Souness sounds a defiant note as fracas threatens cup hopes

Newcastle United 0 Aston Villa 3
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The Independent Football

When the red mist had lifted, and the duelling Magpies had made their apologies and left their would-be peacemaker alone on the stage in the press room at St James' Park, Graeme Souness still looked like a man who had gone 10 rounds with Vitali Klitschko.

On the wall to his right was a fading front page from the Evening Chronicle bearing the headline: "United bring the cup home." Until 4.45pm on Saturday, hopes had been high that Newcastle United might bring home a trophy from the FA Cup final in Cardiff or from the Uefa Cup final in Lisbon next month, to fill the historical void since the old jug-eared Inter Cities Fairs Cup was won in Budapest in June 1969.

"This won't make us take our eye off the ball," Souness said, striking a note of defiance. "I'm not going to tell you what was said in the dressing room afterwards, but I think we'll be stronger as a playing force at this club because of today." Having seen his side take a giant step backwards from a relative sea of tranquillity at St James', Souness will need to summon that strength between now and 7.45pm on Thursday if he is to stop another Newcastle season ending in broken dreams, not to mention a fractured dressing room.

It was difficult enough to imagine Souness's men getting past Manchester United in their FA Cup semi-final even before the outbreak of pugilistic hostilities between Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer in the 81st minute on Saturday, when the former took exception to the latter's failure to furnish him with possession. The Uefa Cup was always likely to be the more promising source of silverware for Newcastle and it now looks to be their only realistic one, with Bowyer and Dyer certain to be banned from the FA Cup clash in Cardiff on Sunday week.

With the home leg of their quarter-final against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday - and the second leg in Portugal a week later - Souness is going to need a strong, united playing force for those crucial 90 minutes. He is also going to need his best players and, on recent form, Dyer and Bowyer have been prominently among them. Both will be available, although Bowyer may be sacrificially dropped, at least to the substitutes' bench.

It is a test of managerial mettle that Souness could not have feared in his wildest nightmares when he sat in the press room last Friday and reflected on his coup of persuading Alan Shearer to play on for another season. "It's not all going to be plain sailing," Souness mused at the time. When the storm broke at St James' a day later, Shearer did his best to calm Bowyer after Gareth Barry and Stephen Carr had succeeded in prising apart the two combatants. The Newcastle captain had seen it all before, of course, having been a member of the Blackburn team when Graeme Le Saux and David Batty came to blows during a Champions' League defeat away to Spartak Moscow in November 1995.

For Newcastle fans, it was all depressing déjà vu stuff. Their team have a long history of shooting themselves in the foot: Kevin Keegan walking out after a match against Swindon in 1992, complaining "It's not like it said in the brochure", and then walking back 48 hours later after transfer funds were guaranteed by Sir John Hall; the "Toongate" affair of 1998, when Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall were taped by an undercover reporter disparaging Keegan, Shearer and the womenfolk of Tyneside; and a vast back catalogue of off-field misdemeanours by players, including a team-bonding trip that ended with Shearer thumping Keith Gillespie in a Dublin pub.

Typically for Newcastle, this latest wound was inflicted in the immediate aftermath of another team-bonding venture - to the Dubai Police Academy, of all places - which Dyer missed because of England duty. It also came in the wake of an unbeaten run of 12 matches.

For all that Souness complained in the aftermath - about the conspicuous failure of the referee, Barry Knight, to award a valid penalty to his side and a free-kick rather than a spot-kick in the incident that yielded Barry's second penalty and Villa's third goal - Newcastle were second best all afternoon.

The visitors deserved their win in the contest that broke out ahead of the fight. The Villans were the heroes, prompted by an early strike by an Angel.

Goals: Angel (5) 0-1; Barry pen (73) 0-2; Barry pen (80) 0-3.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Given; Carr, O'Brien (Taylor, 53), Boumsong, Hughes; Jenas (Ameobi, 63), Bowyer, Butt, Robert (Faye, 85); Dyer, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Harper (gk), Milner.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Delaney, Mellberg (Ridgewell, h-t), Laursen, Samuel; Davis, Hendrie (Solano, 85), Hitzlsperger, Barry; Vassell, Angel (Cole, 86). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Berson.

Referee: B Knight (Orpington).

Sent off: Newcastle: Taylor, Dyer, Bowyer.

Bookings: Newcastle: Carr. Aston Villa: Hitzlsperger, Mellberg.

Man of the match: Barry.

Attendance: 52,306.