TWO points dropped? Probably. But also one point gained on Brighton and Huddersfield, and therefore one point closer to guaranteeing a return to the Premier League. This wasn’t a vintage Newcastle United performance by any stretch of the imagination, but with just eight more games to play, it could prove to have been an extremely valuable one.
While those around them are suffering a serious wobble, the Magpies just about remain on track. The fluency that characterised some of their early-season displays has disappeared, replaced by an obdurate willingness to grind things out. But all promotion winners need some steel to accompany their style, and this is a Newcastle side with a dogged streak.
Three games without a victory might represent their worst run of the season, but the points secured through goalless draws at Reading and Birmingham have at least ensured the ground gained by wins at Brighton and Huddersfield has not been completely eroded.
One point clear of Brighton, and seven points ahead of the play-off positions – albeit with Huddersfield still boasting a game in hand – Rafael Benitez’s side remain extremely well placed. An upturn in form might be desirable, but it is probably not essential provided Newcastle remain as focused and committed as this.
“If you put the last five games together, then you can't say that it’s bad to have gone away four times and got the points that we’ve got,” said Benitez. “People are expecting that we can win every away game, and I thought we deserved to win but we couldn’t do it.
“It’s one more point though, and one less game to play. It’s important to learn how to manage the games and hopefully after every game you are in a little bit better position.”
After the defensive capitulation that enabled Fulham to score three goals at St James’ seven days earlier, the major positive to emerge from Newcastle’s performance at St Andrew’s was the return of the solidity and organisational strength that means the Magpies have still conceded fewer goals than anyone else in the Championship.
Admittedly, Birmingham were nowhere near as threatening as Fulham, and in former Middlesbrough striker Lukas Jutkiewicz, the Blues could only muster a fairly blunt attacking threat that was relatively easy to negate.
Even so, the sight of Grant Hanley shepherding Jutkiewicz with a minimum of fuss was reassuring, given that Clark could struggle to play again this season. Karl Darlow got down well to keep out an angled effort in the second half, and Jutkiewicz shot wastefully into the side-netting before the interval, but a Birmingham side clearly lacking in confidence never looked like making a breakthrough.
Hanley might be vulnerable to an attack boasting an abundance of pace, but he has plenty of experience of life in the Championship from his time at Blackburn and will not be easily outmuscled in the games that remain. At this level, he continues to look a better bet than Chancel Mbemba, whose Newcastle career could well come to a close this summer.
“I knew Grant would do well because he has been training really well right the way through,” said Benitez. “Even when he was not involved, he was always positive and trying to help his team-mates.
“He is someone who really talks in defence. It was not easy for him because their striker is really strong, but he did well.”
Newcastle’s defensive strength was offset by their failure to really threaten at the other end of the field, and the absence of both Jonjo Shelvey and Dwight Gayle from the starting line-up underlined just how reliant the Magpies remain on the duo’s attacking talent.
Shelvey, who was unable to start because a sickness bug meant he had been unable to train all week, came on for the final 12 minutes, and immediately set up Newcastle’s best chance of the game, rolling the ball towards Matt Ritchie, who brought a fine save out of Tomasz Kuszczak.
Prior to Shelvey’s introduction, Benitez was forced to pair Jack Colback and Mo Diame in the deep-lying midfield positions, and while the duo were defensively secure, they lack their fellow midfielder’s eye for a pass.
As a result, much of Newcastle’s attacking play was both pedestrian and predictable, a failing that was not helped by the presence of Daryl Murphy. The Irishman was a typically willing worker, and came close with a couple of headers, but his lack of pace meant the Magpies had to play nearly all of their football in front of the Birmingham back four.
Had Gayle been playing, they would almost certainly have gone long and looked to turn Ryan Shotton, who played at the heart of the Blues’ back five. Instead, Shotton’s lack of mobility was never really exploited, and Newcastle’s players spent most of the game passing in unthreatening positions.
“We have seen how important Dwight is to us right through the season,” said Benitez. “We have competition up front and that can only be positive.
“It is the international break now and that gives us an opportunity to improve the fitness of some players. I can only see that as a positive.”
Newcastle might well have won without Gayle had Ritchie’s first-half effort been allowed to stand instead of being ruled out for offside. It was a close call, but the midfielder looked to be level with Ayoze Perez, who prodded the ball on to him to enable him to stab home from close range.
The frustration on Ritchie’s face was clear to see, and was shared by his team-mates as Kuzszcak produced three fine saves to keep the scoresheet blank.
A frustrating afternoon then, but a far from disastrous one. Results at Bristol City and Leeds saw to that.