The final whistle had barely blown before T-Rex’s We Love To Boogie started booming out of the sound system. As Eddie Howe and his players exchanged hugs before setting off on a lap of appreciation, applauding fans in all four corners of the stadium, an outsider might have assumed Newcastle had qualified for Europe and were preparing to party.
In reality the team Howe took over only last month had won their first game of the season, moving off the bottom of the Premier League in the process. Granted, Newcastle are only above Norwich on goal difference, but, coupled with a rare clean sheet, Callum Wilson’s winning goal gave everyone in black and white at St James’ Park renewed hope.
No side in Premier League history has failed to win until December and stayed up but Howe’s players remain within touching distance of safety and are now level on points with third-bottom Burnley.
Newcastle started in hesitant mode, passing the ball too slowly and permitting Burnley to push them ever deeper. As the crowd grew increasingly edgy, Nick Pope found himself underemployed in the visiting goal and Sean Dyche’s body language in the technical area assumed a slightly greater macho swagger than usual.
Howe had adorned his team with a midfield diamond, featuring Joelinton at its apex but Josh Brownhill in particular stripped much of the early shine from this configuration as he made some important interceptions. Reactive rather than proactive, Newcastle had Martin Dubravka to thank for tipping an early shot from Johann Gudmundsson onto a post.
Then just as the murmurs of concern in the stands began to become audible and half-time approached, Pope stumbled and dropped Joe Willock’s cross. Opportunity beckoned for Callum Wilson and, sure enough, Newcastle’s No 9 responded by swivelling sharply and lashing the ball over Chris Wood, who was stationed on the goalline.
Burnley argued that Pope had been fouled but the goal survived a VAR review and Newcastle could have swiftly doubled their advantage had Willock not missed a decent counterattacking chance after meeting Allan Saint-Maximin’s cross. Having lost Maxwel Cornet, his liveliest forward, to a 32nd-minute injury, Dyche began looking a little less confident as the atmosphere turned electric and the ground echoed to choruses of “Eddie Howe’s black and white army”.
Not that Burnley were about to surrender. Instead they were engaging their Newcastle counterparts in a series of often intensely physical sub-plots all over the pitch, with the duel between Dyche’s left-back, Charlie Taylor and Miguel Almirón particularly intriguing.
Although Jonjo Shelvey at times dictated midfield, there were moments when Brownhill and Ashley Westwood did not let him have things quite his own way, but generally Howe’s team were much improved in the second half. No longer sitting so deep, they pressed further up the pitch at a considerably higher tempo than before the break and with Saint-Maximin destabilising Burnley, in many ways looked a very different team.
Some things never change though and a home side which rarely keeps clean sheets these days invariably seemed nervous whenever Burnley won a set piece. A second home goal would have changed the narrative but, despite their increased pressure and attacking intensity, Newcastle struggled to conjure final balls capable of outwitting James Tarkowski. Dyche’s captain is apparently a centre-half high on Howe’s January shopping list and, if this really was an audition, Tarkowski convinced.
Admittedly Pope did well to tip Jonjo Shelvey’s shot over the bar while Nathan Collins deflected another from Almirón to safety but Howe could never relax. Shortly after the Burnley substitute Jay Rodriguez had a “goal” disallowed for offside, he sensibly switched to a back five for the closing stages, withdrawing Almirón and introducing Federico Fernández, who was extremely unfortunate not to start following an outstanding defensive performance against Norwich last Tuesday.
A formidable run of fixtures featuring trips to Leicester and Liverpool and home dates with Manchester City and Manchester United now confront Howe and Newcastle. At least they can now face them with a glimmer of optimism, a sense that not all is necessarily lost.