WRITING his pre-match programme notes, even Newcastle United’s manager admitted in the grander scheme of things this was a nothing match, and on paper, 1-1 at home to Bolton Wanderers was a nothing result.
The game was pleasing on the eye but, relegated to last on Match of the Day, a bit of a comedown from the excitement of the last match at St James’ Park. Nevertheless, the manner of a hard-earned point suggested that 12 games in, Project Pardew is proceeding steadily.
Since the 4-4 draw with Arsenal, Newcastle have ground out three results as unglamorous as their opposition. Saturday’s was another.
Hard though it may be for some to accept, Bolton are an established Premier League side, Newcastle are not. The 5-1 hiding at the Reebok Stadium which went a long way to parachuting Alan Pardew into the St James’ dugout was a reminder that these Trotters are no plonkers, so holding them to a draw when a man down for 36 minutes is no mean feat.
It owed a lot to Pardew’s tactics. Most Newcastle fans were distinctly underwhelmed when they found out that instead of replacing Chris Hughton with a new Messiah, Mike Ashley had plumped for a man out of work since being shown the door by League One Southampton.
But if he can continue the team’s current rate of progress, perhaps the Londoner can win over the Gallowgate realists as Hughton eventually did.
When Ryan Taylor went chasing his own first touch, it was not just Johan Elmander he hurt. The red card Chris Foy gave the Merseysider on his first Premier League start this season looked to have done more damage to Newcastle than Taylor did to the Swede’s legs.
Having scored the goal they had been no more than hinting at late in the first half, Bolton seemed to be getting a foothold in the second. Taylor’s dismissal only made it feel more secure. Playing with ten men is not always the disadvantage it appears, but the Magpies were unwilling to unfurl a blanket defence and Owen Coyle’s team played the sort of passing football well suited to exploiting numerical superiority.
So Pardew changed things. Off came the lively Peter Løvenkrands and Jonás Gutiérrez – a man able to supply the extra energy needed to cover Taylor’s absence. On came Nile Ranger and Steven Taylor as the Magpies went 3-4-2.
Suddenly they looked the more likely again. Taylor was soon overlapping down the right, and although Kevin Nolan cleared off the line from Martin Petrov, most of the action was at the other end.
Nolan was unable to work Jussi Jääskeläinen in the 86th minute, spooning over, but one of the Finn’s current team-mates soon did, Paul Robinson’s chested pass from Leon Best’s cross hovering dangerously over his own goalline before the goalkeeper grasped it. Ranger did put the ball in the net in injury time, but had been unable to stay onside while he waited for the twisting and turning José Enrique to deliver. Two points missed, then, but not dropped.
It would be a day of nearlys for Newcastle. Although Gary Cahill took just 55 seconds to work Steve Harper, backheeling Stuart Holden’s corner at him, the hosts quickly took hold.
The inch height advantage held by Ranger might have been enough for Løvenkrands to connect with crosses from Danny Simpson and Enrique. When Best instead got to the second, David Wheater’s backside got in the way. Marcos Alonso threw himself in the way as Ryan Taylor threatened to give a good move the finish it deserved.
Unable to capitalise on a good advantage for Fabrice Muamba’s obstruction of Ryan Taylor, Best was foiled by more good officiating later. When he was pushed in the penalty area by Robinson after excellent passes from Fabricio Coloccini then Nolan, Foy whistled for offside, not a spot kick.
The hosts had taken the lead, by then, however. Bolton looked to have escaped when Jääskeläinen brilliantly saved from Løvenkrands, Ryan Taylor woefully overhitting the corner. Chieck Tioté, his right hand heavily bandaged (hope that’s not his contract-signing hand) had a disappointing day at the office, but his cross was perfect for Nolan to head his 50th Premier League goal.
Fortunate not to be punished for surrendering possession on the centre spot at 0-0, Tioté pushed his luck once too often. Elmander and Daniel Sturridge were showing increasing signs of understanding as the first half wore on, the former producing a good shot on the turn from the latter’s pass. Unwittingly picked out by Tioté, Elmander repaid the favour for Sturridge to neatly slot a fourth goal in as many Bolton games.
It could have been the platform for a win which would have put Bolton level on points with Liverpool, but it came to sweet nothing.