Slaven Bilic harbours some unhappy memories of trips to the north-east. Shortly after a match at Middlesbrough three years ago, West Brom’s manager had to go to hospital with flu and now he has another nightmare recollection to add to the list.
It is far from inconceivable that Bilic could soon recall the greyest of December afternoons by the Tyne as marking his final chapter in charge at the Hawthorns. After only one win in 12 matches since returning to the Premier League, his side are stuck in 19th place and the calls for a sacrificial managerial sacking grow ever more clamorous.
Bilic could have done without Dwight Gayle, once a prolific loanee West Brom striker, stepping off the home bench to score the winning goal. Indeed, the visiting manager must have wished the game had been called off after all. It was in doubt until last Wednesday when Newcastle’s training ground re-opened after the club’s recent coronavirus outbreak which had prompted the postponement of their fixture at Aston Villa.
Despite naming a relatively strong starting XI here, Steve Bruce reported that a couple of players were still too fatigued to “walk to end of their streets” at present while two members of his backroom team remained “poorly”.
Never the most transparent of clubs, Newcastle refused to name affected individuals on the grounds of “medical confidentiality” but, out on the pitch, there was no sign of Allan Saint-Maximin, aka Bruce’s brightest creative talent, and Isaac Hayden played out of position at centre-half.
Also absent from the match day squad were key defenders Federico Fernandez, Jamaal Lascelles, Javier Manquillo and Fabian Schar, yet Dan Langley could be forgiven for detecting a silver lining. The sick list had created an unexpected opportunity for the 19-year-old, 6ft 7 in Northumbrian goalkeeper who duly appeared on the bench for the first time.
After only 21 seconds Langley watched another keeper, West Brom’s Sam Johnstone, pick the ball out of his net after an unmarked Miguel Almirón had highlighted the visiting defensive deficiencies by placing an accomplished shot beyond his reach.
A combination of Bilic’s players failing to deal with a long ball, the ease with which Callum Wilson brushed an evidently poorly concentrating Branislav Ivanovic off the ball and Joelinton’s neat pass, enabled Almiron to apply the final, incisive, touch.
Although Ivanovic protested that Newcastle had assumed possession illegally, a VAR review checked for a possible handball on Wilson’s part but none was detected and the fastest Premier League goal this season stood.
As Bilic’s technical area agitation mounted, Bruce’s XI played, albeit briefly, with the freshness of a side fresh from a sunshine break rather than the sanatorium. It left West Brom’s constantly retreating back three to morph, repeatedly, into a back five. Whenever that happened the visitors became outnumbered in midfield where Bruce’s quartet – part of a 4-4-2 system – dominated.
Indeed, it took a fine save from Johnstone to prevent Joelinton shooting Newcastle further ahead after the Brazilian swivelled free from Ivanovic following Matt Ritchie’s quick free-kick. With Bilic finally succeeding in persuading his team to press a little higher up the pitch, West Brom did manage to muster a shot on target as half-time approached and Karl Darlow saved Matt Phillips’s long-range effort fairly comfortably.
There was greater danger when the ball fell to an unattended Conor Gallagher 10 yards out but he miscued, provoking wildly contrasting managerial technical area reactions by shooting wide.
All of a sudden, Newcastle’s early zest had faded and it was West Brom’s turn to monopolise possession. Bruce cannot have been entirely surprised when, early in the second half, Darnell Furlong wrong footed Jamal Lewis before connecting with Phillip’s stellar cross and volleying West Brom level.
It was a fabulous finish from the right wing-back but Gayle threatened to upstage Furlong after replacing Lewis. Gayle very nearly restored Newcastle’s lead with the first touch of his first appearance of the season but, instead, Phillips somehow cleared his goal bound header off the line.
No matter; Gayle had better luck at the second attempt scoring courtesy of a superb header dispatched after meeting a cross from fellow substitute, and former West Brom loanee, Jacob Murphy. Gayle departed the Hawthorns shortly before Bilic’s appointment but the latter tried, forlornly, to re-sign him. As he headed home to face the music, West Brom’s manager must have cursed that failure.