If the build-up to Saturday’s Cup game was anything to go by, Newcastle fans think they exist in a Premier League bubble that, in reality, they don’t belong to. There was a general apathy towards the tie; we were just Oxford – insert blank look and indifferent shrug – generically from ‘the lower leagues’, a shadowy movement at the bottom of a pond. They knew little of us and cared even less, their team would cruise through to face someone more worthy of their attention.
Hopefully they’ll get back to where they occasionally belong before the bubble pops; it could be a devastating shock otherwise. Some appear to know there’s a ticking clock on this; one tweeter said it was a case of ‘no promotion, no Rafa’ as though the club owed the manager success, not the other way around. What a weirdly desperate world they live in.
The reality is that there is far less between most professional football clubs than the money gaps suggest. Those thinking we’d be a pushover miss the fact that Lundstram, Ledson, Martinez and Hall have all come from Premier League backgrounds while Maguire, Hemmings and Johnson have Scottish Premier experience. From a technical and temperament perspective, they are all capable of playing at a higher level. Others; Sercombe, Skarz, Dunkley have plenty of big game experience at the Kassam. To the outsider we might be ‘lower league’ but on any given day the differences between us and those above us are tiny.
Then there’s the Newcastle mind-set; the players that were picked know they’re not favoured by the manager. If Newcastle get promoted, it’s likely they’ll be shipped out to make way for better players. Also, it’s widely accepted that draws in the cup are the worst possible outcome. Defeats are surely unacceptable, but if the manager does nothing to suggest a win is desirable, how can a player know what the right mind-set is?
Michael Appleton overcomes this dissonance by simply playing to win regardless of whether it’s the league, FA Cup or Checkatrade. He rarely makes significant changes to personnel; the philosophy is that you try to win all games, not just the financially important ones.
If both teams applied its ‘quality’ consistently and in a linear way, then the difference between a Championship and League 1 team is so small, it would only show in the last few minutes of a game. It’s more complicated, of course, players’ physical, mental and technical abilities fluctuate throughout games and that’s when differences can be seen and, more importantly, when you have to take your chances.
Newcastle’s potential threat first emerged around the half-an-hour mark. Up to that point we’d been buoyant but disciplined, more than a match. A few concentration lapses and we were at sixes and sevens; but up steps Simon Eastwood to perform a formidable rear guard. Mitrovic, the main culprit, is surly from the first whistle, Nelson roughed him up and he didn’t seem to recover. It’s all very well being a Diego Costa-type, but if the trolling knocks your composure then it’s a waste of time.
Eastwood takes the glory but this is John Lundstram’s game. Lundstram is a central figure in this year’s team. Last year, he was one of many outlets we had to win games. This year we’re more of a single unit with Lundstram the central cog; if he’s off form then we become reliant on the moments of skill from Maguire or others. When he’s on it, everyone performs.
There are two Lundstrams, one is the diesel, where the game passes him buy for 20 minutes while he gets going. The other is tenacious from the first minute. He makes his own luck, puts people in their place and dictates the game from the off. On Saturday, he was the latter, an early challenge sets the tone, and he owns the game from thereon in.
Half time offers another threat. Against Barnsley in the JPT it killed us, legs became heavy, minds more tired as the adrenalin ebbed away. But we manage the break and they’re the ones looking lethargic. Maguire, Dunkley, Hemmings; a complete sucker punch. 1-0.
Mitrovic shows a glimpse of guile dragging Edwards 10 yards into the box before stumbling and falling to the floor. It was a penalty, albeit cynically won. The Serb grabs the ball but the game pivots on Eastwood’s brilliant save. Minutes later, Nelson rises to nod home and make it 2-0; he’s been slower to this year’s party, but he’s starting to fill the massive gap left by Jake Wright. Newcastle fans who have been noisy throughout head for the exits just like, well, just like Sunderland fans do.
Martinez comes on and plays like a new pair of shoes, he looks good but doesn’t quite fit with everything else. It reminded me of David Rush’s debut against Leyton Orient in 1995. He came on, looked lively but undisciplined, we conceded from a corner because he neglected his defensive duties, then a minute later went down the other end and scored the winner. Martinez is a like that, keen, frustrating and ultimately effective. 3-0.
Rarely are FA Cup wins so comfortable, was it a shock? Only in the way a tombola is; you know you can get something out of it, it’s just a pleasant surprise when it’s Bells’ Whiskey rather than a bottle of shampoo.