These are surreal and confusing days at St James’ Park, so it was somehow appropriate that Newcastle United ended their summer’s work with a final flurry of the far-fetched.
How else to explain this bizarre draw with Braga, which was bookmarked with one-time St James’ scoundrel Loic Remy being acclaimed a hero and players named Alan and Pardo combining to give Newcastle’s manager a pre-season headache? There was even a goal from a corner, United’s first for over a year.
It was that sort of day as football returned to Tyneside after three turbulent months. Few could have guessed as they traipsed out of the stadium after that dispiriting defeat to Arsenal that when they returned Joe Kinnear would be peering down from the directors’ box, yet here he was, back on the ground where his mediocre record as manager seems to have dazzled Mike Ashley into believing he is some sort of footballing demi-god.
Kinnear’s presence was a reminder that, however much the dust might have settled since his explosive return, there remains something deeply volatile about the situation at St James’ Park. Consensus has been found for the moment, but the suspicion is that it won’t take much for the whole House of Cards to collapse.
Rï¿½my’s arrival placated some although it will take more – much more – to convince the doubters that a deal on the table months before Kinnear arrived is proof that he is suitably qualified for his grand director of football title.
His presence wasn’t exactly sinister, but it was unsettling – just as it was that Rï¿½my’s arrival was acclaimed by a press release full of Kinnear’s quotes and a picture of the man with his arm wrapped around the striker. Shouldn’t that be the manager’s job?
With the big kick-off on the horizon, those concerns have been shelved and to be fair, the mood didn’t feel particularly rebellious on Saturday. Granted, there was a brief medley of anti-Kinnear songs half-way through the second half but the atmosphere among the 16,000-or-so who made it to the game was boisterous and celebratory, the latter a reflection on this being the first ever Sir Bobby Robson Football Day.
United, once again, did the man and his Foundation proud with a slew of nice fund-raising touches – including donning a smart half and half kit that will be auctioned off to raise money for Sir Bobby’s wonderful cancer charity. Whatever brickbats may be aimed at the club, their support for that cause remains a touching and reassuring reminder that there are plenty of people involved at Newcastle who respect its traditions and public.
On the field, United’s natty black and white kit was an appropriate metaphor for an evening of two halves. At times, Newcastle were smart moving forward but on other occasions you wondered whether they had really improved from the struggling team of last season. The conclusion was inconclusive.
The suspicion is that creating chances remains Newcastle’s problem. Papiss Cissï¿½’s clash with the United hierarchy over their Wonga sponsorship deal might have been kicked into the long grass but the striker cut a lonely and forlorn figure at times on Saturday. He barely seemed to touch the ball for long periods and seemed isolated. What he needs is a strike partner capable of playing to his strengths, which is hopefully a point noted by Newcastle’s over-arching transfer supremo Kinnear.
The appearance of Yohan Cabaye in the second half certainly helped. The vibes surrounding the France midfielder still seem uncertain but Pardew hailing him as “one of the best players in the world” felt like an attempt to boost his confidence after a difficult summer. How Newcastle need him. It is too early to make snap judgements but the midfield mix felt a bit off-colour without him in there and Cheick Tiotï¿½ gave another performance of un-channelled energy. United are desperate for someone who can put their foot on the ball.
A first half which ended in dispiriting fashion began well. Hatem Ben Arfa remains United’s man most likely to and he threaded through the Braga defence in the opening seconds before angling a cross into the path of Fabricio Coloccini, who drove just wide of Eduardo’s goal with a side-footed effort.
Braga’s response was through Luiz Carlos, who blazed over Rob Elliot’s bar from 20 yards out before Cissï¿½’s only meaningful chance. It was typical Cissï¿½, twisting in the box instinctively before seeing Eduardo respond acrobatically to parry the shot away from danger.
Just before half-time, Braga broke the deadlock and there was a worrying recurrence of a familiar theme. The danger was minimal as Felipe Pardo shimmied in the box but Mathieu Debuchy – who made a series of similar mis-steps last season – tripped the forward as he tried to advance past him. Lee Mason had little hesitation in pointing to the spot and Alan rolled the ball past Elliot to hand the visitors the lead.
Newcastle were brighter in the second half, clearly benefiting from Cabaye’s creative presence. Ben Arfa’s trickery teed up Shola Ameobi on 57 minutes but the team went one better on the hour.
Encouragingly, it came from a corner. Ben Arfa swung in a fizzing cross and Coloccini, peeling off a bunch of pack of black and white shirts, nodded into the net. United’s dead balls were a cause for concern last season, so the sight of a well-worked corner was satisfying.
There was little else to shout about. Jonï¿½s Gutiï¿½rrez sustained an injury that might rule him out of Manchester City while Coloccini was lucky to escape when he hauled back Yazalde. Sub Yoan Gouffran, saw a goal ruled out for offside.
It was difficult to draw too much from it. As with everything else at St James’ Park, we wait and see.