IT was fitting that Newcastle United were in Brighton on the same day that the city was playing host to the opening day of the Labour Party conference.

Like Labour, Newcastle also command a huge amount of loyalty in the North-East. Both are led by popular, passionate figures who have re-energised the grassroots. And on the evidence of today’s events at the Amex Stadium, while both have rebuilt successfully after a difficult few years, more work is required is either is to recreate their successes of the mid-1990s.

Having started the weekend in fourth position, Newcastle now find themselves in ninth. That is probably a more realistic reflection of where they stand in relation to the rest of the teams in the top-flight, and while no one was realistically regarding European qualification as a viable target, yesterday’s defeat nevertheless highlighted the attacking shortcomings the Magpies will have to address if they are to keep themselves in a comfortable mid-table position.

A tight game of few chances hinged on a handful of key moments. Joselu and Ayoze Perez were presented with excellent chances in the first half, but failed to find the target. Tomer Hemed was much more clinical when Dale Stephens nodded Pascal Gross’ free-kick towards him in the second period, and Rob Elliot was forced to make three fine saves as Brighton’s attackers proved far more effective than the forwards in black at the opposite end of the field.

With Rafael Benitez prioritising shape and organisation, Newcastle are likely to be involved in a number of close encounters this season. Their last three games have involved a one-goal winning margin, and in matches like that, you have to put your chances away. For all that Benitez clearly values Joselu and Perez’s work rate and link-up play, Dwight Gayle’s finishing skills might have made a difference had he been on the pitch from the start instead of being restricted to a 19-minute substitute role.

The game was effectively up by the time Gayle came on to the field, and while his fellow substitute Jonjo Shelvey clipped the outside of the post from a corner in the closing stages, Newcastle’s frantic late pressure never really looked like resulting in an equaliser.

Three wins and three defeats from the first six games remains a decent enough return, and the Magpies would surely have taken their start had they been offered it prior to their opening game. However, the margins in the majority of their matches are going to be tight, and it will not take much to turn a three-game winning run into a three-game losing one. Maintaining momentum will be key.

To that end, today’s defeat is hardly a disaster, with the majority of the visiting players having acquitted themselves reasonably well. The defence was solid enough for the majority of the afternoon, Mikel Merino purred like a well-oiled machine at the heart of midfield and both Matt Ritchie and Christian Atsu looked to ask questions of the Brighton defence. The main problem was that because of Newcastle’s attacking failings, Brighton’s defenders never really had to come up with any serious answers.

When today’s opponents last met in February, promotion to the Premier League was on the line. There was precious little to choose between them in the whole of last season, and it remains hard to split them now.

That Championship encounter saw Newcastle withstand a torrent of early Brighton pressure before nicking all three points, and today’s encounter followed a similar pattern in terms of the home side’s early dominance.

With Anthony Knockaert and Solly March tearing at the Magpies defence from the flanks, the visitors were forced to deal with a succession of dangerous balls into the area.

They just about held firm, although there were times when their survival was more a case of luck than judgement. That was certainly true of the 11th-minute incident that saw March’s left-wing cross reach Gross at the back post. The summer signing from Ingolstadt looked certain to score when he fired towards the bottom corner, but his goal-bound effort deflected wide off an unfortunate Knockaert. Had the winger not got in the way, Newcastle would almost certainly have been trailing.

That they survived a difficult opening spell was also due to Elliot, with the goalkeeper keeping out another smart effort from Gross before clawing away March’s cross-shot as the ball looked to be creeping into the corner.

Credit must also go to Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark, who threw themselves into the way of a number of dangerous deliveries. Both centre-halves have had strong starts to the season, ensuring that the injured Florian Lejeune has not been missed.

Newcastle spent most of the first half trying to scramble the ball out of their own area, yet they should have been ahead at the break thanks to some slick counter-attacking. The Magpies created three excellent opportunities before the interval, and had either Joselu or Perez displayed more composure, they would have claimed the lead.

Merino could not be faulted for the first opportunity that came the visitors’ way in the second minute. Loitering on the edge of the area as Ritchie shaped to swing in a corner, the Spaniard drilled in an excellent first-time effort that Matthew Ryan did well to turn around the post.

Joselu should have done much better midway through the first half though, with the striker turning to drag a shot wide from the edge of the six-yard box after Perez’s cross was deflected into his path. Having missed a hatful of chances in the previous weekend’s win over Stoke, Joselu’s profligacy is becoming an issue.

Perez has always missed a high ratio of chances, and it was hardly a huge surprise when he chipped wastefully over on the half-hour mark after Chancel Mbemba’s mazy run set him up in the box. Perez’s approach play has improved markedly this season, but he remains without a goal to his name. Had Gayle been on the pitch for either of the first-half openings, the outcome might well have been different.

It always felt as though the misses would prove costly, and the damage was confirmed when Brighton claimed the lead six minutes into the second half.

The goal came courtesy of a well-worked set-piece, with Gross fizzing a free-kick to the back post to enable Stephens to head the ball back across the area. Hemed had his back to goal at that stage, but the Israeli swivelled neatly to hook home a first-time volley. While Bruno appeared to push Mbemba in the build-up, Newcastle’s defending should still have been more robust.

The goal immediately energised the home players, and Newcastle would have fallen further behind just five minutes later had Elliot not produced an excellent save with his feet to prevent March’s sliding back-post effort from crossing the line.

Newcastle had plenty of possession in the closing stages, but the closest they came to an equaliser was when Shelvey’s in-swinging corner clipped the outside of the upright with 17 minutes left.