All the pre-match talk revolved around takeovers and the mooted prospect of Newcastle becoming a golden pawn in a Saudi Arabian geopolitical soft-power grab.
Yet once 3pm arrived Steve Bruce’s players swiftly found themselves transformed into the playthings of third-tier Oxford as Karl Robinson’s well organised and highly motivated team barely permitted them a sniff of goal.
By the final whistle Oxford were well worthy of a mutually unwanted replay at the Kassam Stadium, which keeps Newcastle waiting to see if they can reach the fifth round for the first time since 2006.
“My players did wonderfully well but Newcastle have had better days – they weren’t at the level I was expecting,” said Robinson before admitting distinctly mixed feelings about the outcome. With Oxford now facing nine fixtures in February he said he would have “much preferred” the tie to be settled by extra-time and/or penalties. “I’ve got a squad of 20 players and they’re at breaking point,” he said. “But my chairman wanted the replay.” That rematch could be worth around £500,000 to the club but, with his team very much in the League One promotion mix, Robinson eyes a bigger prize on the horizon.
Bruce, in contrast, is prioritising the FA Cup – not that his players seem to have received the memo. “I was frustrated, disappointed and upset from the first minute to the last,” said Newcastle’s manager. “We couldn’t be as bad as we were today. Oxford made it difficult for us but we haven’t done enough.”
To exacerbate his angst, the replay has ruined Newcastle’s prospective winter break, shredding their plans for rest and relaxation. “It was supposed to be a week off,” said Bruce. “But what’s the point if they shove replays into it? It’s a ridiculous situation. I would have liked the tie to be settled here.”
There might have been no need for the impending trip south had his side not enjoyed a large slice of luck early on when their captain, Jamaal Lascelles, was shown a yellow rather than a red card for a reckless and thoroughly out-of-control tackle on Shandon Baptiste.
Fortune then appeared to frown on Bruce’s players as Oxford’s Josh Ruffels survived a VAR penalty check after seeming to trip Joelinton in the area. Not that Newcastle deserved to be ahead after a substandard display in which they were off the pace and rarely stretched Robinson’s defence.
Oxford looked far too comfortable for the liking of the majority of the 52,221 sellout crowd, with the exciting but profligate Middlesbrough loanee Marcus Browne frequently fazing Lascelles and company.
Early in the second half Allan Saint-Maximin, hitherto a study in erraticism, cued up Joelinton but, although the £40m Brazilian swept the ball beyond Simon Eastwood, he was flagged offside and the impasse endured.
Newcastle permitted their guests generous amounts of space and time and they could easily have fallen behind when Browne sent a deceptively curving shot fractionally wide with Karl Darlow appearing well beaten.
Darlow, deputising for the rested Martin Dubravka in an otherwise strong home side, subsequently saved well from Browne and, although Joelinton deposited the ball in the net for a second time, it was once again well offside.
A positive for Bruce came in the shape of the Schalke loanee, Nabil Bentaleb. The Algeria international and one-time Tottenham midfielder completed a neat and tidy – if unremarkable – 80-minute debut with his departure prefacing a strong finish on Oxford’s part.
It is no exaggeration to say Newcastle were left clinging on for the replay as Darlow saved superbly to deny the midfielder Nathan Holland.
“We had a quite remarkable crowd,” said Bruce. “And my biggest disappointment is that we didn’t send them home in raptures.”