LONG after the final whistle at St James’s Park, Mike Ashley still had a big smile on his face.
But few in the stadium were smiling until Papiss Demba Cisse’s 37th-minute intervention.
MIke Ashley must take heed of Villa owner Randy LernerNewcastle writer Miles Starforth
Ashley, Newcastle United’s owner, bounded down the steps from the directors’ box to the dugouts and headed up the tunnel, presumably to see John Carver, whose side had beaten Aston Villa 1-0 thanks to Cisse’s goal.
It was a day for smiles, despite the largely scrappy encounter on the field.
But the afternoon’s defining image wasn’t Cisse’s goal or joyful celebration.
It was the sight of a beaming Jonas Gutierrez, a player who was fighting cancer in his native Argentina a few short months ago, back on the pitch for the warm-up.
Gutierrez didn’t make it off the bench, but his smile said a thousand words.
The winger – who hadn’t visited St James’s Park since returning to the club in December – was warmly embraced back into the fold on a cold and drab Tyneside afternoon.
The afternoon was brightened by the sight of Gutierrez and Cisse’s clinical strike.
Until Daryl Janmaat delivered a teasing cross from the right, only one team looked like scoring. And it wasn’t Newcastle.
Christian Benteke had put one shot wide and forced a decent save from Tim Krul with an overhead kick. Janmaat had also stopped Scott Sinclair prodding him a Benteke cross at the far post early in the game.
By contrast, United had struggled to carve out opportunities.
Neither side looked comfortable on the ball – too many passes went astray – and striker Emmanuel Riviere, preferred to Ayoze Perez up front, gamely chased a series of lost causes.
Fortunately for Newcastle, Villa can’t put the ball in the net. It’s been that way for them all season.
That’s something Cisse can do, and he effortlessly took down Janmaat’s cross and neatly poked it past Brad Guzan.
And that was that.
Villa showed plenty of fight – manager Tim Sherwood was heartened by the character he saw from the team – but they didn’t look like scoring, though United captain Fabricio Coloccini did make a goal-saving block from Ashley Westwood.
The Championship surely now beckons for Sherwood’s side.
There won’t be many tears shed on Tyneside should Villa drop out of the Premier League for the first time.
Mindful of the Holte End banners at Villa Park mocking Newcastle’s own plight on the final day of the season six years ago, supporters chanted to the away end “you’re not laughing any more” at the end of the game.
They weren’t laughing high up in the Leazes End.
By contrast, United, now 13 points clear of the relegation zone, are all but safe.
But had it not been for a run of five wins in October and November, the club’s position would be far less comfortable.
The form at other times has been that of a relegation-threatened team.
And this game, as well as those before it, underlined the work that needs to be done in the summer.
The club will this month announce its results for the last financial year.
Newcastle will reveal a sizeable profit as a result of player trading and increased TV revenues, but what fans want is a more profitable season on the pitch.
Sound financial results might make Ashley smile, but ultimately, it’s all about success on the pitch, and United’s squad simply isn’t big – or good – enough to challenge higher up the league.
Newcastle are one of the richest clubs in Europe, yet Carver can barely name a back four each week. That must change.
Villa’s slow and painful demise has been down, at least in part, to a lack of investment from owner Randy Lerner over the past few years.
Ashley must take heed.