Newcastle United’s season has gone from headbutt to head scratcher.
Alan Pardew might have been miles away in a West London hotel suite as he paid his penance for the ugly altercation at Hull, but again the problems which have prevented this curious campaign from really taking off were clear to even absent observers as United’s craven record at the Cottage continued.
This is a team which has improved beyond recognition from last season’s sorry effort and that remains capable of playing stirring, sophisticated football.
Just 14 days ago they swatted aside Hull with a real swagger.
However – and there always seems to be a but this season – there remain nagging doubts which gnaw away about both the group and the club’s direction. They are questions which can only be ignored for so long.
If it was ever an ambition, Europe was kicked into touch down by the Thames.
Newcastle slipped to ninth, Everton won and a sixth place which might have been achievable pre-match now looks like a distant dream. So the prospect of next season begins to loom large in the black and white psyche.
That is where the anxities begin to creep in, for this is a team which lacks cutting edge without the rapier feet of Loic Remy.
Yet again on Saturday, they failed to find the net in a Premier League game in which he wasn’t involved – and given this was the sixth game that has happened, it is hardly a coincidence.
Luuk de Jong’s move will almost certainly be made permanent but again on Saturday he lacked conviction in front of goal. His interplay is neat enough and he will be a terrific foil for someone, but quite who that will be is still as hazy as the evening sun whch washed over Craven Cottage as the home fans celebrated their first win since New Year’s Day.
At the moment, Papiss Cisse is Newcastle’s only senior striker who will be under contract next season, yet some are ready to give up on him. Saturday was another frustrating case in point, the Senegalese missing two chances he might have snaffled when he was new to the Premier League.
The first was a brillaintly instinctive flick from Moussa Sissoko’s cross which required David Stockdale to make a wonderful fingertip save to keep the scores level. Notwithstanding the fact it was kept out, it was uplifting to see Cisse playing from memory again – hurling a boot at a fiendishly hit pass many forwards would have given up as a bad job. Then he went and spoiled it all by missing a gilt-edged one-on-one with Stockdale directly before Fulham’s decisive goal.
It was everything which makes you worry about Cisse’s suitability to shoulder Newcastle’s striking burden – given time and space, he took the wrong option and wasted United’s best opportunity of the match. He was replaced minutes afterwards looking crestfallen, probably aware he now heads into another crop of pressing questions about his black and white future.
It was interesting, therefore, to hear stand-in boss John Carver offer such a ringing endorsement of a player who requires more reassurances than most at the moment. He said: “He’s just has to get his head down and continue to work at it.
“It’s the easiest thing to say but he’s doing it. We don’t have a magic wand but he’s prepared to work at it.”
He will get a chance. United have no-one else remotely qualified to replace Remy, so needs must – not that the prospect unduly concerns Carver.
He added: “We know Loic’s out for two to three weeks and it’s an opportunity. We don’t have too many strikers in the club - just Luuk, Loic, Shola and young Adam. We haveto stay with it and try and build him up for the next home game.”
Whither Hatem Ben Arfa? The official line was a family emergency had kept him from West London but those close to the club speak of a player disillusioned and cut adrift.
It sounds suspiciously like the player has given up, following a familiar pattern to his Marseille days.
The inevitable question will be whether Ben Arfa’s talents have been wasted by his handling at St James’ Park, but the player has to take the initiative too.
He was tailor-made for a game like this but a teenager from the West End of Newcastle is closer to the first team picture than him at the moment. A mutual parting of the ways seems inevitable – and it might get messy.
It is a shame, because if there is one thing United lacked on Saturday it was flair.
They are a fully functional unit – some step up from last season – but on days like this they like width and spark. The Yohan Cabaye creativity void remains a gaping one.
It says it all Paul Dummett, who played well at left-back, is now on set piece duty.
The Wales international has a bright future at St James’ Park but corners and free-kicks are a huge part of a Premier League team’s armoury and his delivery was not good enough on Saturday.
Carver agreed: “We need to spend a bit more time on the training ground this week.”
For all the disappointment, Newcastle deserved to take something from this game. Howard Webb should have awarded a stoppage-time penalty when Brade Hangeland’s arm was clearly struck in the penalty area when Tim Krul hit a volley.
It wasn’t his only mistake. When Fulham broke after Cisse’s miss, there was a foul on Luuk de Jong – but the ball was worked to Ashkan Dejagah, who cut inside to fire past Krul.