THREE quarters of the way into a game fully deserving its last-on-Match of the Day billing, one backseat manager had clearly had enough. “You’ve got subs you know!” he implored Chris Hughton.
Had Hughton taken the hint and turned around what would he have found? Steven Taylor, a centre-back yet to play first-team football after injury this season; veteran defender Sol Campbell; Alan Smith, a holding midfielder who has never scored for Newcastle.
All three would have been ideal for closing out a game, but the Magpies were chasing. Long since written off, Xisco was only on the bench for the third time this season. Wayne Routledge offers frightening pace, but has not put it to good use this season. Nile Ranger’s talent is still to make its mark on the Premier League.
Two long months before the transfer window opens – an opportunity Hughton says he has no intention of using – the cupboard is pretty bare.
Without Hatem Ben Arfa or the suspended Joey Barton there is not the guile to prise open teams determined to avoid defeat as the last two visitors to St James’. There is a Plan A and a B, but not the C and D needed in the Premier League, nor the depth for three games in a week.
With Cheik Tioté joining Barton on the naughty step for Saturday’s trip to surprise package Bolton Wanderers, things could get worse before they get better. Defensively, Newcastle are fine. For the second weekend running Tim Krul claimed a clean sheet with some impressive shot-stopping. If the Dutchman can sharpen up his work on crosses, he has a bright future.
Since his last season of top-flight football, Fabricio Coloccini has gone from Colo the Clown to Colo the Classy, his brilliance camouflaging the assuredness of the quiet man alongside him, Mike Williamson. Danny Simpson has plugged the problematic hole at right-back so effectively and quickly since returning from injury he is now on the fringes of the England squad. José Enrique continues to impress.
Tioté mixed the sublime with the ridiculous on guard in front of them, but Alan Smith does not play in the same Duracell bunny-style and therein lies a potential problem when the Ivorian pays for his fifth booking this season. Kevin Nolan has made an impressive start to the season, but plays best when he can concentrate on making runs into the box without having to waste energy putting out midfield fires, as he did on Saturday.
Danny Guthrie put two of Newcastle’s best crosses in against Fulham, but yearns for the centre. Jonás Gutiérrez has the opposite problem, always offering an outlet on the wing, not always delivering. With no trustworthy alternative, he needs to be on the pitch regardless.
Andy Carroll was excellent up front, showcasing his ability on the deck against Brede Hangeland, an old-fashioned centre-back who enjoys an aerial duel. Alongside Carroll, Peter Løvenkrands looked like a man who has not convinced himself, let alone anyone else, that he can play in the Premier League.
Without an away league win since the first day of last season, and with only ten in the last six campaigns, Fulham ought to have been the softest of soft touches.
But Newcastle’s form has not been reliable and Fulham are managed by Mark Hughes, who does not do soft. The Cottagers’ away strip is Harrod’s green, but their combative display was more worthy of khaki.
Both teams had their moments but they were sporadic. Moussa Dembélé, initially reinforcing the midfield but pushed forward to join Andrew Johnson as his team grew in confidence, rattled the bar with 20 minutes left. Krul made three good saves around the half-hour.
Former Middlesbrough goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer caught the eye in the second half but needed help from Nolan in the first. Carroll’s shot struck his landlord before Schwarzer saved Løvenkrands’ follow-up. Had Damien Duff not headed off the line, Carroll might have scored when he was trying to knock Simpson’s deep cross back in to play.
The most telling moment came five minutes from time, when Gutiérrez worked his way down the left and picked out the centre-forward. Had it been Carroll lying in wait, Newcastle might have had only their third home win of the season but the ball got stuck in Ranger’s feet and the chance went begging.
On the surface, it has been a good start for United. Scratch beneath it and there is work to be done.