A curious week in the Premiership: one non-dismissal and one non-resignation. But after all the off-field machinations, Peter Reid was presumably a much more contented man last night, and, as for Sir Bobby Robson, well, that smile was back and he was looking distinctly more comfortable than he has in a week in which he has devoted rather too much time denying rumours he had quit.
At the final whistle, the Newcastle manager thrust both hands in the air, pointing his fingers upwards in exaltation. The sense of relief was tangible. That was evident during the post-match press conference when his mobile rang. Robson peered at the number. "Not the chairman of Real Madrid, is it?" he said, somewhat ruefully in view of the week's events.
It had to be Alan Shearer, of course, with his 250th League goal which belatedly brought Newcastle their first Premiership triumph of the season. It was also the striker's sixth Premiership goal of this campaign, testimony to his enduring value to the club. Robson deemed it Shearer's "best game this season", but the Southampton manager Gordon Strachan placed the former Southampton man's contribution into context adeptly: "I thought we contained everyone else very well, but if you want to kill the Indians you have to kill the Chief, and we didn't do that."
Robson declared himself satisfied with what he described as a "spirited" performance. Yet only when a disappointingly negative Southampton drove forward with purpose in the final minutes did Newcastle look like adding to Shearer's splendidly executed winner, scored just before the interval. Ultimately, it was well-merited triumph, although Robson conceded that without a further goal "our heart-strings were pounding".
So, have reports of Bobby Robson's footballing demise been exaggerated? Or are they merely premature? Many are convinced that Robson did tender his resignation but was prevailed upon to withdraw it. "I thought our crowd were really adoring, extremely supportive," he said. "I know when they're chanting they use my name, but I think that's just a reflection of the fact that they're supporting the club. It was great to hear it. It means a lot to the players. It's been a difficult week."
For Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, it's one thing lopping a Scots pine (Kenny Dalglish) or coping with Dutch Elm Disease (Ruud Gullit), the two previous incumbents having fallen, respectively, due to supporters' and player unrest. It is quite another matter to accept that this mighty oak among England managers might topple.
Robson maintained faith in a team which, apart from the suspended Laurent Robert, contained both Jermaine Jenas and Titus Bramble, whose errors had contributed to the 3-2 defeat at Highbury eight days previously. It was an astute decision, with the former fashioning Shearer's goal and displaying the kind of quality noted by Sven Goran Eriksson. Central defender Bramble, too, looked considerably more secure than in recent weeks.
The contest renewed several past associations. Kevin Phillips, who hastened Gullit's departure with a goal for Sunderland on a wet night here in August 1999, was welcomed back with the traditional greeting afforded to former Wearsiders. Phillips, of course, used to clean Shearer's boots when they were both at Southampton. Today, he just hankers to get into the England ones Shearer vacated, as does James Beattie, who was a Blackburn trainee when Shearer led Rovers to the 1995 Premiership title.
Whether Beattie will ever come close to replicating Shearer's England record of 30 goals from 63 appearances seems doubtful. However, Newcastle were well aware of the potency of the Saints' striking pair, scorers of eight goals between them before yesterday.
Strangely, though, neither received invitations to display their prowess in a moribund first period, during which both teams struggled to cast off the shackles of their opponents' defence. Lee Bowyer, deployed on Newcastle's left, tumbled in the area early on but his penalty appeals were rightly turned away. The only other chances of a goal for Newcastle came when Gary Speed's header from a Bowyer free-kick drifted wide and two speculative efforts from Kieron Dyer.
Referee Phil Dowd bore the brunt of the fans' frustration. He gave a series of fouls against Newcastle and cautioned Andy O'Brien for the worst. Ironically, the official missed Craig Bellamy's clear push on Claus Lundekvam on the edge of the Saints' area and that resulted in United's best opportunity thus far, but Shearer failed to take advantage.
A few minutes later, however, and with added time beckoning, Jenas threaded a sublime ball through a retreating Saints' defence and into the path of Shearer. The striker seized on to it like a cat lashing out a paw to claw a ball of wool and in one movement unleashed a splendid shot past Antti Niemi before celebrating his landmark goal in typical fashion.
Southampton lacked incision. Deprived of the midfield presence of the injured Matthew Oakley, they have lost the momentum of their early-season displays. "Scared football," Strachan called it. An attempt from range by Paul Telfer and a late turn and shot by Phillips easily gathered by Shay Given represented the sum total of the Saints' efforts.
Shearer nearly pounced again, but Niemi was down to the ball with alacrity. In the closing minutes of the match Jenas again supplied an excellent ball for Dyer, but his effort was saved by Niemi. Then Bellamy wormed his way through the visitors' rearguard, only to be blocked by Danny Higginbotham.
United are back in business, and so is Robson, after a bad week at the office.
Newcastle United 1 Southampton 0
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 52,127Reuse content