It has been a wretched season for the north-east of England. Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Sunderland have all lurked near the bottom of the Premier League, and it remains uncertain whether Darlington will even get to start next season. Still, there is good news. Gateshead have won promotion into the Blue Square Premier through the play-offs, and yesterday Whitley Bay won the FA Vase, beating Glossop North End at Wembley. Tonight, however, the desperation is in the air. It is, perhaps, a reflection of how predictable the Premier League has become that this match been much-discussed in the media over the last few weeks.
Over the last forty years, there have been few other parts of the country that have under-achieved as spectacularly as the north-east of England. The whole region has managed two trophies in the last forty years – Sunderland’s FA Cup in 1973 and Middlesbrough’s League Cup in 2004 – yet the cliches of a “football hotbed” remain, although none of the big three have been able to sell out most of their matches this season. It’s a sell out tonight, of course, with the combination of a local derby and the schadenfreude comes with the knowledge that three points for either team will effectively relegate their rivals.
Tonight, though, is not about winning trophies. It’s about maintaining status. A status that Newcastle and Middlesbrough have become accustomed to amongst the elite of English football. Alan Shearer has yet to manage a win since his time in charge at St James Park, but the extraordinary truth is that Hull City’s form is so bad that a win will lift either of these two teams out of the bottom three and almost certainly condemn Phil Brown’s team to the drop. The harsh truth of the matter is that one simply cannot see where the next Premier League win is coming from for Hull.
That the match should start with an own goal comes as little surprise. It takes just three minutes for Middlesbrough to take the lead. Tuncay’s shot bounces off goalkeeper Steve Harper, against the leg of Habib Beye and rolls over the line to give the visitors the lead. The lead lasts just six minutes. Newcastle win a corner on the right hand side and Middlesbrough have ten of their eleven players in the penalty area for it, but none of them bother to pick up Steven Taylor, who heads Newcastle level. There are question marks over whether Kevin Nolan is holding back his marker, but the static nature of Middlesbrough’s defence means that this is all that Taylor needs for a free completely header.
The match settles into an untidy rhythm. Passes go astray, half chances are missed by either side and the suspicion lingers that both of these sides are semi-frozen with fear. The question is which team will thaw first – Newcastle, without a home win since they beat Tottenham Hotspur here in December, or Middlesbrough, who have lost their last ten consecutive away matches? Half-time comes with the scores still tied at 1-1 and only a couple of chances – a very good save from the Middlesbrough goalkeeper Brad Jones from a Michael Owen header and a glaring miss from Marvin Emnes after he breaks through the middle and has a shot blocked by Harper and puts the rebound wide – to show for forty-five minutes of football.
For the first twenty minutes of the second half Newcastle are huffing and puffing and Middlesbrough look the more likely side to score. Midway in, though Alan Shearer makes a change which changes the course of the match with the replacement of Michael Owen for Obafemi Martins. Barely a minute later, a ball into the penalty spins up the air off Robert Huth’s head into the path of Martins, who controls well and shoots into the bottom corner, though the stumble that he takes as he shoots means that the ball could have gone more or less anywhere. Shearer will be called a genius for this, but it could just as easily have been one of the misses of the season.
Middlesbrough rally briefly, but their fragile confidence has been shot to pieces by the second Newcastle goal. With five minutes left to play, Newcastle add an almost superfluous third goal. Martins wins a header on the edge of the penalty area and sends the ball to Kevin Nolan, whose low cross is lashed in by Peter Lovenkrands. From here on, it’s just a matter of running down the clock. When the whistle blows, it’s Newcastle’s first win in ten matches and Shearer’s first win in his seven matches in charge at St James Park. There is no doubt that he will now be talked of as a managerial genius, but he has ridden his luck a little tonight.
The result has significant ramifications elsewhere. Newcastle leapfrog over Hull City and out of the relegation places, and Hull’s form doesn’t seem to indicate that they will be dragged back into the bottom three any time soon. Middlesbrough now need an absolute minimum of four points from their last two matches to avoid relegation, and even that is unlikely to be enough to save them. West Bromwich Albion, who had seen a glimmer of daylight after their win against Wigan on Saturday, need four points – and probably six – from their remaining matches to stay up, which would be cause for encouragement if it were not for the fact that their next match is at Anfield is against Liverpool.
Newcastle, meanwhile, now seem likely to do just enough to clamber clear to safety, though rumours of Alan Shearer’s “Geordie Messiah” status remain somewhat overstated. The form of their revivals has been so wretched that just one win has been enough to give them this fighting chance of staying up and the fact is that they are only out of the bottom free on goal difference, but are now the form team out of themselves, Hull City and Middlesbrough. For Middlesbrough, the Championship awaits with its trips to Barnsley, Plymouth and Peterborough. Whether Gareth Southgate is still in charge for those trips is open to question.