St James’ Park in front of the watching world on Sky Sports/Pick TV
Attendance: some journalists

None of us saw that coming, right? My thoughts pre-match were very much centred around the fact that the Blades had a competitive game under their belts, were in with a shout of qualifying for the Champion’s League never mind the Europa, and would be more organized and up for it than United. I am now beginning to understand why I never gamble.

Like many (millions no doubt) others, I watched the match on Pick TV at home on my own which meant having to listen to the verbal toilet that drips from mouths of Graeme Souness and Jamie Redknapp, rather than crack on with good people, drink beer and get the excitement(?) that is generated amongst mates in the hours and minutes leading up to kick-off. Earlier on in the day I listened to and read a few people saying that Steve Bruce had done an ‘incredible’ job and had earned his chance to stay on post-takeover, along with Chris Waddle stating on Radio Five that Mike Ashley has done a good job and Newcastle has a superb training ground. This pandemic has been one hell of a drug.

I was a little surprised to see Joelinton starting as the last match prior to lockdown, the 1-0 away win at Southampton, saw Gayle selected ahead of the Brazilian and although Dwight missed a few sitters the mere fact that he looked like a centre-forward meant that the team at least looked a little threatening up top. However, another way of looking at it would be to see it as a chance for Joelinton to play without having the pressure of a crowd groaning at every missed opportunity and misplaced pass, and having had twelve weeks to process and get over the loss of confidence that was clearly debilitating him up until the league was postponed back in March.
The rest of the team was pretty much an ‘as you were’. Big Andy made the bench having had four months to recuperate from his last injury and his new facial hair and hairstyle are a great look, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine combined with a Victorian industrial factory owner. I back it. I was also taken by Matt Ritchie’s hair which gave him the look of an Ivy League university student, a kind of Good Will Hunting vibe, combined with his usual I’m just about to jump on your face and chew it off facial expression. I digress.

The kick-off itself, with empty stands and an odd silence despite the crowd noise being pumped in by the programme controller, meant that I did not get that butterfly feeling/sickness/stomach cramp I usually get that split second before the whistle is blown. What I did find very moving was the image of Jamaal Lascelles, taking a knee with his fist in the air. A powerful moment.

The lack of excitement felt pre-match wasn’t challenged for much of a muted first-half as two teams tried to feel their way into a match that felt like a behind-closed-doors training kickabout rather than the competitive Premier League game it was. The half did feature an absolute belter of a miss from Joelinton which led to howls of derision amongst the people with whom I was communicating during the game – ‘nice to see nothing has changed’ being the overarching sentiment.

One player who did look at the races during the first forty-five minutes was Saint-Maximin. His dribbling, ability to beat players with ease and create something out of nothing was the highlight as the players headed down the tunnel for their half-time tab and coffee.

The second-half didn’t really start much differently to how the first ended with neither team looking dangerous or even capable of putting together an effective passage of play. My mindset was very much ‘this’ll finish 0-0 or one moment of individual brilliance will settle it’. It turned out instead that one moment of stupidity and one of hilarity were the game changers.

The first, of course, was John Egan holding back Joelinton five minutes after the restart to stop him getting through after our number nine had used his upper body strength and determination to turn the big centre half. It was a definite yellow and could really have been a straight red as Joelinton may well have had a clear run to goal had he got away. As it turned out, the red card was the best possible outcome. A mere five minutes later a United break saw Harvard alumnus Matt Ritchie put a ball along the floor and across the box from the left-hand side. It looked like an easy clearance for Enda Stevens. However, rather than just hoof the ball away, the Irishman was temporarily inhabited by the spirit of Titus Bramble and completely miscued, missing the ball and leaving it nicely for an incoming ASM to slam a smashing right foot finish into the back of the net. Geeeed uuuurp.

At that point it seemed vital that United quickly cracked in a second goal to kill any hope Sheff United might have had of getting something. Unfortunately, the game went a little flat again and Wilder’s lads were starting to get a little foothold as the Mags struggled to hold onto the ball. Just as I started thinking Bruce needs to make changes, get Joelinton off and get some more pace on, United got a second. An absolute belter from Hampshire’s most famous Scotsman. When Ritchie hits those powerful low shots perfectly they are beautiful to watch and his shooting was more or less on point all game with a couple of others forcing Henderson into saves. Along with the assist for the first goal, all in all a cracking day’s work for angry winger. At 2-0 it was game over as Sheff Utd, other than a shot over the bar by Titus Stevens, looked completely deflated and, surprisingly, tired and out of ideas.

Many of us had been waiting (wanting?) Joelinton to be taken off and to be fair to Bruce he ignored the thousands of voices being sent to his mind from all corners of the globe, left him on and was rewarded in the 79th minute with our record signing’s first home league goal. A lovely low cross from Almirón was tapped home by the Brazilian who had timed his run very well. I cannot deny that it was great to see him score. We all want to see him do well and now who knows, could this be a turning point? Will he bang in five or six more between now and the end of the season? Will United win their remaining eight games and get to the Champion’s League? Do I need to lay-off the hydroxychloroquine?

The remaining 13 or so minutes were incredibly comfortable and contained the added bonus of learning that Chris Basham of Hebburn supports a League One team located a few miles south of Newcastle. I had been thinking for most of this season that he was a local lad who the Club had clearly mistakenly released.

I no longer care and I hope he had a nice day.The full-time whistle went, Brucey touched Miggy and Big Joe full on the face with his hand to say a big well done, elbows were bumped and United were up to 12th, with our biggest win of the season, first home goals since January, two points from tenth place and with the opportunity to hammer another nail into Villa’s coffin on Wednesday. What a time to be alive.

Howay the lads.

Norman Riley