NEWCASTLE United served up another Christmas turkey to leave Alan Pardew under no illusions about the size of the task facing him in 2011.
It has been a year of living excitingly, dynamically and dangerously at St James’ Park but with this festive flop against the ten men of Tottenham it ended in somewhat familiar territory.
Not since 2002 and the days of Sir Bobby Robson’s Brat Pack have Newcastle toasted a victory in one of their pair of post-Christmas fixtures and in truth they never looked like ending that barren run against a Spurs side that proved far too wily for them – even when they were playing with ten men for nearly half an hour.
For while there was effort and endeavour aplenty in this honest display, it was nigh on impossible to escape the conclusion that United look depressingly limited in comparison to a side with the free-wheeling swagger of Tottenham.
That is not to say Pardew was disgraced by his side at White Hart Lane.
They will not be the first team twisted inside out by Gareth Bale and their counter-attacking game plan appeared effective for parts of this feisty contest.
Indeed, a United side shorn of their best defender and midfield talisman threw a blanket over Tottenham for 45 encouraging minutes, frustrating a side of Champions League pedigree with a resolute rearguard effort.
But when the time came to grab the game by the scruff of its neck after Younes Kaboul’s moment of madness it was Tottenham who prompted and pressed while Pardew’s side backed off in strangely submissive style.
Presumably this disappointing festive repeat will only strengthen the new manager’s resolve when the transfer window swings open this weekend.
United have talked of limited recruitment on a budget tighter than your average post-Christmas waistband but the dearth of options below their recognised performers was laid bare in this corner of North London.
Kevin Nolan’s suspension meant an overhaul of sorts for Pardew, who brought Alan Smith back to strengthen a five-man midfield that sat deep with the intention of strangling Tottenham’s supply line.
Joey Barton was pushed into a more advanced role while Jose Enrique’s sore hamstring also meant James Perch returned to the starting line-up to do battle with Aaron Lennon.
And to be fair to both, they acquitted themselves with distinction considering their lack of playing time recently.
But in truth, the paucity of proven Premier League performers on the bench told you everything you needed to know about the options available to Pardew.
While Harry Redknapp could call on five internationals in reserve, Newcastle’s four striking understudies have mustered only two top flight goals between them in their careers.
Only substantial investment from Mike Ashley over the next 31 days will remedy that in 2011.
Most pressingly they require a partner for Andy Carroll – bustling and busy but anonymous as an attacking force here – and a recognised winger capable of bringing invention and craft to their midfield.
Sadly Wayne Routledge failed to build on the advances of Boxing Day, nullified by assured left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
Not that Newcastle, cautious of an expansive Tottenham, did much in the way of offensive work over the first 45 minutes.
Instead they concentrated on the attacking basics and it was an encouraging sight when Perch executed a perfectly timed sliding challenge to stop Lennon at full gallop in the opening exchanges.
Having last been sighted being torn apart by Theo Walcott, the former Forest man needed the fillip and it was a fine first touch that typified a solid performance. That confidence seemed to transfer to the rest of the team too, with United digging in to stifle a subdued Spurs – who were forced to wait until the quarter hour mark for their first sight of goal.
Even then it was a speculative Roman Pavlyuchenko half volley easily clasped to his chest by Tim Krul.
United responded with a half chance of their own, Jonas Gutierrez curling an inviting cross that was met with a looping header by Carroll that landed on the top of the net.
The hosts looked the more dangerous – Smith needed to be at full stretch to stop Bale while Krul palmed a Rafael van der Vaart free-kick over – but Newcastle were doing an effective containing job. And when United’s Dutch goalkeeper pulled off a tremendous point blank save from Pavlyuchenko’s header on the stroke of half-time, you began to wonder whether their game plan might have sucked the venom out of the home side.
If only. Tottenham began the second period by stepping through the gears and just before the hour they claimed the lead, Lennon bursting into the box and blasting past Krul to send White Hart Lane into raptures.
Replays showed it took a decisive deflection off Perch – a cruel denouement for a player who had put up such doughty resistance.
Still there was a twist in the tale to offer United’s travelling support some hope. Cheik Tiote had been an effervescent presence throughout and a wound-up Kaboul – already on a yellow card – butted him after one particularly meaty touchline challenge.
Referee Anthony Taylor had no choice but to send him off but United pressure was not forthcoming.
Instead it was Bale, so scintillating throughout 2010, who killed off the tie with a thrilling run and angled drive past Krul in the closing stages.
Pardew will not be prodding the panic button just yet but dumped back in the bottom half and just four points off the drop zone, now is not the time for black and white complacency.
We must hope that message is being received in the boardroom.