HAVING tramped five times around the Hawthorns pitch dressed as an over-sized Throstle for Sport Relief, Adrian Chiles sounded glummer than usual.
“I thought after such a charitable act football might smile on the Albion,” said the celebrity fan at half-time. West Bromwich Albion’s only real misfortune was to run into Hatem Ben Arfa in such irresistible form.
As manager Alan Pardew pointed out afterwards, with their shallow squad Newcastle United have absolutely no business being sandwiched between Chelsea and Liverpool in a table just eight games from completion. But in the French playmaker they have an individual arguably more gifted than anyone their far richer rivals can call upon.
Thanks to Ben Arfa, a side missing Cheick Tiote, Steven and Ryan Taylor, Sammy Ameobi, Peter Lovenkrands and Sylvain Marveaux, and minus Fabricio Coloccini for the second half drew level on points with Chelsea. At this rate, even a Sunderland run to the FA Cup final might not stop them qualifying for Europe. Newcastle named the same team that beat Norwich City, but they were anything but unchanged. With James Perch moving to left-back in a 4-2-3-1 - another slap in the face for Davide Santon, the specialist held back until half-time - the team had a more solid feel. Yet within 12 minutes they led 2-0.
Their counter-attacking formation had become even better suited to the task in hand. The result was a vibrant, orange-shirted Newcastle a world away from their last outing here, which ended with Chris Hughton’s dismissal.
It was a day to make neutrals watching from their armchairs wonder why Ben Arfa had only started 11 games this season. See some of the others and you might understand, but brilliance such as this is surely worth risking the odd ineffective performance for. As legs are starting to tire on the Premier League treadmill, Ben Arfa is fresh and bright.
With the sun shining and a role tailored to him, it was a perfect day to play.
The only disappointment was that Pardew cut his virtuoso performance short 15 minutes early. He walked off having made the two goals he did not score, Papiss Cisse’s first away from St James’ Park.
With a much-needed away win to close out, it was time for the artist to make way for the artisans.
With Yohan Cabaye further up the field and Jonas Gutierrez picking passes from a central holding role, only Demba Ba was in a position he looked ill-suited to. The fluidity of the trio behind Cisse allowed him to make the most of it.
An excellent ball from Gutierrez freed Ben Arfa down the inside-left channel. He crossed for Cisse to tap in after six minutes.
The striker was a couple of yards behind the West Brom back four but crucially the ball too. His biggest problem was Ba diving across him in an attempt to meet the cross first.
The Frenchman was clearly in the mood, cutting in to a position left of centre, but chipping over. Soon he was at the heart of a lightning counter-attack.
Ben Arfa was a few yards outside his own area when the ball found him. He exchanged a one-two with Cabaye, then another with Ba before steadying himself to unleash a strike which left Ben Foster helpless.
West Brom showed some fight, Liam Ridgewell heading over at a corner, James Morrison catching a volley beautifully but placing it wide, and Gutierrez and Perch producing good defensive headers, the latter after Ridgewell beat Ben Arfa far too easily.
The visitors, though, looked lethal on the counter. Ba, on the right, touched the ball to Ben Arfa and sprinted outside him for a return. His beautiful backheel sent Ben Arfa to the byline and Cisse had time and space to pick his spot from the pull-back.
Having thrown away a three-goal lead to draw with the Baggies on the last day of last season, Newcastle could not afford to coast through the second half, particularly with half their recognised centre-backs in the dressing room injured. Morrison and Youssuf Mulumbu both tried their luck before Williamson ran into Tim Krul and presented Shane Long – a striker Newcastle tried to sign last summer – with an open goal from 12 yards.
Williamson and Perch looked a less-than-assured makeshift partnership, but the demoralised Baggies lacked the wherewithal to exploit it.
Before Long’s consolation Foster had denied Cisse a second Newcastle hat-trick. The goalkeeper also stopped Ben Arfa’s weaving run receiving the finale it deserved. When he went on another, the pass to Cisse was just over-hit.
With eight minutes to go (plus another seven for stoppages) West Brom were down to ten men as Morrison was carried down the tunnel with knee ligament damage.
There had been boos at half-time, an air of resignation at the final whistle. Luck had nothing to do with this result – it was all down to the brilliance of one man.