The soundtrack of boos which greeted the final whistle signalled a significant opportunity missed on Newcastle United’s part and a big chance seized by Bournemouth.
In many respects Steve Cook’s stoppage time winner for Eddie Howe’s hitherto struggling side represented a mutual return to old habits. While Rafa Benítez’s initially convincing players ended up reminding everyone of the countless bad old days when they were noted for losing concentration – and games – at set pieces, Bournemouth ultimately jogged memories of happier times.
As the visiting fans wondered if a watershed had been reached, Newcastle fans were left fretting over a run of one league win in six games. Some even took the rare, near heretical, step of criticising Benítez for a stubborn refusal not to bring Aleksandar Mitrovic off the bench.
Howe was suitably delighted that the two attacking substitutes used by his Newcastle counterpart – the ineffective Ayoze Pérez and Jacob Murphy - failed to make an impact, thereby enabling Bournemouth to scramble out of the relegation zone. “Being in the bottom three is difficult,” he said. “Psychologically, being out of it is a big thing for us.”
Unusually, Benítez began with two strikers, fielding Dwight Gayle and Joselu in tandem. For the first 20 minutes Bournemouth looked so vulnerable that this ostensibly bold decision seemed eminently logical.
With Howe’s side starting in sluggishly low-tempo mode and proving worryingly slow to second balls, Newcastle dominated. They appeared to have a goal wrongly disallowed for offside when Matt Ritchie’s shot struck a post and Gayle tucked home the rebound.
Replays suggested he had been onside and, having already survived a few scares, Bournemouth had reason to feel suitably reprieved. Foremost among those frights was the moment when Gayle’s header rather fortunately rebounded off Cook’s stomach but goalkeeper Asmir Begovic also did extremely well to repel shots from Christian Atsu and Ritchie.
Yet if Begovic’s outfield colleagues’ passing had clearly lost its old crispness and they seemed to have forgotten how to force any sort of pace, occasional cameos served as reminders of the team they used to be. With the first period drawing to a conclusion, the hitherto underemployed Rob Elliot was stretched to the limit as he first finger-tipped Callum Wilson’s header to safety at the end of a surprise visiting counter-attack and then dived smartly to keep Josh King’s shot out.
Almost imperceptibly, Benítez’s players had lost a little of their momentum and Bournemouth suddenly looked capable of capitalising. Unfortunately a big part of their problem has been that Howe’s forwards appear to have forgotten how to take their chances with a prime example arriving early in the second half. Played in by King, Wilson found himself clean through with only Elliot to beat yet somehow contrived to screw his shot wide.
As Benítez shook his head, it was all too easy to understand how the visitors had now failed to score in six of their previous 10 League games.
Yet as dusk descended, there was a growing sense of a game slipping through Newcastle’s fingers. As the minutes passed home fans realised precisely how much they were missing the injured Mikel Merino’s customary composure and midfield passing vision,
With Howe now deploying ultra-direct tactics, Bournemouth had improved to the point where they finished by far the stronger side. Benítez looked torn between relief and anger when Elliot and Ciaran Clark somehow combined to keep, albeit rather fortuitously, Marc Pugh’s shot out but the former emotion was to be short-lived.
Three minutes’ stoppage time was underway when Andrew Surman swung in a late corner for the visitors and Cook out-leapt everyone to force a close-range header past Elliot before celebrating as if he had just clinched a title.
With games against Huddersfield Swansea and Burnley on the horizon, Cook and company can now alter this season’s narrative. Will they seize the moment? Can Newcastle recover from their own wobble?
“We have to do better in these sorts of games, we created chances but you have to score,” said Benítez, whose untypically clipped responses to questions emphasised his unhappiness.
“I’ll not talk about the referee’s decisions, because I’m not very happy with the decisions,” he said, when asked about Gayle’s disallowed ‘goal’. “But we didn’t do what we had to do on lots of occasions.
“We made mistakes, and in the end we paid for them. We gave the ball away easily, we gave Bournemouth belief they could score. It was a self-inflicted defeat.”