Well, that was disappointing.
From a SkySports perspective, though, it was a brilliant, pulsating game – loads of goal-mouth action – penalty shouts to chew over – celebrity fans to spot – quality saves – a bizarre fluke goal – a dramatic late winner – all making for an apparently massive viewing audience, three times the usual level for a Championship game.
It all started so well, too. The Amex packed to the rafters and in good voice – tension and excitement in the air – defeat here not terminal, but a win would have the table looking well beyond just promising. Dreamland awaits. Or doesn’t.
Albion unchanged from the superb Reading win – Sebastien Pocognoli passed fit to start, despite his ‘precautionary’ withdrawal in the closing stages on Saturday. Good news that – precious little full back cover available, with Bong, Rosenior and Adekugbe all still short of a return. Warren Apsinall’s pre-match comments telling, as ever – very astute football man – much to be gained by listening beyond his mixed metaphors and comedy mispronunciations.
Rafa Benitez answered the ‘will Murphy or Mitrovic replace Gayle?’ question, by playing no strikers at all – Atsu, Diame and Gouffran detailed to provide an attacking threat – Shelvey and Ritchie the creativity. The theory had a little merit – Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy will happily take anybody on in a physical battle. In practice it wasn’t successful – Newcastle offering little threat at all, in an opening dominated by the home side.
Skipper Bruno first to come close, striking a tremendous volley from 25 yards, stinging the hands of the (mostly) excellent Darlow. Jamie Murphy carried the ball nicely, Anthony Knockaert teased Dummett, Sam Baldock pulled the centre backs about, as the Albion probed at the Magpies. 10 minutes in, Dummett felled Knockaert on the edge of the box, for the game’s first big opportunity.
In almost unprecedented scenes, the Albion pulled off a clever training-ground free kick routine that actually worked. Baldock spun from his position within the defensive line, as the kick was tapped short to Knockaert, for the little Frenchman to chip it up, then cushion a side-foot volley over the wall into his path. His first time effort, rather miscued, required a stretch from Darlow to paw behind.
With Skalak and Norwood unable to hold down a spot, Knockaert is on every set-piece – his corner whipped in toward Glenn Murray caused panic - Ciaran Clark too physical in his attempts to hold back the Albion’s top scorer = referee Bobby Madeley no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Murray picked himself up to tuck his 17th of a productive season, into the bottom left corner. Unbridled joy.
We. Are. Topotheleague…
I was really enjoying this game whilst it was scoreless – as soon as the Albion had a lead to hold, and the euphoria of the goal had passed, the nerves kicked in. They seemed to for the players too, a little. Calm possession became less calm. Assured passing rather sloppy. Minutes later a big blow – Pocognoli succumbing to his niggly groin problem – replaced by young Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori. For any youngster with close to zero senior experience to cope with a game of this magnitude, was a huge ask. To do so playing out of position much more so – and he understandably struggled to settle – looking every inch a right-sided centre back playing at left back.
Whilst Atsu terrorized Tomori, the Magpies created very few real chances, and the Albion looked to strike on the break. When Knockaert broke quickly, Newcastle half recovered at the cost of a throw on half way. He grabbed it quickly and looked to send Baldock clear, only for Colback to prevent him releasing it by jumping in front of him. Unfathomable decision from Mr Madeley to not issue the mandatory yellow card.
If Colback looked surprised not to see a yellow, his team-mate Yedlin was relieved to gratefully accept one – the last defender tangling with Baldock as the striker chased a long ball. Would have been a harsh red, in truth, but ‘you’ve seen them given’ (Clive).
The action swung from end to end now – decent saves from both keepers – Darlow to his right from Murray’s over-the-shoulder volley – Stockdale down to Ritchie’s low drive. The final act of the half, a better stop from Stockdale to beat out Atsu’s fierce strike from 12 yards.
The end of the first period was breathless, the start of the second, more of the same – the Albion agonizingly close to putting clear water between the sides. In the one blemish in a strong showing, Darlow came for a high set-piece and got nowhere – left in no-man’s land as Dunk’s header looped over him towards the net – only to be hacked off the line by his team-mate Dummett.
One more Darlow save apart – decent strike from Knockaert cutting in from the right – the pressure was mostly now the other way. The Albion were not coping too comfortably with it, either. Some uncharacteristically sloppy passing at the back offering up possession in dangerous areas repeatedly – most notably with Stockdale passing straight to the feet of Gouffran, five yards outside the box. Gouffran simply had to score – just run past the committed keeper, or chip it over him into the open goal – but took a touch and hit it straight back at the grateful gloveman. Hearts pounding around three sides of the Amex. Incredible reprieve. A reprieve at the other end too – Murray down under pressure from Lascelles – right call from Mr Madeley to wave play on.
20 minutes left now - Benitez had seen enough of his non-strikers, and sent on Perez and Murphy – scorer in his last four Amex appearances – to try to salvage the game. Murphy in particular had an immediate impact – Ritchie and Atsu happier with someone to aim their crosses at. The former Ipswich man probably ought to have scored with his first contribution – completely free from a corner, heading firmly but straight at Stockdale.
I’ve read plenty of post-match comment, of Benitez’ tactical acumen – of the effect of his substitutions. Those reports are written with a huge dollop of hindsight, to my mind – Rafa did no more than make the obvious changes to fix his own flawed starting line-up.
Either way, Murphy’s presence told – another header at goal palmed behind. Probably going a foot or two wide in truth, but the keeper no choice but to make sure. Where he did have a choice was how to deal with the resulting corner – opting to come and punch – successfully – but not decisively – the ball travelling only to the edge of the ‘D’. What was to follow – what ultimately was to cancel out the Albion’s hard fought lead – was utterly, utterly ridiculous.
Clubs spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on facilities, and tacticians, and scouting, and sports science, and statisticians, and conditioning experts. The football media pores ad nauseum over systems, and coaching, and skill-sets, and decision-making. Fans fixate on desire and heart and commitment. The unspoken truth – the factor mocking everything – is that pure luck plays a massive part in it all. If Newcastle’s 81st minute leveler here – Atsu’s scuffed volley, deflecting off Murphy’s toe, and looping high off the unaware Diame’s foot, into the very top corner of the net – comes to ultimately define the Albion’s season, we might as well all just pack it in.
An unprecedented run of misfortune derailed the finale of the last campaign. If lady luck is in the same mood this season, she can **** off, frankly.
Chris Hughton, who’d been on the cusp of replacing Baldock with Beram Kayal to protect the lead, went ahead with that change. The Albion might have settled for the point, but it seemed the messages were mixed – are we sitting deep – or pressing for a winner? This proved crucial – when Ritchie delivered the raking diagonal pass into Atsu’s path for what proved to be the winner, Bruno was the sole defender in the final third – comprehensive beaten by the Ghanaian, who squared for the onrushing Perez to slide home. Quality from all three Toon players involved – this goal as well crafted as the first had been lucky.
They. Are. Topotheleague…
The game was up right there. The Albion huffed and puffed through four minutes of injury time, held comfortably at arm’s length. Despite leading for most of the game, nobody in the ground would have argued against a draw as an equitable outcome given the flow of proceedings. To end up empty-handed harsh in the extreme.
The media reaction to the result is baffling, though. The two sides have been playing leap-frog with each other for three months, and yet for some reason this result – leaving Newcastle back on top by a massive TWO points – is somehow decisive? Newcastle are officially crowned Champions, despite the fact that the Albion might well be the lead frog again by Saturday evening. I’ve no axe at all to grind with Newcastle, but it must be said, in the words of one of their own, I would love it - love it –were we to prove the experts wrong.