Fulham try but not hard enough
Jonathan Northcroft at The Sunday Times
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Newcastle 2 Fulham 0

KNOWING Newcastle supporters, some are probably now dreaming of a late bid for a European spot.

It finished 2-0 to English football’s incorrigible optimists, but for once it was permissible for them to look upon the bright side of life. Relegation does not seem nearly as possible after this result, added to ones involving Bolton and Birmingham. And their messiah can still skip across the odd patch of water after all: 10 matches into his reign, timing the resurrection nicely for Easter, Kevin Keegan had his first victory since returning as manager.

Mark Viduka and Michael Owen were the headline stealers, Viduka scoring early on and Owen late, against a Fulham side whose passive performance left you suspecting they are doomed, but the real hero was Nicky Butt whose committed tackling and canny positioning laid the basis for supremacy in midfield.

Silver medallists in that area, Fulham were always second best but St James’ Park could not begin celebrating until the surity of a two-goal lead arrived. It was typical of Owen to perform poorly outside the area and yet come alive inside it to provide the crucial strike.

With 82 minutes gone, Geremi bent in a free kick and there was Newcastle’s captain, eluding defenders to glance a header past Kasey Keller.

Only once, versus Middlesbrough back at the start of February, had Newcastle even been ahead in a game since Keegan returned. The early goal was a platform they so needed and Viduka is a sauntering saviour. Here, he even made expert finishing look a casual business.

The Toon Army betrayed their anxiety with their battle cry of “shoot!” whenever a home player had possession within the vague vicinity of Fulham’s area. Fortunately Butt ignored this to feed a sensible ball to the overlapping Geremi, who passed back inside to Viduka.

The Australian was 18 yards out, marshalled by the mammoth Brede Hangeland, but he gulled the defender by shaping to go with his right foot, before switching the ball onto his left. A gap, just big enough, had opened up. Almost shruggingly, Viduka stroked a shot to Kasey Keller’s right. Unhurriedly, the ball rolled beyond the diving goalkeeper and popped in off a post.

Seven minutes had gone and the points were there to be taken, but Newcastle needed to come to terms with the unfamiliar feeling of ascendency. Uncertainty riddled them, their passing was fractured, their defending confused.

Owen gave away possession while Steven Taylor and Abdoulaye Faye collided going for the same ball. It was Fulham who seemed the more fluent, despite the scoreline, and Jimmy Bullard was testing Steve Harper with dipping long shots.

The phase passed, however. Obafemi Martins sped off on a counter and had Keller fully extended with a fine shot. Owen smacked a superb half-volley at Keller from 30 yards and Keegan’s men began to find their rhythm.

Yet nerves would remain until there was the comfort of a second goal and Keegan went through anguish when Owen missed the most welcoming chance, nodding straight at Keller from six yards out and unmarked.

Fulham do not have enough players who take the initiative. Bullard is an exception, but though he is good at getting on the ball he is not always sound in his use of it. The rest of Roy Hodgson’s midfield were passive and he got little from his strikers.

Overelaboration undermined several Newcastle attacks and one incisive counter was killed by further poor passing by Owen. There were jeers when the substitute board came out and the number flashing was that of Martins, who had seemed far more menacing than Owen, but the captain was about to vindicate the decision to keep him on and “Walking in a Keegan Wonderland” rang out at 2-0.

It wasn’t easy but Geordies would not have swapped three points for the return of Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Milburn.

Newcastle: Harper 7, Beye 6 (Edgar 87min), Taylor 6, Faye 6, Jose Enrique 6, Geremi 5, Butt 8, Barton 6, Owen 6, Viduka 6 (Smith 84min), Martins 6 (N’Zogbia 74min)

Fulham: Keller 5, Stalteri 5 (Healy 84min), Hughes 5, Hangeland 6, Konchesky 5, Andreasen 5, Bullard 7, Murphy 5 (Volz 71min), Davies 5, McBride 5 (Dempsey 66min), Johnson 5

Scorers: Newcastle: Viduka 6, Owen 83

Yellow card: Fulham: Volz

Referee: A Wiley