The surprise change at Newcastle United which caught everyone off-guard
The name Newcastle United fans wanted to see on the teamsheet was Callum Wilson.
Wilson, however, was not in the team – or on the bench.
Allan Saint-Maximin – who, like Wilson, was sidelined by an injury in February – did make the bench for Sunday’s home game against Tottenham Hotspur, which ended 2-2 after Joe Willock scored a late equaliser.
Steve Bruce did make six changes for the Premier League game in the wake of the relegation-threatened club’s shocking 3-0 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium before the international break – and there were still two significant returns to the starting XI.
Matt Ritchie and Sean Longstaff made their first starts since January – and they both impressed in a much-improved performance from United.
Importantly, Bruce, for the first time since January, fielded a back five – and that opened the door to Ritchie, who hadn’t featured at all since rowing with Bruce on the training pitch following a home against Wolverhampton Wanderers on February 27.
Ritchie – who had welcomed Bruce’s appointment the summer before last – had cut a lone figure in the following weeks as he, as an unused substitute, did fitness sessions on the pitch after games.
Bruce – who had last started Longstaff in January’s 1-0 defeat to previously-winless Sheffield United at Bramall Lane – insisted that he “didn’t hold grudges” against players after the Tottenham game.
“I had a row with somebody – it’s nothing,” said Bruce, who was without Isaac Hayden after the midfielder suffered a season-ending injury. “I never hold a grudge. It was forgotten the next day, and we move forward. He (Ritchie) has had to wait for his opportunity, and he put in a good performance that I’m pleased about.”
Ritchie, used as a wing-back against Tottenham, did play well. He was involved in both goals, and was typically tenacious when United didn’t have the ball.
The wing-back role suits Ritchie, who was fielded in that position by former manager Rafa Benitez. The 31-year-old, following the switch to a five-man defence under Benitez, got in better areas more often to deliver balls into the box than when he had been used as a conventional winger.
And delivering good balls into the box is something that he’s proved to be adept at doing during his five years on Tyneside.
“I've been champing at the bit to get back in,” said Ritchie, who saw a proposed January return to former club Bournemouth break down. “I've done all I can in training to get back in.”
That’s no surprise, as Ritchie is always one of the first players on to the training pitch – and one of the last to leave it.
Ritchie’s back in – but will he stay in?
That, presumably, depends on the system Bruce and Graeme Jones, his assistant, settle on for Sunday’s game against Burnley at Turf Moor.
Ritchie doesn’t slot in so well into the formation that had been used before the Tottenham game – Bruce had been fielding a back four with a diamond midfield – and Saint-Maximin could be ready to start on the left side of the attack.
Bruce, it’s clear, will have some big decisions to make later this week – whether Wilson is fit or not.