Newcastle United 3
Crystal Palace 2
Too little too late; it could have been the story of Crystal Palace's season. Staring down the barrels of a thrashing to match the rout by Liverpool on the opening day of the season, they clawed respect but not salvation yesterday and are relegated from the Premiership. Alan Smith, their manager, will almost certainly be the principal victim.
As an escape bid, it was brave but hopeless. It was straw-clutching time for Palace, who required a win here while hoping for help elsewhere. Within six minutes they were trailing. By 28 the contest was virtually over. However, with Leeds drawing at White Hart Lane, Newcastle will only qualify for the Uefa Cup if Manchester United win the FA Cup.
In the end, the margin of victory was just one goal after Palace staged a recovery. Newcastle took a 3-0 lead, courtesy of Ruel Fox, Robert Lee and Keith Gillespie, only for Palace to reply through Chris Armstrong and Ray Houghton. It was the last gesture of condemned men.
Just as it was for Alan Smith, who clearly expects the sack this week. "I shall see Ron Noades, the chairman, this week and do what has to be done in a dignified manner," he said. "I shall say what I think to him - although I think he knows that - I will not speak through the media."
Palace have a board meeting tomorrow, but as Noades's word tends to be gospel at Selhurst Park it will, in Smith's words, be "something of a charade". With a resigned air, he added: "It only needs one to fire a bullet. You don't need a firing squad."
To be fair to the visitors, they were nudged back into the Endsleigh League by a piece of ill- fortune, but once Fox's seventh- minute shot had deflected off Ricky Newman past Nigel Martyn, they were so supine in the first half it was hard to believe they were fighting for their Premiership lives.
Heads dropped, marking became non-existent - particularly on their right flank, where Gareth Southgate had a horrible afternoon. Palace's captain lost Fox completely for Newcastle's first goal and still was groping blindly for him 20 minutes later when the winger sped past like an express train through a minor station. Waiting alone on the penalty spot was Lee, who headed into the net.
If that was a textbook goal, the next belonged in the realm of fantasy. Gillespie received the ball deep in his own half and at first seemed unsure whether to pass to Fox or to continue on his own. His mind was made up for him by the Palace defence, however, who retreated quicker than a defeated army. The Northern Ireland winger then chipped precisely beyond Martyn.
Palace could only improve after the interval. Armstrong scored with a diving header. Houghton, the visitors' best player, drilled a low shot past Pavel Srnicek with nine minutes remaining, but their hope of a draw disappeared when Iain Dowie's shot bounced off a post.
"The reality has hit home to me," Smith said of the drop to the First Division, "and after next week is over I shall have a little tear. The players are upset, so are the fans, but I have to to be strong at the moment." It was a dignified exit by both team and manager.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Hottiger, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Gillespie, Watson, Clark, Fox; Lee, Beardsley. Substitutes not used: Neilson, Allen, Hooper (gk).
Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Martyn; Southgate, Young, Newman (Cox, 82), Shaw, Gordon; Pitcher, Houghton, Salako (Dyer, 45); Armstrong, Dowie. Substitute not used: Wilmot (gk).
Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).