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 was hospitalised with a nasty case of flu and now he has another nightmarish visit to add to the list.
It is far from inconceivable that Bilic could soon recall the greyest of Tyneside afternoons as marking the final chapter of his tenure in charge at the Hawthorns. After one win in 12 games 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 certainly have done without Dwight Gayle, once a prolific loanee at West Brom, stepping off the Newcastle bench to score the winning goal towards the end of a fixture that was in doubt before last Wednesday.
Until then, Newcastle’s training ground had been closed by the coronavirus outbreak which prompted the postponement of a recent visit to Aston Villa.
Despite naming a relatively strong side, the Newcastle manager, Steve Bruce, reported that a couple of players were still too fatigued to “walk to end of their streets”, while a further “two or three” remain “very poorly”.
“I can’t give the players enough credit,” he said. “But I’m delighted that the game went ahead now.”
Bilic had a very different perspective. “Defeat was hard to take,” he said. “In the first half we weren’t good but the second half was totally different; losing was tough.”
Never the most transparent of clubs, Newcastle refused to name affected individuals on the grounds of “medical confidentiality” but there was no sign of Allan Saint-Maximin, Bruce’s brightest creative talent, while Isaac Hayden excelled as an ersatz centre-half. Afterwards Bruce let slip that the still convalescent Hayden had been “knocked to hell by Covid”.
Other absentees included key defenders Federico Fernández, Jamaal Lascelles, Javier Manquillo and Fabian Schär. But after only 21 seconds it was Bilic’s backline who were made to look like novices, when Miguel Almirón placed an accomplished shot past Sam Johnstone.
Callum Wilson brushed an evidently unfocused Branislav Ivanovic off the ball, and Joelinton’s neat pass enabled Almiron to apply the final, incisive, touch.
Ivanovic claimed that Newcastle won possession illegally, but a VAR review for a possible handball cleared Wilson and the fastest Premier League goal this season stood.
As Bilic’s agitation mounted, Newcastle were first to every second ball and playing with the zip 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, leaving them outnumbered in midfield.
Only a fine save from Johnstone prevented Joelinton putting Newcastle further ahead after he swivelled away from Ivanovic following Matt Ritchie’s quick free-kick. Yet with Bilic finally persuading his team to press higher up the pitch, West Brom mustered their first 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 Conor Gallagher 10 yards out, but he fired wide.
All of a sudden, Newcastle’s early zest had faded. As they increasingly ceded possession in the second half, Bruce cannot have been entirely surprised when Darnell Furlong atoned for a silly early booking by connecting with Phillips’s stellar cross and volleying West Brom level.
It was a fabulous finish eclipsed only by Gayle’s late contribution. The West Brom old boy nearly restored Newcastle’s lead with the first touch of his first appearance of the season but Phillips somehow cleared his header off the line.
No matter. He had better luck at the second attempt, meeting a cross from Jacob Murphy and directing a superb header beyond Johnstone.
For Bilic, it was a goal freighted with “what ifs”. How he must have cursed a striker who departed the Hawthorns shortly before his appointment, and who he subsequently attempted, forlornly, to re-sign.