There was a palpable sense of optimism at a sold-out St James’ Park as Newcastle United kicked off against third-tier Cambridge United in the FA Cup third round on Saturday.
After a woeful first half of the season, the turn of the year was meant to usher in new hope and Friday’s signing of Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid was seen as a statement of intent for the hosts.
After the final whistle sounded however, it was the 5,000 visiting Cambridge fans who were celebrating after a 1-0 victory sealed by Middlesbrough-born Joe Ironside’s goal.
As Newcastle’s players disappeared down the tunnel with their heads bowed, boos rang out from the home fans who now have only a desperate relegation battle to look forward to.
Trippier, who made his debut after a £12 million move from the Spanish champions, must wonder what he has walked into.
Defeat means Newcastle have still won only once in all competitions this season.
They sit 19th in the Premier League and on the evidence of Saturday it will need far more than Trippier to prevent the club, bought by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund in October, from taking their newfound wealth into the second tier.
They will point to 23 goal attempts, two disallowed goals and a magical display by Cambridge keeper Dimitar Mitov, but manager Eddie Howe was making no excuses for a defeat by a side in 16th position in League One.
“We are desperately disappointed. We really prepared well for this game and we played a very strong team,” said Howe, who replaced Steve Bruce as manager.
“But ultimately we found a goalkeeper in superb form and a team that defended for their lives and we couldn’t break them down. I don’t think there was anything wrong with our attitude we just couldn’t deliver the quality to score.
“We did have some good moments but we lacked that killer instinct that every team needs.”
Newcastle’s most recent game before the Cambridge debacle was an encouraging draw with Manchester United.
Next week they face 17th-placed Watford in a massive relegation scrap.
“The size of the task remains what it is, I just hope the game doesn’t damage our players’ confidence,” Howe said.
“The next group of games could potentially be season-defining. Giving them the confidence to execute is the challenge I face. It’s a good group of players with a good attitude but we have to take this defeat on the chin and come back again.”
Cambridge had not scored in their last three games but produced the shock of the day.
“There is always a fairytale and an upset in this competition, we always hoped it would be us but then saw the teamsheet and how strong they were,” 36-year-old Cambridge manager Mark Bonner said.
“So proud, we rode our luck at times but the goalkeeper was outstanding. We have a game Tuesday so we crack on and get ready for that but these are moments we never forget because you don’t know how long until you can enjoy the next one.”