddock 6, Thome 4, Gray 5; Hutchison 4 (Bellion 6, 69), McCann 5, Schwarz 5 (Rae, 90), Kilbane 4; Quinn 5, Phillips 6. Substitutes not used: McCartney, Arca, Macho (gk).

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Bookings: Newcastle: Robert, Sunderland: Haas, McCann.

Man of the match: Robert.

Attendance: 52,201.

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