THE last day of the season drama and heartbreak were mercifully elsewhere in terms of relegation, but Newcastle United's self-destruction against West Bromwich Albion did far more damage than battered pride.
A 3-2 win would have lifted the Magpies above yesterday’s opponents, secured a ninth place finish and an extra £2.5m – a top quality international player’s wages for a season – in prize money.
It would also, in the ferocious tussle for North East bragging rights, ensured they finished above Sunderland on their return to the top flight.
Instead, Somen Tchoyi’s diving header in the final minute of the match, completing a remarkable hat-trick and an amazing WBA comeback, led to a brief smattering of boos at the final whistle. More importantly than that, it means Newcastle have suffered defeat in the battle for regional supremacy, gifting Steve Bruce’s side the top-ten finish they craved at the start of an enthralling campaign.
Newcastle took four points off their local rivals and hammered them 5-1 at St James’ Park, yet the Black Cats still managed to end the season looking down on them. Talk about a sting in the tail. Cruising with a three-goal lead two minutes into the second half when Jonas Olsson guided Jose Enrique’s cross into his own net, Newcastle switched off and imploded.
Having fought back famously from four goals down to Arsenal back in February, it was Newcastle’s turn to suffer the consequences of complacency.
Sadly, it left a bitter taste at the end of an otherwise sweet tasting season for a club tipped to battle against the drop this term, and nobody should be too hard on the players.
They have never been in the bottom three, they lost their star striker in the January transfer window and still did not fall down the table. That is an achievement worthy of praise, whatever the disappointments of their collapse here. Newcastle were rampant in the first half, taking the lead through Steven Taylor’s close-range finish after the centre-back cleared off the line from Marc-Antoine Fortune.
That got Enrique out of jail.The modern full-back may have to be able to offer something going forward, but the main priority of any full-back has to be the ability to defend, which remains a flaw in the Spaniard’s game.
Superb bursting down the left flank, he has been a potent force supplementing United’s forays down that side of the pitch with Jonas Gutierrez.
But when it comes to protecting his own goal, the 25-year-old still has improvements to make.
Repeat the same sort of blunders for the top-six side he aspires to join this summer and he will not find his new public as forgiving as they have been on Tyneside.
Too often he gives the ball away on the edge of his own area, and too often he is caught out of position by a top-class winger.
He was extremely lucky that Taylor – he also cleared another from an almost identical position in the second half – was on the line to clear Fortune’s shot with the score at 0-0, having lost the ball inside his own area to Chris Brunt who had set up the chance.
It was not the first blunder of this type he has made in a black and white shirt.
The Spaniard has been playing a blatant stalling game over the last few weeks, initially saying he wanted to wait until Newcastle were safe before discussing a new contract, and then continuing to refuse any meetings once they were.
He wants to leave, but does not have the courage or the conviction to say so.
It would be foolish to argue Enrique will not be missed. He is a fine player and vital to the way Newcastle play.
But if he does, as expected, depart in the coming months, his game may well unravel at a club where he is just a new face.
Nobody can blame him for seeking a bigger challenge or wanting to play in Europe in a bid to raise his profile in his native Spain, but the grass is not always greener elsewhere.
Newcastle will lose a fantastic player if Enrique leave, but he might just live to regret leaving a fantastic football club where he adored, regardless of his faults.
Newcastle extended their lead through Peter Lovenkrands, a powerful shot tipped into the air by Scott Carson, only to loop over his head and into the goal.
The Baggies keeper did rather better to keep out two powerful strikes from Danny Guthrie before half-time, but Newcastle appeared to have wrapped up the win early in the second half when Olsson sliced in to his own net.
But Tchoyi had other ideas, springing the offside trap to pull one back before lashing a vicious shot into the roof of Tim Krul’s net as the Newcastle defence stood off him.
Still Newcastle, who had chances to extend their lead before the fightback, seemed to have weathered the storm, only for WBA to land one final, painful punch, Olsson crossing to Tchoyi to complete the fightback, sneaking in behind, you guessed it, Enrique.