NEWCASTLE United inhabit a crazy world of their own, but last week it was more like a parallel universe.
In a seven-day period which started with a shock 6-0 win and ended in sympathy for Joey Barton, it was a 1-1 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers which most inspired confidence.
Three games into a 38-match campaign is no time to be rushing to conclusions, but the international break provides a pause for reflection, and Newcastle can be pleased with their early work. Thrashing Aston Villa at St James’ Park was all very nice thank you, but a team that appeared to throw the towel in as soon as Newcastle landed a couple of telling blows did not provide a proper test of mettle. On Saturday, by contrast, United went toe-to-toe for the full 12 rounds in the back yard of their belligerent neighbours as Wolves tried desperately to intimidate their opponents and failed. Steel was the quality most conspicuous by its absence when Newcastle meekly left the Premier League. Now it is infused throughout the team, hopefully to be complemented by the finesse of Hatem Ben Arfa, whose arrival on a season-long was announced earlier in the day.
Saturday’s was a game reminiscent of the era Chris Hughton and Mick McCarthy played in – helter-skelter, direct, physical football high on excitement, low on quality.
Newcastle’s moves started mainly from Andy Carroll’s head, Wolves’ only real period of dominance came in a second quarter when Jelle van Damme was switched to the right of midfield to beat Jose Enrique to their long balls. From the 90th second when Karl Henry thundered into Barton, it was clear this was going to be a midfield battle in its truest sense.
Like Barton, referee Stuart Attwell is constantly fighting his past. A week earlier Ashington’s Michael Oliver took his record as the Premier League’s youngest referee but his status as its most hapless looks pretty secure on this showing. He was not helped by the physical approach taken mainly but by no means exclusively by the home team but nor did he help himself.
Hughton wisely declined to play the sympathy card after the game, while those in the eye of the storm – Barton, Carroll and Alan Smith – hid from the Press in a way they refused to on the pitch. But if it was obvious from the stands Barton was being victimised in the hope of an explosive reaction, it should have been even more so from Attwell’s close view. His refusal to reach for his cards after Henry’s hello saw Wolves players form an orderly queue to whack Barton, a queue the captain jumped a few times. How it took Henry 85 minutes to make it into the notebook was a mystery.
Attwell gave free-kicks aplenty – 47 in all, 11 for first-half Wolves fouls – but did not dip into his pocket until the 22nd minute. By then it was too late. Once the dam burst in the second half cards came in a flurry - 12 shown in all, four for tackles on Barton. By the final ten minutes every challenge seemed to bring a caution.
To his immense credit, Barton did not rise to the bait. There was a hint of retaliation in the tackle on Kevin Foley which earned his booking, but that took until the sixth added minute. He moaned a couple of times at Attwell but the only prolonged dissent came walking off alongside an unsympathetic McCarthy. The proliferation of free-kicks allowed Barton to demonstrate his deftness with the dead ball, capitalising on Ronald Zubar’s foul on Jonás Gutiérrez to tee up Carroll’s headed equaliser. Until then a smash-and-grab looked possible. Newcastle utterly dominated the opening quarter without finding the net.
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake headed Dave Jones’ corner against the post after 26 minutes, then pounced when James Perch, outnumbered at the far post, failed to deal adequately with van Damme’s cross. The lead could have doubled after 50 minutes. The ball’s change of direction as Perch slid in on Matt Jarvis made it look like a perfect penalty area tackle but replays suggested the defender only kicked his opponent. Faced with a choice between a corner and a penalty, Attwell gave a goal kick.
Barton was by no means the only Newcastle player who had to stand up and be counted. For the third game running Smith put in a performance to suggest if new signing Cheick Tiote is to force his way into this side it will be alongside, not instead of, the Yorkshireman. He might not be in Steve Harper’s good books, however, after the collision which saw the goalkeeper play 60 minutes with a broken nose.
Harper’s face, Jody Craddock’s bandaged head and Barton’s black-and-blue calves and ankles perfectly illustrated the game Newcastle were thrust into. That they left with a point was a glowing character reference.