Fulham 1 Newcastle United 0: Miles Starforth’s match analysis

Isaac Hayden (right) stretches to make a challenge on Fulham's Floyd Ayite (left)
Isaac Hayden (right) stretches to make a challenge on Fulham's Floyd Ayite (left)
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Put this one down to experience.

Newcastle United must learn. And quickly.

Over time, United’s quality on the ball should count, but they’ve got to earn the right to play, and that’s not easy.

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They must get quicker, stronger and, at times, nastier.

Fulham bullied, hassled and harried Rafa Benitez’s side on their way to a 1-0 win at Craven Cottage last night. They also played some good football.

Newcastle were caught cold. They simply didn’t get enough time on the ball.

It was fast. It was fraught. It was frenetic.

And Newcastle – who should have had a first-half penalty – are going to have to get used to that week-in, week-out.

The game was decided by a 45th-minute leader from Matt Smith, worryingly scored from a corner.

Over time, United’s quality on the ball should count, but they’ve got to earn the right to play, and that’s not easy.

The result hasn’t dampened the optimism on Tyneside.

It’s early days, but there is much, still, to work on, not least a defence which is vulnerable to set-pieces.

Newcastle supporters had started to fall back in love with the game long before the team bus slowly rolled up Stevenage Road and pulled up outside the Johnny Haynes statue which stands proudly outside Craven Cottage.

There were muted cheers as, one by one, Benitez’s players walked through the gates, but the real welcome was to come just before kick-off time.

Under Benitez, fans had started to dream again, just as they had under Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan.

Supporters were more than just disillusioned under Steve McClaren and owner Mike Ashley.

They were ready to walk away. Indeed, many already had.

Maybe the last person the club’s 7,000-strong travelling support expected to see inside the stadium was McClaren, dismissed in March after an abject eight months at St James’s Park.

Relegation wasn’t all McClaren’s fault – years of under-investment had taken a toll on a squad which couldn’t be patched up by last summer’s huge spend – but he, ultimately, must take responsibility for what were some shocking performances on the pitch.

United, all these months later, feels different.

There’s a different team on the pitch, though some of the same defensive problems persist.

And it feels like a different club off the field. McClaren wasn’t the man to transform Newcastle.

He wasn’t big enough or strong enough to deal with the players he inherited or the club’s hierarchy.

Benitez – who was working with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale a year ago – is big enough and strong enough, and the transformation over the summer has been remarkable.

But the work has only just started. There were five debutants in Benitez’s starting XI against Fulham.

Led by newly-appointed captain Jamaal Lascelles, they were roared on to the pitch by the club’s huge support in the Putney End.

The expectation on Tyneside is huge, and understandably so.

United have invested, and invested well, this summer and they have one of the best coaches in the world in the dugout.

Newcastle looked edgy, even nervous, and Fulham had the better of a frenetic first 20 minutes.

Benitez’s side soon settled into game. Isaac Hayden, signed from Arsenal, was neat and tidy as a defensive midfielder alongside Jack Colback in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but moments of quality in the final third of the pitch were few and far between.

Up front, the ball wouldn’t stick, and Ayoze Perez had a tough first 45 minutes of Championship football.

Referee Simon Hooper hadn’t had the best of games by the time Matt Ritchie, another debutant, broke up the left in the 35th minute.

And Hooper’s big night got worse after he failed to see Ryan Tunnicliffe handle the winger’s cross.

The Wiltshire official’s mistake would prove costly.

United had been troubled by set-pieces in pre-season – all four of the goals they conceded had come from dead balls – and before the break Smith lost his marker to powerfully head a Tom Cairney corner past Matz Sels, who had spilled a shot from Sone Aluko minutes earlier.

Benitez sent out an unchanged side after the break, and Ritchie had a shot saved by the legs of David Button early in the second half.

Rolando Aarons, a player McClaren was keen to loan out last season, replaced Colback just past the hour-mark.

But it was Fulham themselves who kept coming down the flanks.

Aarons slipped after a taking down a cross from Daryl Janmaat, and Adam Armstrong joined him on the pitch for the last 20 minutes. Armstrong – who could yet be loaned out by Benitez – replaced Perez.

Ritchie shot wide of goal in the 80th minute, but United ran out of time.

Newcastle have got time to put this right. It’s going to be a long, long season.