HAVING resembled a drunk fumbling around looking for his keys since Kevin Keegan became manager, Newcastle United finally appeared to find the launch button to start a new dawn against Fulham.
The Keegan revival has, until this point, stuttered and stalled. Rather than save the club from the boredom and mediocrity of his predecessor Sam Allardyce, it had begun to look as though the returning hero might just be leading them into the Championship.
Few on Tyneside had lost their faith in Keegan despite a run of nine games without a win. Yet it was still impossible to ignore the growing threat of relegation as Newcastle slipped deeper and deeper into the mire.
For the many others – most of whom have never lived anywhere near the banks of the River Tyne – there have been plenty of snide jibes about Newcastle United and its supporters and, it seems, a general revelry in the supposed demise of Keegan and the club he cherishes. Fittingly though, for a man dubbed the Geordie Messiah, the revival may just have begun on Easter Weekend.
In normal circumstances, a home win over a side as poor as Fulham would have been regarded as routine, but these are not normal times at St James’s Park and this was no routine win. This was United’s first three points since December 15 and it came against the same opponents. On that occasion Newcastle, under Allardyce, had ground the Cottagers into submission during a dreadful spectacle at Craven Cottage.
But if the result was the same on Saturday, the performances could not have been more different. Despite their problems and the nagging threat of the disaster of relegation, Newcastle did not try to grind out a win. They took the game to the visitors and, although far from slick at times, eventually made sure of a morale-boosting success.
Under Allardyce, Newcastle would have sat back after Mark Viduka’s early strike had given them the lead, looked for set pieces and played on the break. But that is not the Keegan way and it is not the sort of football owner Mike Ashley spent more than £250m to acquire. Newcastle are not yet the free-flowing force capable of taking the game to anyone in the Premier League, that is still merely a dream. Yet, the not-so-grim reality is they are trying to play with adventure and imagination and that, for now, is enough.
From the first whistle to the last, Newcastle were the better team, even if the victory was not assured until Michael Owen glanced in a header with seven minutes remaining.
That it had taken Newcastle that long was the only real surprise on an afternoon when Fulham looked as though their Premier League status was slipping through their fingers.
There were encouraging performances all over the pitch, but Owen’s was the one which caught the eye the most. Against Birmingham, Owen had proved he still has an expert eye for poaching goals in the six-yard box when he snatched Newcastle a valuable second-half equaliser.
But against Fulham, the England international suggested completely different strengths to his game; that, having been written off as nothing more than a goalscorer, he is a striker who not only puts the ball in the back of the net, but also one who can link and prompt play in a deeper role. Not that it has done anything to diminish his eye for goal. Having missed a wonderful chance in the first half when he timed his run perfectly to meet Geremi’s cross, but headed the ball tamely into the arms of the relieved Kasey Keller, Owen did not make the same mistake twice when the Cameroon midfielder picked him out with a free-kick, which he nodded firmly past the American goalkeeper.
Owen’s performance thoroughly deserved that goal which took him to eight for the season and he has now, despite the injuries which have soured his time on Tyneside, scored 15 goals in 33 starts for Newcastle.
It seems ridiculous to question Owen’s hunger and commitment to the club after a performance like this, but with just 15 months remaining on his present deal, it remains to be seen whether the player is willing to remain at Newcastle.
As Keegan argued, United must do everything they can to persuade the 28-year-old to sign a new contract, but the signs are good.
Owen looks happy with life again and that can only be good news in their bid to keep him.
Owen, though, was not the only Newcastle player to impress. Viduka took his goal superbly to settle early nerves, neatly turning his marker before planting a low shot in the bottom corner, while Geremi’s mind remains sharp and his delivery good, even if the legs have slowed considerably.
Nicky Butt was excellent at tidying up in front of the back four and Jose Enrique fully justified Keegan’s faith in him at left-back with an assured display which belatedly indicated why Allardyce had paid Villareal more than £6m to sign him last summer.
And there was Joey Barton, a player whose poor form this season has made his off-field shenanigans even harder to swallow for most fans. But, against Fulham, there was suddenly the Barton Newcastle thought they were signing.
Tigerish in the tackle, full of energy at both ends of the pitch and never willing to give an opponent a moment’s rest on the ball. It was easily his best game for the club and this was easily Keegan’s happiest day since he returned. You sense it will not be the last.