SO near, but yet so far.
Newcastle United could – and maybe should – have won at Old Trafford for the first time in 40 years yesterday.
But the afternoon ended in a cruel defeat.
As a spectacle, this was up there with the club’s two famous 4-3 defeats to Liverpool at Anfield back in the mid-1990s – what is it about that scoreline?
Newcastle even defended like a Kevin Keegan team of old.
And manager Alan Pardew and the club’s 2,000-strong travelling support went through just about every emotion on an unseasonably mild afternoon in Salford.
They were left pointless after Javier Hernandez’s injury-time winner, and Pardew’s were left wondering just how they had been left empty-handed.
However, last weekend’s 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers is looking more like a turning point in what had been a badly faltering season for the club, though the club’s frail defence remains a concern for Pardew.
Going forward, his team were enterprising and energetic, committed and composed, and a lot of other adjectives besides, in the first half.
Newcastle started well, and the opening goal came from one of the club’s unsung heroes.
Demba Ba seized on a poor touch from Hernandez and strode forward. His shot was parried into the path of Perch, who had been tasked with protecting the back four in the absence of Cheik Tiote.
Perch had just kept on running when Ba took the ball, and the midfielder had the simplest of finishes after goalkeeper David De Gea parried it into his path at the far post.
The midfielder, by rights, shouldn’t have been anywhere near De Gea’s goal – but Pardew wasn’t complaining when he belatedly opened his account two and a half years into his St James’s Park career.
Pardew had talked about there being an opportunity for his side to exploit Man United’s unusually frail defence, and his cause was helped by Nemanja Vidic’s presence on the bench, not in the heart of the home back four.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were uncharacteristically sloppy in possession, while Newcastle, by contrast, were assured on the ball, with teenager Gael Bigirimana, starting in place of the injured Jonas Gutierrez, particularly impressive.
However, Man United somehow built up a head of steam at the mid-point of the half, and Jonny Evans was there to poke the ball home from close range after a Robin van Persie free-kick led to a goalmouth scramble.
It was tough on Pardew’s side, who had looked the better side, despite the gulf between the two clubs in the league table.
In any case, Man United’s lead didn’t last long, though it took an age for Newcastle’s second goal to be actually given by referee Mike Dean.
Danny Simpson – who started his career at Old Trafford – broke up the right wing and crossed into the box. Cisse, the intended recipient, was offside – but it wasn’t the striker who put the ball in the net.
And, crucially, Cisse wasn’t interfering with play.
The linesman flagged, but Dean had seen Simpson’s cross hit Evans, who inadvertently put the ball into his own net. After a discussion between Dean and his assistant, the goal was eventually given.
Newcastle could have been further ahead before the break, with Sylvain Marveaux striking the crossbar with a free-kick.
Ferguson took time to berate two of the three match officials before the second half, and his players, presumably, had also had the hairdryer treatment at the break.
They looked a different team after the interval, and Patrice Evra put them level as the hour mark approached.
Perch’s headed clearance dropped to him, and the defender skipped past Marveaux before shooting into the far corner of the net.
Yet the game was far from over.
Substitute Gabriel Obertan broke up the left in the 68th minute, and his low cross was drilled past De Gea by Cisse, who was mobbed by his team-mates in front of a disbelieving home support.
Yet Man United’s fans weren’t silenced for long, with van Persie beating his Dutch countryman Krul at the second attempt three minutes later.
Both Hernandez and Newcastle substitute Sammy Ameobi hit the woodwork in the latter stages.
But Hernandez made no mistake with his injury time winner.
It wasn’t fair, but football rarely is for Newcastle, who lost Vurnon Anita to injury in added time and Mike Williamson to suspension in the first half.
The club – and its supporters – can take heart from the last 180 minutes of football.
But Newcastle must start making their own luck if they’re to pull away from the relegation zone over the coming weeks.
NEWCASTLE UNITED: Krul 7; Simpson 6, Williamson 6, Coloccini 6, Santon 6; Anita 7, Perch 7, BIGIRIMANA 8 (Obertan, 65, 7); Cisse 7 (Sammy Ameobi, 80), Ba 6 (Shola Ameobi, 71, 6), Marveaux 6. Subs not used: Elliot, Tavernier, Ferguson, Campbell.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea; Smalling, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes (Cleverley 69), Giggs; Van Persie, Hernandez (Fletcher, 90). Subs not used: Lindegaard, Vidic, Buttner, Wooton, Tunnicliffe.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gael Bigirimana. He justified his selection with a performance that bodes well for him – and United.
HIGHLIGHT: James Perch’s first goal for the club – it set the tone for a rollercoaster afternoon.
LOWLIGHT: The defending for Javier Hernandez’s goal – it was too easy for him.
Goals: Perch 4, Evans 25, 28 (og), Evra 58, Cisse 68, van Persie 71, Hernandez 90
Bookings: Evans 36, Hernandez 38, Williamson 43, Valencia 53, Simpson 61, Cisse 64
Referee: Mike Dean (The Wirral)