Defeat to Fulham leaves Newcastle praying for miracle
Newcastle United 0 Fulham 1
All this afternoon lacked was that underground voice that accompanies the trailers for Hollywood blockbusters. As the mood changed at St James' Park during another bewildering 90 minutes, the weather changed too.
As the blue sky at kick-off disappeared, and with it any blue-sky thinking, on came the clouds, straight from the Old Testament, mournful and brooding and loaded with a sharp, cold rain that may have contained acid. St James' became a temple of doom. It was dramatically, apocalyptically symbolic.
On the wet white line he can no longer cross stood Alan Shearer. He was drenched in disappointment. Newcastle had kicked off with their destiny at their own feet; by five o'clock it was in the hands of someone else. The club had seemed set to confirm Shearer's permanence; now the wait goes on.
To avoid relegation, all Newcastle had to do was to match Hull City's results over the last two games of the season. They have fallen at the first and now the onus is on Newcastle to recover, to draw at Aston Villa next Sunday, or win, and for Manchester United to send out a strong enough side to Hull to ensure Phil Brown's side do not get the victory that will condemn Newcastle regardless. Sunderland may yet be in the mix.
There will be much scrutiny of Sir Alex Ferguson's team at Hull. But this is not about Ferguson. It is about Newcastle, a club that beckons, seduces, then frustrates and sours. Newcastle sold out their allocation for Villa Park weeks ago. But for all the colour and noise Newcastle supporters will take with them to Birmingham, they will be accompanied by a team unworthy of mid-table mediocrity.
The explanation for that is long and will be deconstructed over this week and those that follow, but there was a glimpse at the roots of Newcastle's shambles in the No 18 shirt of Fulham on Saturday. Aaron Hughes is not a glamorous footballer. Hughes lacks the desire for celebrity that is prevalent elsewhere. He just gets on with the job and here that was subduing Mark Viduka. But for a second in the 50th minute, Hughes did that admirably and without fuss. You can see why Fulham value Hughes, why he has been selected 43 times by Roy Hodgson this season.
Newcastle know that value too late. Hughes made his Newcastle debut aged 17 against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. He went on to make almost 300 undemonstrative appearances over nine seasons before Graeme Souness sold him to Villa. Souness bought Jean-Alain Boumsong instead. At the time of Hughes' departure it was pointed out that Newcastle were not revelling in sensible, capable defenders to sell one cheaply. But there you go.
After Diomansy Kamara's 41st-minute winner illustrated afresh shocking Newcastle defending, and after the referee Howard Webb had disallowed Viduka's equaliser, Hughes was the only Newcastle player, present or former, to speak. He did not crow.
"I'm happy to have won the game, of course I am," Hughes said. "But I'm really sorry that things have turned out as they have. No disrespect to Aston Villa, or any other club, but I just hope Newcastle go there next week and get the result they need. I can't imagine that club in the Championship, the size of the stadium, those amazing fans."
But it does not require a vivid imagination to see Newcastle dropping. While Fulham were tight and neat, Newcastle were sloppy. Jonas Gutierrez has had a few bad games and this was another. Ditto Danny Guthrie, Kevin Nolan and Nicky Butt.
The talked-up central defence of Sébastien Bassong and Steven Taylor were split on Kamara's goal and Bassong was then dismissed for his pull and trip on Kamara on the hour. When Newcastle did manage to press, the Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer made telling saves from Obafemi Martins and Butt.
Shearer's feat in his 45 days in charge was to string together as many loose ends as possible. Here they unravelled again. This will be a long week on Tyneside, to seal a rambling season. Few foresee it ending happily.
Newcastle United (4-4-2) Harper; Beye, Taylor, Bassong, Duff; Guthrie (R Taylor 62) Butt, Nolan, Gutierrez (Lovernkrands 76); Martins, Viduka (Carroll 80) Substitutes not used: Krul (gk), Coloccini, Smith, Ameobi.
Fulham (4-4-2) Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Gera, Murphy, Etuhu, Dempsey; Nevland (Johnson 76) Kamara Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Baird, Kallio, Gray, Dacourt, Zamora.
Booked: Fulham Murphy, Nevland, Dempsey.
Sent off: Bassong (60).
Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).
Man of match: Hughes.