The Harrow schoolmaster dismissed Mark Draper for a second bookable offence in the 43rd minute, thereby maintaining his consistency of four red cards in four games. What pained Brian Little, the Aston Villa manager, more deeply was the fact that the consistency Dwight Yorke rediscovered in front of goal was not enough to earn his side a point.
A 12-game drought, stretching back to 8 April, gave way to a veritable flood as Villa's goal machine cranked back into working order. Yorke scored the opening goal, a fourth-minute header from Draper's left-wing corner, and the last, a neat finish to a Sasa Curcic through ball in the 70th minute. The Tobagan striker also scored the sixth, capitalising on a Darren Peacock slip on the hour, shot against a post in the first half and had a possible fourth goal disallowed for what was a borderline offside decision.
By the final whistle, however, all that Yorke and the valiant Villa had achieved was evidence that reports of the death of Newcastle's defensive frailties have been greatly exaggerated. Newcastle may have put four goals past Michael Oakes - whose father, Alan, was in the last team to lift the championship at St James' Park (the Manchester City side that won 4-3 on the final day of the 1967-68 season) - but they looked far from trophy-winning material at the back.
It was Newcastle's good fortune that their priceless central defender, youth team product Steve Howey, was - like the pounds 6m Les Ferdinand and the pounds 15m Alan Shearer - in goalscoring form.
Yorke's opener was swiftly equalised by Ferdinand, who shot past Oakes in the fifth minute after Shearer's pass reached him on the right of the six-yard box. Ferdinand, who was poised to join Villa before Kevin Keegan lured him to Tyneside, made it 2-1 after 22 minutes, taking his goals tally to eight in six matches as he headed in Keith Gillespie's right- wing cross.
A goal-line block by Yorke, of all people, denied Ferdinand his hat-trick in the 38th minute, but Shearer pounced to shoot his first home goal from open play for Newcastle - his fifth of the season. Then, three minutes before the break, Villa found themselves 3-1 and a man down. Draper, having been booked for a 37th-minute foul on Gillespie, was dispatched after a rash challenge on John Beresford. "It was unfortunate," Little said. "I didn't think the first tackle was a bookable offence."
The Villa manager, a Newcastle fan in their Fairs Cup- winning days, could not have asked for more from 11 men than the 10 remaining gave towards retrieving a seemingly lost cause. As Keegan put it: "Each of them played like two men."
After Peacock's stumble let in Yorke for his second, Howey restored Newcastle's two-goal cushion, heading in Gillespie's cross from the right in the 66th minute. Keegan's men needed both goals, a fortunate flag and a liberal measure of luck before they latched on to Liverpool's heels at the top of the table.
"It was the sort of game you feel should have you ringing up the doctor asking for your annual check-up, even though you had it three weeks ago," the Newcastle manager said. Keegan, on last night's evidence, is still suffering from back trouble.
Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Watson, Peacock, Howey, Beresford; Gillespie, Batty, Lee, Ginola (Asprilla, 65); Ferdinand, Shearer. Substitutes not used: Albert, Elliott, Kitson, Hislop (gk).
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton; Nelson, Taylor, Draper, Curcic, Wright; Milosevic, Yorke. Substitutes not used: Johnson, Joachim, Hendrie, Scimeca, Rachel (gk).
Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).
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