TWO-AND-A-HALF games into Joe Kinnear’s tenure, Newcastle United are no closer to Premier League safety but they are at least showing signs of the fight so badly lacking before his arrival.
The former Tottenham Hotspur defender’s first act as Magpies manager was to march down from the St James’s Park director’s box and breathe new life into the team with his half-time team talk against Blackburn Rovers.
As if to underline their interim manager’s effect, United have fought back after going behind in both games since. Last night Kinnear cajoled his team out of their most perilous position yet and reinvigorated the infuriating Shola Ameobi along the way.
At 27 the powerful striker is no longer a youngster. Two years and five days since his last senior goal – a penalty – he spoke before the match of the need to take his latest opportunity.
He did it impressively, producing a man-of-the-match performance and an equaliser in a game Newcastle were disappointed to draw 2-2, despite having only 10 men for most of it.
If United had wanted to feel sorry for themselves, Rob Styles gave them a perfect opportunity 12 minutes in. The Hampshire referee was only making his second Premier League appearance since being fooled by Cristiano Ronaldo’s theatrics and wrongly awarding a penalty against Jlloyd Samuel of Bolton Wanderers. It is becoming a worrying habit and one he continued last night.
This time Habib Beye was the unlucky man. The Senegalese right-back – himself making a comeback, this time from an Achilles injury picked up in August – was adjudged to have illegally brought down Robinho as he chased a long ball in the penalty area. Beye came in from the wrong side and made contact with Robinho, but not before getting his toe to the ball. Had Styles consulted his linesman, he might have discovered that. Styles brandished a red card for the professional foul and United were facing 78 minutes of football a man short. The resulting spot kick was the first real chance the visitors had and Robinho took it well, sending Shay Given the wrong way after a stuttering approach.
City grasped the initiative and Micah Richards almost tempted Fabricio Coloccini into a rash challenge when he burst into the area. But the Argentinian kept his discipline and City had to settle for a corner. Robinho was gifted the chance of a second when Sebastien Bassong switched off and allowed him to ghost in at the far post but again, a flag kick was the only result. Robinho’s 28th-minute shot deflected off Steven Taylor but just beyond Jo.
Pre-Kinnear, United would have wilted. But the caretaker persisted with two up front and got his reward. Martins and Ameobi linked brilliantly 10 minutes before the break, the latter leaping into the air and chesting into his partner’s path. Ameobi threaded a ball down the inside-right channel to the impressive Damien Duff, who should have done better than to shoot straight at Joe Hart.
It looked as though United had wasted their best chance of the half but Lady Luck provided another. Martins’ cross a minute before the break provided Richard Dunne with the opportunity for a routine clearance but the Irishman saw it ricochet off Duff and Ben-Haim into the path of Ameobi, who chested the ball well, then sliced a volley beyond Hart’s grasp.
United returned for the second half with one in attack but Martins, redeployed on the left of a midfield four, was hardly a conservative choice and they continued to attack.
Equally unrelenting was Dunne’s miserable evening – which also saw him come off badly after heading the back of Ameobi’s skull – when he reacted instinctively to Geremi’s 62nd-minute corner. Sticking out a boot, he arrowed the ball into the top corner of the net.
It was inevitable the visitors would have more of the play and eventually they made it pay. For all the glitzy names at the sharp end of their team, Stephen Ireland has been one of City’s best players since money became no object at Eastlands. He forced a great save from Given six minutes from time after flicking the ball up and volleying. At full stretch to his left, Given kept it out.
There was nothing he could do about his next effort, however, let down by defenders who gave Shaun Wright-Phillips and Robinho too much time to pick Ireland out. This time he found the net to set up a frenetic last four minutes, Ireland dragging a shot from a tight angle just beyond the far post and Robinho blasting off target from outside the area.
Having got within touching distance of three points it was disappointing to drop two in such circumstances but the cheers at full-time – quickly followed by jeers for Styles – put the draw into context.