It was like he’d never been away.
Jonjo Shelvey picked up where he left off. And that was that for Birmingham City.
Newcastle United comfortably booked a place in the FA Cup’s fourth round last night with a 3-1 win at St James’s Park.
Shelvey had a hand in all three goals. Matt Ritchie netted twice, and Yoan Gouffran also found the net in the replay.
It took Shelvey, back from a five-game ban, just a few minutes to get the ball moving in front of another remarkable crowd at the stadium.
There was a gate of 34,986 at the ground. And they saw a masterclass from Shelvey, who showed just what Newcastle had been missing for the past few weeks.
Shelvey was everywhere.The 24-year-old confidently moved the ball around the pitch.
Just as importantly, he was able to play a telling pass, something United have struggled to do in his absence.
The first such ball led to penalty for the first goal, while the second came from a Shelvey free-kick.
What was just as remarkable was that Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez handed debuts to two 20-year-olds and a 21-year-old.
Yasin Ben El-Mhanni, Stuart Findlay and Dan Barlaser all started the game. None of them had even come off the bench before in a competitive senior fixture.
So the teamsheet, even by Benitez’s standards, was a surprise. There were eight changes, and United, captained by Shelvey, had Gouffran at the tip of an unfamiliar 4-4-1-1 formation.
El-Mhanni found himself tightly marked on the wing, but Barlaser saw a lot more of the ball in central midfield. Barlaser – who, like Findlay, played the full 90 minutes – used the ball intelligently.
Findlay was steady alongside Scottish countryman Grant Hanley in defence.
A well-weighted pass from Shelvey led to Newcastle’s opening goal.
Shelvey set Gouffran away towards goal in the 10th minute, and the forward was clumsily brought down by Birmingham goalkeeper Adam Legzdins.
Ritchie stepped up to stroke the resulting penalty past Legzdins.
The goal helped calm any nerves and settle Barlaser, Findlay and El-Mhanni into the game, while Shelvey got around the pitch and dictated play just as he had been doing before he was handed a five-game suspension for using racially-aggravated language.
Birmingham occasionally threatened when they did get the ball off Shelvey, and DeAndre Yedlin made an important interception to deny David Davis.
United needed a second goal before the break, and they got one.
Gouffran controlled a free-kick from Shelvey and volleyed it past Legzdins in the 34th minute.
Newcastle ended the half in total control, and the post denied Ritchie a second goal. Barlaser couldn’t get a proper connection on the rebound.
United took their two-goal advantage into the break and Benitez sent out an unchanged side for the second half. There was more of the same from Benitez’s side, who dominated possession.
Achraf Lazaar forced a save from Legzdins with one effort, while Ritchie was a threat whenever he got on the ball in the final third of the pitch.
But Birmingham, out of nowhere, got a goal.
David Cotterill set up a nervous finish with a strike with 19 minutes left on the clock.
All of a sudden, Newcastle looked nervous, and Benitez quickly sent on Isaac Hayden, injured in last weekend’s 2-1 win over Brentford, in place of DeAndre Yedlin.
Birmingham, finally, started to cause problems for a defence which had previously been comfortable.
The only problem was that they left gaps at the back as they pressed for an equaliser, and United were happy to hit them on the break with the pace of Ritchie.
Cheick Tiote left the field, possibly for the last time as a Newcastle player, late in the game to be replaced by Jack Colback.
Tiote – who, typically, had been booked for a clumsy challenge – was warmly applauded off the field.
The decisive third goal came in injury time when Shelvey delivered a low cross from the byline for Ritchie.
It really was game over for Birmingham.
With Shelvey back, it should be game on for Newcastle.