NEWCASTLE: It took Newcastle United 15 games to record their first Premier League win last season – this time they’ve done it in one.
Two second-half crackers from Fabian Schar and Callum Wilson ensured an electric St. James’ Park was lit up black and white on the opening day of the top-flight season, with newly promoted Nottingham Forest put to the sword.
And the struggles of the opening days of 2021/22, with a backdrop of Mike Ashley ownership and Steve Bruce in the dugout, now seem like a distant memory.
The emotion of the encounter could not have been captured any better by the United faithful, with a banner unfurled pre-kick-off lauding the impact of the club’s new owners, headed by majority shareholders PIF, stating: “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, a new life for NUFC … And we’re feeling good!”
A new dawn? This has all the hallmarks of one, with Howe as creator-in-chief.
The head coach resisted the temptation to throw in big money summer signing Sven Botman from the off, instead preferring to ease the Netherlands youth international into life at St. James’ Park, much like he did the star of the back end of last season, Bruno Guimaraes.
Nick Pope was, however, given his United bow on home turf.
Very much continuing in the manner in which they finished pre-season, the Magpies started this one on the front foot – and seemed to catch last season’s Championship play-off winners cold.
With Guimaraes pulling the strings in the middle, Allan Saint-Maximin finding pockets of space on the left, and Miguel Almiron running beyond, United pinned back Forest for much of the opening 45. The one thing missing, though, was a goal.
A Saint-Maximin header from close range, which he glanced across goal rather than catching flush, will be one he won’t want to watch back, and so too Joelinton, who drove from deep beating two Forest midfielders before chopping back and skewing wide having done the hard work.
The visitors were quiet and submissive through much of the encounter but did come close to breaking out of their top-flight shell-shock when their shock summer signing Jesse Lingard, who United did consider, saw a low drive blocked by the excellent Schar.
Dean Henderson, another on United’s radar at points in the last six months, and the outside of his post then denied Almiron, a constant thorn in Forest’s side on the day.
The fear heading into the second half was that United’s dominance had not brought a breakthrough, but faith their persistence would pay off was well-founded, but not after yet more final third profligacy.
Henderson denied Saint-Maximin when the Frenchman looked certain to open his account for the campaign, while Willock also couldn’t quite get enough on a shot when teed up perfectly by yet more clever Newcastle front play.
The dam finally broke just before the hour mark when a short corner saw Saint-Maximin attempt to center only for a deflection to then loop up and Scott McKenna clear.
Mopping up 30 yards from goal was Switzerland international Schar who, as he has done on many occasions, saw the space in front of him as an opportunity and, having collected, drove into shooting range to unleash an unstoppable effort off the inside of the post and in. It was one for the collector’s item – and proof that Schar remains one of the most dangerous, attacking central defenders in the division with the ball at his feet.
As legs started to tire, United grabbed their second, and this time it was frontman Wilson with something special.
A driving run by the metronomic Joelinton down the left saw him center for Wilson, who showed incredible forward craft to flick over the head of Henderson for 2-0.
Three points on opening day are just what the doctor ordered for Howe & Co – but how much we learned about the Magpies is up for debate, given the opposition.
What is clear, however, is that wherever Forest may lie come May, United look set to be light years ahead of them.