In a match that Alan Shearer proclaimed to be the biggest of his career, the Geordie hero made perhaps the best decision in the recent history of Newcastle United when Obafemi Martins scored within 60 seconds of his introduction to help The Magpies out of the bottom three following a 3-1 win over local rivals Middlesbrough.
Managers, players, owners and executive directors (football) have come and gone at St James’ Park in recent seasons, leading The Magpies to the current malaise they find themselves in, but the replacement of Michael Owen with Martins on 70 minutes on Monday night could yet avert a potentially disastrous relegation.
After Steven Taylor had equalised following Habib Beye’s own goal after three minutes, a tense and frenetic game saw both sides carve out an unusually high amount of chances before Martins rose off the bench to beat Brad Jones with his first shot.
When fellow substitute Peter Lovenkrands added a third with four minutes remaining, the feeling of relief was palpable around St James’ Park as Shearer earned his first managerial victory at the sixth time of asking.
The three points takes the Tynesiders out of the bottom three on goal difference, leaving Hull to fall into the drop zone for the first time this season where they are three points ahead of Boro and West Brom with two games remaining.
On what was billed as a night of Titanic proportions, Gareth Southgate’s Boro surely have that sinking feeling but after a game that showed that the rookie Shearer may just have the elusive quality that all good managers need – the ability to make an inspired substitution – Newcastle have hope, and lots of it.
As befitting a side that had scored only away league goal in 2009, Middlesbrough required a slice of luck to silence St James’ Park inside three minutes as Beye inadvertently bundled the ball into his own net.
But given that it was a quite brilliant turn from Tuncay in the box that drew Steve Harper off his line and saw the ball deflect off goalkeeper and then defender, few could begrudge Boro the lead after a breathtaking start to the contest.
Both Owen and Danny Guthrie had spurned chances even before the Boro goal, with the striker’s coming after only 12 seconds as he miscontrolled from a Jonas Gutierrez pass, and The Magpies responded superbly to losing the initiative at such an early stage.
Indeed, Newcastle enjoyed more chances in the opening exchanges than they had seemingly carved out in all of Shearer’s previous games put together – the most notable coming after six minutes when Mark Viduka thundered a volley against the post and Steven Taylor drilled the loose ball off target following the rebound.
They did not have to wait long for the equaliser which sent St James’ Park into delirium though.
It was local hero Steven Taylor who indulged in wild celebrations following his superb header from Danny Guthrie’s corner but Kevin Nolan will be claiming an assist after he sneakily and cynically blocked off Taylor’s marker, Matthew Bates, to give his team-mate a free run at the delivery.
Such a frantic opening tempo could not be maintained and aside from a flurry of set pieces that Boro dealt with impressively, the chances dried up until 27 minutes when the recalled Owen forced Brad Jones into a reflex save.
Former Boro forward Viduka was the creator as a clever touch took him away from Justin Hoyte and Owen met his wicked cross with a flicked header that Jones touched over the bar. From the resulting corner, Steven Taylor saw his attempt blocked by Boro namesake Andrew.
Having squandered their excellent start to the game, Boro almost edged in front once again just two minutes later. Marvin Emnes, a shock inclusion to make his first Premier League start, saw one effort saved by Steve Harper and then put the rebound horribly wide when he really should have scored.
Boro were forced into a change before half time when Afonso Alves was stretchered off with an ankle problem and his replacement, Marlon King, was soon looking lively as he was involved in a move that resulted in Emnes squandering a cross from Downing. With Harper out of position though, the English winger may have been better advised to take a shot at goal.
The tangible tension inside St James’ Park showed no sign of dissipating in the second half and as Boro began to apply increased pressure on their rivals, Harper was called into action to make a fine stop from Gary O’Neil’s 20-yard volley.
With the first flickers of desperation setting in as the teams remained locked together going into the 70th minute, Shearer made a brave change as Owen was sacrificed for Martins. A brave change, and an inspirational one.
Within 60 seconds the Nigerian was on the scoresheet as he took a touch following a neat flick from Nolan and, despite losing his footing, sent his shot spinning past Jones and into the far corner.
Replays, however, showed that Nolan was clearly offside when latching onto Viduka’s back header, doing little to improve Southgate’s demeanour on the touchline.
The Boro boss would have been left with an even more angry expression when Emnes passed up another big chance just six minutes later. The Dutchman was completely unmarked when meeting a cross from the right but somehow failed to make any contact whatsoever from five yards out.
Emnes and Boro were soon made to regret his litany of missed chances as Lovenkrands added a third with four minutes remaining, the Dane smashing high into the Boro net after meeting Nolan’s pass from the right.
Another substitute, Andy Carroll, should also have scored when Newcastle found themselves three against one on the break, but Jones produced a fine stop to prevent Boro from sustaining another setback in the goal difference department.
The only mathematical equation that matters for Southgate is that his side are now three points adrift of safety though, with Newcastle sneaking past Hull City and into 17th.