Newcastle Utd 0 - 0 Derby County
So, that was the noughties. How better to mark the end of a decade of fleeting glimpses of glory which dwindled away into disappointment and frustration than with a game that followed exactly the same tragic trajectory?
Derby arrived at St James' Park served up on a plate to the league leaders as plump Christmas turkeys. That they avoided their fate was thanks in part to some dogged defending but more significantly to our own offensive deficiencies.
With kick-off coming barely 48 hours after the final whistle at Hillsborough, Chris Hughton opted to refresh the team. Bigger Lad and Peter Lovenkrands were named as the front two, Big Lad dropping to the bench and Homer having returned to Villa, for the time being at least. Meanwhile, Ryan Taylor replaced Danny Guthrie on the right side of midfield and Alan Smith reclaimed his anchoring role and the captaincy from Nicky Butt.
Given that we ended up drawing a blank, you could be forgiven for assuming Hughton's shake-up was to blame, but in truth all three were at the heart of the action, especially in the first period. Bigger Lad nodded two headers narrowly wide, one only a couple of minutes in, and caused the Rams' centre-backs some discomfort, while Lovenkrands, for his part, was busy and bustling and himself unlucky to see a snapshot from a tight angle go past the far post.
Taylor it was, though, who was most prominent in the early exchanges. In recent games Guthrie's been our go-to man for inch-perfect crosses, but Taylor's delivery was proving equally skilled. He also came closest to giving us the lead, pinging Stephen Bywater's crossbar with a brilliant curling free-kick. He'll know he should have done better shortly afterwards, though, when Spiderman's bisecting pass set him clean through, only Bywater's outstretched leg preventing the net from bulging.
Spiderman was routinely roasting his full-back Paul Connolly like festive chestnuts on an open fire (once he'd got a horrendous miskick in the centre circle out of his system) - clearly his Christmas Day training run down Osbourne Road in his Argentina shorts, as spotted by a friend, did him some good. So, a very promising opening, then - until, that is, one of my companions said: "Looks like it's only a matter of time
". I believe they call it the kiss of death...
Almost immediately the onslaught ceased, we started to falter in other areas of the pitch and Derby eased their feet under the table. Indeed, if it hadn't been for a fine Steve Harper save, DJ Campbell's header would have given the Rams a half-time lead. (Incidentally, the presence of Campbell, on loan from East Midlands rivals Leicester, brought back memories of our FA Cup meeting with Yeading
, which feels like a lifetime ago - Soumess in the dugout, Boumsong and Babayaro in the very early days of their less-than-glorious Newcastle careers - though actually less than five years have passed.)
Arguably the best chance of the second half fell to Steven Taylor who - centrally positioned, unmarked and from close range - contrived to plant his header straight into the relieved Bywater's hands. Otherwise, we were hamstrung by the same things that fatally crippled us at Forest in October - a lack of creativity and imagination, poor quality final balls and a curious unwillingness to shoot when the opportunities presented themselves. It's hard to single out individuals for below-par performances, but given his usefulness so far this season Kevin Nolan's ineffectuality was conspicuous.
The second period, then, was mostly a damp squib livened only by the teenagers in front of us trying to start chants and then berating all those around for failing to join in - "Have you been on the wine gums again?
" and "Fuck off home, man - your tea's ready
" were two of the choicest responses...
The introduction of Big Lad for Bigger Lad was warmly greeted, but the cheers soon turned to grumbles and outbursts of irritation when it became evident he was in disinterested mode. With two minutes remaining we thought we'd finally made the breakthrough, but substitute Nile Ranger's hooked shot was deflected by Bywater onto the underside of the bar and our vociferous appeal wasn't enough to change reality and convince the officials the ball had in fact ventured over the line.
Jay McEveley received a second yellow card in stoppage time (thereby partially appeasing the young lad near us who spent the whole game asking his dad why Derby players weren't being booked for every challenge) and we squandered a handful of late set pieces before the final whistle blew.
While Hughton's post-match claim that we've played worse and won this season has some validity, the fact remains that we were only really in a respectable gear for the first 25 minutes. Paul too was optimistic in outlook: "Still six points clear at new year, albeit West Brom have a game in hand. If you'd offered me that in August I'd have bitten your hand off
". Point taken, but I'm certainly not the only one nevertheless concerned about the rate at which we've allowed our pre-Christmas lead to be eroded.
Other reports: BBC