Newcastle learning the lesson of resilience

FOOTBALL: Premiership pace setters exploit leadership qualities and show determination to gain reward even when not playing well; COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
It is not just the roads that need grit at this time of year. Football teams, especially those with championship pretensions, also need protection against the onset of winter.

Although improved pitch maintenance means it is no longer the season of clogged boots and clogging defenders, the arrival of Jack Frost on the dug-out roof still signals a new stage in the league campaign.

By now, the title contenders have begun to emerge and opponents look to raise their game, often by dint of elbow grease sometimes applied literally. Meanwhile, with the weather less conducive to ball skills, some of the artists who had been so prominent on balmy autumn afternoons disappear from view.

It was at this stage last season that Newcastle began to falter. A year ago this weekend, they lost at Wimbledon and surrendered the Premiership lead. They never regained it and eventually failed even to qualify for Europe.

That memory resurfaced during half-time at Villa Park on Saturday, with Newcastle lucky to be just one goal down. They had been outpassed in midfield and overrun at the back. Forty-five minutes later they had one point and were chasing all three. Villa, so rampant before the break, were relieved to escape with a 1-1 draw. "This was the sort of game we were losing last year," Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager. "This year we are made of sterner stuff.

"You do not win anything with just ability - if that was the case you could go out and buy a championship-winning team tomorrow. You need character as well. We were asked some questions today, and in the first half we could not find the answers. In the second half we showed the strength of character to come through. You have to grind out results when you are not playing well."

Newcastle have certainly done that. In their two previous matches they had been outplayed by Liverpool and matched by Blackburn, but beaten both. In neither of those games, nor this one, did they produce more than the occasional burst of the flowing football that lit up the autumn. But they did take seven points out of nine. As Keegan learned at Liverpool, it is substance that counts for championship success, while style is just a desirable bonus.

Despite the draw, the weekend results appear to have improved Newcastle's chances of adding silverware to their new-found steel. Although Manchester United, who have a game in hand, cut the gap to six points, the rest of the division are at least five points further behind.

Arsenal, Villa, Leeds and Forest all look at least two players short, leaving the main challenger to the top two likely to be Liverpool, currently seventh and failing to convert possession into goals. If they cannot incorporate Stan Collymore's directness into the side soon, the championship would appear to be headed for one of the Uniteds. While it would be rash to write off the ability of Old Trafford's youth system to produce more players, the greater strength in depth is at Newcastle.

The one area in which they remain weak is in front of the back four, where Barry Venison has yet to be replaced. Steve Watson played there in the first half, Lee Clark in the second. Keegan said the switch was no reflection on Watson - "I could have taken anyone off, I had just had to do something" - but it was the obvious move.

Watson was lost in the first half as Villa's three strikers pulled the defence all over the place. The boldly chosen trio - Dwight Yorke, Tommy Johnson and Savo Milosevic - traded places at will, leaving Newcastle's inadequately protected defence chasing shadows.

Johnson had already put a header wide and Milosevic brought an excellent save from Shaka Hislop when Villa scored. Paul McGrath and Gary Charles played the ball out of defence to Mark Draper on the right. With three players around him he twisted, turned, and crossed to the unmarked Johnson, who became the latest Newcastle fan to score against his idols.

Draper was running the match, while Charles and Alan Wright, not content with marking David Ginola and Keith Gillespie out of the game, were providing strong support in attack. Villa should have scored more, but having gained control by passing through the midfield, they now hit over the top. What chances they made were not good enough to beat an inspired Hislop.

A major dressing-room dressing-down from Keegan injected some second- half vigour into Newcastle, but Villa were creating the better chances when Newcastle equalised. The goal was pure route one, Ferdinand shrugging off Ugo Ehiogu as he ran on to Hislop's long kick to score. Goal No 18, but it is hard to imagine international defences being quite so generous.

Newcastle's confidence swaggered back, while Villa's let itself out by the rear turnstile. Draper went missing, Johnson ran out of legs, Clark was freed to start rather than try and stop attacks, and it was left to Mark Bosnich to ensure a draw.

Newcastle's one concern, an ankle injury which forced Ferdinand to withdraw, is not thought to be serious, which is good news for Newcastle fans, and those with a wider agenda.

One worrying aspect of a good day's Premiership football was the report, on the radio programme Six-0-Six, of Everton fans directing racist abuse at John Barnes. This follows similar abuse of Ian Wright at Barnsley and is a reminder that the problem has not gone away.

It is not just the big names who suffer: black players in one Third Division team have been subjected to sustained racist chants and comments at two North-east clubs. Both clubs had no black players of their own and mostly used stewards for crowd control (cheaper, but less effective than police).

While most people in the area are warm and fair-minded, the North-east has long been one of the more difficult places for black players to visit. Ferdinand's continued success can only help reduce a practice which is more chilling than anything the weather can produce.

Goals: 1-0 Johnson (22); Ferdinand (58).

Aston Villa (3-4-3): Bosnich; McGrath, Ehiogu, Southgate; Charles, Taylor, Draper, Wright; Johnson, Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Staunton, Scimeca, Spink (gk).

Newcastle United (4-4-2): Hislop; Barton, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Gillespie, Lee, Watson (Clark, h-t), Ginola; Beardsley, Ferdinand (Albert, 82). Substitute not used: Srnicek (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

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