CHRIS WOOD played 20 games at St James’ Park as a Newcastle United player and scored one goal.

This afternoon, he returned to the ground with Nottingham Forest and scored three. So much for the 32-year-old being a busted flush when the Magpies opted to sell him to the City Ground in January.

Wood was supposed to be a throwback to an era that Newcastle have left behind. Signed in Eddie Howe’s first transfer window to give the Magpies an attacking option as they scrambled to try to stay in the Premier League, the New Zealander was jettisoned as soon as the club’s new Saudi Arabian owners began to splash the cash.

Today, however, he provided his former employers with a depressing ending to 2023, condemning them to a thoroughly-deserved home defeat that means they have now lost six of their last seven matches in all competitions if the penalty shoot-out defeat at Chelsea is included. This has been a magical year for the Magpies, with Champions League adventures, a Wembley appearance and a top-four finish. It is ending, though, in alarming fashion.

For all that Newcastle’s squad has been ravaged by injuries in the last few months, it is impossible to excuse both the scale and manner of their latest loss. Time and time again, Nottingham Forest’s forwards tore through flimsy opposition resistance, counter-attacking with pace and purpose and exposing the fragility of Newcastle’s backline.

Dan Burn struggled repeatedly before he was hauled off in the early stages of the second half, Kieran Trippier’s nosediving form showed no signs of turning around, and Bruno Guimaraes was absent without leave for much of the game, leaving a huge hole at the heart of midfield that Forest gleefully exploited on multiple occasions.

Wood took all three of goals superbly, but Newcastle hardly made life hard for their opponents. Even their goal came courtesy of a questionable penalty decision, and while Howe still has plenty of credit in the bank, he perhaps needs to start thinking more creatively to get his side out of their current slump. With their next two league matches pitting them against Liverpool and Manchester City, not to mention the small matter of an FA Cup tie with Sunderland looming large, this feels like a crucial few weeks.

Pretty much the only positive to emerge from today’s game was the performance of Lewis Miley, with the 17-year-old once again betraying both his age and inexperience as he tried to get his team going as the game slipped away from them.

The youngster has been the individual success story of Newcastle’s season so far, with his poise and assurance at the heart of midfield being allied to a fair amount of bottle. Having conceded possession cheaply in the third minute, giving the ball away in his own area to enable Morgan Gibbs-White to flash a low shot just past the post, he could easily have retreated into his shell.

Instead, he became even keener to get onto the ball, driving forward through the heart of midfield and threading astute passes to those around him.

It was one such pass that led to Newcastle taking the lead midway through the first half, with Miley picking out Isak as the Swede broke into the box. Isak was clipped by Ola Aina as he spun towards goal, and after a lengthy VAR check resulted in the on-field award of a penalty being upheld, the Magpies striker rolled a clinical spot-kick past Matt Turner.

Newcastle had opportunities to add another goal before the break, the best two of which saw Turner keep out efforts from Isak. However, they always looked vulnerable to Forest’s counter-attacking, with the lack of a natural defensive midfielder once again leaving them exposed whenever their opponents broke.

The warning signs were there shortly after the half-hour mark when Anthony Elanga was slipped in down the right. The summer signing from Manchester United should probably have scored, but Martin Dubravka got down to make a fine save. Come half-time stoppage time, however, there was to be no reprieve for the hosts.

Miguel Almiron’s questionable decision-making was evident again as he passed up a golden shooting opportunity in the Forest box, and once the Paraguayan lost the ball, the counter-attack was on. Morgan Gibbs-White charged down the middle of the pitch, Elanga broke beyond Burn down the right, and when the Swede slid a low ball across the area, Wood was left with the simple task of tapping home.

On the balance of play, the equaliser was no more than Forest deserved, and Nuno Espirito Santo’s side twice went close to claiming the lead within the opening five minutes of the second half. With Newcastle rocking, Gibbs-White glanced a header wide after Elanga once again skipped past Burn, before the attacking duo combined again as Elanga fired in a low shot that was saved.

It felt like only a matter of time before the visitors scored again, and their second goal duly arrived eight minutes into the second half.

Again, Newcastle were undone on the break, with Elanga being allowed to charge unchallenged down the middle of the field. He spread play to Wood, who was being played onside by Burn, and the former Magpies striker inflicted more misery on Newcastle’s left-back and he skipped past him before chipping a deft finish past Dubravka.

A brace was probably beyond Wood’s wildest dreams as he returned to St James’ Park for the first time since leaving just under a year ago, but better was to come just seven minutes later.

Tino Livramento came on to replace Burn, but one of the substitute’s first acts was to play Wood onside as Murillo played a long ball from the back. Racing clear into the left of the box, Wood skipped around Dubravka before rolling home.