Keegan's philosophy faces reality test

Football: Easter is traditionally the time when championship pretenders, like so many chocolate eggs, are exposed as hollow, the promise of the packaging let down by the substance.

After Wednesday's dramatic defeat at Anfield the suspicion grows that Newcastle will be thus revealed and their delightful but lightweight team will be surpassed by the heavyweights of Liverpool and Manchester United. After conceding 11 goals and gaining one point in their last four away games, Kevin Keegan's recital of the manager's mantra - "there is a long way to go" - sounded as if it should have been accompanied by a rendition of "We'll support you ever more", supporters' customary lament to brave defeat.

That feeling hardened when it was revealed, yesterday, that Steve Howey's season could be over. Howey damaged a hamstring eight minutes from the end of Newcastle's 4-3 defeat at Anfield. Salt on the wounds for Keegan, who appears to have enough defensive problems already, even if Darren Peacock is a ready-made replacement.

But... go back a year and a day. On April 4 1995, a Chris Sutton goal at Loftus Road put Blackburn Rovers eight points clear of Manchester United at the top of the Premiership. There were six matches to go. The title race, said everybody, was settled.

Not quite. It was another seven weeks before Rovers staggered across the finishing line, and even then the championship was only concluded in their favour because Andy Cole had left his finishing touch on Tyneside.

Keegan, like Roy Evans and Alex Ferguson, has been in enough championship chases to know there is enough time for Newcastle to win it. He also has the personality to convince his players of that. The question is, has he been involved in enough title races as a manager to guide his team to triumph? Judging by his pledge to carry on attacking, one wonders.

"We shall go on playing this way, playing the same sort of players, or I will go," he said after Anfield. "If we do not win anything, so be it."

Brave words, to be applauded by anyone who likes enterprising football, but is it realistic? Roy Evans, a more pragmatic man, did not think so. While Keegan raved about the game, he morosely observed: "There was a lot of kamikaze defending. You cannot win the championship playing like that."

Evans recognised that Liverpool had "got away with playing two against two, one against one, at the back," but his mood indicated that he did not see it becoming club policy.

Liverpool were attacked down the centre, where the pace of Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla exposed the unusual lack of cover. This was once regularly the case with Newcastle but the acquisition of David Batty stiffened that area, instead they were vulnerable on the flanks. With tackling back not in the David Ginola repertoire on one wing, and Keith Gillespie missing on the other, Newcastle's full-backs are often exposed, a problem made worse by their preference for attacking.

Keegan, despite his bold words, has compromised once in bringing in David Batty. He may need to do so again to protect the flanks. If he does, we will not find out tomorrow, when Queen's Park Rangers are likely to suffer a backlash at St James' Park, but on Monday, when Newcastle visit Ewood Park.

Defeat there and the dream may really be over, Liverpool and Manchester United do not look as if they are going to drop many points in their run- ins. However, the pressure is now on them and, although Ferguson has been there before, some of his younger players have not. Liverpool are even less experienced as only John Barnes, of Wednesday's starting line-up, knows what it is like to be a champion. It is a rare feeling...

HOW THE CHAMPIONSHIP RACE HAS UNFOLDED

Premiership Table

Monday 8 January

P W D L F A Pts

Newcastle 21 15 3 3 42 18 48

Man Utd 22 11 5 5 40 20 38

Liverpool 21 11 5 5 40 20 38

Premiership Table

Today

P W D L F A Pts

Man Utd 32 20 7 5 59 30 67

Newcastle 31 20 4 7 58 32 64

Liverpool 32 18 8 6 64 30 62

Top Three's last 10 matches

Manchester United

24 Mar Spurs (h) W 1-0

20 Mar Arsenal (h) W 1-0

16 Mar QPR (a) D 1-1

4 Mar Newcastle (a) W 1-0

25 Feb Bolton (a) W 6-0

21 Feb Everton (h) W 2-0

10 Feb Blackburn (a) W 1-0

7 Feb Wimbledon (a) W 4-2

22 Jan West Ham (a) W 1-0

13 Jan Aston Villa (h) D 0-0

Newcastle United

3 April Liverpool (a) L 3-4

23 Mar Arsenal (a) L 0-2

18 Mar West Ham (h) W 3-0

2 Mar Man Utd (h) L 0-1

24 Feb Man City (a) D 3-3

21 Feb West Ham (a) L 0-2

10 Feb Middlesbrough (a) W 2-1

3 Feb Sheff Wed (h) W 2-0

20 Jan Bolton (h) W 2-1

14 Jan Coventry City (a) W 1-0

Liverpool

3 April Newcastle (h) W 4-3

23 Mar Nottm Forest (a) L 0-1

16 Mar Chelsea (h) W 2-0

3 Mar Aston Villa (h) W 3-0

24 Feb Blackburn (a) W 3-2

11 Feb QPR (a) W 2-1

3 Feb Spurs (h) D 0-0

31 Jan Aston Villa (a) W 2-0

20 Jan Leeds United (h) W 5-0

13 Jan Sheffield Wed (a) D 1-1

Remaining Fixtures

Newcastle: 6 Apr: QPR (h). 8 Apr: Blackburn (a). 14 Apr: Aston Villa (h). 17 Apr: Southampton (a) 29 Apr: Leeds United (a). 2 May: Notts Forest (a). 5 May: Tottenham (h).

Manchester United: 6 Apr: Man City (a). 8 Apr: Coventry (h). 13 Apr: Southampton (a). 17 Apr: Leeds United (h). 28 Apr: Notts Forest (h). 5 May: Middlesbrough (a).

Liverpool: 6 Apr: Coventry (a). 8 Apr: West Ham (h). 16 Apr: Everton (a). 27 Apr: Middlesbrough (h). 1 May: Arsenal (a). 5 May: Manchester City (a).

Last year's battle

Thurs 6 April

P W D L F A Pts

Blackburn 36 25 7 4 73 30 82

Man Utd 36 22 8 6 66 24 74

Newcastle 35 18 10 7 57 37 64

1994/5 Final Premiership

P W D L F A Pts

Blackburn 42 27 8 7 86 39 89

Man Utd 42 26 10 6 77 28 88

Nottm Forest 42 22 11 9 72 43 77

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