Newcastle United have come a long, long way in 18 months.
Rafa Benitez and his players left the St Mary’s Stadium yesterday disappointed that they had only taken a point.
They had deserved more, but an ill-judged challenge from Florian Lejeune led to an equaliser for Southampton, who drew 2-2.
It had been a very different story in April last year after a shocking 3-1 defeat to Southampton.
This time, United were compact and competitive. And they were also a threat on the counter-attack.
It was a lesson in how to play away from Benitez, who schooled Southampton manager Mauricio Pellegrino both as player and coach.
Newcastle’s previous visit to the St Mary’s Stadium had been memorable – for all the wrong reasons. United conceded two early goals, lost 3-1 and Daryl Janmaat – who had limped out of the game – broke his hand after punching a door in frustration after rowing with Jamaal Lascelles in the dressing room.
Jonjo Shelvey, the club’s stand-in captain, refused to talk to journalists after the game and it was left to Lascelles to speak to fans.
“We need bigger characters on the pitch, players who care and who are going to get after each other,” said Lascelles. “We have lacked it this season and no matter how good you are, if you don’t have that fight and hunger and desire, it doesn’t matter.”
It shouldn’t have been down to Lascelles, 21 at the time, to front up after the game. But he did. And that interview marked him out as a future captain. Four months later, the defender was handed the armband.
Lascelles rowed with Mohamed Diame ahead of the club’s return to Southampton. The standards on the training pitch are far, far higher than they were the season before last, and that’s fed into the results this season.
After a cagey opening period, United took the lead.
The ball was delivered into the box by Matt Ritchie after good work from Ayoze Perez, and Hayden, recalled to the starting XI, scored with a low drive after ex-Newcastle goalkeeper Fraser Forster blocked a Christian Atsu shot.
Hayden’s 20th-minute goal all but silenced three sides of the St Mary’s Stadium.
However, the end filled with 3,200 visiting fans was anything but quiet.
Southampton prodded and probed for the rest of the half, but there weren’t the easy pickings of last April. United were organised and disciplined.
That said, Benitez was unhappy with his under-pressure team’s efforts with the ball. They needed to use it better.
Southampton fans booed their team off the field. And that said it all about how Newcastle had stifled Pellegrino’s side.
Five minutes into the new half, they levelled through Manolo Gabbiadini, who was allowed to run across goal before shooting on the turn.
Seconds later, United were back ahead thanks to Perez, who beat Fraser Forster at his near post.
It was Perez’s first goal of the season, and the forward left the field exhausted in the 63rd minute. Mikel Merino, surprisingly left out of Benitez’s starting XI, replaced him.
Southampton didn’t really look like scoring again until Lejeune charged into Shane Long in the 75th minute. Gabbiadini converted the resulting penalty.
It was disappointing – a win would have taken the club up to sixth place – but there was more fight, hunger and desire on show from Newcastle.