The final whistle had barely blown before T-Rex’s I Love to Boogie began to boom out of the sound system at St James’ Park. Judging by the width of his smile, Eddie Howe was ready to dance with joy.
Clearly emotional, Newcastle’s manager instead settled for hugging everyone in sight before joining his players on a lap of appreciation. As they circumnavigated the pitch, applauding fans in all four corners of the stadium, an outsider might have assumed Howe’s team had just qualified for Europe and were preparing to party.
In reality they had narrowly won a first Premier League game of the season at the 15th attempt to inch off the bottom of the table. Granted, Newcastle are only above Norwich on goal difference, but, coupled with a rare clean sheet, Callum Wilson’s winning goal imbued everyone in black and white with renewed hope.
No side in Premier League history has failed to win until December and avoided relegation but Howe’s players are now level on points with third-bottom Burnley and have improved significantly since he replaced Steve Bruce as manager last month.
“There’s a long road ahead, but for sure we can stay up,” said Howe. “The spirit was exceptional, I’m very proud of the players.”
Newcastle started in hesitant fashion, passing the ball too slowly and permitting Burnley to push them ever deeper. As the crowd grew increasingly edgy, Nick Pope found himself underemployed and Martin Dubravka tipped Johann Gudmundsson’s shot on to a post, 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, making some important interceptions. Further back James Tarkowski, who is apparently high on Newcastle’s January shopping list, put in a convincing audition at centre-half, persistently second-guessing home attacking manoeuvres.
Then just as the murmurs of concern in the stands began to become audible, Pope stumbled and dropped Joe Willock’s cross under pressure from Fabian Schär. Opportunity beckoned for Callum Wilson and, having taken a steadying touch, Newcastle’s No 9 swivelled sharply before lashing the ball over Chris Wood, who was stationed on the goalline, from a technically challenging angle.
“That mistake changed the game,” lamented Dyche who accepted the judgment of a VAR review that Pope had not been fouled and the goal was therefore legitimate. “Until then Newcastle looked nervous and we were the better side.”
Having lost Maxwel Cornet, his liveliest forward, to a first-half injury, the Burnley manager’s early confidence gradually evaporated as the atmosphere turned electric and the ground echoed to choruses of “Eddie Howe’s black and white army”.
Not that Burnley ever surrendered. Instead they delighted in engaging Newcastle in a series of often intensely physical subplots all over the pitch, with the duel between Dyche’s left-back, Charlie Taylor and the excellent Miguel Almirón proving particularly intriguing.
The good news for Howe was that Almirón and co refused to be bullied into submission. Indeed, with Jonjo Shelvey getting the measure of Brownhill and Ashley Westwood in midfield, his side improved appreciably in the second half.
No longer sitting so deep, they pressed further up the pitch at a considerably higher tempo than before. With Allan Saint-Maximin repeatedly destabilising Dyche’s defence, they looked almost unrecognisable from their earlier incarnation.
Yet although Pope did well to tip Jonjo Shelvey’s shot over the bar and Nathan Collins deflected another from Almirón to safety, Newcastle’s recent defensive history ensured Howe could never quite relax. He seemed to wince whenever Burnley won a set piece.
Shortly after one of Dyche’s substitutes, Jay Rodriguez, had a goal disallowed for offside, Howe sensibly switched to a back five, withdrawing Almirón and introducing the ever-reliable Federico Fernández.
Awkward trips to Leicester and Liverpool followed by home dates with Manchester City and Manchester United now confront Newcastle, but at least they can now approach them with some genuine optimism, a sense that all is not necessarily lost.
“We must be prepared to fight,” said Howe. “But, first, we have to enjoy this moment.”