Newcastle United 1 Aston Villa 0
As Eddie Howe ran out of players to embrace and, wreathed in smiles, finally walked off the pitch he looked up towards the directors box and blew his wife a kiss.
If she had not already realised it, this was surely the day when Vicki Howe fully understood precisely why her husband wanted to be the manager of Newcastle United.
Three wins in a row have not merely lifted a once apparently doomed side out of the relegation zone but breathed new life into a club transformed under their controversial new Saudi Arabian led ownership.
Played out against a backdrop of vigorously waved black and white flags and a soundtrack alternating between “Eddie Howe’s black and white army” and “Blaydon Races”, this was an afternoon when, despite the chill February rain, anything seemed possible.
Admittedly Newcastle rode their luck a little in the second half but with Kieran Trippier on their side, mid-table seemed to beckon. Trippier always seemed a very decent signing on Newcastle’s part but England’s former Atletico Madrid right-back looks an even better buy almost by the minute.
Eddie Howe spent £12m on Trippier as much for his crossing and dead ball acumen as his defensive attributes and when his side won a free kick fractionally outside the 18 yard area there was only one man for the job.
That set piece was awarded after a VAR review had overruled Craig Pawson’s initial decision to give a penalty after Calum Chambers sent the accelerating Joe Willock tumbling. If Villa were relieved it proved an extremely temporary reprieve.
Sure enough Trippier, captaining Newcastle in Jamaal Lascelles’s absence, stepped forward to power his kick through the wall and, courtesy of a slight deflection off Emiliano Buendia, on past a wrong footed Emiliano Martinez.
Until then Villa had largely succeeded in frustrating Howe’s team. Pressing high and hard, Gerrard’s players refused to allow Jonjo Shelvey and company time on the ball in midfield, while no matter where he wandered, the assiduously marked Allan Saint-Maximin was allowed precious little room for manoeuvre.
Yet hard as John McGinn worked in the visiting midfield and as undeniably successful as Villa were in forcing Newcastle to resort to sending Chris Wood chasing long balls and lost causes, they created very few chances of their own.
A big part of that was down to Dan Burn’s excellence at the heart of the home defence. The £13m recruit from Brighton was making his debut in place of Lascelles and on this assured evidence, Howe’s club captain might struggle to reclaim his place.
Indeed with Philippe Coutinho not so much tamed as rendered totally anonymous by Tripper’s shadowing, Martin Dubravka was rarely called to arms in goal, Villa’s attacking talent remained dormant until a potential watershed was reached, two minutes into the second half.
When, to collective groans, a calf injury forced Trippier off both Gerrard and Coutinho sensed opportunity. Emil Krafth had barely stepped off the bench before the latter was skipping away from him. Within seconds Coutinho had unleashed a defence bisecting through ball and although Ollie Watkins could not quite make the most of it, Howe and his assistant, Jason Tindall, exchanged anxious technical area glances.
Such nervousness swiftly looked well founded. Inspired by an apparently reborn Coutinho, Gerrard’s attack were finally ruffling Burn and company and when Watkins headed the fallout from Lucas Digne’s low cross and Coutinho’s deflected shot beyond Dubravka it appeared Howe’s worst fears had been realised.
In the event VAR came to the Newcastle manager’s rescue, its review detecting the tightest, most fractional, of offsides against Watkins. If Villa’s striker was left possibly wishing he had clipped his toenails before kick off, history was not on Gerrard’s side.
Villa had not won at St James’ Park since 2005 – coincidentally the day Newcastle’s Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer engaged in an on pitch fist fight – and their second half improvement was never quite sufficient to change that narrative.
A brief hiatus in the wake of an incident high in the Gallowgate End involving a spectator requiring urgent medical attention saw Pawson halt play and call the players to the side of the pitch, but Newcastle returned with concentration apparently intensified. – Guardian