IF the sign of a good side is one which manages to pick up points even when they are playing badly, then Newcastle United really are an excellent one in the Coca-Cola Championship.
In rescuing yet another important point against Middlesbrough in an engrossing Tees-Tyne derby, Newcastle did not tell us anything we did not already know about them.
In fact, given the number of times they have managed to escape from unpleasant away games without defeat this season, it might be tempting to suggest we would like to see rather more impressive displays, a clear and firm expression of their dominance in a division they will surely leave behind in May.
Yet, anyone who is tired of seeing Newcastle cling on rather than kick on away from home, it is worth remembering it is always far better to hold on by your fingertips than over-reach and plummet towards a grisly demise.
Grinding out results has never been a particularly common trait in Newcastle sides of old, but they have coped superbly with the daily grind in a league in which they have been the team to beat all season.
With Nottingham Forest losing at Preston on Saturday, Newcastle may have stumbled a little against Boro, but they were still good enough to move another encouraging step closer to a Premier League return.
They do not need to win every game and this point was, in the wider context of the promotion run-in, just as significant as the 6-1 thrashing of Barnsley the previous weekend in that it extended the gap between themselves and third place to nine points with a game in hand.
Boro, not for the first time this season, felt slightly aggrieved at the result and mumbled something about being the better side and deserving better as they headed out into the Teesside air, but they were the complaints of a club which fears it will now almost certainly face at least another year in the Championship. Newcastle are not out of it yet, but they can almost taste the feast at English football’s top table again and we must remind ourselves whenever we pick holes in their performances that the club looked to be heading for a famine last summer. Even without players like Alan Smith, Jose Enrique, Wayne Routledge, Mike Williamson, Joey Barton and Steven Taylor, Newcastle were still strong enough to frustrate a valiant Boro side who threw everything they could at a makeshift defence, forced into another unwanted reshuffle when Fabricio Coloccini was taken off in the second half with a dead leg.
The Magpies scored with their only real moment of top-flight quality in the first half, Jonas Gutierrez once again showing why he is a class above this level with a brilliant through ball which was so perfect, Peter Lovenkrands did not even have to check his stride before hitting it first-time into the bottom corner for his first away goal of the campaign.
Lovenkrands had another sniff of goal before the break as he ran on to Andy Carroll’s flick-on, but it was nothing more than a half chance.
Boro were more bold going forward and Fitz Hall made two superb blocks on Stephen McManus before the visitors took the lead, while Steve Harper was at full stretch to keep out Barry Robson’s free-kick after the brave Danny Simpson had brought down Rhys Williams on the edge of the area. Robson, though, was a lively threat on the right side of midfield and adept at winning free-kicks, and when he played a lovely one-two with Scott McDonald, the Scot fired a well-placed shot into the far corner from the edge of the area which left Harper with no chance.
It was nothing more than Gordon Strachan’s side deserved and, with Newcastle conceding possession far too easily and Carroll in particular struggling to hold on to it, Boro maintained the pressure after the break.
Newcastle had Harper to thank again when he timed his dart off his line – and his angles – perfectly to block Julio Arca’s effort after the former Sunderland player had been sent in on goal.
The unveiling of a “Trophy Virgins” banner in the seats next to the away end briefly threatened to lead to some crowd trouble in the stands, although Newcastle stayed in it on the pitch.
A Tamas Kadar header at a corner apart, which Coyne saved at point blank range, Newcastle rarely got forward and they looked to be heading to their fifth league defeat of the season when Chris Killen got above Hall to knock down Robson’s free-kick and McDonald swivelled his body to hook home from inside the six-yard box. That prompted wild celebrations from the home support, but they were silenced moments later as Newcastle threw off their defensive mindset and pushed forward in numbers for the first time.
And when the otherwise subdued Danny Guthrie teed up Ryan Taylor, his excellent cross found Carroll with the time and space to control the ball and stab it past Coyne for his 12th goal of the season.
The England Under-21 international had endured one of his least effective afternoon’s in weeks, but the goals keep on coming for him and Newcastle when they matter most.