Still, at least Newcastle can concentrate on the league now. On a dank and dreary night, they were handed a lesson in invention and ambition by a Brentford team who can now celebrate the first major cup semi-final in their 121-year history.
They got there by believing in their plan, by having a plan, by wanting the ball: traits that have not defined Steve Bruce’s side for a good while now.
It feels harsh on Brentford, a team of sparkling industry and indefinable chemistry, to reduce one of their greatest triumphs to a case of big-club failure but Newcastle are no longer much of a scalp any more. Josh Dasilva’s second-half winner was the least Brentford deserved for a performance in which they created more, shot more, tackled more, dreamed more.
And in setting light to their season, they effortlessly wrung the last drop of joy out of Newcastle’s. Bruce has spoken at length of wanting to turn around the club’s dreadful record in cup competitions, of aspiring to more than grim survival, to challenge for trophies. He put out something close to his strongest available team in an attempt to reach Newcastle’s first semi-final in the Mike Ashley era. But saying you want to have a go is different to actually doing it and against weakened Championship opposition, with an onus to seize the initiative, Newcastle had nothing.
Perhaps the lesson is that ambition isn’t something you can turn on and off like a tap. You can’t play awful, grizzled football for months on end and then suddenly rip a team to shreds. Not since July have Newcastle enjoyed more than 50% possession against Premier League opposition.
As they pushed for an equaliser they scarcely deserved, you could feel the creakiness: the rust and the inertia of a team so unused to the ball they had almost forgotten what to do with it.
“I’m hugely disappointed because we’ve missed a wonderful opportunity of taking a club into a semi-final,” Bruce said. “But we simply haven’t played well enough. We were too slow in possession. We didn’t run forward enough, we didn’t play it early enough, we didn’t cause them enough problems with the attacking players we had on the pitch. So we have to accept what’s coming our way.”
Instead it was Brentford who arrived with the courage to play, to combine, to take risks on the ball. Victory vindicated Thomas Frank’s decision to make six changes, leaving out Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, without sacrificing its basic essence. Goalscorer Dasilva was also their best player in midfield: deft, skilful and the sort of player Bruce could probably turn into a decent centre-half.
On a worn and sodden pitch, Brentford should probably have gone into the break ahead. Ethan Pinnock and Sergi Canós had glorious headed chances from close range. For their part, Newcastle were largely content to hit Callum Wilson with long punts and try to burgle something out of the melee. Jonjo Shelvey sat at the base of midfield and pinged gorgeous long passes to various imaginary teammates sitting in the stands. Ryan Fraser had a dip from range but that was basically it.
Seeking inspiration, Bruce turned to his bench: Dwight Gayle for Miguel Almirón, Joelinton for Fraser. And perhaps Newcastle were still getting their bearings when Emiliano Marcondes gathered the ball on the left in the 66th minute. He slipped a nice ball into Canós, who got his cross away too easily. Dasilva had made the late run, and scored with a low shot.
Andy Carroll came bounding off the bench, arms flailing, ponytail flapping, barging his own teammate Sean Longstaff out of the way and planting a volley 15 yards over the bar. But as the long balls rained in, Brentford’s goal remained resolutely unthreatened. And so Newcastle became the fourth Premier League team to fall to Brentford in this season’s competition.
“We’re delighted to create a new chapter in Brentford’s history,” Frank said. “It shows how far we’ve progressed as a club.” For Newcastle? Well, it’s back to the league, back to the grindstone, back to a relegation struggle and the interminable search for a soul. There’s a trip to Manchester City on Boxing Day. Then Liverpool visit four days later. If Newcastle’s present feels like a curse, the future feels more like a threat.