If he watched yesterday's lunchtime game on television, Paul Gascoigne might just be regretting his decision to hang up his Premiership boots for good. One suspects the former England play-maker, who had been training with Wolverhampton Wanderers, could have made the difference against a tired-looking Newcastle side.
Having watched his team play a tough Uefa Cup second-round match just 36 hours before kick-off at Molineux, Sir Bobby Robson was not surprised that his troops struggled. "My players were very weary towards the end," the Newcastle manager said. "Not many managers would have taken this game, but we did it for the club and the Sky money."
Robson's counterpart, Dave Jones, was equally frustrated, but in his case with his players' poor finishing. "We've got to start converting our chances," he said of Wolves' many misses. "I hope we don't pay for that at the end of the season."
The afternoon began in the worst possible way, as a firework accidently exploded in the crowd during a pre-match display. One woman was injured and immediately taken to hospital where she received treatment to cuts on her cheek. Eight others were treated for shock, and Wolves later announced that fireworks would no longer be allowed at the stadium.
No doubt shaken by events, the players were slow to get into the game. It was 20 minutes before the first opening. Newcastle right-back Aaron Hughes performed the neatest of tricks inside the Wolves penalty area before chipping in an inch-perfect ball from the by-line. Shearer launched himself at the cross, but his wonderfully executed bicycle-kick crashed on to the bar. Moments later, Lee Bowyer whipped in a vicious free-kick from the right, but Titus Bramble headed well wide of the target.
The visitors were soon ruing that miss, as Wolves took the lead against the run of play. Jonathan Woodgate and his goalkeeper Shay Given went for the same ball on the edge of the area, and their mix-up allowed Nathan Blake to gather possession. One touch was all he required to round Given and complete the easiest of finishes.
Goals have been hard to come by in the Black Country, so one might have expected the home side to be a little more protective of their lead. But only four minutes elapsed before Newcastle scored the equaliser. Jones' defence sat back and allowed Lomana LuaLua the freedom of Molineux to thread the perfect pass to Shearer in the box. The former England captain beat Jody Craddock to the ball and sent a crisp right-foot drive past the diving Michael Oakes.
The game was wide open now, and both sides could have gone into the break in front. Wolves, in particular, will wonder how they failed to score a second goal. First, their central defender Paul Butler saw his instinctive toe-poke from Denis Irwin's free-kick loop over the bar. Then Blake was brought down by a crude double challenge by Woodgate and Bramble, but the referee decided to wave play on when a free-kick on the edge of the area seemed the obvious call. Wolves' trilogy of near misses was complete when Joey Gudjonsson inexplicably shot wide of an open goal from no more than eight yards.
It was much the same story in the second half as Blake was guilty of a glaring miss on 70 minutes, heading Alex Rae's excellent cross over the bar from five yards. At least Wolves were looking dangerous, which is more than could be said for the tiring visitors, who did not have a single shot at goal in the second period. Wolves continued to threaten, but could not find a way through. Even when Given was beaten, as was the case twice in the final 10 minutes, some part of the goal frame came to his rescue.
Nine minutes from time, Gudjonsson curled an exquisite free-kick around the diving Given, but the post intervened. Then Henri Camara saw his header crash against the crossbar. It was that sort of day for the home side. "We pounded them," Jones said, "but the fact is that we have to learn to turn draws into wins if we want to stay in the Premiership."
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