Miles Starforth's analysis: Not quite a promotion procession for Newcastle now!

This is getting a little too close for comfort.

Tuesday, 3rd January 2017, 10:00 am
Updated Monday, 9th January 2017, 12:01 pm
Matt Ritchie presses forward for Newcastle

A seventh Championship defeat for Newcastle United has left the club looking down the table at a clutch of teams.

Reading are six points behind them with a game in hand.

And the journey back across the Pennines for the club’s 7,000-strong travelling support last night will have seemed that bit longer given what they saw at Ewood Park, where Blackburn Rovers, for the second time this season, beat Rafa Benitez’s side 1-0 thanks to a Charlie Mulgrew goal.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

New league leaders Brighton and Hove Albion, by contrast, are looking a little bit more comfortable.

Chris Hughton’s side lead Newcastle by two points. They also have a game in hand.

United weren’t bad at Ewood Park. They weren’t great, either. And Jason Steele, Blackburn’s goalkeeper, was very good.

Newcastle missed Jonjo Shelvey. Again. And they again lost a game they should have at least drawn.

Benitez spoke about the need to “learn to draw” after the club’s Boxing Day defeat to Sheffield Wednesday.

It’s a lesson the team have still to learn.

You can’t win them all, not least in a division as unforgiving as the Championship. So those draws can add up.

And seven defeats is several too many for a team with aspirations of winning the title.

Benitez had surprised fans by leaving Aleksandar Mitrovic on Tyneside and taking Daryl Murphy with him to Lancashire.

Mitrovic was not injured, nor ill. And the decision, which came as the transfer window opened, promoted a mixed reaction from supporters, with the striker having become something of a cult figure since his move from Anderlecht in the summer of 2015.

But Benitez – who could well start Mitrovic in Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Birmingham City at St Andrew’s – had been wanting to include Murphy in his squad for some time given what he’d seen from him on the training field.

Benitez recalled Mohamed Diame, Yoan Gouffran and Vurnon Anita to his starting XI at Ewood Park, while former Rovers captain Grant Hanley, signed for £5million last summer, didn’t even make the bench.

It was the kind of dilemma that Blackburn manager Owen Coyle would have loved to have had ahead of the game.

The club, which Alan Shearer helped to the Premier League title in 1995, has fallen on hard times under the controversial six-year ownership of Venky’s.

And there was a march before the game, and more protests after the final whistle in the home end of Ewood Park, against the Indian firm.

United, by contrast, look to be finally on the up under Benitez, whatever happened yesterday.

The club’s huge travelling support crossed the Pennines in high spirits.

It felt like a home game for Newcastle. The Blackburn End was barely a third full given the disillusionment in the town with the running of a famous club which was challenging for trophies not so long ago.

The game took a while to warm up at a chilly Ewood Park.

Blackburn looked the more dangerous team in the open 15 minutes. Marvin Emnes drifted around the pitch, and Coyle’s side threatened on the break.

Newcastle, however, had the first real chance of the game.

Diame cut inside and struck a fierce shot from 20 yards which crashed against the crossbar, and Gayle also forced a save from a tight angle in the 26th minute after creating space for himself by the byline.

While United looked more like scoring, they also looked more like giving the ball away.

Gayle forced another save from Steele as the break approached, and Newcastle, by now better on the ball, ended the half on top having had a good spell of pressure.

Gouffran put a shot wide early in the second half, and Ciaran Clark had a goal disallowed for handball minutes after Gayle had one ruled out for offside.

United, finally, were seemingly in control. Clark had another effort tipped over the bar by Steele, who had been far busier than his opposite number Karl Darlow.

But Darlow couldn’t get to Mulgrew’s 74th-minute free-kick, which had resulted from a needless Jack Colback foul on Emnes.

Murphy followed fellow substitutes Ayoze Perez and Christian Atsu on to the pitch, but he couldn’t mark his league debut for the club with a goal.

Benitez has now lost Diame, Atsu and Mbemba, for the foreseeable future, to the African Cup of Nations.

And the need for reinforcements in this month’s transfer window is more pressing than ever.