Time marches relentlessly on. Three years ago, Damien Duff was kissing a Premier League medal for Chelsea. Two years ago, Scott Carson was (briefly) England’s first choice goalkeeper. This time last year, West Bromwich Albion against Newcastle United was a Premier League match. The two clubs couldn’t have finished last season in a much more different fashion. West Bromwich Albion, marooned at the foot of the table through those long, winter months, found an unexpected burst of energy with a few weeks left and, even though they suffered the twin hiccups of relegation and losing their manager, they seemed to treat both of these events as if they are part of life’s natural cycle. Sunrise, sunset. Promotion, relegation. Tony Mowbray leaves, Roberto di Matteo replaces him.
For Newcastle United, this has been a summer of predictably unrelenting chaos. The Barry Moat take-over is starting to give the impression of having stalled (leading one to believe that the approach has at least reached the stage of due diligence), Alan Shearer spent the summer waiting by his telephone for a call that never came, some – though not all – of the masive wage-earners left and no-one replaced them. The contrast couldn’t be much starker, and it gives some of indication while West Bromwich Albion start the season with plenty of admirers and supporters optimistic for a quick return for the Premier League, while Newcastle United start the season with the pallor and thousand yard stare of a death row inmate.
On the pitch, however, the reality is somewhat different. West Bromwich Albion start the brighter of the two sides, at least in terms of their play – Newcastle’s “Solero”/”Bananas In Pyjamas”/Custard Cream away kit guarantees that they will be brightest side in a very literal sense every time they wear it – and it’s clear that Di Matteo has had no great intention of changing the neat and tidy passing style that has won Albion so many admirers over the last couple of years or so. On eight minutes, a free-kick from the left leaves the Newcastle defence like the statues at Easter Island, but defender Shelton Martis puts the ball high and wide while, behind the goal, several thousand Newcastle hearts leap into their owners’ throats.
Six minutes from half-time, West Bromwich Albion score, and it’s the sort of low comedy goal for which Newcastle’s defence has become renowned. A free-kick from the left hand side sees Steve Harper come from his goal and flap like a chicken trying to fly, the ball drops, bounces off someone’s backside and into the path of Shelton Martis, who rolls the ball over the line as Shola Ameobi kicks the now-christened “hapless” Harper in the face. Harper receives almost five minutes’ worth of attention, before struggling on to half-time with a look on his face reminiscent of someone that has just awoken after having been asleep for a few days. Half-time comes with West Bromwich Albion leading by the only goal.
To the delight of sub-editors the length and breadth of the nation, Harper is replaced at half-time by Tim Krul. Krul to be kind. Krul-ty to animals. Please sir, can I have some more Krul? The list is endless. He is possibly the first goalkeeper to sound as if he is named after a supervillain’s home planet. A quick Google returns only Kaox Krul, a bit part player in a long lost Star Wars comic. Perhaps they’re related. It’s his Newcastle debut, and one starts to wonder whether Chris Hughton has simply been looking in the opposite direction to Krul every time they’ve had a training session together. Nine minutes into the second half, Newcastle level things up when Kevin Nolan finds Damien Duff on the right hand side, and Duff scores from an angle.
Hughton, who has now perfected the hang dog expression of the caretaker manager and is also starting to look like he might actually be Rio Ferdinand’s dad, starts to cheer up, but Newcastle’s defence is being repeatedly let out of jail by the debutee goalkeeper, who manages five or six excellent saves. As the match ticks over into injury time, though, there is a moment of drama. A West Bromwich Albion free kick from the left hand side sees Krul, whose head is possibly swimming from his erstwhile performance, come too far from his line, but Jonas Olsson’s far post header is ruled out by a mysterious flag from the linesman. The full-time whistle blows a few seconds later, and Newcastle United have a draw. They weren’t as chaotic as some thought they might be, but they hardly looked like promotion material either. It’s a tentative step in the right direction.
West Bromwich Albion, on the other hand, will feel as if this is two points dropped rather than one pont gained. These two clubs, which entered the Premier League in such differing states of mind, may yet find themselves tussling for a place back amongst the elite next spring. It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but Newcastle supporters can at least draw some solace from the fact that the limited abilities of strikers in the Championship may limit the misadventures of their defenders, but some of their supporters’ bullish talk of being promoted back by March seems, on this evidence, to be a little wide of the mark. West Bromwich Albion, crisp and precise at times, direct at others, looked a marginally more balanced team this evening, but even this statement is somewhat more than some may have been predicting for Newcastle before the match.