On Wednesday, technology with the sole purpose of seeing whether the ball crosses the line failed to spot a goalkeeper pin the ball to the back of the goalpost. Mr. Hawkeye, in his post-match interview, claimed that never in the history of football had a view been so obstructed by players. This mass gathering of a goalkeeper and two defenders meant that it was impossible for the NASA satellites to triangulate the position of the ball nestling between glove and metal. What are the odds? Allegedly, 1 in 2131. This statistical anomaly, this rarest of rare events, denied Sheffield United a win on their return from the enforced mid-season break. These things balance out though, right?
At 3:10pm on June 21st 2020, imbalance was embraced and chaos reigned. There were 2131 minutes in between Joelinton scoring away at Spurs and him hammer-fisting the St. James’ Park turf on Sunday. What are the odds? Allegedly, 1 in 2131. On this occasion, it was ASM rather than NASA who triangulated with Joelinton and Almiron to result in something we’ve been waiting to see all season finally happen when none of us were there to see it. I’ve seen it written that Newcastle United winning the FA Cup with no fans inside the ground would be the most Newcastle United thing of all time. Yesterday provided the bittersweet hors d’oeuvre to that hard-to-swallow main course, as the empty seats echoed the sounds of three home goals cracking the away team’s net for the first time in 14 months.
Build up to the game had seen plenty discussion as to whether the absence of fans would benefit the goal-shy Brazilian, with some even suggesting that fans were to blame for his poor performances and solitary goal since signing last summer. The measured response to this debate is a wait and see approach and regardless of whether you think he’s a dud or a star (or anywhere in between), nobody wants to see the man fail. However, if the 9 game mini-league was as barren as the other 29 then only the most optimistic fans could argue that there’s a Premier League striker in there. Hey Joe!
His first chance came early in the first half and signs were promising, as a good run was matched by a good first touch which took him into the box. There was no sudden swell of expectation as worn out denim peeled itself from sweaty plastic, no murmur of anticipation as 50,000 built up to a crescendo. A sterile environment in absolute silence, as thousands of banished souls made their living room shudder with a heavy leap from the sunken sofa, ‘Go on, son!’ As he collapsed down to his left and scooped the ball gently into the goalkeeper’s welcoming arms, a familiar feeling of resignation returned as we returned to our seats. Let down in lock down.
Our own preview to the game, analysing Sheffield United, had highlighted two areas pointing towards a difficult afternoon for Newcastle. With only two away defeats, they had the second fewest in the Premier League behind Liverpool and they had also conceded the second fewest goals, again behind only Liverpool. Combined with Newcastle being bottom in almost every attacking and possession statistic, the 0-0 score line at half-time was no surprise. Still, it was nice to not have to stand up and down twenty times either side of the whistle as your neighbours shuffled one by one to the toilet/bar and back.
Just five minutes after the restart, John Egan decided that Joelinton running through on goal was simply too dangerous to risk (he must have seen him in training) and pulled the big man down en route to Henderson. A second yellow card, following a ridiculous decision by the referee to book the same pair in the first half, meant that Sheffield United were down to ten men. Newcastle United, the team who is never given penalties and never has an opponent sent off, suddenly had an advantage. With few goals in the team and the aforementioned miserly nature of our opponents, I wasn’t overly confident that this advantage would be capitalised on. However, it took just five minutes to materialise thanks to Enda Stevens impersonating a Bramble-Boumsong hybrid in front of the Gallowgate, as he socially-distanced himself from Ritchie’s low cross to the delight of Allan Saint-Maximin. 1-0. Get in!
As the clock approached 70 minutes, Ritchie collected the ball from Hayden and strode forward into what seemed like endless space, as no Sheffield United player wanted to get too close to the mad ‘Scotsman’. Perhaps it was his new hairstyle, giving off a pre-Captain America Steve Rogers vibe. Marvel-ous. As he wasn’t closed down and had previously had a decent long-range strike saved, he tried his luck again from the edge of the box and it flew beyond the goalkeeper for 2-0. No teammates, corner flags, or supporter’s bollocks were harmed in the celebration. Surely not even Newcastle United could mess this up.
Less than ten minutes later, Saint-Maximin scooped a pass towards Joelinton, who pushed it out wide to Almiron and despite being almost 80 minutes in to his first game back after the break, as well as the win appearing secure, found the energy and desire to continue his run into the box. Very promising. Miggy rewarded his endeavour with an accurate cross and our number nine scored his first Premier League goal at St. James’ Park. There was no pile-on, a la Almiron’s first home goal, as a more subdued celebration followed the pitch-thumping as he placed the ball up his shirt in a farewell tribute to Mike Ashley.
I deliberately haven’t written about anything Sheffield United did as, well, they did very little. The man with the most saves in the Premier League was as much of a spectator as those of us at home, as he enjoyed what had to be the quietest game of his Newcastle career. The back four was a decent unit, protected by two or three Isaac Haydens throughout, and despite some early threat down our left side, a Billy Sharp header into the Leazes End lower tier and an Enda Stevens shot into the Leazes End middle tier was about it for the away side.
The formation worked and the selection worked and credit goes to the manager, coaches and players for returning from the break to produce such a good result and solid performance. Watford, West Ham and Bournemouth all failed to win on Saturday and our three points took us eleven clear of the relegation zone. Amazingly, we are only eight points behind Man Utd in fifth place. That’s right, we are close to Europe than The Championship.
With Aston Villa to come on Wednesday, a win could take us above Everton, Burnley and Arsenal and into the top half of the table. Villa will be playing their third game in a week and Newcastle’s 40 minutes against ten men, as well as the one game advantage, ought to give us the physical edge in a condensed schedule. It remains to be seen whether Bruce sticks with the winning formula or changes things around with a view to the FA Cup quarter-final on Sunday but with Carroll, Bentaleb, Lazaro, Schär and Yedlin all appearing yesterday there are certainly options to rotate if he wants to.
What is clear is that we all needed yesterday. It has been a difficult few months for all of us as Covid-19 has turned our world upside-down. Lockdown, social isolation, financial uncertainty and anxiety have replaced our previous lives. As Newcastle United fans, we have had the additional turmoil of the never-ending takeover to deal with and all the mental health-sapping media that has gone with it. Our weekly release from the world has been taken away from us and although it wasn’t the same, it was great to have it back. We all have to adjust to the new normal and for many of us, yesterday was as far from our normal match day as you could imagine. However, my phone is filled with talk of what happened on the pitch rather than what might happen off it and I spent a couple of hours shouting at my TV rather than refreshing my Twitter feed. It’s not the pub, your mates, your family and your plastic seat but it’s good to have you back.