Newcastle learn how to work

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The Independent Online
It has taken a long time to learn the lesson, but Newcastle United have finally realised that titles cannot be won on artistry alone, application is also required.

In the second half against Sunderland last week, and throughout Saturday's 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur, the Tyneside millionaires matched their opponents tackle for tackle, straining sinew for straining sinew. Their reward: a few bruises, a few aches, but also six points and the revival of the dream.

"We have found the spirit of playing together and working hard, which is absolutely vital no matter how many good players you've got," admitted Kevin Keegan after the match at White Hart Lane. The Newcastle manager added: "We battled them today."

Four weeks ago, the same man left Goodison Park after a 2-0 defeat to Everton saying: "It became a battle and when that happens we are second best."

So, why the belated conversion? Why has it taken four catastrophic months at the end of last season, and three-and-a-half matches at the beginning of this, to accept reality? It is not as if hard work is beneath great players. Manchester United work hard, Juventus harried and chased in winning last season's European Cup, their effort personified by the likes of recent imports Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli.

Closer to St James' Park is the example of Keegan himself - no-one ever faulted him for effort in his playing days.

Maybe Newcastle's excellent start last year, and Alan Shearer's signing this season, induced an unconscious complacency. By the time it was dispelled last year, their nerve had gone. This time they may have realised in time and, ironically, it could be Sunderland who have saved them.

Last week's first-half chase at Roker Park followed three defeats in four games, including one at home to Sheffield Wednesday. Sunderland, like Wednesday, possessed inferior players but created a greater collective impact.

"It needed a situation like last week," admitted Keegan. "I thought we can't stay in this position with the players we have, but you can if you don't work. We have a lovely spirit at he club but it is no good only being like that on the bus, it has got to be on the pitch. We have now produced two gritty performances, sprinkled with signs of getting back to the way we were.

"It was the grit that was possibly missing from Christmas onwards. We did not seem to think: 'We can battle our way through this, we can scramble a win'. I think back to times at Liverpool when we would have a terrible month, but we'd scratch draws, sneak a win, and we'd stay unbeaten. When we played badly last year we did not look as if we thought we could battle a win."

As ever, the example has been set by Peter Beardsley. Played out of position in last year's run-in, dropped at the start of this season, he has now returned to the heart of the side. Newcastle's improvement is not a coincidence.

"I would not say it was a mistake to leave him out early on," said Keegan. "I wanted to try things. But we missed his inspirational leadership. That is what I brought him back for. You know what you are getting - 200 per cent commitment and some of that rubs off on people around him."

Two of those inspired were Robert Lee and Lee Clark. Last year, Lee lost form almost from the moment Keegan called him the best midfielder in the country. As late as the first half at Sunderland, he seemed put out at being sent to the right wing. On Saturday his defensive contribution in front of Steve Watson probably stopped Andy Sinton winning the match for Tottenham.

On the other flank Clark did the same for Robbie Elliott, filling in behind David Ginola whenever that wing was threatened. The pair gave Newcastle's full-backs a protection they have rarely enjoyed and, with Darren Peacock outstanding in the centre, Newcastle's defence were able to emerge with honour.

Not that they were perfect. They still conceded a horrible goal. It came after Ginola swung a wayward cross-field ball towards Watson after 28 minutes. The full-back over-committed himself, Sinton stole the ball away and sped into the vacant space. His cross was well met by full debutant Rory Allen (who, for once, is no relation to Les, Martin, Clive, Bradley, etc).

Tottenham exulted, but nine minutes later Elliott intercepted a similar cross-field ball from Chris Armstrong and Ginola's subsequent cross was scrambled in by Les Ferdinand.

Sixteen minutes into the second half, Ferdinand, a boyhood Spurs fan, struck again, peeling away from Sol Campbell to score after Lee had played a one-two with Shearer. Ronny Rosenthal should have snatched a home draw late on, but Ian Walker twice denied Newcastle either side of the Israeli's miss.

"You're supposed to be at home", chorused the away supporters. Tottenham, without a home win since March, wished they were not. Their only consolation was a promising home debut from Allan Nielsen, and no more injuries.

Their substitutes' bench looked very thin compared to Newcastle's, which had pounds 16m worth of talent kicking their heels in hope rather than expectation - Keegan uses substitutes sparingly. But their presence was a further indication of the game's steady drift towards the big clubs. Newcastle are able to buy, and keep relatively happy, more and more of the best players, adding to their own squad and, at the same time, weakening the quality available to the rest.

This weekend was the first in which Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool all won. The trio have moved into the top six like crocodiles slipping into the water. It is only September, and already the big predators are on the prowl.

Goals: Allen (28) 1-0; Ferdinand (37) 1-1; Ferdinand (61) 1-2.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Wilson, Campbell, Calderwood, Edinburgh; Anderton (Fox, 77), Nielsen, Howells, Sinton; Armstrong, Allen (Rosenthal, 77). Substitutes not used: Baardsen (gk), Nethercott, Carr.

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Watson, Howey, Peacock, Elliott; Lee, Beardsley, Clark, Ginola; Ferdinand, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Barton, Asprilla, Hislop (gk), Gillespie, Albert.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).

Bookings: Tottenham: Calderwood, Nielsen. Newcastle: Lee.

Man of the match: Beardsley.

Attendance: 32,535.