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Good Knight, Mr Owen

last updated Sunday 11th September 2005, 9:02 AM

Newcastle’s huge support turned out to worship their new legend, but they will need patience before he can blossom

Walking towards St James’ Park yesterday, it seemed only right to stop for a while at the statue of Jackie Milburn. “Wor Jackie”, it said affectionately of the man who was born Jackie Edward Thompson Milburn. Erected by the people of Newcastle three years after Milburn’s death in 1988, the statue reminded you of how people around here value a good centre forward.

Zat Knight
Zat Knight

It was inevitable, also, to wonder what they will say about Michael Owen after he has gone. Wor Michael? Perhaps. There is a long way to go. Or, to be more charitable, it can only get better than it was yesterday. Owen had the quietest of debuts and a draw was more than his new club deserved.

There had been so much expectation. Long queues to buy programmes with Owen on the front cover and everyone believing it would be debutant's day. Hadn’t Malcolm MacDonald, Kevin Keegan, Andy Cole and Alan Shearer all scored on their debuts for this great football club? Owen walked on to the pitch, the last but not the least of Newcastle’s players and the thunderous ovation from 52,000 fans was for him. But sport’s most reassuring quality is its refusal to play to pre-ordained scripts. As Owen acknowledged the welcome, Fulham's German defender Moritz Volz pulled Zat Knight to one side and spoke animatedly to the central defender. You knew precisely what Volz was saying.

This was an afternoon for Knight to remind Owen that the return to the Premiership will not be easy and, to be a little perverse, to let him know that his reservations about joining Newcastle were justified. Knight is uncommonly tall, good in the air, quicker than you’d think but, surely, still vulnerable to a striker as sharp and as well balanced as Owen? Not yesterday. Knight had a fine match while Owen was quieter than quiet. Much of that was down to the way the respective teams performed. Chris Coleman set up his team cleverly, deploying Papa Bouba Diop in front of Alan Shearer when Newcastle aimed long balls towards their old centre- forward.

Shearer is good in the air but Diop is a tall order and he cut much of the supply to the Newcastle front man. Without Shearer winning those balls, the service to Owen was sparse and of very low quality. Neither was Newcastle’s cause helped by a midfield comprised of Stephen Carr, Amdy Faye, Scott Parker and Alberto Luque.

Luque was the only one of the four with the potential to create. Worryingly, the £9.5m Spaniard didn’t achieve much before tearing a hamstring in the 33rd minute.

By then, the game’s course was set. Newcastle's defenders too often lumped the ball forward and played to Owen's weaknesses.

Once he latched on to a clearance from a Fulham free kick and knocked the ball wide of Volz and Carlos Bocanegra. Though 50 yards from goal, there was space and a chance for a surge on goal. Possibility flickered for half a second before the American Bocanegra cut Owen down: even in California, they know you don’t give Owen that opportunity.

There were other fleeting chances; once when a Luque corner beat everybody and came to Owen at the far post. It fell awkwardly, hit the inside of his right knee and careered through his legs. Oops! With more games, his sharpness and his reactions will improve.

Then there was danger when he ran at Knight, twisting, turning, tempting the centre back into a hasty tackle. To his credit, Knight waited and waited, forcing Owen to push the ball past him and then turning in a flash to sweep the ball to safety. At that instant, you thought “Good, Knight”. “Good Knight, Mr Owen”.

Newcastle improved a little in the second half but Fulham created more chances. But when Newcastle tied the match, it was Owen’s street wisdom that earned the free kick from which Charles N’Zogbia struck a fine goal. Otherwise, the new striker might as well have been on the Bernabeu bench. “We didn't get any real supply to him,” said his new manager Graeme Souness.

Everyone was being as polite as could be, Owen himself thought it was a strange old game. “They nick a goal, we had a player carried off, then we lose another at half-time. It just wasn't to be.” No one dared to wonder if the £17m striker looked a tad expensive on his first Newcastle appearance.

This wasn’t a day for questions. Nor one for answers.

Source David Walsh for Sunday Times
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