Glimmer of hope as Newcastle show some heart
At The Hawthorns.
There were moments during Newcastle's match at West Brom on Saturday when Magpies supporters could be forgiven if they briefly thought that the last few months had been nothing more than a terrible dream.
Their team were playing in a superb stadium and in front of a large and vocal crowd. Alan Shearer was there (albeit as a BBC pundit) and in the Newcastle starting XI were players that many Premier League teams would be glad to acquire.
As West Brom manager Roberto di Matteo observed afterwards: "If you look at Newcastle's team sheet, it is very strong."
Occasionally Newcastle worked the ball through the midfield area with composure and style, while the move that led to Damien Duff's equaliser was worthy of any Premier League fixture.
It many ways the game had the look and feel of a top-flight fixture, as the two teams that most bookmakers believe will secure automatic promotion played their first game of the Championship season.
But also on evidence on Saturday were plenty of reminders of why Newcastle are now playing second-tier football.
Their defending of set pieces was shambolic. The marking was at times non-existent and the visitors should have been punished long before Shelton Martis put the home team in front. The Magpies can expect to be tested time and again during the coming months and it is something they must iron out.
I thought that Alan Smith was effective in his holding midfield role, while Kevin Nolan is the sort of player that can link well with the strikers. The series of brilliant second-half saves from substitute Tim Krul after Steve Harper failed to appear after the break suggested the club have good goalkeeping cover.
But the Magpies lacked pace in defence - witness the series of cynical fouls perpetrated by Fabricio Coloccini - and a cutting edge up front. Andy Carroll put in a workmanlike performance alongside Shola Ameobi, but after working the ball well through midfield the visiting side failed to provide good service to the strike duo often enough.
Jonas Gutierrez saw plenty of the ball on the left flank but he epitomised more than anyone else his team's wastefulness. His increasingly histrionic gestures as he became more and more frustrated did not speak of a man who is ready for the long slog of second-tier football. I suspect he may find Championship football an exasperating experience.
But the Newcastle players at least showed plenty of heart. Nobody really knew what to expect from a team without a manager - and one that suffered a 6-1 defeat to Leyton Orient during pre-season.
The Toon supporters I encountered before kick-off on Saturday seemed in good spirit but they must have harboured serious concerns about the mental readiness of the squad. Stories of discontent have run thoughout the summer while the rumoured training ground bust-up involving Joey Barton on Friday hardly suggested a happy group of players.
Yet there was no shortage of effort from the players on the pitch and that at least must provide solace at a time of almost total misery for the club's supporters.
Quite whether the determination shown on Saturday will translate to some of the less salubrious surrounds that the Championship has to offer remains to be seen. West Brom probably wasn't the ideal fixture to underline to Newcastle their reduced status.
The north east club have not signed anyone since their relegation was confirmed with defeat at Aston Villa on the final day of last season. Shearer - working for the BBC on Saturday - has made it clear he wants to manage the club but in some respects Newcastle will remain in a kind of suspended animation until owner Mike Ashley's £100m asking price is finally met. And who can say that will be anytime soon?
In contrast, West Brom not only resemble the model of stability but are also on familiar ground.
Newcastle's relegation ended a 16-year tenure in the top flight but in recent times the Baggies have constantly bounced up and down between the top two divisions. They are in their fourth spell of second tier football this decade and have been promoted to the top flight three times since 2001.
The consensus of opinion seems to be that if Tony Mowbray had stayed at The Hawthorns they would be more or less certainties for promotion. New boss Di Matteo had a solid first season as manager of MK Dons before his summer move but he has not managed at Championship level before.
The Baggies went into the match on the back of pre-season defeats to Cheltenham and Swindon and at times during the first half on Saturday they struggled to get hold of the ball.
But they improved after the break and crafted far more clear-cut openings than Newcastle. The problem for Di Matteo was his team's failure to convert them.
"We created plenty of chances but we need to be more clinical," said Di Matteo after the game. "We have got to take some of them."
West Brom bolstered their attacking options during the close season with the signing of the highly rated Simon Cox from Swindon. He arrived at the club outlining his bold ambition to emulate players such as Teddy Sheringham and Kevin Phillips but he had to be content with a place on the bench while Chris Wood and Luke Moore started up front.
Moore has plenty to prove after scoring one Premier League goal last season, while 17-year-old New Zealander Wood did not look like the finished article on the evidence of Saturday's display.
But there is plenty for Di Matteo to build on over the coming weeks. If he can get his team to reproduce their form of last season they will not be far away from an instant return.
I'd like to say that there are also plus points for the Newcastle manager to take from the game but, of course, they don't have one.
There were signs on Saturday that most of the Magpies players are up for the challenge of this season but there are so many unknowns surrounding the club that it is surely impossible to be optimistic.