THE Newcastle United fightback has begun. Finally, after the tame surrenders that brought disgrace to a club already reeling from so much off-the-field tumult, there are reasons for optimism at St James’s Park this morning.
Chief among them is the belated return of desire and fight from players who, for too long, have wallowed in the depressing drift caused by Kevin Keegan’s departure.
The appointment of Joe Kinnear appears to have arrested that particular decline, and while there is much more work to be done before United are over the worst, his shock tactics on the training pitch have made an immediate impact.
Two down and seemingly heading for another defeat, United fought back with all the temerity that Kinnear had shown in his exchanges with national journalists this week.
Directing matters via a mobile phone from his seat in the directors’ box, United’s interim manager declared himself delighted with what he saw. His pleasure will have doubled by the way in which United responded to a disastrous start.
Everton had started with purpose and panache that left United’s makeshift back four – Kinnear had lost Habib Beye before the game and were to lose Jose Enrique in the first half – groaning under intense early pressure.
The tone for a pulsating first half was set by Yakubu’s unsubtle shoulder barge on Fabricio Coloccini – an early marker that left the Argentinian rattled as Everton’s battering ram forward snatched possession and curled a rising shot over the crossbar. The partnership of Caçapa, pressed into defensive service by virtue of United’s horrendous injury list, and Coloccini looked frighteningly brittle and time and time again the darting Saha was able to exploit the space created by the extra attention being paid to Yakubu.
As early as five minutes it nearly reaped rewards. An intelligent flick by the enterprising Marouane Fellaini teed up the Nigerian in the penalty box, but the Everton forward rolled his shot wide of Shay Given’s right-hand post. United were living on borrowed time, and their luck was to run out on 17 minutes when Nicky Butt scythed down Leighton Baines inside the penalty area.
Kinnear had spoken of his desire to make Butt the driving force of his team but his seniority was not reflected in his reckless attempt to impede a clear run on goal for Baines. His clumsy challenge – which conceded the fourth penalty of the season against United – was punished emphatically by Mikel Arteta’s spot-kick.
The first signs of the ‘Kinnear bounce’ emerged in the aftermath of that opening goal. While recent weeks have seen United retreat under the mental strain of conceding early goals, Arteta’s opener prompted a spirited and inventive response.
Damien Duff, performing as well as at any time in a black-and-white shirt, provided movement and attacking brio alongside Michael Owen and he served a warning to Everton’s back four when he latched onto Danny Guthrie’s intricate ball and whipped a low shot across the goal.
And Everton were pressed into desperate defensive measures to block Newcastle’s route to goal when Duff, Guthrie and Taylor were all given clear sights. Baines, who was involved in all of the game’s key moments, diverted the Newcastle defender’s shot on the goal-line.
But while Newcastle were gathering attacking momentum, they continued to look distinctly vulnerable when Everton broke with the ball. That uncertainty was to check United’s progress once again when Fellaini galloped into the space left between Colocinni and Caçapa.
Breaking from defence with speed and precision, Everton worked the ball to an advancing Baines and his cross was poked past Given by the Belgian’s outstretched boot.
For a team in United’s precarious psychological state, that should have been the end of their challenge. But tilting against overwhelming odds, they battled on and earned the break that changed the complexion of the game.
It was fitting that Taylor was to score the goal that brought United back into the game after Kinnear had called for the home-grown defender to ‘step up’ and show more leadership on the pitch.
There was certainly authority about his connection with Geremi’s beautifully-delivered cross. The belief drained back into Newcastle’s players and 68 seconds into the second half, they had another goal – Duff sweeping Taylor’s excellent fizzing cross past Tim Howard. There were claims for offside in the run-up to the goal, but Taylor’s clever run had been timed to perfection.
Both teams had chances to snatch a win. As a thrilling game reached it’s compelling conclusion Given pulled off a terrific fingertip save from Leon Osman’s drive, while Charles N’Zogbia saw his shot cleared off the line. By virtue of a point won at another out-of-form side, Newcastle moved up one place in the Premier League. It might sound like a small step, but it feels like United have taken a giant leap forward.