NEWCASTLE: In football, winning matches is like a habit. It’s infectious.
Sadly, so too is not winning them. And Newcastle United have developed a routine they just can’t shake. Draws and losses have become the norm for the Magpies, whether under Steve Bruce and Eddie Howe thereafter.
And in a relegation battle, if that’s what you can call it, this obsession — almost addiction — is an incredibly concerning facet of a football club that otherwise oozes confidence and positivity.
A 1-1 draw with Watford at home was a disappointing outcome to a match billed as a “must-win” for Newcastle.
A jinking Allan Saint-Maximin strike had given the Magpies an early second-half advantage, only for Joao Pedro to steal in with a late header to further dent United’s bid for survival.
Head coach Eddie Howe handed Premier League debuts to two United new boys, with multi-million dollar frontman Chris Wood leading the line and Kieran Trippier, who made his full debut in the FA Cup last week, at right-back.
The Magpies started the encounter on the front foot with Joelinton rattling the woodwork within the opening five minutes. A Ryan Fraser cross was flicked goalwards by the big Brazilian, only for the corner of bar and post to deny him his second strike of the campaign.
In a bright opening, Josh King, a constant threat for the Hornets, fizzed one past the post when set free down the United right.
Having been the target of Newcastle fan criticism under previous manager Steve Bruce, Scotland international Fraser has been rejuvenated and his crossing from the right, and combinations with Trippier, were a first-half high point.
His delivery saw Joelinton and Wood both go close with headers.
Goalless at the break the game was entertaining in many ways, but severely lacking in quality from either side in the final third.
That all changed just moments into the second period when Saint-Maximin, lifeless for 49 minutes, sparked this encounter with his wizardry on the wing.
The Frenchman left faltering Jeremy Ngakia for dead down the left before cutting in to smash home and unlock joyous celebrations from yet another sell-out St James’ Park.
And while it was everything Howe and the United fanbase wanted and more, they surrendered the initiative so easily in the period that followed.
As the Watford possession and pressure grew so too did the angst among the United faithful.
Too passive was the approach from the bench, too reticent, too accepting of their fate.
And while they were let off not once, as King was thwarted by Martin Dubravka, but twice, when former United midfielder Moussa Sissoko missed good opportunities, it was third time unlucky for the Magpies as Pedro rose highest to head brilliantly past the Slovak stopper to level the scoreline.
It was no less than the visitors deserved, having dominated much of the second half.
With that goal, United dropped back into the bottom three — they lifted themselves out of it for 38 second-half minutes — and continued their unwanted record of dropping points from winning positions this season.
That’s 21 for the season, a trend that must be halted if they are to remain a Premier League outfit beyond May.
Howe has enjoyed home games against Brentford, Norwich City, Cambridge United and now Watford to claim victories. United have won none. He’s also had carte blanche in the transfer market and been allowed to spend around $50 million on new recruits so far this month.
Looking at those facts, it is difficult to know what it will actually take before we see any significant upturn in fortunes on Tyneside.
The clock is ticking, and winnable games will soon become few.
Time is not on United or Howe’s side.
Talk is cheap, and so too are transfers in the grand scheme of things when it comes to owners PIF, but results are proving even too rich for the Magpies, no matter the backing.
The cost of relegation from the top flight — unthinkable to the new owners — is even more difficult to put a price on.