A BAD week for favourites in the South West was about to get worse. A Newcastle United side missing its most prolific striker, its midfield insurance man and now Fabricio Coloccini’s first, second and third-choice central defensive partners was trailing 2-0 in going made treacherous by the pouring rain.
The Magpies were heading the way of so many well-fancied horses at the Cheltenham Festival earlier in the week.
Despite heading the field with something to spare, United have form for this. Antiquated Ashton Gate would only join Scunthorpe and Derby as venues where they had blown up against the odds.
But Chris Hughton’s side have trained on ever since February’s embarrassment at Pride Park.
Filled with the confidence built over their sprint to the final hurdle, they possess a resilience which had them threatening to push their noses in front when Saturday night’s finishing line came into view. “Newcastle United will never be defeated” has been a popular chant on the St James’ Park terraces this season.
Now the players look as though they believe it.
For those who regard expectation as a handicap, it had already been a bad day for Newcastle. The television companies – in what you could be forgiven for thinking was an attempt to level up this Championship race by destroying the morale and bank balances of the Magpies’ incredible support – had again held them back.
West Bromwich Albion and Nottingham Forest took full advantage with expected home victories. They had two games in hand but by the time the league leaders took to the field West Brom were breathing down their necks a point behind.
The champions-elect did, though, have two games in hand (now one). That cushion and one of only two unbeaten home records in English league football – Manchester City, since you ask – allows them to demolish teams at home and simply settle for not losing away.
A draw can be an uninspiring result, but the 1,000th in United’s history was worthy of the landmark.
Along with Bristol City, they conjured a hugely entertaining match for the television viewers.
And with Fitz Hall limping off with a hamstring early in the second half, his team 2-0 down, salvaging a point was every bit as satisfying for the 2,159 fans who trekked from North East to South West to watch it themselves, as a couple of idiots showed with a mini pitch invasion after Andy Carroll’s equaliser.
In the first half United’s passing was wayward against players always likely to be well motivated after losing their manager in midweek. Danny Haynes had twice threatened before Lewin Nyatanga gave the Robins a tenth-minute lead.
Struggling in the slippery conditions, Steve Harper could only knock Nicky Maynard’s fierce shot from a free-kick into the path of the former Sunderland yards out.
Newcastle had chances to equalise but never convinced and it was no great surprise when Maynard chased down former Newcastle trainee Bradley Orr’s long ball, cut in from the left and smashed a shot in off the far post. A minute later an excellent exchange of passes involving Kevin Nolan, Danny Guthrie and Carroll played Guthrie into a goalscoring position but he dallied long enough for two men to get onto the line, one of them – Paul Hartley – kneeing the ball to safety.
If that seemed like a “one of those days” moment, the restart gave little cause for optimism.
Thirty-five seconds had gone before Coloccini was booked and soon after Hall pulled up lame chasing a pass from the impressive Hartley. Hall’s replacement, Tamas Kadar, lifted the mood moments after coming on.
The Hungarian carried the ball from halfway to smash a shot at Dean Gerken. No one in yellow followed up the parry.
Switched to the right, the influence of Jonas Gutierrez grew as the game went on. Twice late on Bristol were panicked by free-kicks created by rash tackles from Maynard – the Robins’ only remaining centre-forward.
It was Gerken who gave Gutierrez his goal, though.
When the former Darlington goalkeeper threw the ball to Cole Skuse the left wing-back took his time, unaware he had the winger at his back.
Gutierrez raced in, stole the ball and rounded Gerken, prompting an excited celebration but no Spiderman mask. It was the only blot on an otherwise excellent display from Gerken, who denied Leon Best, Guthrie and Gutierrez in the last 15 minutes, but a decisive one.
Newcastle took heart, particularly those on the left. Jose Enrique pirouetted into space but shot over, and Carroll threatened to finish a move his excellent chest-down started, only for Gerken to cut out Nolan’s cross. A minute later when Wayne Routledge put the ball in from a similar position Carroll slid in to equalise.
As he sprinted to the corner, one of the handful of away fans running onto the pitch lost his footing and was pounced on by a steward.
While slip-ups may still pose a threat to some of Newcastle’s less mature supporters, their team looks increasingly sure-footed as they head for the winners’ enclosure.