Newcastle United’s first match since their takeover was against a team with issues of its own, but Spurs were too much for Steve Bruce.
1) The irony in this of all fixtures is that nothing at all has changed at St James’ Park since the Saudis arrived. They ummed and ahhed over the manager and then decided that they should give him an indeterminate number of games in which to prove himself. They can’t have brought in any new players yet because of the transfer window. So, in other words, the party atmosphere for this match was effectively a celebration of money and a perception of power, rather than a celebration of something that has already started. This, for now, is still Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United. Although it might not be by the time you read this.
2) And it’s important to remember that Newcastle United aren’t now owned by money. They’re owned by a group of people with no previous experience of running a Premier League football club. That may matter somewhat less in six months’ time than it does now, but in the meantime Newcastle have to start winning football matches, or the new owners will have paid a considerable amount of money for a Championship club.
3) If you wanted ideal opponents for the opening match of a new era, you’d probably choose Spurs. Even those who study this club under an electron microscope are struggling to establish what this team are at the moment. Is this the side that can or the one that can get absolutely humped by Crystal Palace? And if it’s both, which would turn up on Tyneside?
It’s difficult not to think of the last day of the 2015/16 season, when Spurs travelled to St James’ Park for a match needing a point to secure the runners-up place in the Premier League. Newcastle had already been relegated and had a player sent off, but won 5-1 anyway and Spurs were bumped down to third and out of what would have been their best league finish in 55 years, by… Arsenal. Now that is peak Spurs.
4) Reports from outside the ground before the match were that there were some Newcastle supporters with tea towels on their heads, but that they were outnumbered by tutting. Regardless of this, claims that ‘we’re just pleased to see the back of Mike Ashley, honest’ sounded a little hollow in the face of incidents like this.
Newcastle supporters have been cut slack in the media since the takeover went through. Most articles about them have been prefaced with pretty clear disclaimers that they’re obviously not personally responsible for the atrocities committed by the Saudi Arabian government over the last few decades, and a couple have gone out of their way to find those who have been suffering cognitive dissonance about it all. The experience of some is agonising to read. But a little more critical thinking wouldn’t go amiss, especially now that Ashley has definitely gone.
5) For about ten minutes, Newcastle’s players went about their business as if their careers depended on it. They might well do, if we consider how almost all of them had been playing prior to the takeover. Within two minutes, they had the lead when Callum Wilson got to Javier Manquillo’s cross from the right ahead of the static Cristian Romero to thump a diving header past Hugo Lloris. St James’ Park absolutely erupted. This was the rebirth they’d come for.
6) Of course, the problem here was that this was still Bruce’s Newcastle United, and running around as though you’ve drank 48 cans of energy drink just before kick-off doesn’t mean much in and of itself. Spurs settled reasonably well, considering the early setback, and 15 minutes later, having finally got a foot on the ball and slowed the pace of the game down, they were level when Tanguy Ndombele rifled the ball in from the edge of the penalty area.
7) And five minutes later, they were ahead. Harry Kane has taken a while to get going this season, but he finally bagged his first Premier League goal of the season when the Newcastle defence stood stock still awaiting an offside flag, only for Kane to nip through and lob the ball past Karl Darlow. A realisation seemed to ripple around St James’ Park that their team’s defence hadn’t, as they’d at first thought, brilliantly set an offside trap for Kane. VAR stepped in and gave the goal and replays confirmed that Kane had angled his movement perfectly, a diagonal run across his marking defender to build up speed while staying onside.
8) Wilson’s early goal turned out to be Newcastle’s only shot on target of the entire half. Those preparing their ‘Lads, it’s Spurs’ gags probably forgot that… lads, it’s also Steve Bruce’s Newcastle. The nearest we came to a goal for the remainder of the half came with six minutes to play of the half, when Lucas Moura thumped Heung-min Son’s header against the crossbar.
9) Three minutes after this, football was put firmly back into perspective. Sergio Reguilon and Eric Dier ran across to the referee indicating something urgent, and it turned out that a supporter had collapsed in the crowd. A defibrilator was on hand and was rushed across the pitch as a bleak silence fell across the stadium and play was suspended. Seven minutes of stoppage time was added after a 20-minute delay, during which the players returned to the dressing room.
10) Sky Sports handled the matter superbly, in particular guest David Ginola, who himself has suffered a heart attack and has had to undergo open heart surgery himself. Ginola spoke honestly and beautifully about his experience, and if there is any good that could come from this awful incident, it’s that more and more people are learning about the critical importance of a quick response in the event of someone going into cardiac arrest. The more people that know this and the more defibrilators are available, the more lives will be saved in the future.
Reports later came through that the person concerned had been stabilised and was being transferred to hospital, for which we should all be thankful.
11) When the players returned, Spurs extended their lead within a couple of minutes. With Newcastle’s defence looking lost at sea, Kane turned the ball back from the byline and across the face of goal for Son to score with ease at the far post. By the half-time whistle, the atmosphere within St James’ Park couldn’t have been much more different to how it had been at kick-off, and particularly not after Wilson’s opener.
12) Perhaps understandably, the second half started to a somewhat more muted atmosphere than the first. But for all of Newcastle’s pallour and lack of imagination, Newcastle retained one hope. who will likely keep his place in it, even if the rest of the Newcastle squad find themselves staring down the barrel of transfers to the Championship.
Saint-Maximin is a joy to watch, all intelligent movement and hustle, and he deserves better than to be amid this mess. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t survive what is now surely a forthcoming cull of the playing staff. (No, not that sort of cull. Although at least it would make contract negotiations easier.)
13) But on the whole, Newcastle were atrocious throughout the entire second half (and most of the first half, as it goes.) That they were defensive without being able to defend, shapeless in midfield and almost completely blunt in attack shouldn’t have come as any great surprise, but what was surprising was their lack of application throughout the second half.
They’d roared into the game and reaped a significant dividend accordingly, but by the last 20 minutes or so they were back to treading water again, and with seven minutes to play it looked as though all hope had floated down towards the North Sea when Jonjo Shelvey, who’d only come on as a substitute after an hour, picked up his second yellow card of the game in just 23 minutes and trudged dejectedly from the field.
14) But lads, it’s STILL Spurs, and with two minutes to go Eric Dier handed Newcastle a lifeline when Jacob Murphy’s free-kick from the left was met by the centre-half, who powered the ball down into his knee with his head and past Lloris. The goal was barely even greeted with a cheer, but the volume did rise for the final few minutes as the Newcastle players finally seemed to remember who their opponents actually were. But it wasn’t enough; Spurs held on for a win that ended up a little more difficult than it should have been for them.
15) So Spurs are up to fifth place in the Premier League, but it remains difficult to say what exactly they are at the moment. But with Kane scoring one, setting up another and starting to look like an effective partner to Son again, as well as Oliver Skipp and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg looking like a cohesive duo in their central midfield, there is at least a glimmer of .
Going behind after a couple of minutes and scoring a late own goal are, to coin a little management speak, not optimum positions in which to find themselves, but if the goals are flowing, then the occasional brain-melt on the pitch starts to matter a little less.
16) Throughout this match, the television cameras could barely keep their eyes off His Most Excellentness, but what will he have made of it all? Newcastle’s supine performance for much of this match will have given him some idea of the scale of the challenge ahead. And on the evidence of this match, that challenge is enormous. The problems at Newcastle run far deeper than just the individuals concerned. Ashley has gone. Bruce is almost certain to follow him.
But that’s only part of the story. This is a club that really does need to be rebuilt from the ground up, and it isn’t going to be done in a day. Conversations about spending infinite amounts of money on lavishly talented players are fun, but they’re not going to happen straight away and they’re unlikely to follow in January either.
If Newcastle are to bring in a new coach, that coach is going to have to work with this group of players until at least the new year (and most of them will be there until at least the end of this season), and on the basis of every single thing that we’ve seen from them so far that’s going to require a very particular skill-set indeed. For all the ‘dreams’ of winning the Premier League, they need to stay in it first, and even that doesn’t necessarily look like a given at the moment.
But for all the rancour and all the celebration, and all the (legitimate) concerns about the ownership and about what that tells us about the condition of English football at the moment, the quick thinking of players and incredible actions from some in the crowd may well have saved someone’s life at St James’ Park. That matters more than any number of Premier League points or goals.
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