IT may have been 17 years since Chris Hughton hung up his boots, but the Newcastle United manager has lost none of the defensive instincts that saw him mix it with the very best during his days as an international-class left-back.
While a make and mend Newcastle back four shipped a couple of alarmingly soft goals to consign United to an early pre-season setback at Carrow Road, their manager was showing them how to shut up shop properly in the post-match Press conference.
Four times Hughton was asked about further recruitment plans immediately after the game, and four times he offered the straightest of bats to his inquisitors.
“How close are you to adding to your tally of two signings?” asked one.
“We know what the period is (to make additions). I have said all along we need to make additions to the squad and we know it will be a tough season and we need to add to the squad,” he replied.
Undeterred, a second attempt was made. “Without asking for specifics, how many players do you want to bring in?”
“It’s very much our decision at club and staff level. We need to bring in players in the right positions to strengthen the squad,” he said.
A third effort – this time to draw out the departments that he would like to add to – drew another stoic response.
“Well, that would also be telling. We do realise that to go through a tough season we need to add to the squad,” he said.
“So the strength of the squad as it stands would not be good enough?” a fourth questioner chipped in.
“We’re on the back of a good promotion season and the nucleus of the squad will be that squad; they deserve the opportunity,” Hughton countered. “But we know we need to add to it and we will.”
It is no criticism of Hughton that he plays his cards close to his chest. He is consistently polite and helpful with the media. But he believes that refusing to expand on transfers, Steven Taylor’s shoulder injury or anything much when it comes to recruitment gives him the best chance of making a breakthrough.
The Newcastle boss deserves the faith of his public after a stunningly successful first term – but the longer the shadow he draws over his transfer plans, the more that fretful fans will begin to worry.
We are far from the point of panic but Taylor’s likely eight-week absence means acquiring a ready-made Premier League hardened centre-back is more vital than ever. And given that they need to strike up a partnership with one of Fabricio Coloccini or Mike Williamson, time is of the essence on that front.
It was the back four that caused most concern during a useful 90 minutes at Norwich. The League One champions are no mugs and, perhaps chastened by their own midweek friendly setback – a defeat by Dagenham – they set about Newcastle from the off.
Striker Chris Martin bagged more than 20 goals last season and he gave a rusty Coloccini some awkward moments in the opening minutes before plundering his first goal on 39 minutes. Martin had already drawn a smart stop from Tim Krul and a clumsy foul from the Argentinian, before opening the scoring with a simple tap-in following some fine work by one-time Newcastle target Wes Hoolahan.
The visitors looked better in the second period for the introduction of a sharper Williamson, but conceded uncharacteristically when a right-wing Anthony McNamee cross was flicked home by Martin in the late stages.
That capped a disjointed defensive display – nothing less than you’d expect given the number of changes and the stationing of Wayne Routledge at right-back and 18-year-old right-back James Tavernier in the centre.
And while United will be much, much better and more cohesive by August 16, there is plenty of work to do before that trip to Old Trafford.
Of course, pre-season form doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes to the big kick off. Newcastle were not alone in slipping up against lower division opposition over the weekend – Aston Villa were beaten by a Bohemians reserve side, while Bolton were held by League One Rochdale.
Such defeats are a routine hazard of a period universally despised by football managers, who would probably prefer these glorified fitness exercises were played behind closed doors.
That way their players could ease themselves gradually into the season without anyone trying to read between the lines and work out what the next nine months holds.
Subdued was the best description for United and their 1,500 fans – although it is worth noting that there were a few positives to smuggle out of East Anglia.
Joey Barton looked lean and sharp and provided energy and invention from midfield during an even first half, while Tim Krul looks the ablest of deputies to the rested Steve Harper. One double save from Martin and Andrew Surman was top-drawer stuff.
José Enríque and Peter Løvenkrands looked in decent nick too, while Slovenian Haris Vuckic is worth hanging on to for next season.
But perhaps the most eye-catching display belonged to the often-derided Shola Ameobi, who made an immediate difference when he came on in the second period.
Having seen another homegrown striker, Andy Carroll, steal his thunder and the coveted number nine shirt, Ameobi offered a gentle reminder of his presence by notching a fine goal within a minute of entering the fray.
He received a Xisco pass before twisting past Elliott Ward and planting an emphatic drive past Jon Ruddy.
The worry with Ameobi is always that he will succumb to injury or a loss of confidence, but the early signs are good.
He was certainly part of an improved second-half effort, which saw Løvenkrands hit the bar with a late header and the lively Vuckic also go close.