Newcastle last night returned to the top of the Championship following a gritty away win over Sheffield United. A heavily deflected shot from Ryan Taylor was enough to separate the two teams, although Newcastle were indebted to goalkeeper Steve Harper for a fine late save. It may not have been the prettiest game to watch for the neutral with the ball spending most of the time up in the air and at times tempers threatened to boil over in a physical encounter. Newcastle had their share of good luck with Taylor’s goal and the same player was slightly lucky to avoid a second yellow card for a foul.
The key to Newcastle’s victory was their solid defending, especially from set-pieces where Sheffield United are always a major threat. The returning Fabricio Coloccini was partnered in central defence by youngster Tamas Kadar and they improved after a nervous opening. At left back Jose Enrique had another fine performance to continue his run of good form this season. He was solid defensively and his numerous bursts forward gave Newcastle another dimension to their attacks. Goalkeeper Harper enhanced his reputation as one of the best English goalkeepers outside the Premier League with a stunning late save to deny United an equaliser. He was commanding between the posts and reliable with his handling whenever he was called upon.
Another player to impress was striker Andy Carroll, who enjoyed a physical battle all game against the experienced Chris Morgan and loanee Andrew Davies. With Kevin Nolan operating just behind the lone striker it was up to Carroll to take the pressure away from the Newcastle defence. One of Carroll’s biggest assets is his aerial ability which is boosted by a good spring off the ground. He was also able to help out at in defence by heading away a succession of corners and free-kicks.
Chris Hughton celebrated Taylor’s goal with a jig in the technical area as he celebrated his first win since becoming the club’s permanent manager. He was happy with his side’s ability win ugly. He said: “I’m delighted. I think that’s what you call an ugly win. We knew here they haven’t had the best of times of late and would be after the win. They play a particular style of play that makes it very difficult for you. You’ve got to be strong and resilient and I thought for the majority of the game we handled everything they threw at us.”
Key midfielder Alan Smith has revealed how the Newcastle squad resolved to turn things around following their relegation last season. Their embarrassing 6-1 friendly defeat to Leyton Orient led to a meeting between the players where they discussed how they were going to change their fortunes around for the new season. It also sorted out which players were committed to the club and the challenges of the Championship. Stand in captain Smith said: “We went to Leyton Orient and it was a disaster. We had a meeting when we came back from the game, just us the players. We said ‘whoever wants to leave they can leave and we’ll help them go, whoever wants to stay then commit yourself to stay.’ That was a massive turning point. It wasn’t just me who called the meeting it was decided among us because it was obvious what needed to be done. It was strange – we were managing ourselves.”
Smith has emerged as a key figure in the dressing room along with the likes of Nolan and Steven Taylor. As part of the team’s bonding a lot of the players take part in regular poker sessions which have helped to keep morale high in the team. At the age of 29, Smith is now enjoying every game while he can, especially after overcoming a horrendous leg break while playing for Manchester United. He has honestly admitted that he never has or will get back to the player that he was before the injury. He said: “I know I’ll never get back to as good as I was in terms of that two to five per cent that takes you to the very top – international level, Champions League level.” He now appears to have found his position as a holding midfield player where he has shone for Newcastle this season.