EVEN in the euphoria of a derby demolition of Sunderland and a magnificently unexpected victory at Arsenal, we were warned there would be bad times ahead for Newcastle United this season – and we can only pray there are not going to be any worse than this.
Blackburn Rovers came to defend and came away with a victory. Their winning goal came against the run of play, although in truth, that would be exaggerating Newcastle’s attacking threat.
Having equalised through Andy Carroll’s second-half header, United never came close to exerting concerted pressure on the visitors’ goal before Jason Roberts charged through the middle of their defence to steal all three points.
This was comfortably the Magpies’ worst performance of the season and there is nothing like a home defeat against a side managed by Sam Allardyce to douse the fires of optimism which have been burning on Tyneside since that 5-1 thrashing of their local rivals.
Newcastle remain in a far better position than we might have expected at this stage of the season.
However, their home form is becoming a real worry – not least because they are failing to beat the teams who are likely to be fighting for their lives at the bottom end of the table.
The Magpies are not back down there yet, but they must realise they cannot afford to have so many players under-perform over 90 minutes – and Cheik Tioté was just one of them.
If there is one criticism of United’s otherwise impressive new signing it is his propensity to dwell on the ball for too long in potentially dangerous positions.
They have been warning signs which have not been heeded and, after lucky escapes against Sunderland and Wigan, Tioté was punished in quite devastating fashion.
The Ivory Coast international’s quick feet are generally good enough to get him out of trouble but, as he tried to be too clever inside his own area, Brett Emerton pressured him, forced the mistake and stole possession.
Newcastle’s defence, having expected Tioté to smash the ball clear, was all over the place and when Emerton found Morten Gamst Pedersen all he had to do was find the bottom corner with a shot which gave Tim Krul no chance.
With just two minutes gone, the early goal played into Allardyce’s hands.
A slender advantage could be protected with a mass of defenders, suffocating Newcastle’s attacking endeavour and hoping to grab another with a set-piece or a breakaway.
It is the Allardyce formula and for the rest of the first half it worked perfectly.
If Newcastle were all energy and cohesion against Sunderland and Arsenal, they were lethargic and sloppy last night.
If every Newcastle player had done his job superbly in those monumental victories, very few of them managed to reach an acceptable level of performance as the frustration inside St James’ Park grew.
Rovers’ five-man defence easily dealt with Carroll by letting two of the centre-backs drop off in case he won a header, out-numbering Shola Ameobi and pushing him out of the game.
The one time he did get in behind the defence on the stroke of half-time, Ameobi had already drifted into an offside position before slicing the ball high over the bar.
Jose Enrique had a shot deflected wide for a corner and Kevin Nolan’s hurried effort from the edge of the area flew over the bar, but Newcastle were not playing well and Blackburn looked comfortable.
Indeed, they might have doubled their lead had Mike Williamson not got back to make a covering tackle on Nikola Kalinic although, to be fair to the United defence, Rovers’ only threat - as is the Allardyce way - came from set-pieces after that.
Newcastle needed a spark to ignite them and again it was Carroll who provided it.
There is nothing in the Newcastle number nine which is likely to take Premier League defenders by surprise, but even when you know what is coming that does not mean you can stop it.
It is a measure of the player he is growing into that, when he was given a sniff of a chance, Carroll gobbled it up.
Having struggled to get an inch of free-space in the first half, Christopher Samba went to sleep and gave him two feet.
Joey Barton did the rest, his pinpoint free-kick landing almost perfectly on Carroll’s head as he guided it into the top corner.
Allardyce will have been fuming with his centre-back, although the equaliser was quickly forgotten thanks to Barton’s short fuse.
As David Hoilett was being booked for a blatant dive in the area, Barton shared a few words with Pedersen before appearing to punch him in the rib cage.
Pedersen fell to the ground as Barton walked away, although referee Mike Jones clearly did not see the incident - which means there is the possibility of a retrospective punishment by the Football Association if they deem it necessary - and when he did eventually pull the two players together Barton insisted he had merely shoved Pedersen.
The row between them might have turned ugly, but the tension disappeared as the game lost its fluency and its edge.
Newcastle should have built on their equaliser but, even with Nile Ranger on for the struggling Ameobi, the Magpies lacked any real attacking threat.
When they did get into promising positions a poor final ball let them down, Ranger springing the offside trap to run on to Jonas Gutierrez’s through ball – only to completely over hit his cross as Carroll attacked the near post.
Blackburn, with Allardyce always happy to take an away point, rarely ventured forward, again relying on set-pieces to try and grab a winner.
Newcastle were disjointed, but still looked the more likely winners.
Appearances, however, are so often deceptive – and when Jason Roberts leapt into and above Williamson as he hunted a long hopeful ball the striker had the power to run on to his own header and slot past Krul. Route one, against the run of play, Allardyce will have loved it!