Winning ugly is not an accusation levelled often at Manchester United but on a night of swirling drama at snow-spattered St James' Park, that was literally the rebuke directed at Cristiano Ronaldo during an alleged bizarre half-time confrontation in the players' tunnel between the European Footballer of the Year and the Newcastle United full-back Steven Taylor. Moments after Taylor wrapped his left arm around Ronaldo's neck, then cleared out Michael Carrick – for which Taylor was fortunate to be shown a yellow card – Ronaldo and Taylor squared up and Ronaldo informed Taylor that he is a "rubbish footballer". According to an eye witness, Taylor hit back with: "And you're ugly." Ronaldo repeated his statement and Taylor repeated his before Rio Ferdinand and the referee Steve Bennett intervened. Ferdinand was an outraged figure on the pitch.
It was all part of a compelling give-and-take night on Tyneside, at the end of which the champions had reasserted their seven-point lead at the top of the Premier League. United, however, were shaken by a Newcastle side giving their best display since the opening day of the season, when they drew 1-1 at Old Trafford.
"Steven was a bit headstrong in his endeavour to pull Ronaldo back," the Newcastle coach, Chris Hughton, said of Taylor. Asked if he thought Ronaldo had been hit in the face, Hughton replied: "Anybody who has seen the incident will see Steven's made contact with the top of his [Ronaldo's] shoulder and his neck."
The collision had the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, pacing down the touchline and he spoke afterwards of his players' "grit". They needed it. Newcastle were unrecognisable from the motley crew that lost at Bolton on Sunday and, as Hughton said, "took the game to them, took the lead, came close to a second, got pulled back to level terms and still had enough to cause them a threat".
Newcastle went ahead through Peter Lovenkrands after only eight minutes. Released by Schalke in January and recruited for nothing by Joe Kinnear, the Dane was on hand to tap in after Edwin van der Sar spilt a diagonal shot from Jonas Gutierrez. "Edwin himself says he made a mess of it," Ferguson said of the goal. "We could have been 2-0 down actually. It was a hairy spell for us." But Wayne Rooney equalised on 20 minutes and 11 minutes after the interval, Dimitar Berbatov scored what proved to be the winner following an ugly error by Steven Taylor's namesake Ryan.
"It wasn't a great performance," Ferguson said. "We got off to a terrible start and Newcastle were pumped up for it. We expected that and we should have dealt with it better. Coming from 1-0 down was a good result for us. It required a lot of grit."
The victory was United's 11th in succession in the league. If they maintain this sort of form, with their game in hand, they are set to seal an 18th league title, equalling Liverpool's total, in early May. There is a beguiling – for United – possibility it could be clinched at home to Manchester City.
For Newcastle, however, for all their spirit last night, a first top-flight relegation since 1989 is a real possibility. Stoke moved above them last night, Hull and Tottenham away from them. Blackburn got a point. Newcastle, who have one win in 10, next go to Hull. Michael Owen should return for that and Owen said: "The game at Hull City on Saturday week is shaping up to be our cup final."