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November 8, 2006 2:00 am

Newcastle welcome a respite

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The League Cup rarely saves a manager's job, but it can cost him it. Reaching the quarter-finals of the competition with a penalty shoot-out victory at Watford on Tuesday night has not ended the crisis at Newcastle, but it has eased it a little, and Glenn Roeder now heads to a Premiership fixture at Manchester City on Saturday with some breathing space, writes Jonathan Wilson.

It was defeat to Wigan at the same stage of the competition last season that spelt the beginning of the end for Graeme Souness; he limped on as a lame duck until February and was eventually sacked after a defeat to Manchester City. At times like these, the omens are never good.

The Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd has publicly expressed his support for Roeder, giving the impression of a club that, since Kevin Keegan walked out in January 1997, has had five managers, is desperate to avoid the accusation of hastiness. The irony is that a significant number of fans blame the present malaise on a lack of ruthlessness.

In May 2004, Newcastle finished fifth, missing out on Champions League football. British football's biggest goldfish bowl was leaking constantly with stories of indiscipline, and it seemed that the miscellany of reprobates gathered by Sir Bobby Robson had escaped his control. It would have been a tough decision to sack him but, in hindsight, it probably would have been the right one.

Shepherd, though, hesitated, admitting he didn't want to be the man who shot Bambi. By August, it became apparent that Robson had to go, and so Souness was appointed to replace him, 24 hours before the transfer window closed. For four months, he was effectively treading water. It wasn't the first time the mistake had been made. It wasn't even the second. Astonishingly, of those five managers to follow Keegan, three left the club in August.

Last night began badly as the 18-year-old goalkeeper Tim Krul was carried off on a stretcher after damaging a knee in the warm-up, but Newcastle took the lead through Antoine Sibierski's header within three minutes. They proceeded to dominate the first half, but anxiety is a constant bedfellow for Newcastle, and as Watford took charge after the break, Steve Harper was twice called into excellent saves.

Damien Francis stabbed in as Matthew Spring flicked on Young's delivery to level midway through the second half and then, after Damien Duff and Francis had both hit the woodwork, a thumping header from Danny Shittu put Watford ahead 17 minutes into extra time. Scott Parker, though, running onto Nolberto Solano's angled ball, dinked an equaliser with three minutes remaining, and when Jordan Stewart missed from the spot in the shoot-out, Newcastle were through.

It is certainly not renaissance yet, but it is respite.

*RUGBY England rugby union coach Andy Robinson has made just one change for the game against Argentina at Twickenham on Saturday from the team that lost heavily to New Zealand.

Announcing the side on Tuesday, Robinson said: "The way the team responded in the second half [against New Zealand] was tremendous and I thought it was important to give everyone an opportunity to back up against Argentina."

However, his decision to field virtually his strongest side also reflects a determination to halt a run of six successive defeats stretching back to a victory over Italy in Rome almost nine months ago.

Perpignan prop Perry Freshwater takes over from Andrew Sheridan as the only alteration. However, Wasps lock Tom Palmer, uncapped Newcastle centre Toby Flood and World Cup winning back Josh Lewsey, who is fit again after a knee injury that ruled him out of Sunday's 40-21 loss to the All Blacks, all feature on the bench. Palmer replaces Chris Jones, with Flood in for Leicester outside-half Andy Goode and Lewsey preferred to his club colleague full-back Mark Van Gisbergen.

England have not lost seven consecutive matches since 1972, and Robinson's team badly need a victory to restore confidence as they are less than a year away from the defence of their World Cup crown. Prospects of ending the losing streak were boosted yesterday with news that Argentina have lost three players from the squad for their November tour after they all suffered injuries in the same French league match on Saturday. Perpignan's Rimas Alvarez sustained a throat injury while Rodrigo Roncero and Lucas Borges of Stade Français damaged ribs in the match.

*FOOTBALL Referees' chief Keith Hackett has criticised Chelsea players for questioning the integrity of Graham Poll.

The Football Association said it would speak to Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard following claims that referee Poll targeted Chelsea during their 2-1 defeat to Tottenham on Sunday at White Hart Lane. Poll will also be spoken to by the FA as it gathers information, as will his two assistants and the fourth official.

Hackett said he had been in contact with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho since Sunday, and added: "I will meet him again at the club's training ground if necessary to run through a number of issues regarding referees.''

Cole was angered by Poll's performance at Tottenham and the full-back was one of six yellow cards issued to Chelsea players during the match, with John Terry picking up two of them.

Terry claims Poll offered two different explanations for his second booking but Hackett said: ''All the referee has to do in terms of the player is ask what the player's name is and then issue a card, he doesn't have to explain why that player has been sent off.''

Hackett, head of the Professional Game Match Officials Board, added: ''What we are talking about is the integrity of one of my referees and I want to assure the public that I have some doubt - without trying to prejudice the case - about what is claimed to have been said.''

Hackett believes listening to a recording of Poll's performance will prove the official did not target Mourinho's side. ''We now wire our referees up so we have Graham operating with an open mic and the two assistant referees and the fourth official can actually listen in to what is said during the game,'' he said. ''That level of conversation was listened to by three other people and it will be interesting to see how that proceeds.''

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