The NE1 Virus : Newcastle United 1 Sheffield United 0
We can wear masks, we can physically distance, we can self isolate, we can use our common sense, we can test ourselves and we can be vaccinated.
We can do all of that to try and contain Covid-19 but what protection does any of that give us against supporting Newcastle United?
It is an incurable virus, one that has infected us all, mostly at a young age and stays with us for the rest of our lives. There is nothing we can do about it. We just have to live with it.
The NE1 Virus was at its worst when I went to St James Park on Wednesday night. The first professional football match I had attended since February last year, a 0-0 draw against Burnley. I wrote a match report for The Mag on that one as well, not much has changed.
I have my own reasons for going to the match and not boycotting the club as it currently is. I will probably go next season, I still enjoy watching live football, that’s the bottom line. About half of my friends go, half of them boycott. The ones who boycott seem to think it is their right to call me a, well you can guess what it is, some of you will probably call me worse in the comments. I take it on the chin. In most ways I share their pain.
The lack of ambition, the lack of hope, the lack of on-field entertainment and the lack of affection for the current set of players, coaches and owner.
Is it worse than when Shinton and Rafferty were up front?
Worse than when we were relegated at Old Trafford in 1989?
Worse than Rudd Gullit benching Shearer and Ferguson against the Mackems?
Worse than Pardew 0-6 against Liverpool?
McClaren’s 0-3 against Leicester?
No, not worse. Pretty much the same. Most of my life with the virus has been hopeless. If I was going to stop going it would have happened years ago. The only things that have stopped me so far have been work, money, parenthood and a combination of Jim Smith and Acid House.
But I still like to go and I still hate to watch football on the TV. In the first half against Sheffield United, some bloke tried to catch a ball going into the Gallowgate and fell down the stairs. Would I have laughed as much if I was watching it at home? No. At half time there was a bloke called the Geordie Arab walking around the Leazes End with his mates. No masks, hugging people as he went. A steward went to tell him to behave, took a closer look at them and left it. He covered that fifteen-yard retreat faster than any player covered fifteen yards on the pitch in the 105 minutes the game went on for.
We all have our reasons for going or not going. Most of it isn’t even because of what happens on the pitch. The virus affects us all in different ways.
There were roughly ten thousand people at SJP on Wednesday. They did their best, sang some funny songs which made me laugh, sang some new songs I didn’t know which made me wonder how everyone else knew the words. Some applauded Shelvey, which I didn’t understand, a lot audibly barracked the players taking the knee which is how it is now.
It’s not just a virus, an owner or a head coach which divides opinion, it’s got political now. Everything is political now. Everything is more hostile. The owner got a few mentions, the head coach a few less, the referee who was straight out of Glee even less than that. Willock, Maxi and Dubravka got the praise. JoeLinton got some. I have absolutely no idea why. Hope of improvement perhaps? It’s the virus.
And on the pitch what happened? Well United played against a team dressed in the sort of see-through salmon outfit I last saw in a window in Amsterdam’s red light district. A team who have lost twenty nine PL games this season, sixteen out of nineteen away with a goalkeeper who has played seventy four games and lost fifty of them. Maybe that virus isn’t just in NE1. Given those statistics you would think that NUFC strolled around SJP smacking in goals for fun. Not so. Much of this game was an advert for myxomatosis. Newcastle were the better team though and won, if not comfortably, then at least without too much danger.
The Toon started badly in a supposed 3-4-1-2. It was often more of a 3-1-4-2 with Shelvey dropping in to pick the ball off the defence. If someone marks him, as most teams do and the Blades did for the first twenty-five minutes, United can’t get the ball out of defence and have to hit it long to players not suited to it. If the opposition don’t mark him, like Leicester didn’t last week and Sheffield United didn’t after the 25th minute yesterday, United can play.
Of the ‘4’, Ritchie plays much higher up the pitch than Murphy does, so Dummett pushes wider in the ‘3’ than Krafth does. Which means that the formation is more of a ‘4’ with Dummett and Murphy as full backs, ‘1’ Shelvey, a ‘3’ Ritchie, Willock and Almiron and then a ‘2’ up top. Or ‘1’ if JoeLinton is on the pitch. Still, let’s not get too hung up on formations. We won didn’t we?
For twenty five minutes it didn’t look like we would. David McGoldrick had a great chance after seven minutes, his first time shot going just wide. McGoldrick was key to everything Sheffield United. In the first half everything he tried didn’t come off, which made him look like the worst player on the pitch. In the second half it did, which made him look like one of the best. The reality is that he is probably somewhere in the middle but at least he tries things. NUFC couldn’t get going but it didn’t last. The game changed and Newcastle began to get Shelvey on the ball in space. After the game, the interim Sheffield United coach said:
“We were in control of the game for the first half hour or so and when you fall behind it is a tough game.”
No explanation as to why his team stopped shackling Shelvey but it cost them the game. His first foray up the pitch should have put United one up, his free header well saved by Aaron Ramsdale, but he really should have scored. Saving the header saw a considerable spell of treatment for Ramsdale. We thought he was injured but he was just getting in first, every player on the pitch on Wednesday had some sort of treatment. Not the NE1 virus, it is a brand new virus, one where players just sit down on the pitch while the game is going on. Next up was JoeLinton, who seemed to injure himself complaining to the referee about a free kick he didn’t get. If he is injured, hopefully his last contribution of the season was helping to compile the four minutes stoppage time which United scored in, rather than heading a decent Murphy header into the Gallowgate bar area when all alone eight yards out.
Willock saved his blushes. Maxi supposedly did a season record dribbles in the match, a dribble record that he shares with Lionel Messi against Celta Vigo and Steve Bruce in the bacon aisle at M & S. Jinky Allan snaked his way across the Blades box, put a lovely ball in for Murphy who crossed for Willock to score the header Shelvey wasn’t capable of earlier on. Afterwards, I heard that Willock is the third NUFC player to score in six consecutive PL games along with Cisse and Shearer. Willock is also the youngest player ever to do it in the PL. That’s a quiz question of the future, which Arsenal player is the youngest to score in six consecutive PL games. It does prove what Mikel Arteta said when he loaned out Willock, that “young players need games.” Perhaps some of our young players can start to get them as well as Arsenal’s.
‘Joe Willock: Our future, your clutter’
The second half saw Dwight Gayle come on for the injured JL and a period of ebb and flow began. If that makes it sound engaging, it wasn’t. Sheffield United had loads of the ball, Newcastle United hit them on the counter. As both teams aren’t very good at that, not much happened. McGoldrick smacked a free kick wide from the edge of the penalty area. In the stands, I was in an exact straight line behind that shot at goal. It was going wide from the minute it left his foot. The only way that was going in was if Roberto Carlos had taken it. ASM nearly set Dwight Gayle up for a tap in but Ramsdale anticipated the cross well, Miggy in the same position also crossed but to no one. McGoldrick hit the bar with a twenty five yarder and Willock shot straight at the Sheffield United keeper.
Apart from that it was just a procession of injury hold-ups and substitutions. Maxi had had enough, a clearly demotivated Sean Longstaff came on. Andy Carroll came on for a reported last hurrah for Willock who looked knackered, a strange substitution given that Dubravka needed lengthy treatment twice for what looked like a hamstring injury. Perhaps Steve Bruce had promised Carroll his final appearance and didn’t fancy getting a Steven Taylor type battering later on. Either way it didn’t much affect the game except that it kicked off at 6pm and seemed like it had lasted four hours. The team promised a lap of appreciation after the game, there is no honour any more. I left at the final whistle. Judging by the scene outside the ground, most people attending did the same thing.
Even though the game was dull at least it was an occasion and Newcastle won but it wasn’t the greatest performance in black and white. Fernandez held the back line together admirably, giving new Sheffield star Jebbison up front a master class in experience. The rest of the defence were poor. Ritchie was below par apart from the cross for Shelvey’s header, Murphy the same except the cross for the goal. Like McGoldrick though, Murphy gives the ball away because he tries things, I’m not going to criticise him for that. Given a bit of time on the ball, Shelvey did ok.
The real stars of the team, Dubravka apart because he had nowt to do, are Almiron, Maxi and Willock. The pace, energy and intensity they play with is a different level to the rest of the team. They move at a different speed, something I had not realised when I watched the games on TV. Almiron needs to be more precise in his play but that shouldn’t take much credit away from his performance. If you watch the opposition when Miggy, Maxi or Willock are on the ball then you can see them tense up and fear what is coming. That doesn’t happen when any of our other players have it. I hope that they are playing for Newcastle United next season. I don’t think that any of them will. They are immune to the virus and can leave at any time.
I also hope that there are three teams as bad as Sheffield United in the PL next season, making Steve Bruce’s job much easier. As Blades interim manager Heckingbottom said after the game:
“We started really well, stopped Newcastle playing forwards, won the ball back in good areas and then broke from those areas and created chances, which we didn’t take. Then we got punished with the last kick before half-time, and that’s been the story of the season, hasn’t it? It’s been no lack of effort, the players have been there.”
Accurate enough. They were well organised and will need that effort next season if they want to come straight back up. They just weren’t anywhere near good enough for long enough to get any rewards. In this game as much as the season. Steve Bruce rambled on after the game but listening to what he says is one part of the NE1 virus I have managed to shake:
“We all aspire to take Newcastle into the top half of the table. We have to be actively better than just surviving. We have got the makings of a half-decent team.”
Unfortunately, we were starting to look like a decent team just before he took over.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 1 Sheffield United 0 – Wednesday 19 May 6pm
(Half-time stats in brackets)
Possession was Sheff Utd 50% (34%) Newcastle 50% (66%)
Total shots were Sheff Utd 11 (2) Newcastle 16 (12)
Shots on target were Sheff Utd 1 (0) Newcastle 5 (4)
Corners were Sheff Utd 2 (0) Newcastle 5 (4)
Referee: Robert Jones
Dubravka, Murphy, Fernandez, Krafth, Dummett, Ritchie, Shelvey, Willock (Carroll 85), Almiron, Saint-Maximin (Sean Longstaff 71), Joelinton (Gayle 45)
Mark Gillespie, Ciaran Clark, Jeff Hendrick, Javier Manquillo, Matty Longstaff, Jamal Lewis
(3 Positives and 3 Negatives from Newcastle 1 Sheffield United 0 – Read HERE)
(Steve Bruce reflects on performance against Sheffield United and abuse from Newcastle fans – Read HERE)
(Sheffield United boss gutted to lose after having been ‘in control of the game’ against Newcastle – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 1 Sheffield United 0 – Match ratings and comments on all the NUFC players – Read HERE)
(Newcastle 1 Sheffield United 0 – Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Wednesday’s win – Read HERE)
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