JOEY Barton believes his destiny is being controlled by God. If he is right, the Almighty has a real sense of drama.
As their first win in the league since August 23, United’s victory over West Bromwich Albion – comfortable in the first half, laboured in the second – was noteworthy enough. But, as he always seems to do when anywhere near a football pitch, Barton managed to hog the attention.
The Liverpudlian’s first start this season was ten minutes old when he played in Shola Ameobi on the left of the penalty area.
As soon as Ryan Donk brought Ameobi down the identity of the penalty-taker was as predictable as its outcome. Barton’s spot-kick was not the best – neither just inside the post nor straight down the middle – but he tricked Scott Carson into diving the wrong way and Newcastle were in front.
Even before Barton’s intervention, divine or otherwise, there was something not quite right about St James’s Park, an unusual air around the terraces. Those with long memories would have recognised it as expectancy. West Brom have not beaten United since they were known as the Throstles, and had not claimed so much as a point off them in the Premier League.
In the first 45 minutes it seemed obvious history was not about to be rewritten but being expected to win rather than lose does not sit easy on Newcastle shoulders if the evidence of the second half is anything to go by.
The game was seconds old when the returning Jonás Gutiérrez played the ball to fellow winger Damien Duff, who found Ameobi.
His shot was cleared off the line by Paul Robinson but Ameobi getting in behind right-back Gianni Zuiverloon was a recurring theme of the night.
Obafemi Martins forced an excellent save from Scott Carson, his fierce shot rounding off some classic route one. The only surprise was that it took the Magpies ten minutes to find the net. Barton’s previous goal had been an injury-time penalty to see off Fulham. This one seemed set to start a landslide but in the end it was also decisive.
When Duff’s shot at the end of a thrusting run was blocked the ball fell to Barton but a second goal in the opening quarter of an hour would have been stretching it. He dragged his effort wide. The flood of early chances reduced to a trickle but there was a virtual drought at the other end.
Still, an excellent Robert Koren through-ball might have been given what it – and Steven Taylor’s negligence – deserved had not Shay Given rushed out to make an excellent save. And when Borja Valero produced a dangerous cross from the right, no one seemed to want to touch it.
When Gutiérrez picked Ameobi out, the revitalised forward produced a shimmy and a cross which Habib Beye spooned embarrassingly.
A minute after Martins had woefully over-hit a centre from a similar position Beye made amends, putting the ball over from the right for the Nigerian to head in off Zuiverloon’s chest from eight yards out.
It guaranteed United went into the dressing room in front for the first league game this season. “It feels a bit weird,” said the half-time announcer.
Perhaps disorientated, Newcastle looked complacent from the restart. Nine minutes in, Tony Mowbray went 4-4-2 and his side produced a flurry of shots. James Morrison’s first went harmlessly wide after striking Ishmael Miller, while his second was more of a danger to those in the stands. Miller failed to get hold of his effort but the Baggies had been given a glimmer of hope.
Encouraged, Koren – who came to the attention of English scouts with his performance against Newcastle in the Intertoto Cup – threaded a ball to the substitute and Miller drifted past Given and shot into the unguarded net.
Given saved Morrison’s 73rd-minute free-kick and Miller’s follow-up and Koren blazed a corner, which had been pulled back to him, off target. Initially all Newcastle could offer in return was Duff’s shot straight at Carson after being well found by Ameobi.
United had the chance to put the home fans out of their misery when Duff counter-attacked six minutes from time. But when he played the ball to Xisco the Spaniard tried to return it via the outside of his boot and sliced it out.
And when Ameobi did find Duff three minutes later, he shot into Zuiverloon rather than the net.
But they held firm at the other end and while their escape from the relegation zone may not last longer than 24 hours, its effect on confidence could be far more enduring.
As Newcastle’s time-wasting in the corner underlined, what should have been a stroll in the park turned out to be extremely nerve-wracking.
But what would have been the point of Barton scoring if it wasn’t decisive? He really does move in mysterious ways.