Newcastle United 2 Athletic Bilbao, St James’ Park, 31/Jul/22, KO: 15:00, Att: 46,856

Callum Wilson (4), Allain Sainty-Maximin (57)

Full match report from Lee Forster – @LeeDForster who was in the stands at St James’ Park, reporting for TRUE FAITH.

Oh, to be a bairn again…

6 Years ago today, I was one of 18,307 hardy souls who trudged up to Barrack Road to see Mats Sels, Grant Hanley and Jack Colback take to the field in what was our final pre-season game against Vitesse Arnhem. An utterly joyless occasion in a Sports Direct clad SJP, attended by most out of duty, rather than being excited at the prospect of the forthcoming season.

Contrast that with yesterday…

One thing that struck me as we wandered around the ground, apart from the queue for the club shop that snaked its way 200 yards down Strawberry Place, was the distinct ‘feel good’ atmosphere: young bairns experiencing their first taste of SJP,sporting beaming smiles whilst clinging tightly to their equally exited mam or dad’s hand. Loco’s, Trent House, The Berry, Shearers Bar, all chocca with seasoned match-goers back at their second home (many of us for the second time in 18 hours), simply happy that 3 months of being dragged around Eldon Square and Ikeawere finally over.

And then there was the shirts. Thousands of them. Black and White everywhere you looked from the minute me and the lad exited Monument Metro.

It appears pride in the shirt is a thing again.

The game itself, was a more intense affair than Friday nights fixture with Botman, ASM, Wilson, Joelinton, and of course the imperious, wonderful, Bruno Guimaraes all making the starting line-up. These were the players those excited bairns had come to see.

After 3 minutes, some neat interplay between Maxi (who notably appeared to be trying to do things ‘simpler’ yesterday) and Matt Ritchie released a fully fit Calum Wilson, who created enough space with a clever stepover before duly despatching the ball into the Leazes net – a goal that will be remembered by many a Northeast bairn as their first memory of a Newcastle United No 9 troubling the onion bag.

Not long afterwards, we were given a glimpse of the way Eddie wants the new look United to play as a 16 pass move emanating from our own 18-yardarea, finished with a Joelinton knock down and a Bruno strike that was well saved by the Basque keeper at the second attempt.

The first half played out with United looking particularly dangerous down our right flank, and Bruno literally running the show. I don’t have the superlatives to articulate just how good this lad is.

The second half started in a similar vein to the first –just 7 minutes in, Joelinton played in Maxi down the left with a decent looped ball and our talismanic Frenchman had sufficient pace and control to allow himself the time to beat the keeper with a precision finish into the bottom corner. 2-0.

After this the intensity from United visibly dipped, and as a result allowed Bilbao to gain foothold in the game and cause far more threat to Martin Dubravka’s goal, with front man Williams- the least Basque name ever? – causing our back four all sorts of problems, and they deservedly pulled one back with a close-range header from Garcia in the 65th minute.

As the game played out, Bilbao continued to push, but my overriding hope was not that we’d hold out for the win, rather that there would be no injuries to any of our key men– to be honest, with Bruno looking uncomfortable at times following a couple of robust challenges in the first half, I half hoped he’d be hooked at half time.

Thankfully he, along with the players those excitable bairns had really come to see (Botman, ASM, Wilson and Joelinton) escaped injury free and they all got another 90 or so minutes in the tank ahead of next week, when it really matters.

As we marched down the Gallowgate Corner steps after the game, the chatter was all about next weeks starting line-up, how Botman is a brick shithouse with a silky left peg, James Maddison, Wilson scoring 15-20 if he can stay fit, and how we may just have one of the best midfielders in the world on our books…6 Years ago, it was all about which statue was more mobile than Grant Hanley.

Time are certainly a changing.

Bring on the new season!

HWTL.

Lee Forster – @LeeDForster