The chant started in the Gallowgate End and swiftly spread around the entire ground. “If you love the Toon, stand up,” chorused around 10,000 Newcastle United fans. After 15 months locked in surreal, depressing silence, it was as if St James’ Park had started to come round following a heavy dose of general anaesthetic.
Supporters were treated to not only the Arsenal loanee Joe Willock’s sixth goal in six games for Steve Bruce’s side but an electrically charged attacking performance from Allan Saint-Maximin as Championship bound Sheffield United succumbed to a 29th top-tier defeat, a joint record in a single season.
Admittedly only a fifth of the normal matchday audience had been allowed through the turnstiles and scores of yellow-vested Covid marshals lurked outside but, for the first time since late February 2020, fans were back and the general mood was jubilant.
Even during indifferent, sometimes awkward, passages of play it was if those present felt compelled to sing, shout and chant as loudly as possible and the spontaneous delight lighting up the players’ faces as they emerged for the warm-up spoke volumes.
The decibel count increased every time Saint-Maximin received possession and ran at Sheffield United’s backline. Following his dispossession of Oliver Norwood, Willock – excellent throughout – was treated to a special of rendition of: “We want you to stay; Joe Willock, we want you to stay.”
There were sighs of resignation when Paul Heckingbottom’s team very nearly opened the scoring, David McGoldrick shooting wide when well placed after Enda Stevens’s counter-attacking pace had caught Bruce’s backline cold.
Although Aaron Ramsdale performed goalkeeping wonders to repel Jonjo Shelvey’s header following Matt Ritchie’s stellar cross, some negative ditties were directed in the Newcastle’s manager’s direction. Moreover Bruce received sporadic boos during a post-whistle lap marking the season’s final home game. Asked afterwards if he expected fans to buy him a post-match pint, Newcastle’s manager replied: “I somehow doubt it.”
As McGoldrick missed a second, decent chance and 17-year old Daniel Jebbison showed raw, rangy promise for the visitors, a few, wistful, appeals for the return of Bruce’s predecessor Rafael Benítez lingered evocatively in the mild Tyneside air. Meanwhile fans furious with the Premier League’s now legally challenged blocking of Newcastle’s failed Saudi Arabian-led takeover informed the ruling body they were “taking the piss”.
Generally though the ambience remained buoyant and never more so than than on the brink of half- time when Saint-Maximin’s sumptuous pass bisected Heckingbottom’s defence, permitting Jacob Murphy in to cross for Willock to head beyond Ramsdale from point-blank range. Bruce celebrated with fist-pumping abandon.
Approving choruses of “We hate Sunderland” greeted the news that Lincoln were ahead in the League One play-off, Miguel Almiron contributed several thrills and while frissons of excitement greeted Saint-Maximin’s every touch until, to wholesale dismay, he hobbled off. Afterwards, Heckingbottom rued the later McGoldrick curler that hit the bar and Willock said “he wasn’t sure” if he would be returning to Newcastle next season but having “made friends for life and a great connection with the fans” is “considering the option.”
Bruce will attempt to twist his arm. “We’d love to bring Joe back,” he said. “Joe still has a lot to learn but he’s exactly what we need.”