Not the return to Premier League action we were all hoping for in this one, with West Ham coming away 4-2 winners a frustrating six-goal affair on Tyneside.
There was something magical in the air pre-kick off. Fans reuniting with fellow season-ticket holders they’d not seen in 18 months, a sense of excitement that we were finally back inside stadiums and a brilliant reception for Joe Willock as our new £25m man was unveiled on the pitch just minutes before kick off.
West Ham put us under pressure from the off and would’ve taken the lead within the first 120 seconds had Miguel Almiron not cleared Tomas Soucek’s goal-bound header off the line!
However, our two most important players soon combined at the other end to make it 1-0 with five on the clock. Allan Saint-Maximin turned Aaron Cresswell inside out down the right, flashed a fierce cross into the box and in came our new number nine Callum Wilson to fire past Fabianski.
1-0 Newcastle and the dream start, with the first 15 minutes electric. Saint-Maximin was bamboozling those in claret and blue shirts every time he got the ball, Wilson was a real handful, Shelvey looked in the mood – at least he was to begin with – and Murphy was giving us an outlet down the right whenever we got forward.
West Ham were, however, creating openings of their own and looking dangerous against a NUFC defence giving them encouragement.
Whether it be us trying to play out from the back and struggling or sitting off as the likes of Benrahma, Bowen or Fornals broke free, it felt like an equaliser was coming – and it arrived 18 minutes in.
After giving the visitors far too much time to work the ball from one side of the box to the other, Cresswell’s wicked low cross was tapped in at the far post by former Toon target Jarrod Bowen. The linesman put up his flag and VAR checked it for a potential offside, but the goal stood and the away end erupted. 1-1.
Moments after Freddie Woodman stood tall to deny Bowen what would’ve been a brilliant solo goal, we came close at the other end through Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan’s 20-yard shot took a big deflection and looked to be looping over Fabianski at one point, only to clip the wrong side of the bar!
After a period of sitting deeper and spells where we struggled to keep possession, our second arrived through Jacob Murphy. Almiron released Ritchie down the left, and the wing-back’s floated cross was headed back across goal and into the bottom corner from last season’s most improved player.
2-1 to the Toon, but it was all downhill from here, sadly.
There were positives to take from some of our attacking play in the first 45, with Wilson and ASM causing West Ham all sorts of problems, however we needed to improve defensively if we were to see out the win – yet we only got worse in this department.
We started the second half with a real lack of intent and were quickly punished. Saint-Maximin lost the ball in a bad area, Michail Antonio was released down their left and his lofted cross was headed into the ground and in by an unmarked Benrahma. Frustratingly, this was the first of three second half goals that were very avoidable from an NUFC perspective.
West Ham back level on 53 minutes, but they went ahead just 10 minutes later – this time via a dodgy penalty VAR failed to overturn after Jacob Murphy was adjudged to have tripped Pablo Fornals.
Antonio’s spot kick was actually saved by Woodman, but Tomas Soucek reacted quicker than anyone in a black and white shirt to the 24-year-old’s parry and lashed in the rebound to hand the away side a 3-2 lead.
An awful start to the all important second half, yet it got worse just three minutes later. Once again, we lost the ball in a bad area – this time it was Murphy – and our already exposed defence was cut open as Benrahma put Antonio in behind. Clark wasn’t quick enough to catch the big striker and he smashed past Woodman to make it four.
There was still 25 minutes to play and time to turn it around at the Gallowgate End, but Bruce’s changes came too late and we only thought to change formation in the 85th minute – by that time the game was gone.
Bruce has since blamed match officials for the loss, saying the penalty decision was the big turning point, yet in truth we have ourselves to blame.
We never looked comfortable at the back, gave their front four too much room, lost possession in bad areas for two of the four goals and were guilty of some Sunday league marking, at times.
The first half display offers a source of encouragement moving forward into next Saturday’s trip to Aston Villa – who lost 3-2 to Watford yesterday – however our midfield was easily bypassed far too often and our defence looked slow, anxious on the ball and half asleep for most of today.
Time to get Joe Willock up to speed, wrap ASM and Wilson in cotton wool and sign a new defender or two, with us crying out for a centre-back who can add some pace, athleticism and confidence on the ball to our ageing back line.
Starting XI (5-3-2): Woodman – Murphy, Krafth, Fernandez, Clark, Ritchie – Shelvey, Hayden, Almiron – Saint-Maximin, Wilson.
SUBS: Gillespie, Schar, Lascelles, Joelinton, Lewis, Hendrick, Fraser, Gayle, S. Longstaff.