SO much for a straight-forward cruise to promotion then. It started as a blip, then became a wobble – now Newcastle’s end-of-season stutter is on the brink of becoming a full-blown crisis. If Devon Loch was racing now, he would probably be wearing black-and-white stripes.
The only positive from a Magpies perspective is that Huddersfield are collapsing every bit as badly. Two hours or so after their own defeat to Ipswich, Newcastle’s players were able to watch Derby midfielder Jacob Butterfield snatch an 88th-minute equaliser to restrict the Terriers to a 1-1 draw. As a result, Newcastle are six points clear of third-placed Reading, and seven ahead of fourth-placed Huddersfield, who have a game in hand.
Thanks to their vastly superior goal difference, Rafael Benitez’s side need five more points to guarantee a place in the Premier League. If Reading and Huddersfield were both to lose on Saturday, Newcastle could be promoted when they host Preston on Monday night.
Despite a dreadful performance, the Magpies are in a better position now than they were when they travelled to Ipswich, yet that should not deflect attention from their ongoing woes. On the day that Brighton confirmed their promotion to the Premier League, Newcastle produced a performance that suggests they are alarmingly ill-equipped for the top-flight.
If you can’t beat an Ipswich side stranded in the bottom half of the table with seemingly nothing to play for, goodness knows how you will cope against English football’s big boys.
Since beating Huddersfield at the start of last month, Newcastle have claimed nine points from eight matches, and six of those came courtesy of narrow, nervous wins over Wigan and Burton. That isn’t promotion form – it would barely secure a place in mid-table – and for all that Benitez will be keen to accentuate the positives, the Spaniard must be a nervous wreck.
His players are hardly providing him with reasons to be optimistic, and having been outplayed in their previous away game at Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle were comprehensively brushed aside once again. The difference this time was that their opponents were supposed to offer a limited threat.
With the finishing line in sight, the Magpies suddenly find themselves beset with nerves. From Karl Darlow, whose calamitous kicking helped set up Ipswich’s second goal, to Jamaal Lascelles, whose lack of composure was once again apparent, and through to Jonjo Shelvey, whose previously-reliable passing once again went badly awry, the visitors were a shambolic sight.
Their attacking play looks ponderous and predictable in the absence of the injured Dwight Gayle, while their defending has become increasingly ragged in the last few weeks. Yesterday, they were ripped apart repeatedly, and Ciaran Clark’s return to fitness cannot come quickly enough given the extent of the fragility that has been exposed in his wake. Grant Hanley replaced Chancel Mbemba yesterday, but the lack of security at the back was every bit as marked as it had been at Hillsborough.
Why have things become so fraught? Gayle’s absence is a major factor, as it effectively renders Shelvey’s long balls over the back redundant. With no obvious attacking outlet, Newcastle’s defence is finding itself under increased pressure, and is cracking under the strain.
In truth, the Magpies have not been firing on all cylinders for a while now, but the insipid nature of their latest performance still came as something of a surprise. One-paced and lethargic from the outset, they looked like a side suddenly fearful of the enormity of the situation in which they find themselves.
Their first-half efforts were especially desultory, with their attacking basically consisting of Shelvey firing 50-yard passes down the channels in a futile attempt to release either Matt Ritchie or Christian Atsu beyond their opposition full-back. It was a telegraphed approach that was easy to counteract, yet Shelvey persisted with the ploy, perhaps because of the lack of alternative options around him.
Mo Diame was like the invisible man in the ‘number ten’ role, failing to support Daryl Murphy, whose second-half goal was the only highlight in an otherwise frustrating return to the club where he plundered 67 goals in 226 appearances during two separate spells. With Murphy well shackled, and Diame barely featuring in the final third, Newcastle only managed to carve out one chance of note in the whole of the first half.
It came four minutes before the interval, and should have resulted in a goal. Paul Dummett turned neatly close to the left touchline, and his whipped cross was perfectly weighted for the onrushing Ritchie.
The midfielder could have shot, but having shrugged off his marker, opted to attempt a diving header from eight yards out. It was so badly misjudged, the ball finished eight yards wide.
Worse was to follow though, as within less than 60 seconds, Ritchie was at fault again at the other end, enabling Ipswich to claim the lead.
The hosts had already had the ball in the net through Tom Lawrence, only for the midfielder’s crossed free-kick to be rightly ruled out for David McGoldrick’s foul on Isaac Hayden. When Darlow was beaten again, however, there was to be no reprieve.
Ritchie dawdled in possession close to the centre-circle, and was deservedly dispossessed. Suddenly, Ipswich were breaking on the Newcastle goal, and after Lawrence teed up Sears in the right-hand side of the area, the former West Ham forward curled home via a deflection off Ritchie.
As was the case on Friday night, when the Magpies conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Leeds, the damage was self-inflicted.
A response was required, and in fairness to the visitors, there was a slight improvement at the start of the second half. There was certainly more impetus to Newcastle’s attacking play, with Ritchie and Atsu looking to push on and Isaac Hayden becoming more adventurous through the middle, and their remodelled approach was rewarded shortly after the hour mark.
Dummett released Atsu down the left-hand side, and while substitute Yoan Gouffran failed to reach the winger’s cross at the front post, an unmarked Murphy steered the ball home.
Suddenly, Newcastle had the wind in their sails and were pushing on in search of a winner. Unfortunately, their defensive insecurities meant their efforts were fatally undermined.
Darlow betrayed signs of nerves all match, and when he miscued a clearance across the floor in the 69th minute, Ipswich sparked an attack that enabled them to reclaim the lead.
Sears found himself in space on the left-hand side, and when he squared the ball across the face of goal, and unmarked McGoldrick had the easy task of tapping home.
Darlow kept Newcastle in the game when he tipped another useful effort from McGoldrick over the crossbar, but the Magpies’ only real chance of a second equaliser came to nothing when Grant Hanley looped a header straight at Ipswich goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski with one minute left.
That was effectively that, but there was still time for Ipswich to claim a third goal that provided a more realistic reflection of their superiority.
Brett Pitman skipped past Paul Dummett as he stood up a cross from the right, and Emyr Huws barely broke stride as he lashed home a superb first-time volley.
For Ipswich, it was the signal for a rare moment of celebration. For Newcastle, it was proof that nerves are becoming frayed.