It was a homecoming when Steve Bruce was appointed Newcastle manager but, in a different way, this was a happy return to where it all began for him. Twenty-one years after his managerial career commenced at Bramall Lane Bruce inflicted a first defeat since September on his former club Sheffield United to continue Newcastle’s renaissance. They are now 11th which, after Bruce’s traumatic first few weeks, feels like dizzying heights.
If this was a case of pilfering the points, with Sheffield United dominating much of the match, goalkeeper Martin Dubravka outstanding and Jonjo Shelvey’s clinching goal controversial, Newcastle nonetheless had much to savour. Defenders have proved their best form of attack this season but, with Allan Saint-Maximin scoring Newcastle’s first goal and Andy Carroll setting up the second, their forwards finally contributed.
Two Uniteds have more in common than just the suffix. Each is managed by a lifelong fan and Chris Wilder and Steve Bruce turned to talismanic locals as they altered their attacks. Wilder gave his captain, Billy Sharp, a belated first Premier League start – at 33 he became the oldest English outfield player to make a full debut in the division since 2007 – while Bruce sprang a surprise by bringing in Carroll. It was 3,264 days and the best part of nine years since his previous start for his hometown club, a few weeks before his £35m move to Liverpool.
Yet the initial threat came from their sidekicks. The recalled Oli McBurnie curled a shot over the Newcastle bar and drew a terrific save from the diving Dubravka with a downward header. His chances sandwiched a genuine rarity: a goal from a Newcastle forward. The previous one came courtesy of Joelinton at Tottenham at August. With Newcastle’s £40m record buy demoted to the bench Saint-Maximin belatedly opened his account.
The £16.5m winger has become a crowd favourite with his mesmeric, high-speed dribbling. If he can seem a maverick talent, the unexpected element was that he delivered the sort of goal Carroll is renowned for. When Javier Manquillo provided a deep cross Saint-Maximin rose high above the Geordie Chris Basham to direct a towering header past Dean Henderson.
It came against the run of play. Sheffield United had been the more progressive side and Dubravka had saved well from Enda Stevens’ deflected shot. The Blades responded positively to trailing; a stretching Sharp shot wide after being released by Jack O’Connell and then somehow failing to connect with the defender’s deflected cross. With a game to chase Wilder’s overlapping centre-backs stepped into midfield more, content in the knowledge that Carroll’s lack of pace did not make him a threat on the counter-attack.
He at least served a purpose by heading away a couple of corners but Ollie Norwood’s set-pieces posed problems and Dubravka had to fling himself to his left to parry the midfielder’s free-kick. It meant that although Newcastle had only 25 % of possession in the first half they took a lead into the break.
Sharp had been preferred to the in-form Lys Mousset. He made a mark of sorts when he became the first player cautioned by Stuart Attwell, for a rather needless foul on Manquillo. It felt the first indication of frustration in the home ranks but his strike partner resumed his duel with Dubravka. The goalkeeper came out on top again when he tipped McBurnie’s header over his bar.
He produced a still finer stop to keep out Sharp’s diving header and if it was academic – the United captain was offside – it was still an indication of his terrific form. It was Sharp’s final contribution, with Mousset summoned to replace him.
Bruce was about to make a similar switch, with Joelinton set to come on, when Carroll won a flick-on and Shelvey surged clear to sidefoot past a motionless Henderson. Sheffield United had stopped, seeing the offside flag raised. Yet VAR showed two defenders were playing Shelvey onside. To the hosts’ consternation the initial decision was reversed and the goal stood.
The Sheffield United supporters’ choruses about VAR were unflattering, though technology had rectified the error by the assistant referee Derek Eaton, who had flagged Shelvey offside. The visiting fans, meanwhile, serenaded Bruce as the second goal took some of the tension out of the closing stages, even though Wilder brought on a second and third striker.