IN the summer of 2017, Rafael Benitez thought he had agreed a deal to sign Javier Hernandez. Newcastle needed a striker, Hernandez was desperate to leave Bayer Leverkusen, and the fundamentals of an agreement were quickly brokered.

As has so often been the case, though, Newcastle then got cold feet. Did they really want to be signing a player who had just turned 29? Were they really willing to meet Leverkusen’s asking price, or agree to Hernandez’s wage demands? Newcastle dallied, West Ham sensed an opportunity, and displaying a clarity of purpose that is seemingly anathema to both Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley, Hernandez made a £16m move to the London Stadium on a contract that is reportedly worth around £80,000-a-week. Newcastle paid £5m for Joselu instead.

Fast forward 12 months to the summer just gone. Benitez wanted both a winger and a new number ten. He spent most of the transfer window putting names to those above him, but was left frustrated when Ashley’s refusal to loosen the purse strings meant he found himself scrambling around for loans or cut-price deals such as the one that resulted in Yoshinori Muto moving to Tyneside.

West Ham, who finished three places below Newcastle last season and attract very similar attendances to the Magpies, targeted players in the same positions. They spent £36m – more than double Newcastle’s all-time transfer record – to sign Felipe Anderson from Lazio, and just for good measure, also lavished £17.5m on Borussia Dortmund winger Andriy Yarmolenko. Oh yes, and at the same time as signing Hernandez, they also paid Stoke City £24m for Marko Arnautovic.

Two similar-sized clubs, with similar-sized revenue streams. Just poles apart when it comes to the ambition of their owners. David Sullivan and David Gold might have their faults, but they want West Ham to be the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League, knocking on the door of the established big six. Ashley, on the other hand, is happy to revel in mediocrity provided the sums add up and the Sports Direct branding remains visible at St James’ Park.

What happens if you pull in such different directions? Games like Saturday’s, when the discrepancy in class between the respective attacking line-ups could hardly have been starker. Hernandez scored twice for West Ham and should have had a hat-trick. Arnautovic pulled the strings alongside him, deftly finding space as he claimed an assist, and Anderson was the best player on the pitch as he capped a superb left-wing display with a stoppage-time strike.

Newcastle’s ‘number ten’, Ayoze Perez, was ironically cheered from the field when he was substituted. That was harsh on the Spaniard, who gave his all, only to be found wanting as he spurned three decent chances before the break, but it nevertheless tells a story.

Benitez has wanted an upgrade on Perez in at least the last five transfer windows. Instead, the £1m signing from Tenerife remains Newcastle’s key creative force, along with Kenedy, who Benitez has begged and borrowed from Chelsea, and Matt Ritchie, who would have moved to a Championship club this summer had his manager been able to secure a replacement.

Until Ashley accepts that his parsimonious stance is holding Newcastle back, nothing will change. So while a protest at Saturday’s game, with around 1,000 supporters not taking their seat until the 11th minute to mark the 11 years of stagnation they have witnessed under Ashley, was something of a damp squib, the sentiments behind it were valid. Not being able to keep up with Manchester City is one thing; operating on a completely different plane to a club like West Ham is surely quite another.

“This does not remind me of what we have to do (in the January window), because we knew already,” said Benitez. “We knew the players they had and how it would be a dangerous game for us, especially on the counter. Everything that happened, we knew could happen and that’s my disappointment. We didn’t prevent the problem we knew we could see on the pitch.

“But I’m not here to talk about West Ham. They have spent a lot of money, and you can see they have brought some quality in. For sure, they will not be in a relegation battle. The difference between teams is not too much, but in general, the league is tough.”

It becomes even tougher when you are effectively operating with one hand tied behind your back. Newcastle’s recent three-game winning run might have hauled them out of the relegation zone, but it really just papered over the cracks.

This is a squad lacking in the kind of quality that Anderson and Arnautovic were able to provide West Ham, and while honest toil and organisation might well be sufficient to avoid relegation for a second season in a row – especially if Benitez is afforded a degree of leeway when the transfer window reopens – the limits of Newcastle’s ability will always bring them to heel in the end.

Those limits were apparent throughout Saturday’s game. It is not that the Magpies played particularly badly, they just lacked the clinical composure that West Ham were able to muster in the final third and paid a high price for some uncharacteristic defensive sloppiness.

Hernandez was completely unmarked as he converted Robert Snodgrass’ cross to open the scoring in the 12th minute, and evaded the Newcastle backline again shortly after the hour mark as he raced on to Arnautovic’s flick-on and fired past Martin Dubravka.

Anderson had already wasted one good opportunity when he shrugged off Fabian Schar to fire home West Ham’s third goal in stoppage time.

Newcastle had chances, but Perez failed to trouble Lukasz Fabianksi and dragged a poor shot well wide of the target after Kenedy released him into the area. Hence the ironic cheers that greeted his departure when he was replaced by Joselu with 12 minutes left.

“He had some chances and fans are expecting he should score,” said Benitez. “It’s part of the game. We created enough chances to score goals.

“I think we have to understand that everybody wants to win, starting with the players. Ayo is working really hard for the team.”

That work is often insufficient, though, when the opposition boasts better players. That is the fundamental truism Newcastle are forced to battle against every week, and while the three previous matches might have represented a revival, reality was always going to bite.

“We have had some good results, but we were not thinking about Europe or anything like that,” said Benitez. “We know the target is to stay in the Premier League, and every point is important. It is exactly the same now as it was before.”

And it is likely to remain ‘exactly the same’ until those above the Newcastle manager change tack.