IF Mike Ashley was in any doubt where Newcastle United’s priorities must lie over the next four days, a night of intermittent scares at a middling Championship side provided a forceful reminder.
This was less a gentle jogging of the memory and more a rough jab to the ribs of United’s owner as James Milner and Michael Owen – the two players whose contract situations top the agenda at today’s top-table meeting between owner Ashley and manager Kevin Keegan – combined to rescue a Carling Cup campaign that came perilously close to an embarrassingly early exit.
If a night that provided enough frayed nerves to make it one to forget for the sizeable away following does nothing else but convince Ashley that Owen is worth his new deal, then it will have been worth it. Stooping low to curl the ball past Andy Marshall after a run of exquisite timing, it was vintage Owen that settled a game in which Newcastle threatened to self-destruct after a promising start. If Owen’s commitment to Newcastle is genuine, and the signs are that it is, he simply must be secured on a longer-term deal.
Milner, too, did his cause little harm as he rose to the top while his team-mates wobbled. With long-term admirer Martin O’Neill watching on from the stands – and apparently armed with £10m to make a final ‘take it or leave it’ offer – it was a good night to do well.
In addition to securing Owen and Milner to long-term deals, Keegan must be given reinforcements to supplement a squad that looks perilously short of resources.
Shorn of Obafemi Martins, and with Owen on the bench at the outset, this was a Newcastle United team without a specialist forward on the field.
Any team which can call on a talent as unique as Owen from their substitutes will have trouble pleading about poverty of resources, but the England striker was sat alongside Ben Tozer, Ryan Donaldson and the newly signed Southampton teenager Nile Ranger on the bench.
To maintain a campaign on more than one front, Keegan needs to add reinforcements to his threadbare squad in the next four days.
The manager’s optimism in the face of the club’s significant knock-backs in the transfer market is admirable, but United can’t cope for nine months on the power of positive thinking alone. Take the case of Sebastian Bassong. In glimpses last night, he looked to have the makings of a genuine find but there were also the sort of lapses you would expect from a player in the first throes of his career in a new country. In that position, as in others over the field, United need ready-made talent like Owen and Milner.
Playing alongside the more developed talent of Fabricio Coloccini, the United line-up just about held firm for the first quarter of an hour. But Bassong looked awkward during the early exchanges and was fortunate not to give away a penalty when his hesitancy allowed Michael Mifsud to steal a march inside the penalty box. The French defender bundled Mifsud to the ground clumsily, but with the home crowd baying for a spot-kick, referee Tony Bates was unmoved.
Deployed in a more advanced role, Charles N’Zogbia looked the sharpest he has for months, and it was his quick feet that helped craft United’s slick opener.
Jonas Guttierez, who faded after another dazzling start, prompted the move with a sharp pass to James Milner, and his rasping cross was diverted past his own goalkeeper by Scott Dann, with N’Zogbia lurking dangerously.
And it got worse for Coventry, who fell further behind after Milner’s fiendishly bending shot that crept over Andy Marshall and into the net. United were firmly on top but, with seconds remaining in the first period, the pendulum swung back in black-and-white faces when, out of virtually nothing, Coventry pulled a goal back.
Sensing their work was done for the half, Newcastle backed off Clinton Morrison and the erratic Republic of Ireland striker placed a shot of high quality in the left-hand corner of a previous unworked Shay Given’s goal.
Frustration punctured, the home side were showered with faintly deserved praise by their supporters at the end of the half and somehow United had conspired to make it game on again. As expected, the late goal brought renewed vigour to Coventry’s play and the way Geremi was eagerly pushed off the ball by Guillaume Beuzelin straight from the restart should have provided a bracing warning to United that they would not have the second half all their own way.
Newcastle looked to have survived the brunt of Coventry’s best efforts but just when it appeared that Bassong and Coloccini had smothered the Sky Blues, defender Dann plundered an equaliser at the death.
A drained Newcastle were back under pressure in extra time but as they strained under it, Owen emerged to score a crucial winner from Enrique’s pass.
Coventry ended the half in the ascendancy and with Newcastle’s back four again stretched, Elliott Ward’s header cannoned against the bar in stoppage time in the first half of extra time. And Morrison nearly forced penalties when Given spilled a free-kick with time running out.