Peacock the bedrock

Simon Turnbull looks at Newcastle's new-found frugality in the defending stakes
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The case for, or against, Kevin Keegan's defence will remain unproven until the trial, and tribulations, of the Premiership season produces a final verdict. Recent evidence suggests, however, that it might not be as open and shut as it seemed destined to be when Guy Whittingham shot Sheffield Wednesday to the top of the Premiership at St James' Park five weeks ago.

The Newcastle defence was conspicuously open that day. Indeed, for the third weekend in succession, following the 4-0 Charity Shield humiliation against Manchester United and the 2-0 first day defeat at Everton, it was left in a state of utter disarray. The significant degree to which it has since been shut, however, has revived hopes on Tyneside that this could, after all be the season Newcastle's championship boat finally comes in.

The clean sheet at Leeds eight days ago not only lifted Keegan's side into second place but provided further evidence of an effective tightening- up operation at the back. Ignoring the all-round laxity which allowed Halmstads to claim a 2-1 home win from a Uefa Cup tie already lost with their 4-0 first-leg defeat on Tyneside, the Magpies have conceded only two goals from open play since Wednesday left them in a flutter. Another solid rearguard performance tomorrow night, when Aston Villa visit St James' Park, might persuade the doubting Thomases south of the Tyne Bridge that the title talk of the Toon might not be such a flight of fancy after all.

It is not merely coincidence that the defensive screws have been tightened since Keegan recalled Darren Peacock. Though the pony-tailed Bristolian endured an unhappy first full season after his pounds 2.75m transfer from Queen's Park Rangers in March 1994, the assured form he produced last season (which promoted Peter Beardsley to nominate him as club player of the year) has been instrumental in the four-match winning Premiership run Newcastle take into tomorrow night's game. "Darren has been the rock," John Anderson, the former Newcastle and Republic of Ireland right-back, put it.

Anderson was a sturdy defender on the St James' Park staff for a decade and now follows his former club as a summariser for BBC Radio Newcastle. "Darren is a true defender," he said. "He's like an old-fashioned centre-half, only he's not bad on the ball too. He passes well but simply. The way he's been playing he can't be far away from the England squad."

Anderson points to the return of Peter Beardsley, with whom he played in Newcastle's promotion-winning side of 1984, as another key factor. "Peter's a great tackler and great at tracking back," he said. "With Robert Lee and David Batty alongside him, Newcastle are defending from deeper now. They're not isolating the back four.

"They're certainly not as cavalier as they were last season. They're not playing as well but they're grinding out results and if you weigh up the two it's the points that count." If Peacock displays his true defensive colours again tomorrow night the Magpies might have another three to feather their increasingly sturdy nest.