What a difference a goalscorer makes. As the West Ham manager, Alan Pardew, told his players, on another day they would have won by two goals. As it was, they lost by two, and that was almost entirely down to Michael Owen, who not only scored the 11th hat-trick of his career, but laid on Newcastle's other goal for Alan Shearer.
"He was the difference," said his manager, Graeme Souness. "That's why Michael's valued the way he is. He has been missing in recent weeks and we have missed him."
Owen has become like a fairy godmother for Newcastle, the magic dust of his twinkling feet threatening to transform a pumpkin of a season into a golden coach that might just carry them into the Uefa Cup. He has now scored seven goals for the club in eight games that have brought six wins and a draw; the only danger being that the dazzle of his performance will obscure the sort of shortcomings exposed at times by West Ham.
"We played some fantastic stuff," said Pardew. "Mistakes and playing against a pairing that's world class cost us. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot and we can't afford to do that. We set out our stall to control the game, which I thought we did. Owen's influence on the game wasn't great, but when chances came he scored."
The first came after just five minutes. Newcastle had not scored in the first 15 minutes of a game this season, but, perhaps tricked into believing it was later than it was by a half-hour delay to kick-off, Owen calmly finished after Shearer had capitalised on a Tomas Repka error. His second, a back-header from Nolberto Solano's free-kick, restored Newcastle lead two minutes before half-time, and he made the game safe with their fourth, rolling Amdy Faye's pass into an empty net in injury time. He also set up the third for Shearer, whose Newcastle tally now stands at 199, one short of Jackie Milburn's record.
For every attacking positive, though, there was a defensive negative. They may have been the club whose excellence at applying the offside trap led to the liberalisation of the law in 1925, but pantomime defending has long been a tradition. Titus Bramble has been one of the more impressive recent exponents of the art, and he marked his 100th start for the club with a comic classic, belting a clearance into the shins of Nolberto Solano, from where it rebounded into the net to level the scores at 1-1 after 20 minutes.
That was perhaps unfortunate, but Shola Ameobi's handball which conceded the penalty from which Marlon Harewood dragged it back to 3-2 with 18 minutes to go was inexplicable. "It should have been an easy 20 minutes," said Souness, "but at times we were under the cosh."
His side have come to resemble Buridan's ass, doomed to vacillate between the nosebags of disaster and potential glory without making a decisive move towards either, neither good enough to convince, nor bad enough to earn Souness the sack. He spoke of injuries costing his side passing fluency, and of how many more chances they will create for Owen when the likes of Kieron Dyer and Emre Belozoglu return, but the more pressing problem, if they are not to waste away as the ass did, is, as ever, the defence.Reuse content