Keegan falls to Pleat's feat

Newcastle United 1 Shearer 13 (pen) Sheffield Wednesday 2 Athert on 15, Whittingham 80 Attendance: 36,452
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The Independent Online
Not since the start of the 1967-68 season have the Owls opened a top-flight campaign proudly on top of the perch with three wins out of three. On that occasion Wednesday ended up just two points clear of relegation. As they looked down on the big-spending favourites, however, Wednesday and their manager, David Pleat, will probably prefer to recall that the only team to clip the wings of the Magpies in their home nest last season won the Premiership trophy.

Guy Whittingham, the soldier-turned-centre-forward, and now midfield schemer, calmly side-footed the 80th minute winner into the same Gallowgate End goal where Eric Cantona turned the last championship race decisively against Newcastle United on 4 March. As he did so, the home defence stood in disarray for the third weekend in succession. Only a weak finish five minutes later by Pleat's latest Dutch recruit, substitute Orlando Trustfull, stopped Wednesday knocking Newcastle into the middle of next week.

Pleat's team thus preserved the top division's only perfect record. They coped with the flair and firepower Kevin Keegan's much-vaunted pounds 28.5m forward line threw at them to emerge as markedly the more composed side. Their superior organisation was reminiscent of the Luton team, guided by Pleat on an even tighter budget, that delivered a knock-out punch to the not-so-mighty Magpies in a Kenilworth Road FA Cup tie two years ago.

"It was a solid performance," the Wednesday manager said. "The important thing was that Newcastle didn't carve us up." Keegan was less restrained in his appraisal. "It was probably the worst home performance in my reign here as manager," he said. "The fans had every right to boo us. In the end we were committing suicide. The only way we look like stopping goals is by boarding up the goal.

"I have told the players what I think but that criticism will remain private. I'll go down with these players, not down into the First Division I hope. But it's my ship. I'm the captain."

It was little wonder that Keegan had that sinking feeling. His side failed to exploit the flying start they were gifted after 11 minutes. Dejan Stefanovic appeared to win the ball fairly when he slid in to tackle Faustino Asprilla. Peter Jones saw it differently, however, and Alan Shearer duly claimed his second goal as a pounds 15m man from the penalty spot.

Shearer was presented with the Golden Boot before the kick-off in recognition of the 31 Premiership goals he scored as a Blackburn Rover last season. That Wednesday restricted him and his colleagues to a single goal, a questionable one at that, underscored the impressive all-round pedigree they displayed yesterday. Shearer clipped the angle of bar and post with a 20th minute volley but Newcastle's plight was mirrored by the diminishing influence of Asprilla. He wrought havoc in the opening 20 minutes but his play had become ragged by the time he made way for Keith Gillespie, after 64 minutes.

The first sign of Newcastle's defensive troubles came as early as the eighth minute, when Les Ferdinand ended up covering in the right-back position after the roving Regi Blinker drew Steve Watson out of position, not for the first or last time. Wednesday were level in the 14th minute. Scott Oakes floated a right-wing free-kick into the area and Peter Atherton's glancing header beat Pavel Srnicek.

Newcastle's Czech goalkeeper was obliged to make a full-length diving save to keep out a Whittingham drive and there was an even closer call for Keegan's side when Richie Humphreys chested down on the edge of the area and fired inches over Srnicek's bar. The 18-year-old looked every inch the composed striker who impressed Marco van Basten during Wednesday's pre-season tour of Holland, but just after the hour he made way for Trustfull, Pleat's pounds 750,000 signing from Feyenoord last week.

The Dutch international ought to have celebrated his debut with a goal but when Steve Howey presented him with the ball five minutes from time he fired a tame effort at Srnicek. Fortunately Wednesday already had the points in the bag by then - thanks to Whittingham, who pounced on Watson's stray header and slid the ball neatly past Newcastle's exposed keeper.

It left the Magpies, and their title ambitions, grounded. The Owls, meanwhile, are still flying high.

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