Newcastle United fans make one thing absolutely clear on their return to St James's Park
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Supporters returned to St James’s Park tonight after a 15-month lockout due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The 10,000 fans inside the stadium saw their team beat relegated Sheffield United 1-0 thanks to another goal from Joe Willock who has now scored on his last six appearances for the club.
Newcastle, now just two points short of last season’s 44-point tally, moved up to 15th place.
The crowd was only a fifth of the stadium’s capacity, but the socially-distanced fans still breathed life back into the previously-silent ground.
There were chants against the Premier League and Ashley, the club’s owner. However, they left Steve Bruce, the club’s much-criticised head coach, alone during the match, though the name of Rafa Benitez, his predecessor, was briefly chanted, and there were boos during the lap of appreciation after the game.
The evening wasn’t about Bruce – and this season’s failings. It was about what fans have come through over past year – and what, hopefully, they can now look forward to next season.
And fans repeatedly called for Willock, signed on loan from Arsenal, to stay at the club.
There was an electrifying round of applause – and a chant of “Toon, Toon, black and white army” – as the players ran out for the warm-up. One of those players, Allan Saint-Maximin, would later electrify the crowd with a couple of runs forward.
Even the weather had brightened up after a day of downpours.
It felt like a significant occasion, and that significance wasn’t lost on those fortunate enough to be inside St James’s Park, a stadium which had last hosted fans 445 days earlier.
There was a bigger roar when the players came back out for the game.
Newcastle, in recent weeks, have been paying on the counter-attack, but it was up to them to take the game to Paul Heckingbottom’s side, and that left them vulnerable to quick breaks.
United had a let-off early in the game when Joelinton gave the ball away in midfield, and the visitors broke forward down the left. David McGoldrick shot wide at the end of the move.
Newcastle couldn’t get out of their half for a spell as the club’s fans chanted against the Premier League following last summer’s takeover “rejection”.
United finally seized the initiative following a break to allow Jonjo Shelvey – who lost a touch in a challenge – to get treatment.
Shelvey forced a fine save from Aaron Ramsdale with a header from a Matt Ritchie cross.
The breakthrough was to come from a Jacob Murphy cross after good work from Saint-Maximin. Murphy delivered the ball from the right, and Willock powerfully headed it past a helpless Ramsdale.
Bruce replaced Joelinton with Dwight Gayle at the break, and the visitors, as they had done in the first half, moved the ball around well. But again, they didn't trouble Martin Dubravka, who didn’t have a save to make until late in the game.
Saint-Maximin was forced off with 20 minutes left. Fans chanted “Joe Willock, we want you to stay” after he was replaced by Carroll, whose contract expires in the summer.