Steve Bruce got it right with this Newcastle United decision
This could be the last time we see a behind-closed-doors game at St James’s Park.
And, certainly, Steve Bruce’s jaded players were in need of some encouragement at an empty stadium today.
They were tired after a fortnight which had seen the training ground closed for more than a week and a number of players and staff members have to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19.
As such, they did it the hard way against a West Bromwich Albion side which fought back strongly after going behind to an early goal from Miguel Almiron.
"I can't give enough credit to the players and staff who’ve worked tirelessly behind the scenes," said head coach Bruce.
Bruce’s substitutions changed the game. Dwight Gayle, making his first appearance of the season, scored the winner against his old club after being set up by fellow substitute Jacob Murphy, another former West Brom loanee.
It was a strike that would have lifted the roof at St James’s Park in normal circumstances. Nothing is normal right now, though there could be 2,000 supporters inside the stadium for the club’s next home game against Fulham should the North East, in the strictest of the three coronavirus tiers, gets some good news from the Government next week following a fall in infections.
This performance won’t have got many fans off their seats, but after the week United have had, a win’s a win. The result was all-important to Bruce and his players.
The build-up to the game had been dominated by the Covid-19 cases at the club which had left Bruce without a “big chunk” of his squad.
When the teamsheet was handed in, it appeared that the outbreak had hit the defensive areas hardest. Jamaal Lascelles, Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar and Javier Manquillo were among the absentees.
The best form of defence is often attack, and Newcastle, with Isaac Hayden – who was one of the players to test positive for Covid-19 – filling in at the back, took the lead after just 25 seconds.
Joelinton played in Almiron to the right of goal, and the midfielder placed his shot between Sam Johnstone and the left-hand post. The strike was the second-fastast in the club’s Premier League history, and Bruce’s side seemed in a hurry to get the win.
United attacked with pace and purpose, while the visitors offered little in the final third of the pitch.
Almiron, in particular, caused problems for Slaven Bilic’s team, and there was good interplay between Newcastle’s midfield and attack.
That said, they didn’t get a second goal – and they slowed right down. West Brom came back into the game later in the half. United found themselves pinned back, and they couldn’t bring the pace of Almiron into play on the counter-attack.
Bruce’s side, maybe understandably given their lack of preparation, looked tired late in the half.
And the afternoon unravelled after the break. West Brom levelled thanks to a strike from Darnell Furlong. Furlong caught Jamal Lewis off balance and beat Karl Darlow with a low shot after Matt Phillips spun off Sean Longstaff and crossed.
The introduction of Gayle – and Murphy – changed the game. After having a header cleared off the line, the striker, sidelined since pre-season, nodded a superb Murphy cross home.