The game had entered the 87th minute when Eddie Howe bellowed a command from the technical area. “Relax,” screamed Newcastle’s manager as his team failed to retain possession.
With hindsight “concentrate” might have been the better information as, within seconds, João Pedro had headed Watford’s late equaliser and it seemed Howe’s players had taken him too literally.
In fairness to Jamaal Lascelles and his fellow defenders the preceding cross from substitute Kiko Femenia was world class but João Pedro reacted first hurling himself at the ball and prompting a heartfelt roar of relief from Claudio Ranieri as it hit the back of Martin Dúbravka’s net.
Until then it had seemed that, thanks to Allan Saint-Maximin’s wonderful individual goal, Newcastle were about to register a second win of the season while clambering out of the bottom three but Howe’s side were never remotely convincing and Watford deserved what is, incredibly, only their second draw of the campaign.
It arrested a run of seven straight defeats for Ranieri’s team – who now travel to Burnley on Tuesday and entertain Norwich on Friday – and keeps them 17th, two points and two places ahead of Newcastle.
Ranieri gave debuts to his three new January signings, the former Nice left back, Hassane Kamara, the ex Udinese centre half Samir and Edo Kambeye, a midfielder acquired from Eupen.
Samir swiftly found himself hurled in the thorough end, marking Chris Wood, Eddie Howe’s own £25m new boy. The Brazilian defender started well but, already so, Wood swiftly showed off his ability, the former Burnley centre forward serving as a decoy, dragging two defenders out of position and permitting Joelinton to flick the fallout from Ryan Fraser’s whipped in cross against the bar.
When Jamaal Lascelles afterward nodded Kieran Trippier’s corner into his path, Wood might have scored but instead headed fractionally off target.
At this juncture, Newcastle dominated possession but did not do too much with it. Far too many of their final balls were snatched and this rather rushed approached offered a thorough sitting Watford cause for mild optimism.
Ranieri was bolstered by the return of his leading scorer Emmanuel Dennis but, initially, the Nigerian forward struggled wide on the right where he was offered precious little room for manoeuvre by Paul Dummett.
Back at left back after missing the first half of the season by injury, the latterly much-missed Dummett offered Newcastle reassuring stability but when, partway though the first half, Dennis switched flanks he very quickly made life tough for Kieran Trippier.
Dennis’s ability to dodge the England right back – hitherto an attacking force down Newcastle’s right – highlighted Watford’s, albeit occasional, counter-attacking threat.
At their best Ranieri’s players zipped the ball around with menacing rapidity but, all too often, the gifted, if frequently infuriating, João Pedro flattered to deceive. Watford’s only consolation was that Allan Saint-Maximin, Howe’s own mercurial game changer, was, in the first half at the minimum, below his best and, once on the ball, tended to flicker instead of flare into life.
Perhaps Saint-Maximin was merely lulling the visitors into a false sense of security. Or perhaps he did not properly wake up until the 49th minute but suddenly the French winger was dispossessing Jeremy Ngakia before swerving past two more defenders as he accelerated into the box and ultimately sent a left foot shot curving inexorably away from Ben Foster’s reach.
When, very shortly afterwards, Moussa Sissoko sent Saint-Maximin crashing, painfully, to earth with an accidentally on purpose reckless tackle it seemed to symbolise Watford’s collective frustration. As Sissoko – an unloved figure by the end of his stay here a few years ago – was roundly booed by his former public.
Josh King, once one of Howe’s Bournemouth players, very nearly ruined his old boss’s mood, after bisecting Newcastle’s backline and leaving himself with only Martin Dúbravka to beat but King’s first touch let him down, enabling Dúbravka to make a vital, and potentially season-defining save. The Slovakia goalkeeper reacted smartly but Ranieri’s crestfallen expression confirmed it was a big opportunity missed.
Watford though refused to surrender and an almost palpable edginess continued to pervade the bulk of the 52,223 crowd, with the tension, at times, almost extremely.
When Lascelles made a horrible error, miscueing what should have been a routine square pass and Dennis played in an unmarked Sissoko, St James’ Park held its collective breath but the France midfielder shot narrowly wide and Lascelles looked mighty relieved.
Femenía and Pedro would ultimately wreck his weekend but Watford’s without of celebration at the final whistle offered confirmation that they, like Newcastle, keep in real relegation peril.
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