Ryan Fraser did much more than merely secure Newcastle a third- round trip to Morecambe next week. Not content with shooting the winner in the tightest of ties, the Scotland winger’s high-energy skills on his debut suggested he will be a very big hit with his new public.
And if that were not sufficient, Fraser’s performance also offered a welcome distraction from yet another woeful display on Joelinton’s part as the eerily empty stands obscured the game’s dramatic backdrop.
After all, it is not every week that the owner of a top tier club engages two leading QCs to pursue legal action against the Premier League. That, though, is precisely what Mike Ashley has done in hiring Nick De Marco and Shaheed Fatima as he continues to strive to sell Newcastle to a Saudi Arabian-led consortium the ruling body is reluctant to accommodate. What price some form of out-of -court compromise?
Steve Bruce would not turn his nose up at the sort of transfer budget the Saudis had planned for St James’ Park but the Newcastle’s manager current first-choice XI did not do too badly at West Ham last Saturday when they won their first league game of the season.
The change of competition to the Carabao Cup brought a change of personnel, with Bruce making 10 changes as he welcomed Tony Mowbray’s Championship visitors to Tyneside. The fresh faces included Mark Gillespie, Newcastle’s third-choice goalkeeper, making his debut following a free transfer from Motherwell, the recalled Joelinton – all £40m of him – and Fraser, starting his first game in black and white stripes after joining from Bournemouth as a free agent.
Although Fraser proved a bewitching left-wing presence as Bruce reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, he was up against a formidable opponent in Blackburn’s influential right-back Ryan Nyambe. On a night when the Newcastle-supporting health secretary, Matt Hancock was said to be debating placing the city in lockdown following a rise in coronavirus cases Nyambe did his utmost to restrict Fraser’s freedom of movement . Yet with the winger so uber energetic he appeared to be electrically powered, the full-back did not always get his own way in what swiftly emerged as the evening’s most compelling sub-plot.
Nyambe, though, did find time to hurtle down the right and unleash a low cross which should have prefaced a goal for Lewis Holtby. Instead the former Germany midfielder shot wide and Bruce breathed a little easier.
Before kick-off Blackburn reinforced their defence with the signing of Daniel Ayala from Middlesbrough but the backline on duty here generally held their own commendably in the face of the threats posed by Fraser and Miguel Almirón.
All subtle flicks and nuanced tricks, the Paraguayan enjoyed himself playing off Joelinton in Bruce’s front two but initially struggled to quite find a way beyond centre-backs as obdurately streetwise as Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams. Small wonder Joelinton appeared so reluctant to get close to them.
Almirón, though, is nothing if not persistent and in the 35th minute his gorgeous reverse pass to Fraser as Newcastle counterattacked at speed finally unhinged Mowbray’s backline. All that remained was for the new boy to beat Thomas Kaminski with a low right-foot shot. “Considering Ryan hasn’t played since March his effort, energy and endeavour was something else,” said Bruce.
As is so often the case with Mowbray’s invariably elegantly constructed teams, Blackburn frequently monopolised possession. With Kaminski underemployed and Lewis Travis particularly impressive, they could regard themselves as a little unlucky to lose.
Nonetheless such superficial slickness camouflaged a certain dysfunctionality when it came to actually getting the ball into the box. Daringly Mowbray’s centre forward, Ben Brereton, struggled for touches as Gillespie found himself strangely redundant.
Or at least he did until the 58th minute when Newcastle’s new goalkeeper made an excellent double save to deny first the suddenly rejuvenated Brereton and then Amari’i Bell.
As Rovers upped the tempo and a dangerous Holtby shot deflected wide Bruce glanced, anxiously, at his watch.
Very shortly afterwards a thoroughly disgruntled looking Joelinton – who had just shot tamely at Kaminski – was withdrawn as Blackburn created a litany of late chances, the most inviting a Williams volley. “Joelinton’s always worked his socks off,” said Bruce. “But he’s got to dust himself down and get on with it.”