Allan Saint-Maximin ruined his back garden by staging dribbling contests against his dog during lockdown and Chris Wilder can only hope the French winger has not also destroyed Sheffield United’s European ambitions.
If Saint-Maximin’s landlord has cause to rue the state of that lawn, Steve Bruce can only thank the French forward after the game’s outstanding individual dragged his side to within touching distance of Premier League safety.
Admittedly Newcastle’s rise to the 38-point mark was partly facilitated by John Egan’s 50th-minute sending off, but further goals from the excellent Matt Ritchie and Joelinton sealed a performance big on efficiency and understated polish.
Bruce said he had selected his starting XI on two criteria. “We’ve picked what are, I hope, the fittest and the brightest players,” said Newcastle’s manager. He added that he “couldn’t deny” that the uncertainty prompted by the club’s seemingly stalled £300m Saudi Arabian led takeover has proved “a distraction”.
The early evidence suggested that Sheffield United – already under Saudi ownership – were sharper and more switched on . If that served to magnify Bruce’s fears that his team might be a little “under-cooked” it perhaps also reflected the home players’ apparent sense of initial disbelief at being surrounded by stands filled with tens of thousands of eerily empty seats.
The atmosphere was suitably flat but after Sheffield United failed to make the most of some promising looking set pieces, Saint-Maximin’s unique blend of improvisation and acceleration began ruffling Wilder’s side.
The Blades backline soon looked to be suffering from a human version of not so much canine fatigue of the sort presumably suffered by the former Nice winger’s pet as sheer bewilderment.
With the tempo picking up appreciably, this new-found hesitancy opened things upfor Newcastle. Matt Ritchie’s stinging shot tested Dean Henderson’s goalkeeping reflexes and Egan charged down another apparently goal-bound effort from Jonjo Shelvey.
Miguel Almirón’s splendid counter-attacking through-pass left Joelinton clean through but the misfortune in front of goal which had haunted the £40m Brazilian strikerbefore the shutdown returned. As he shaped to shoot, Joelinton somehow contrived to get a boot stuck in the turf and promptly fell over. Bruce says he is “a beast” in training but Joelinton had scored his one previous Premier League goal against Tottenham in August. This latest mishap occurred just as by far the first half’s best chance had landed at his feet.
Shortly afterwards Egan seemed to tug Almirón back in the area. No penalty was awarded but Joelinton took out some of his frustration by squaring up to the defender. After a non-physically distanced bout of push and shove both players were booked.
Bruce’s back four received a warning of their own when Billy Sharp’s gymnastic, over-the-shoulder volley flew only fractionally off-target following George Baldock’s fabulous cross but, generally, the Newcastle manager’s decision to cast off the creative shackles imposed by Rafael Benítez’s old, safety-first 3-4-3 seemed vindicated.
Granted, the home defence were not quite as solid as the forbidding metal barriers barring most entrances to St James’ Park in these dystopian times but in the main they looked just as well-organised as Wilder’s usually efficient back three.
Sheffield United’s manager was probably more concerned about his side’s shortage of attacking verve, with only Oliver Norwood’s dead balls and odd glimpses of highly accomplished originality from John Fleck really raising the tone.
Wilder’s gameplan was disrupted when Egan was sent off after collecting a second yellow card for grabbing Joelinton’s shirt and hauling him back as he accelerated towards goal.
The visitors were still reorganising when, five minutes later, Saint-Maximin scored. The normally reliable Enda Stevens lost concentration and misread Matt Ritchie’s cross, ended up kicking thin air and the ball was allowed to travel as far as the winger, whose low shot eluded Henderson. Might the Manchester United loanee goalkeeper have done better?
After the Newcastle players had exchanged a few embraces of the sort to give Professor Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance and the rest of the government’s scientific advisers palpitations, Saint-Maximin took a knee.
Sharp spurned a fine chance to equalise by heading Baldock’s crosswide before Ritchie doubled Newcastle’s advantage. After collecting Isaac Hayden’s pass, the winger ran at the retreating Baldock and, with the rest of Wilder’s defence confused by Danny Rose’s decoy overlap, Ritchie beat Henderson courtesy of a swerving 20-yard, left-foot shot.
All that remained was for Joelinton to punch the turf in delight after being in the right place in the right time to meet Almirón’s low cross and register his first league goal at St James’ Park.