Miles Starforth's match analysis: Birmingham City 1 Newcastle United 1
There hasn't been much FA Cup magic for Newcastle United fans over the years.
In fact, there hasn’t been ANY magic in recent seasons.
The club last won a tie four years ago thanks to a magical goal from Hatem Ben Arfa.
Yet 4,671 supporters travelled to St Andrew’s for Saturday’s game against Birmingham City.
And they made the journey knowing this is a competition the club has virtually zero chance of winning this season.
Sadly, their efforts weren’t matched on the field by a makeshift team, which was held to a 1-1 draw.
Rafa Benitez made eight changes for the match, and his team, after a bright start, again lacked ideas and inspiration.
Newcastle, again, were plodding and pedestrian without Jonjo Shelvey, who has one more match of his five-game ban to serve.
And the end result is an unwelcome replay for Benitez, who is far more concerned with the club’s Championship campaign.
Maybe, just maybe, a stronger team could have got the job done at the first attempt.
Dwight Gayle, the club’s 19-goal leading scorer, watched the match from the bench, while Matt Ritchie, another match-winner, came on for the last 20 minutes.
By then, some of Ritchie’s team-mates were not surprisingly flagging given how little football they had played this season.
But Benitez’s options were limited given that he’d had to make his first substitution in the 10th minute after Aleksandar Mitrovic was stretchered off, having suffered a cut on his leg in a collision with Birmingham goalkeeper Adam Legzdins as Daryl Murphy gave United the lead.
Mitrovic was given oxygen as he left the field on a stretcher.
Fortunately, he could be back within weeks, not months.
Benitez must have feared the worst as the striker was carried off the field, but the 22-year-old was able back from hospital in time to hobble on to the team coach.
Another positive was the performance of Murphy, who had been handed only his second start for the club.
Murphy was in the right place at the right time to prod the ball home after Achraf Lazaar’s corner led to a goalmouth scramble.
The 33-year-old led the line well, though chances were hard to come by.
Birmingham got stronger as the game went on.
Gianfranco Zola’s team, beaten 4-0 in the league at St James’s Park last month, moved the ball well at times.
And they capitalised on a spell of pressure late in the first half.
Jonathan Grounds beat Lazaar and squared the ball for Lukas Jukiewicz, who beat Matz Sels with a simple finish.
The second half was a non-event.
Ritchie and Isaac Hayden were sent on, but United struggled to create chances for Murphy and Yoan Gouffran, who had replaced Mitrovic.
So the two clubs will face each other at St James’s Park on January 18.
The replay will at least give Shelvey a chance to get some match fitness before a Championship return against Rotherham United on January 21.
The impact Shelvey’s suspension has had on Newcastle can’t be over-stated.
United are just too reliant on the midfielder.
Without him, they haven’t been able to control the midfield or playing a telling pass.
Benitez is acutely aware of this fact.
What if Shelvey suffers an injury? Or gets another suspension?
Newcastle need to strengthen in this month’s transfer window.
Ideally, Benitez – who has lost Mohamed Diame, Christian Atsu and Chancel Mbemba to the Africa Cup of Nations – would like to bring in a midfielder and a winger.
Benitez has acknowledged there are no guarantees that he will get the quality he wants before the end of the month.
But the chances are that United will make at least one signing in the window.
Maybe it’s no bad thing that Newcastle’s game against Brighton, scheduled for the FA Cup’s fourth-round weekend at the end of the month, has been postponed.
Everything is going for Chris Hughton’s team – who beat MK Dons 2-0 at the Amex Stadium on Saturday – right now.
And nothing is going for United.
That will change.
Brighton will have a rough patch, and United will need to take advantage when they eventually do run into difficulties.
In the meantime, Newcastle, like they did in the first few months of the season, need to start making their own luck.
They need some magic.
Shelvey’s just one game away from a return, but they can’t rely on him alone to spark them into life.
Benitez, however, isn’t panicking.
And United fans shouldn’t panic either.
The team is in good hands and the club is still well-placed after 25 gruelling league games and five challenging cup ties.
But Benitez knows the FA Cup, sadly, can’t become a distraction for Newcastle this season.
The league is where the magic needs to happen.