THE last time two Newcastle United players came to blows on a football field, it was a sure-fire sign of the club’s capacity for self destruction.
When Alan Smith got stuck into Mike Williamson at the weekend, it was an indication the Magpies will not give up on the Premier League place they believe ought to be theirs without a fight.
Playing away from the only ground where they have won in 2010, changing in a condemned stand before heading onto a pitch churned up by the rugby heavyweights who regularly plod up and down it, then seeing the heavens open spectacularly, Saturday was a day for fighting spirit.
Granted, the away fans would have preferred their players attacking Watford’s goal rather than each other, but as long as it remains a one-off it will be cause for comfort in an era when English football is awash with faint-hearted mercenaries.
For much of the afternoon it looked like it might not come to that, the Magpies never dominant but in control from the moment Fabricio Coloccini’s fourth-minute header found the net.
But Will Hoskins’ injury-time goal frayed United nerves until a flashpoint which despite being minor was still out of keeping with a totally unspectacular game.
When Williamson made a rare slip on another impressive afternoon by Newcastle’s centre-backs, heading to an unmarked yellow shirt, Smith raised his hands as well as his voice.
This, though, was no repeat of Kieron Dyer v Lee Bowyer in 2005. That was an act of petulance between two bruised egos which ended with the hard-as-nails Graeme Souness wheeling both in front of the media like naughty schoolboys.
This time the mild-mannered Chris Hughton addressed the media alone to hail his squad’s spirit.
To use one of Souness’ favourite adjectives, Smith is a “proper” captain. He leads by example in every situation but it is never more noticeable than on horrible, backs-to-the-walls occasions like Saturday’s at Vicarage Road. Williamson may not have his snarling persona – few do – but his character had already been well showcased.
The centre-back took a dog’s abuse all day from supporters still jilted after he forced through a transfer from Watford to Portsmouth in August. Williamson must have realised what a spectacularly bad move that was by now, but the home fans reminded him every time he touched the ball.
A 25th-minute booking for a push on Heidar Helguson other referees could have judged a professional foul disrupted his equilibrium for a moment but once it was out of his system, he was back to the unspectacular old-fashioned centre-half Newcastle have become accustomed to. Unsurprisingly Smith too had his brushes with officialdom and could have collected the red card which would have put his team under far greater pressure than Williamson’s weak header. His yellow card came early in the second half for fouling Henri Lansbury.
It was blatant retribution for the kind of physical approach by the on-loan Arsenal midfielder which has Arsene Wenger saddling up his high horse when it happens against the Gunners.
Just in case Lansbury was unsure of the motive, Smith leaned over to tell him, then argued furiously with Helguson while referee Tony Bates waited for things to calm down. Once riled, Smith continued to sprint up to the line of unacceptability without ever crossing it in Bates’ eyes.
At times Smith’s passion is misdirected, but better that than some of the almost apathetic displays of last season as Newcastle crept out of the top flight with barely a whimper. As if to emphasis their spirit, the visitors mustered only four goal attempts all day, limiting Watford to six. Two missed the target, the other two found the net.
Andy Carroll’s character can easily be bracketed alongside Smith and Williamson for his response to self-inflicted adversity. The England Under-21 international is due in Newcastle Crown Court in April to answer assault charges but as his off-field problems have mounted, so his on-field form has blossomed.
Carroll’s goal – like Coloccini’s, a header from a set piece – was the Gateshead-born striker at his best, jumping early then hanging in the air before powering Danny Guthrie’s corner past Scott Loach.
The 50th-minute strike appeared to have ended the match as a contest, leaving how many more goals Newcastle would get and who would be the first man sent off as the only talking points.
That was until Helguson’s shot hit Kevin Nolan and deflected to a suspiciously deep Hoskins to convert. With their feisty attitude and willingness to play direct football, Newcastle are more of a Joe Kinnear or Sam Allardyce team than they ever were under those managers. United are no longer everyone’s second favourite team as they were in the mid-90s but for the first time in a long time, they are winners.