AND so the wait goes on. The coronavirus pandemic might have turned the football world upside down, but Newcastle United’s underachievement endures regardless. It is now more than 65 years since the Magpies won a major domestic trophy, a wait that will not be coming to an end this summer.

Manchester City will head to Wembley for an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, while Newcastle will play out their final seven league games in this strange semi-season wondering about what might have been.

If only Steve Bruce had been braver with his tactics. If only there had been a capacity crowd inside St James’ Park roaring the home side on. If only Dwight Gayle hadn’t side-footed over the crossbar midway through the second half when it looked easier to score.

Gayle’s miss was the defining moment of the game, as just two minutes after the Newcastle substitute failed to find the target, Raheem Sterling swept home Manchester City’s second to book Pep Guardiola’s side yet another Wembley visit. Leading through Kevin de Bruyne’s first-half penalty, the reigning FA Cup holders took another major step towards the successful defence of their crown.

City have now gone ten FA Cup matches without tasting defeat, but in truth, this was a quarter-final in name only. Football without fans has become the new normal in the last couple of weeks, but this was an occasion when it was impossible not to wonder what might have been had the coronavirus pandemic not ripped up the sporting rulebook.

A first FA Cup quarter-final appearance in 14 years should have been a momentous occasion for anyone involved with Newcastle United. In normal times, a Sunday night meeting with Manchester City would have seen Newcastle city centre heaving in the hours leading up to kick-off. The Gallowgate End would have been a sea of black-and-white, the Leazes a cacophony of noise with thousands of travelling City supporters adding to the atmosphere from the upper tier. The ‘Cathedral on the Hill’ would have been open for Sunday service; the magic of the cup would have been very much alive.

Instead, what played out was the most anodyne and emotionally-starved experience imaginable. From the very first minute, as the shrill blast of referee Lee Mason’s whistle drifted into the empty vacuum that should have been filled by a maelstrom of noise, the evening amounted to little more than a training exercise.

It was Manchester City’s world-class attack against Newcastle’s not-quite-world-class defence. It was ten outfield City players pushing towards Newcastle’s penalty area, and ten black-and-white clad defenders stationed regimentally on the edge of their 18-yard box. In short, it was painful to watch.

In Bruce’s defence, it would have been madness to try to match City stride for stride, and Newcastle have profited from similar rope-a-dope tactics in the past. They worked against Guardiola’s City side last season, when second-half goals from Salomon Rondon and Matt Ritchie resulted in a 2-1 win, and also saw Newcastle pull off a 1-0 win over Chelsea in January.

But in the context of an FA Cup quarter-final, there was something inherently depressing about the sight of Newcastle willingly ceding 85 per cent of possession in the opening 25 minutes before the first drinks break. Newcastle made 15 successful passes in that period; Manchester City completed 188. It was men against boys, with the boys seemingly lacking ambition as well as ability.

In a different context, of course, Newcastle’s players might have inspired by the urgings of the crowd. Instead of strolling around as they liked, City’s players might have been unsettled by some antagonism from the stands. As it was, it was simply a matter of when, rather than if, they would break Newcastle’s resistance.

They might have scored in the 24th minute had Karl Darlow, presumably preferred to Martin Dubravka out of sentiment given his involvement in four of Newcastle’s previous five FA Cup matches, not raced from his line to close down Sterling when Riyad Mahrez’s shot deflected into his path.

They went close again moments later when Darlow parried another effort from Sterling, but with Jamaal Lascelles, Fabian Schar and Federico Fernandez working assiduously to close down space in the 18-yard box, Newcastle might have held out at least until the interval had they not shot themselves in the foot eight minutes before the break.

Schar had performed solidly on his return to the team, but the Swiss international panicked when Gabriel Jesus threatened to get on the wrong side of him as he edged towards Kyle Walker’s cross, and his decision to bundle over the Brazilian resulted in the award of a penalty.

De Bruyne stepped up, and three days after he had been left desolate at Stamford Bridge as Manchester City ceded their Premier League title to Liverpool, the Belgian slotted home his spot-kick to go a long way towards ensuring City would not also be losing possession of their FA Cup crown.

Aymeric Laporte wasted a glorious opportunity to double City’s lead before the interval, putting a free header wide from a corner, but while the need for Bruce to change something at half-time was obvious, the decision to move Schar into midfield for the second half was hardly the most dynamic of moves from the Magpies boss.

Given their lack of possession, there was a desperate need for Newcastle to protect the ball when they had it. Instead, on the rare occasions they found themselves in a position to attack, the Magpies’ playmakers were like rabbits in the headlight, too startled to move or think rationally.

Sean Longstaff was arguably the worst culprit in terms of wasting possession, although Miguel Almiron and Javier Manquillo pushed him close. Andy Carroll, selected ahead of Joelinton, must have felt he was back doing what he has been doing for most of the season – watching on from afar.

Carroll departed shortly after the hour mark as part of a double change that saw Gayle and Joelinton come on to the field, and just as in Wednesday’s draw with Aston Villa, the former was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity within minutes of coming on to the field. This time, however, it went begging.

Standing on his own on the edge of the six-yard box, Gayle side-footed over after Allan Saint-Maximin crossed from the right. It was a crucial miss as just two minutes later, City were two goals to the good and effectively out of sight.

Phil Foden slipped the ball to Sterling, and after shuffling infield, the England forward fired in an excellent 25-yard strike.

That was effectively that, with the final 20 minutes turning into even more of a training exercise than the 70 minutes that had preceded it. City went close to claiming a third, but Darlow saved from Jesus and the visitors were content in cruising towards a conclusion, such was the security of their two-goal lead.

Bruce had pledged to target the FA Cup, and to an extent, he has proved as good as his word. Whatever their approach to the cup competitions though, Newcastle’s failure to make a telling impact endures.