Souness begins year as he means to go on

Newcastle United 2 - Birmingham City 1
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The Independent Football

Graeme Souness has spent much of his first four months as manager of Newcastle United counting the days down to the start of January and the arrival of the new year has, so far, managed to live up to his expectations.

With two new defenders signed, left-back Celestine Babayaro from Chelsea and French international centre-half Jean-Alain Boumsong from Rangers, Souness has finally been able to start the rebuilding of his back line.

Neither was able to play yesterday, nor could Alan Shearer - the Newcastle captain injuring his calf on the eve of his much-awaited comeback - but it mattered not.

Having taken an early lead through Shola Ameobi and extended their advantage through Lee Bowyer, the Magpies finally remembered how to win a football match after six games without success.

Utterly dominant in the first half, they lost their way after the break, but with the new boys watching from the stands, their often-criticised defence snuffed out the threat of a Birmingham fightback after Emile Heskey had pulled a goal back. In truth, Newcastle should have had the game won long before then and both goalscorers should have struck twice before half-time.

Ameobi put them in front with just six minutes gone, courtesy of some wing trickery from Craig Bellamy. Olivier Tebily was given a torrid time by the Welshman during the opening exchanges and when the little striker danced around the ball, the Ivory Coast international made the fatal mistake of watching his feet rather than the ball.

Bellamy, having totally bamboozled the full-back, sent over a delicate chip for Ameobi to head into the roof of the net.

Rarely given any cause for concern by a lacklustre Birmingham attack, Newcastle remained on the front foot, Ameobi only being denied a simple tap-in by some excellent defending on the line by Kenny Cunningham. Had the visitors not looked so devoid of offensive threat, Newcastle may have grown frustrated by their inability to add to their lead. Instead, it was their opponents who allowed their irritation to get the better of them.

Robbie Savage's tackle on Olivier Bernard was as late as a January Christmas card and he was joined in referee Rob Style's book by Heskey for a cynical tug on Jermaine Jenas's shirt as Newcastle threatened to break.

Birmingham did improve after the break and Heskey pulled one back within 10 minutes of the restart, running on to Clinton Morrison's pass to hit a well-placed left-foot shot into the bottom corner.

But, for all their possession, Steve Bruce's side could not find a second. Morrison's header, tipped over by Shay Given, was their only other meaningful chance as Newcastle closed the game down.

Indeed, it was Kieron Dyer who came closest to a goal after Heskey's strike, a ferocious half-volley crashing back off the bar while Bowyer also sent a shot just wide of the post in stoppage time.

"I'm delighted for the players," said Souness. "They might have wondered when the next win was coming from. We've drawn and lost games we should have won since I came here, but we got what we deserved today."

The Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, who once again insisted he would not be allowing Robbie Savage to join Blackburn Rovers, seemed to agree.

He said: "Nobody has bossed us in the first half this season like Newcastle did and we were always going to struggle after that. We were ripped to pieces."