Perhaps Newcastle’s season was saved in the space of seven minutes. If their campaign has been defined in part by Allan Saint-Maximin, he may have rescued it with a catalytic cameo.
They were dragged into the relegation battle after he contracted coronavirus in November. Now he may have extricated them from it. Just a third win in 20 games could spare them a fraught finale. With Newcastle now six points ahead of Fulham and just one behind their victims, Burnley, safety beckons. “It is three points towards that magical figure,” Steve Bruce said.
Saint-Maximin felt the definition of an impact substitute, delivering an assist, a goal and a lead Newcastle did not relinquish in swift, devastating fashion. His introduction may prove the most influential substitution of their season. “A tactical masterclass,” joked Bruce.
Vindication for him and Mike Ashley, who persevered with an unpopular manager who now has four points from his last two games? His critics may demur: turning to Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson was an obvious move when trailing. “They weren’t capable of doing 90 minutes,” said Bruce, who had benched both. “The question was, can they make an impact? Probably only Allan could have done that. It is not rocket science that you need your big players. Without our biggest players, it has been a struggle.”
Their campaign remains underwhelming and their first-half display was mediocre but Newcastle, who had been aggrieved they were denied a penalty before the break, could instead savour a comeback and a first victory in eight matches. “Second half we were a different animal,” Bruce reflected.
Injury and the after-effects of Covid have rendered Saint-Maximin a bit-part player in recent months but, for seven minutes, he was explosive. First he occupied two defenders in a mazy dribble and teed up Jacob Murphy, whose shot curled away from Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Then he picked the ball up in the centre circle, drove forward and turned away from both Ben Mee and James Tarkowski before angling a shot in at the near post. “We’ve missed that bit of quality and excitement,” Bruce said.
“Two relatively soft goals,” rued his Burnley counterpart, Sean Dyche. “We gave the game away a little bit.”
Saint-Maximin was a calibre of substitute denied to a manager with a threadbare squad. The forwards he started impressed rather more than Joelinton, who failed to build on last week’s fine display against Tottenham. But, for the second successive week, his forwards put Burnley ahead and they lost. “Two odd games, back to back,” said Dyche.
Burnley began both well. Chris Wood can look a cumbersome dribbler but he shuffled past Ciaran Clark too easily to cut the ball back for the advancing Matej Vydra to slot in his shot. It underlined how hesitant Clark was in the central role of Newcastle’s back three. It had been filled by Jamaal Lascelles against Tottenham, but with the captain’s season perhaps over, Bruce rejigged his defence, initially unsuccessfully.
But for the agility of Martin Dubravka, Burnley’s lead might have been insurmountable. “That is his best performance in a long time, in my opinion,” said Bruce.
Dubravka made two outstanding reflex saves, the first to parry Josh Brownhill’s glancing header, the second to spare Paul Dummett an own goal when an attempted clearance became a menacing volley. He excelled again to tip over a volley from Matthew Lowton, who has a flair for the spectacular, and denied Dwight McNeil, who exerted a considerable influence. “We didn’t get the second goal,” lamented Dyche. “Statistically, it was a very dominant performance.”
His team had 24 shots but Saint Maximin’s transformative effect extended to Peacock-Farrell’s afternoon. Deputising for Nick Pope, who has a shoulder injury, his second top-flight outing featured a stunning save to deny Dwight Gayle, who had applied a near-post touch to Murphy’s cross. Burnley got a different sort of reprieve; James Tarkowski both cleared and then kicked Sean Longstaff’s head as the Newcastle midfielder tried to convert the rebound. Neither Anthony Taylor nor the VAR, Stuart Attwell, thought it merited a spot kick, to Newcastle’s irritation.
PGMOL were quick to communicate that Burnley were spared because Tarkowski played the ball first and that Longstaff stooped. “For me it’s a penalty because it’s dangerous play,” Bruce said. “We saw the boy [Liam Cooper] get sent off for Leeds for dangerous play. Wasn’t that dangerous? But thankfully we didn’t need it.”
Tarkowski went on execute a brilliant last-minute goal-line clearance to stop Miguel Almiron from scoring a third for Newcastle, but even his eventful afternoon became a subplot in the Saint-Maximin show.