Javi Gracia’s job was probably slightly more secure after his Watford side collected their first point of the season, but the concerning subtext of an incoherent 90 minutes suggested that both he and Steve Bruce are destined for a season of struggle.
As the final whistle blew Newcastle’s manager looked torn between disappointment at his team’s failure to build on last Sunday’s win at Tottenham and relief that a defeat which would surely have provoked further “crisis” talk on Tyneside had been averted.
Following three straight defeats, Gracia could hardly have wished for a more morale-boosting start. After only two minutes Tom Cleverley’s 20-yard shot was deflected into the path of Will Hughes, who delighted in beating Martin Dubravka from close range.
Watford’s celebrations had barely subsided before Gracia’s new-look back five was stretched to the limit by Christian Atsu’s incisive left-wing cross. It really should have prefaced an equaliser for Miguel Almirón but the unmarked Paraguayan’s first touch let him down, permitting the fast-reacting Ben Foster to step off his line and defuse the danger. It was the sort of fluffed chance which suggests that Almirón’s long wait for his first goal in a Newcastle shirt is exerting a psychologically debilitating effect.
As half-time beckoned, Fabian Schär advanced from defence to show his teammate how to finish. When Watford’s defence failed to cope with Emil Krafth’s right-wing cross, bagatelle-style penalty area chaos ensued – and the fallout concluded with Isaac Hayden knocking a loose ball down and Schär hooking beyond Foster. There seemed a strong suspicion that Hayden might have handled the ball but, to Gracia’s evident disgust, VAR was puzzlingly not deployed.
The scrappiness of the preamble to that equaliser proved entirely emblematic of a mutually slapdash, if sometimes entertaining, first half in which both sides struggled to retain possession. Somehow, the only two shots on target had produced two goals.
Foster had an opportunity to remind everyone of his enduring goalkeeping class when, early in the second half, he performed wonders to tip Hayden’s rising 20-yard shot over the bar.
Perhaps sensing the game might be slipping from his team’s grasp, Gracia replaced Hughes and the unsettled Abdoulaye Doucouré – who on this evidence did not look worth £30m of Everton’s money – with Isaac Success and Nathaniel Chalobah.
Success might have won it for Watford after connecting with a superb cross from Cleverley, but Dubravka proved equal to his header, making a fine save. When Success turned provider, cueing up Roberto Pereyra, Bruce’s goalkeeper once again rescued his side with another crisis-averting stop to pacify the 44,157 crowd – a low number for this stadium.