LEEDS: It’s the sort of goal that exemplifies a season turning point: A scruffy set piece late in the game that, through a combination of indecisive goalkeeping and the hint of a deflection, squirms its way into the far corner. Whether it’s a slice of good fortune or a helping hand, they all count – and this one might count more than most.
Jonjo Shelvey’s late free-kick proved enough to seal all three points for Newcastle United against a strangely off-color Leeds at Elland Road and, although still deep in the relegation mire, it might well represent the first rung on the Tyneside club’s climb to safety.
The gap to 17th is now down to a single point and next up is an Everton side without so much as one of those in five weeks. As the season heads into its latest international break, the ladder is beginning to look a little shorter.
Shelvey certainly understood the importance of the goal. As the net billowed almost apologetically in front of the home fans, he sprinted 60 meters down the pitch to greet the explosion of noise from the two-tiered away end. The delirium was repeated at the final whistle with players, many now shirtless, celebrating the three points as though they’d be presented by the queen.
“It’s massive,” Shelvey said after the game. “We will keep going and we believe we have enough to stay up. Everyone is in this together.”
Not that the omens before kick-off were particularly auspicious. The Newcastle fans being herded into the stadium through a concrete walkway from the coach park might have sung “Eddie Howe’s black and white army,” but it was hard to disguise the growing unease about his reign. The manager had presided over a solitary Premier League win since his November appointment – against fellow strugglers Burnley seven weeks ago - and had never previously emerged victorious from Elland Road.
Norwich’s win the previous evening, their second in succession, added its own pressure, as did news of Watford’s decision to part company with Claudio Ranieri after just 14 games in charge. It was difficult to overstate the stakes for both club and manager.
The early phase of the game reflected the tensions. Leeds, shorn of several key players and far from safe themselves, immediately pressed Newcastle back and, finding joy out wide, fizzed a number of balls across the box. Their lack of an orthodox center-forward blunted their threat, however, and gradually Newcastle emerged from their low block to gain a toehold in the game.
The second half offered increasing promise. Newcastle were now dominating midfield, cutting the supply lines to the dangerous Raphinha and, although rarely fluid, countering in greater numbers. On 74 minutes, one such breakaway down the left resulted in Diego Llorente’s ungainly tug on Javier Manquillo 20 yards from goal and Shelvey did the rest.
Unlike the Watford game a week earlier, there were no late surprises and Newcastle were able to close out the game with minimal alarm and register a first clean sheet of the season.
A very good day’s work, then, and perhaps significantly one that owed as much to the players Howe inherited from predecessor Steve Bruce as January’s expensive recruits.
As compact and composed as Kieran Trippier was, Shelvey, now in his seventh season at St. James’ Park, was the outstanding player on the pitch, gradually wresting control of the central areas and dictating play with smart, unfussy distribution. Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar, with close to 300 appearances between them, provided a central wall that Leeds rarely looked like penetrating, and Martin Dubravka, first choice since his arrival from Sparta Prague in 2018, made a crucial block to stem the early Leeds tide.
There remains considerable work to do at Newcastle on and off the park to turn one result into a season-saving sequence.
With 17 games remaining, it’s clear old faces will be required to make just as important a contribution as new blood. On that front, encouragement was in ready supply at Elland Road.