Miles Starforth's match analysis: Brentford 1 Newcastle United 2
Mike Ashley saw it with his own eyes. He saw everything.
He saw the blood. He saw the sweat. But, fortunately, there were no tears at Griffin Park.
Somehow, Newcastle United came through nine minutes of added time to beat Brentford 2-1 on Saturday.
And they needed a helping hand from goalkeeper Karl Darlow to do it.
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United needed a win, any win, however it came. And they got one.
Brighton and Hove Albion, meanwhile, suffered a rare defeat at Preston North End.
It was a good day for Newcastle, but it was also a bad day in some respects.
Rafa Benitez, already without a number of players, lost Dwight Gayle, Vurnon Anita and Isaac Hayden to injuries at Griffin Park.
We’ll find out just how bad in the coming days.
And the injury to Gayle, unquestionably, changed the game.
United, leading through a superb Gayle goal, were playing a counter-attacking game when the striker pulled up as the half-hour mark approached.
Gayle – who had beaten goalkeeper Daniel Bentley with a superb left-footed shot at his near post after breaking down the left flank – pulled up and signalled to the bench.
Newcastle had been getting in behind Brentford thanks to the pace of Gayle, Perez and Ritchie as the home side chased the game.
It was a different story after Gayle’s enforced withdrawal.
Brentford unsettled United with a series of balls forward, and Darlow did well to deny Lasse Vibe.
A nervous-looking Newcastle were fortunate to get to the break with their lead intact.
And the advantage didn’t last long in the second half.
Vibe scored from a half-defended corner early in the second half, and there wasn’t much in the way of attacking intent from United, who were pegged back for long spells.
Daryl Murphy, on for Gayle, didn’t have much to work with up front.
That was until the 79th minute, when Ayoze Perez delivered a nonchalant cross from the left with the outside of his right foot.
Murphy knew he couldn’t miss. And he didn’t.
The striker glanced a header past Bentley to open his league account for the club just seven days after netting in the FA Cup.
From that moment on, it was one-way traffic. Brentford came at United again and again and again.
Hayden limped off with a groin problem, and Anita left the field on a stretcher after hurting his ankle.
Darlow joked after the game that when he saw the fourth official hold up a sign with No 9 on it he hoped it was for a substitute.
Unfortunately, it meant nine tortuous minutes of added time.
Darlow denied Jota with a brilliant save and Newcastle held on to win 2-1 almost 25 years after the club, then managed by Kevin Keegan, won by the same scoreline on its last visit to Griffin Park.
It was an important victory, but it came at a cost.
United will assess Gayle, Hayden and Anita this week.
Gayle and Hayden walked out of Griffin Park, but Anita hobbled out of the stadium wearing a protective boot.
Benitez is now without a number of players through injury and the Africa Cup of Nations, though he does again have Jonjo Shelvey available, with the midfielder having served a five-game ban.
Newcastle look short, desperately short, in certain areas, notably midfield.
And that has given Benitez a headache ahead of Wednesday night’s FA Cup replay against Birmingham City at St James’s Park.
Returned loanees Sammy Ameobi and Jamie Sterry, on the bench at Griffin Park, are cup-tied and ineligible for the tie.
Benitez, we know, already wanted to sign at least one player in this month’s transfer window.
So where do the injuries leave United ahead of a challenging few months on the field?
So it comes back to Ashley. And transfers. And, of course, money.
Ashley was at Griffin Park along with managing director Lee Charnley and advisor Keith Bishop.
The club’s owner, we also know, is reluctant to spend big in this window, despite the £30million-plus profit it made on player trading last summer.
The market is inflated, and likely to stay inflated. Is there any value to be had?
And, just as importantly, can Newcastle afford not to strengthen this month?
The club simply has to win promotion this season. If it fails to go up, the odds on it returning next season – with or without Benitez – will lengthen.
Loans look the club’s best bet in this window, but there are no guarantees Benitez will be able to get the players he wants out of Premier League clubs on short-terms deals.
Ashley saw for himself just how challenging this division can be at Griffin Park.
It’s a tough, tough division.
And blood, sweat and tears are needed.
Ashley will have been heartened by the commitment he saw from Benitez’s players against a spirited Brentford team.
Under Benitez, the club is finally moving in the right direction.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done on AND off the field.
The club’s squad needs to be strengthened further, both for the coming months and a potential return to the top flight next season.
And the best judge of what is needed is the judicious Benitez.
He needs to be backed.