Hughton's men booed after fruitless slog on the Tyne

Newcastle United 0 Bristol City 0

Not much made sense for Newcastle yesterday. They maintained their three-point lead at the top of the Championship, and yet were booed off. With second-placed West Bromwich Albion having been held to a draw at Preston earlier in the day, there was a distinct sense of an opportunity missed.

They didn't play well, and yet dominated the game. They had enough chances to have won three games, and yet drew. And, 17 years after he announced his arrival as manager with a 3-0 win against the same opposition, the spectre of Kevin Keegan again stalked St James' Park.

Few fans seemed to begrudge him the £2 million compensation he was awarded this week. Perhaps strangely, though, there were no obvious manifestations of anger towards the club's owner, Mike Ashley, despite Keegan's statement that he had resigned because he could not countenance signing Ignacio Gonzalez on loan as a favour to an agent.

Whatever the club's off-field problems – and Ashley admitted last week that Keegan's compensation claim against the club could have sent them into administration – they still have probably the strongest squad in the division. All of their starting line-up, and three of the substitutes yesterday, have significant Premier League experience, which for most of them goes beyond sleepwalking to relegation last season.

Confidence, though, clearly remains fragile. They began both halves with a sense of purpose that suggested a team about to brush their opponents aside, but when the expected goal failed to arrive – thanks to a combination of individual errors, fine goalkeeping, misfortune and a refereeing decision that seemed bewildering to at least 40,000 inside St James' – self-belief began to wane. Passes were misplaced, moves became either hurried or over-elaborate and anxiety reigned. Still, that does not alter the fact that Bristol City, sweetly though they held possession at times, could have been well beaten, and offered next to nothing as an attacking threat.

"That's an extremely good point," said the City manager, Gary Johnson. "The boys threw themselves in front of things, put their bodies on the line, and when they got past them they couldn't get past our goalkeeper."

Marlon Harewood, running on to a Peter Lovenkrands flick, hit a post after eight minutes. Steven Taylor and Kevin Nolan hit the bar in the same move with 20 minutes to go.

The City goalkeeper, Dean Gerken, playing only because of a groin injury to Adriano Basso in the warm-up, produced fine saves to keep out Danny Guthrie's volley then Kevin Nolan's header just before the hour.

"It was very frustrating,"said Chris Hughton, the Newcastle manager. "But I couldn't fault the manner of it, in particular in the second half."

It all began to feel a little ridiculous, and it became even more so when Harewood, having turned inside Jamie McCombe, appeared to have his standing leg swept away. The referee, Graham Salisbury, denied the penalty.

"For me it's an absolute certain penalty," Hughton said. "Some penalties you're not sure whether the ref's going to give it but there my first impression was just to wait for him to give it. There are two officials out there and whatever blame we put on the referee, we put more on the linesman because he's closer."

Even Johnson seemed to accept that the penalty should have been given. "I must admit my heart was in my mouth," he said. "The lads felt there was a bit of contact but maybe he was already starting to go down."

As though the weather itself had been startled by the absurdity of it all, rain began to fall from a perfectly blue sky and a full rainbow briefly arched above the East Stand. It seemed less the promise of a new future than a poignant emblem of the passing of the optimism Keegan brought to the club. When a settlement on costs for his legal action is reached this week, his association with the club will be completely severed. That dream is over.