The Magpies moved nine points clear of the relegation zone with a gritty win over European football hunting West Ham at St. James’ Park. Joe Willock came off the bench to score a bullet header winner, after Newcastle surrendered a 2-0 half-time lead, built upon Saint-Maximin’s brilliance, a Diop own-goal and a second goal in two home games for Joelinton.
Off the back of the fantastic comeback win against Burnley, Newcastle hosted West Ham at the start of a tough run of five fixtures which would include playing four of the current top six. A win against the in-form Hammers however, would take Newcastle above both Brighton and Burnley - at least temporarily - and even more importantly, 9 points clear of Fulham and the relegation zone.
West Ham’s fantastic season continued last week after holding on to a 3-2 lead against high-flying Leicester, knowing a win today would see them up into third on their search for European football. Almost 35 years ago to the day, the Hammers moved into third-place in the league after playing the Magpies; that game ending 8-1 with a certain Peter Beardsley taking over in between the sticks. *Football Trivia Stat Alert!* During that game, Alvin Martin became the first and only ever player to score a hattrick against three different goalkeepers in the same game!
Fortunately for United, the scoreline and result wasn’t to be repeated. But the nervous, gut-wrenching feeling that sat in Magpies’ manager Willie McFaul that day would have no-doubt been present for Bruce as his side he huffed and puffed his way through watching his side hold on to all three points.
Newcastle started brightly, picking up where they left off in the Burnley game. The first 15 minutes alone had plenty of chances, with Sean Longstaff, Saint-Maximin, Murphy and Fernandez having shots on goal.
Saint-Maximin once again provided much of the spark and attacking threat for the Toon throughout. Newcastle’s first goal came after 36 minutes when he picked the ball up from about 40 yards out and ran at the defence, drifting out to the right before slotting a fairly tame effort past Fabianski. The effort should have been stopped by Diop, but he calamitously mis-cleared the ball into his own leg, which then ran into the empty net. Saint-Maximin was freed on goal after a heavy touch from Dawson allowed Joelinton to step up and play a first time through ball, before being absolutely clattered by Dawson, who was rightly shown his second yellow of the game.
Far too often Newcastle are victims of failing to make the most of opportunities handed their way, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday, as only four minutes later the lead was doubled. West Ham appeared rattled from going behind and a man down, and it was their usually reliable keeper Fabianski who made the error. Ritchie’s in-swinging corner towards the six-yard box appeared to be claimed by Fabianski cleanly, but as the shot-stopper landed he dropped the ball and Joelinton was perfectly poised to sweep it home.
United took the 2-0 commanding lead in at half-time, having put in one of their most dominant and positive-looking performances of the season. A man to the good too, Newcastle came out as expected and on the front foot taking the game to West Ham. Almiron found half a yard and sent a shot just wide, but after that the tide began to turn.
As all fans feared would happen, Newcastle dropped deeper and invited the pressure from West Ham who were all too happy to accept. Man of the moment, Jesse Lingard, went close and the Hammers played like they were the side a man up. They got their first goal back when a brilliant cross from Bowen was met by a good header from Diop. Dubravka may feel he could have done better, but he could do nothing with the second.
West Ham were awarded a penalty by VAR after a ball into the box had been adjudged to have hit Clark’s arm in an unnatural position. Lingard stepped up and confidently converted the penalty, bringing the tie level and had Newcastle looking completely out of sorts.
But on came Willock - the Arsenal loanee who had been lost his spot to Sean Longstaff of late - with his last appearance being salvaging a point against Tottenham. The Magpies were a different side after conceding the second goal and it was Willock who turned the game again. Ritchie whipped an inviting cross in that was met perfectly by Willock in the 83rd minute to put the Toon 3-2 up.
As the eight minutes of added time took forever and an age to come to an end, Wilson did have an opportunity to put the game to bed but couldn’t get a shot away after some great control to open up an opportunity. Friend eventually blew the final whistle to images of Bruce letting out the huge exasperation of air that fans around the world simultaneously released.
The league double over the Hammers was complete, a nine-point cushion over Fulham ahead of their trip to Arsenal and leap-frogging Brighton and Burnley into 15th position was just what Bruce and the side needed; now just six games out from the seasons’ end.
Man of the Match
Saint-Maximin, much like after his arrival into the game against Burnley, almost single handedly ran Newcastle’s offense on Saturday. His positive, dazzling running with the ball - as well as his roughly 317 step overs - were crucial in the build up for Newcastle’s first goal and in turning defence to attack.
That said, my Man of the Match for this game has to go to Matt Ritchie. The Scot has been influential in the side since his return and the shift to a 5-3-2 / 3-5-2 formation, where the Magpies have taken 7 points from the past 9 available. His leadership skills were noted after the Burnley game, but once again he was an ever-present commander for his side, fulfilling his defensive duties to a tee and providing quality deliveries to walk away with two assists.
Plus, the lad bleeds Black & White. Just look at how much it means to him when we score and retake the lead. That’s what this side needs coursing through them.
Post-Match Press Conference
Winning goalscorer, Joe Willock
On his goal:
“I am happy to help the team again. I thought the boys played well. … I have been working on my heading. I was happy it paid off today.”
On Newcastle’s recent form:
“You could see the way we are playing, we are involved more and controlling games more. … Everyone is trying to play their part and push each other, whether on the bench, pitch or in the stands”
On avoiding relegation:
“We want to keep on getting three points but if we keep playing like that I think we will be safe.”
On the first half:
“I couldn’t have been more pleased at half-time with the way we played in the first half. … We were arguably better against 11 than against ten. … We were brilliant in the counter attack in the first half”
On the second half:
“We were wasteful and that gave West Ham the opportunity and to be fair to them they got themselves back in the game and made it one of those awful afternoons. To be fair we redeemed ourselves. Relieved.”
On keeping Willock:
“We would love to keep him here. He is the type of player you’d love to build your club around. Whether we can or not I’m not quite sure.”
As a fan for the best part of the past 25 years, it’s fair to say I’ve become accustomed to heart-in-mouth, stuck to my seat, pulling my hair out, spectacles from the team I love. And in that regard, this was a classic Newcastle performance.
For everything we did well - counter attacking, pressing, releasing our attacking players - we managed to do just as much poorly. Perhaps the absence of our captain in the back line and our talismanic forward in Wilson, meant the side lacked the character that is required to see out a 2-0 lead. Perhaps it was just the foreign territory that the Magpies found themselves in, having gone in at the break playing well and comfortable.
This is the Premier League. Any team has the ability to drag themselves back into the game, especially one in the top four. But importantly to the players, to Bruce & his coaches, and to the fans, is that Newcastle responded to West Ham’s equaliser incredibly well. Even without Saint-Maximin, who had been replaced by Wilson at that point, the lads grabbed the game back by the scruff of the neck to find a winner and take the deserved three points.
It’s been a tortuous season for the fans. The win took Newcastle 9 points clear of relegation - reduced to 8 after Fulham’s draw at Arsenal - to 35 points. Almost safe.
Safety from relegation will only go a small way to repairing the damage of a season embroiled in on and off the field issues at the club. But I for one could not be happier to finally see Newcastle putting in the effort, desire and pride in their performances that they’ve shown of late. Long may it continue!