Despite adding Premier League talent, Newcastle overawed by Championship
Football supporters are never more optimistic than before a season's opening match. The end of that first 90 minutes, though, can bring sincere deflation, a biting chill of reality. Thing are never as easy as they seem in midsummer. Matt Smith's goal to give Fulham a 1-0 win issued just such an icy blast for Newcastle United.
An estimated 7,000 Newcastle fans had travelled to Craven Cottage, filling the Putney End with a sea of black and white stripes plus plenty of bare chests. They began their evening as a deafening wall of sound while largely hailing one man in particular.
The retention of Rafa Benitez's services as manager had salved the wound of relegation to the Championship. Benitez, the Toon Army believe, can rebuild their club into the force it was two decades ago, when Newcastle twice finished second in the Premier League.
Whereas before the club was built in the image of owner Mike Ashley, the retail magnate who employs a stripped-down business practice to wring every last penny from his assets, this summer has seen Newcastle spend serious money to add a quality of player that more than a few Premier League clubs would fancy. Benitez has been a highly prolific transfer market operator wherever he has managed.
Five new signings were making debuts in South West London. Matt Ritchie, former Bournemouth winger, is capable of the spectacular, and his Scotland teammate Grant Hanley played in central defence. Dwight Gayle was once Crystal Palace's attacking wild card. Isaac Hayden was highly rated in Arsenal's ranks in defensive midfield and was signed for £2.5 million, while Matz Sels, signed from Gent, is yet another Belgian goalkeeper in English football.
The aim, and perhaps expectation among many fans, is to win the Championship at a canter, just as the club did under Chris Hughton in 2009-10 with 102 points from 46 matches. Fulham, though, exposed just how difficult that will be. Slavisa Jokanovic's team played with the high energy and forcefulness that must be expected in this division. "We played altogether, and we suffered altogether," said Jokanovic afterward.
There were high balls, frenzied chases and an exhausting, greased-lightning tempo. And that brought mistakes from Benitez's team -- the majority of them used to playing football at a higher level -- where much more time is granted on the ball. And there are rougher, tougher, far more physical Championship teams than the Cottagers to come for Newcastle.
"I am really disappointed," said Benitez. "We did not play at the level we expected. When we were losing 1-0 there was a bit of anxiety. This game must be a wake-up call for everyone." As their team's difficult first half unfolded, the away contingent's noise levels reduced. Ever-present on the touchline, hands thrust in pockets, except when making tactical instructions, a peevish Benitez betrayed concern. His team looked incapable of creating a scoring chance, with Newcastle's best opportunity without doubt being the penalty they should have received for Ryan Tunnicliffe's clear handball of a Ritchie cross just past the half-hour mark.
Nerves were revealed when debutante Sels fumbled a Sone Aluko shot and only panicked defending cleared his lines. That proved a prelude to Smith's winning goal on half-time, where Paul Dummett slipped and let the towering striker nod home a Tom Cairney corner.
Improvements briefly came after the break after Benitez made the long walk back to his dugout seat bending the ear of his assistants with his frustrations.
This was to be no Istanbul 2005, where Benitez's half-time inspiration conjured a miracle for Liverpool. Though Fulham goalkeeper David Button made a fine close-range save from Ritchie early in the second 45, Jokanovic's team soon regained their vigour.
As the game ebbed away, Benitez almost seemed to lose heart, even retreating to his dugout seat on occasion. His team had plenty of possession, but again could not create a chance of decent quality.
Ayoze Perez was a serviceable, occasionally inspired Premier League striker, but Fulham's central defender Kevin McDonald's rugged approach easily clipped the Spaniard's wings, and Perez was replaced on 70 minutes. A couple more Newcastle penalty shots came, but it was Fulham's energy that carried the day, one of stark disappointment for those who had travelled from Tyneside.
This being August, hope can by no means be extinguished. Benitez teams have rarely been known for making rapid-fire starts. His fastidious indoctrinations can take a while to click, and this is all but a new team.
"We said it would be be like this, but you have to be on the pitch to realise that this can happen," he said. "When you are bringing players in, you need time."
Still to be introduced are Ciaran Clark, signed this week from Aston Villa, often a classy central defender, and powerful midfielder Mo Diame, also added this week, who has swapped Hull's Premier League campaign to return to the Championship.
And the hint afterward was that Benitez wants even more players before the transfer window closes in three weeks' time. Perhaps those on the shopping list might include a few players with Championship experience. At Fulham, Newcastle United looked overawed by the lower level.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.