If this was Newcastle United’s Christmas Day come early, it was more Home Alone than the Queen’s speech – thrilling, dizzying and with a lot of collateral damage to pick through at the end. This day, intended as Eddie Howe’s coronation, did not go to script at all – but does it ever at St James’s Park? From the moment on Friday night it was announced that the new head coach had tested positive for Covid and would miss his own welcome party, one suspected this wasn’t going to be the straightforwardly triumphant start that was hoped for.
Having known each other for the best part of a quarter-century and coached together for 13 years, Howe and his assistant Jason Tindall had an extraordinary – and socially distanced – beginning to an experience that already promised to be unique.
“It’s certainly a first for Ed and myself,” said an exasperated-looking Tindall with some understatement after a game in which he had led from the touchline, frantically making regular dashes down the tunnel to speak on the phone to Howe, who watched on a feed from hotel quarantine. Serving a period of self-isolation is frustrating enough but quite Howe’s mood during this chaotic afternoon is anyone’s guess.
The vast majority of the 52,121 flocking to Saturday’s visit of Brentford were expecting something and they got it, even it wasn’t an instant miracle. The names on fans’ shirts on the streets before the game – Albert 27, Shearer 9 – which weeks ago seemed like nostalgia for a long-lost era now projected newfound optimism. The cover of the match programme was simply a sketch of a suited Howe holding a black and white bar scarf aloft. It was all that needed to be said. As with the relief of Mike Ashley’s overdue exit, a new boss confirmed that the painful Steve Bruce reign really was over.
Howe’s first XI delivered a sort of Keegan-lite display, marrying genuine attacking enterprise with jaw-dropping defensive negligence. By half-time, Newcastle had registered more efforts at goal than they have averaged per entire game this season – they ended up with 23 in total. When Tindall said post-match that “everyone needs to attack and everyone needs to defend”, he sounded like an NBA coach and at times, particularly in the first half, it felt like his players were dragging the surrounding bear pit up and down the parquet of Madison Square Garden with them.
These might not have been the near-conquerors of the 90s but there was a similar sense in the opening 45 minutes that anything could happen. The cliches about the unreasonable demands of Newcastle fans are largely false and even with the team in peril at the foot of the table this is already the start of what they have yearned for: a sense of feeling alive rather than the grubby inertia of recent years.
Few are under any illusions that immediate glory is around the corner, a reality accentuated by Grant Hanley’s late winner for Norwich that left Newcastle bottom of the table. Yet as visiting coach Thomas Frank – looking no less frazzled than Tindall at the climax – put it, “you saw the first signs” of a profound chance of tack. It was “definitely much more front-footed, definitely more aggressive”.
At the front of this was Joelinton. His searching cross almost created an opener for Callum Wilson in the third minute and the Brazilian, said to have been reinvigorated by Howe’s energetic training regime, began as if reborn. His drag-back and change of direction just inside his own half to leave Rico Henry floundering was the sort of imagination that has been seen way too rarely by these fans but Henry’s next contribution underlined Newcastle’s problem, with a free header giving Brentford the lead.
Joelinton’s equaliser before half-time, his unerring finish a total stranger to the struggles of the past two-and-a-bit years, hinted at the potential for a fresh start. “We’ve seen the quality he has,” Tindall enthused. “He’s going to be a big player for us.” There is still a way to go, with the chance of a potential winner spurned late on as the No 7 took too long to shoot – in contrast with Saint-Maximin’s sublime finish to secure the point, a combination of supreme technique and confidence – but the will was never in doubt. There are no quick fixes but hope has returned. And it means a lot.