We definitely shouldn’t complain…but this game had lost a lot of it’s potential edge.
At one stage it looked like being a nervous relegation clash, with the added X factor of our old chum Alan Pardew being warmly welcomed into the visitors dug out. As it was, Pardew was gone, having utterly demolished Albion’s Premier League standing during his latest tenure of incompetence, and It feels like ages since relegation was a realistic prospect on Tyneside.
Despite WBA fighting tooth and nail for their slim survival chances under Darren Moore, there was a tinge of the end of season formality about all this.
For me though, today was special.
For the first time in my life I was taking my own child to the Newcastle match, a rite of passage that is cherished in so many Geordie families. It felt like the right time to introduce my 6-year old daughter Olivia to the reason daddy regularly disappears at weekends, although it can be a tricky call to make with a little girl.
Before I get accused of rampant sexism and prejudice unbecoming of this millennium, I am fully aware that football in this day and age is far from being the near-exclusively male domain it once was, as special replica shirts are tailored to a ladies fit, groups of lasses can regularly be seen en route to the game and the women’s game is growing rapidly in popularity. Olivia, however, has not really got on board with this, with her preferences of dancing and dressing up as princesses, more consistent with the traditional little girl’s stereotype.
With this in mind, I wasn’t sure whether the match would be ideal for her, but I wanted a marker laid down. Should she ever fall for a lad with strange inclinations to some daft other football team from some ridiculous place, or should she ever leave this area in search of fame and fortune, I want my daughter to say that she supports Newcastle, however tenuously, because her dad took her to her first match there when she was little.
So, after a morning of crazy golf, ice cream and quality pub time (got to give the kids what they want), Olivia took that famous walk up the steps to the ground with me. She was wide-eyed and mesmerised by the Gallowgate flags display, and bounced around with excitement as the teams emerged, asking to be carried so she could see, hear and experience everything that was going on. This had every indication of going perfectly to plan, until Newcastle spoiled it.
If there’s one thing you can rely upon about NUFC, it’s their complete lack of reliability. Olivia’s first game was a turgid procession of misplaced passes, wasted half-chances and a generally underwhelming surrender to a team who, for all their effort and recent form, are bottom of the league and heading for the Championship.
The Baggies required an unlikely series of results falling heavily in their favour to escape the effects of their Pardewing, and they played like a team fighting for their very last life. United couldn’t keep the ball, as Shelvey’s passing radar was off, Ritchie fell over a hell of a lot, and the recently stellar Dummett was consistently being caught out by the pacy Matt Phillips on the Albion right.
There were a few warning signs of West Brom’s counter attacking potential, with McClean going close when an awful Newcastle corner was cleared and Rodriguez just failing to connect properly from Phillips’ cross following a good burn off of Dummett. For our part, Gayle’s scuffed half-volley was the only effort of note, at least forcing Foster into a straightforward enough save.
There was an air of inevitability about the visitor’s goal, as sleepy United half-cleared a goal kick. Livermore’s pass found Phillips’ run and with Dummett occupying the now standard position in his slipstream, he smashed a strike with such venom I can only assume he imagined the ball was Pardew’s head before he hit it. Dubravka no chance, Olivia found herself puzzled by the muted grumbling around the place having seen her first ever goal.
The closing moments of the first half saw United’s best spell. Kenedy was put through by Perez one v one with the keeper. The chance seemed unmissable with Foster badly positioned but the Brazilian rushed his shot and found the outside of the post.
Diame blasted over when well placed and Lejeune’s thumping header from a corner was flicked goalward by Gayle, only for Foster to pull off a worldy of a save. I got that feeling it wasn’t going to be our day, sometimes you just know in your gut, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell that to the excited little girl next to me, who kept asking when Newcastle would be winning.
The second half was a stinker. Pre-match I had taken Olivia to the club shop to buy her a scarf, and she’d spotted the little toys of the players they have, me obligingly buying her a small likeness of Mo Diame and causing her to spend the whole game looking out for him, cheering him on and almost learning to pronounce his name correctly. This was lucky as Diame was once again busy and into everything as the game became a midfield scrap, possibly the only player of the recently resurgent to retain any of his previous form.
Perez, Shelvey and Ritchie have all starred in recent times and under delivered today, with the consistently excellent Dummett forcing Kenedy into emergency left-back duties when withdrawn for his trouble.
The game petered out into half chances and time wasting from West Brom, most notably Craig Dawson, who kept treating himself to lengthy sit downs on the field. Replays later showed the first incident of this kind was prompted by an unnecessary kick out by Slimani, whose loan spell may be effectively over if and when subsequent FA action kicks in.
With the clock running out, I experienced a massive surge of relief as Yedlin knocked over a wonderful floating cross and picked out his man, unmarked on the back post. Olivia’s first match would not be forever tainted by the sting of defeat, a miserable performance rescued by one moment of class from the American international as I prepared to jump up with my daughter in my arms and….. oh, Joselu’s missed it. He actually missed a disgracefully straightforward header from about two yards with no one near him and no pressure. Bit rubbish, really.
I have to worry about the prospect of Joselu, given that Slimani is obviously too expensive, Mitrovic is surely away and Gayle will have a price on his head again this summer. If anyone out there is thinking these defeats will make Mike Ashley rethink his investment strategy for the summer, then I’m sorry, but you haven’t been paying attention round here this past decade. For what it’s worth, results elsewhere rubber stamped our survival this season so any last remaining caution over summer strategies can be put aside, for all you can hope.
When you have small children though, you have to have hope for a better future. Olivia stayed interested until the end, although with minutes to go I had to break it to her that we were likely to lose the game. She promptly burst into tears, protesting “But daddy, I wanted Newcastle to win.” From the mouths of babes indeed, because don’t we all feel like that on some level on days like these?
In spite of the result, I still had one of the best days of my life in the company of my favourite little lady, at one of the most important places in our world. I hope there is a brighter future for her sake, and all the wide eyed little people watching the orange boots of their new favourite player in this exciting new environment. I need to keep the faith for this very reason.
If I can paraphrase a great man, what is a club in any case? Not the buildings or directors (definitely!) or the people who are paid to represent it.
Today for me it was about the small girl clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping her father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf.
It remains to be seen whether Olivia has fallen in love with NUFC. If some day you’re reading this sweetheart, and you have indeed taken that fall, please don’t hate me.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 0 West Brom 1
West Brom: Phillips 29
Possession was West Brom 36% Newcastle 64%
Total shots were West Brom 9 Newcastle 17
Shots on target were West Brom 2 Newcastle 2
Corners were West Brom 1 Newcastle 5
Referee: David Coote
Dubravka, Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Dummett (Murphy 58) Ritchie, Shelvey, Kenedy, Perez (Joselu 78), Gayle (Slimani 65)
Darlow, Manquillo, Clark, Hayden
Crowd: 52,283 (1,000 West Brom approx)
(To read the instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to today’s game – Go HERE)
(Darren Moore thought Newcastle got off lightly – Read it HERE)
(Brutal honesty from Rafa Benitez after the game – Read it HERE)
(Alan Shearer reaction to Newcastle defeat – Read it HERE)
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf