The FA Cup. Dreams of Wembley, jumpers for goal posts, ‘I’m him!’
A home tie against Blackburn Rovers should then be the perfect start for the hopes and dreams of ‘mid-table’ Premier League teams who know the title was always out of reach.
Rafa must be torn. As things stand he won’t be here next season. No transfer budget, no strength and depth. Only his pride and a sense of a duty of care for the fans of this club must be tugging him towards concentrating on the league and not just going all out for a Cup run.
His starting team was strong enough. First team regulars Schar, Kenedy and Ritchie in particular showing some real intent. A welcome return for Lejeune was also a welcome sight whilst there was a sprinkling of next gen about the team with Longstaff getting a start along with Sterry and Dubravka’s stand in Woodman.
It would however prove to be a raft of changes, introducing first team players that would save his Newcastle United team a draw having fallen behind to a bullet of a header from Dack. To that point Blackburn had played really well and probably deserved their second half goal.
But with ten minutes left a Perez run into the box ended with the number 17 tripped. Ritchie stepping up to emphatically slam home the resultant kick.
Back to Ewood the team go then. Hardly ideal.
STARTING XI: Woodman, Sterry, Lejeune, Schar, Manquillo, Longstaff (Perez), Hayden (Shelvey, 56), Murphy (Atsu, 74), Kenedy, Ritchie, Joselu
The opening stages were pretty even, although Joselu could have done better with a back post volley early on. Kenedy, playing in the number 10 role, seeing little of the ball and Blackburn looking dangerous and having large spells of comfortable possession.
Indeed Blackburn would force a number early dangerous free kicks and corners. And on 30 minutes it was a break from one of these that almost saw Newcastle ahead. Ritchie breaking clear and when his shot was spilled Joselu could only hit the keeper with the ball deflected wide.
There would be little of real note however at either end for either keeper to worry about, and certainly nothing for VAR to have to be used for on its first use at St James Park. If anything, Blackburn (who included ex-mag Adam Armstrong) the better of the two teams in a goalless first half.
Into the second half then and Rafa would certainly have been looking for more quality on the ball from his charges. Not something he would see in the first few minutes when a lovely pull back from Ritchie would find Murphy unmarked on the edge of the box, only to see the Newcastle number 7 blaze over the bar horribly.
Murphy had looked short in confidence throughout (that’s being kind, his performance was abject). Whilst Manquillo and Sterry also looked a yard off the pace even against a Championship side.
And Newcastle should have been punished on 51 minutes when loose marking allowed Dack to race clear, but his decision to pull the ball back onto his stronger right foot would cost him when well placed 8 yards out to hit it first time with his left.
The returning Lejeune did at least look like a Premier League player making a couple of timely interceptions and a lovely long pass of two reminiscent of those of last season.
On 55 minutes disaster for the home side. A neat free kick was played out to Bennett and his cross would find Dack to head home virtually unchallenged. 1-0 Blackburn.
An immediate response from Rafa with Shelvey replacing the totally ineffective Hayden.
Newcastle United had gone behind 10 times this season before this game, losing all 10. The signs weren’t good. And within 10 minutes it could have been worse. Woodman flapping at a corner allowing a free header for Blackburn. Only a Manquillo header off the line saving his blushes.
At the other end Ritchie would see a decent effort tipped wide following a couple of goal line scrambles in the Blackburn box including a Lejeune effort that was somehow deflected over the bar.
With just 8 minutes left a lifeline for Newcastle as Perez, who’d looked lively since coming on moments before, was tripped in the box. And after a nervous few moments waiting for the VAR review outcome up stepped Ritchie to slot the spot kick home to make it 1-1.
The difference in Newcastle’s play with some the first teamers on there for all now to see, the Magpies pushed forward for a killer third goal. And after a wonderful ball by Shelvey through to Joselu the Newcastle front man should have done more than turning into his marker in the box and falling to the floor.
And so it would finish. Blackburn will be frustrated that they couldn’t hold on after a really professional display. Newcastle a mixture of relief at not being out and frustration both at the performance and the fact that a replay will now be required. Another game in an already hectic and important period.
At least we live to fight another day!