Where would Newcastle be without Callum Wilson? In three years on Tyneside the England striker has scored 41 goals in 80 appearances, playing a key role in a couple of relegation escapes before helping secure Champions League qualification in May.
Without Wilson here, Newcastle’s winless run could very easily have stretched to four matches. Instead his impeccably converted, if controversially awarded, second-half penalty proved a rare moment of perfection, camouflaging the series of fast‑developing faultlines running through a side quite possibly distracted by an impending European adventure.
“It was an even game,” said Brentford’s manager, Thomas Frank, who suggested Anthony Gordon collapsed far too easily in the face of fleeting contact from his goalkeeper, Mark Flekken. “We did so many things right, our performance was very impressive and we could have won. That’s why it’s frustrating it was decided by a decision I think was wrong.
“I don’t normally complain about penalties but we have a keeper clearly pulling out of making a challenge and a player cleverly leaving his leg in.”
Much as Newcastle fans discovered the logistics of travelling to Milan for Tuesday’s opening Champions League group stage game to be somewhat trickier than expected, Eddie Howe’s players are finding the Premier League infinitely tougher going than envisaged.
While an absence of direct flights from the north-east to Italy’s fashion capital dictate that those supporters must make complicated and costly connections, Newcastle kicked off here on the back of three straight league defeats.
Given that they suffered only five in the whole of last season, Howe’s team began in slightly dazed and confused mode. As Brentford counterattacked with speed and incision, the tactical buttons Bruno Guimarães and company pressed with instinctive ease as they cantered to fourth place last term suddenly seemed to be sticking.
When Newcastle were not struggling to cope with the impressive Mathias Jensen’s intelligent midfield manoeuvres they struggled to deconstruct Brentford’s meticulously organised five-man defence.
Almost half an hour had passed before Flekken was called to arms. When Kieran Trippier’s corner reached Guimarães, the latterly out of sorts Brazilian headed downwards, forcing Brentford’s goalkeeper to save smartly with his feet.
With Joelinton sidelined by a knee injury and thigh trouble keeping Sandro Tonali on the bench, Sean Longstaff and Elliot Anderson were offered rare starts in the home midfield but found themselves largely eclipsed by Jensen and friends.
Brentford, though, failed to make the most of a couple of decent early chances on the break – most notably when Nick Pope denied Aaron Hickey – and were disrupted when Rico Henry sustained a potentially serious looking knee injury after tangling with Trippier.
Given the left wing-back’s excellence during his side’s unbeaten start to the season that represented quite a blow for Frank – not to mention a player in contention for an England call-up. Without Henry, Brentford were less imaginative but last season’s ferocious Newcastle press was clearly malfunctioning. Maybe Howe is missing the injured Joe Willock more than he imagined.
Newcastle’s manager had restored Wilson to his starting XI, dropping Alexander Isak to the bench, and Wilson appeared to have repaid his manager’s faith by bundling the ball into the net after a 58th-minute goalmouth scramble. Much to the home side’s disgust that effort was disallowed for Wilson’s perceived foul on the arguably fortunate goalkeeper but, six minutes later, the England striker made no mistake from the penaltyspot.
This time Flekken, played into trouble by Hickey’s ill-advised back pass, intervened to halt Gordon’s progress but, perhaps realising the winger was heading away from goal, retreated following minimal contact. Even so, Gordon crashed to earth and Wilson’s immaculate penalty soon sailed beyond Flekken’s reach.
Newcastle might have had a second spot-kick but a VAR review convinced Craig Pawson to overturn his initial decision to award another penalty for handball against Bryan Mbeumo.
No matter; Wilson had already done enough to both justify his new contract extension and avert Howe’s first mini crisis at the St James’ helm.
“It was a massive win for us,” said Newcastle’s manager. “It wasn’t us at our free-flowing best but it means we can enjoy Milan that little bit more.”