Newcastle 1 Man United 0: The tributes to Liam Miller were both impeccable and tragically poignant, but sadly for Manchester United, they were unable to fashion a display or an outcome fully fitting of a player taken far too soon.
Miller’s name regularly rang down from the stands as 3,000 visiting fans sang in his honour, after both sets of supporters held a minute’s applause for a proud son of Cork, who so sadly succumbed to pancreatic cancer aged 36.
The black armbands sported by the visitors was another nice touch to remember the Republic of Ireland midfielder who, though making only a little over 20 appearances in his two years at Old Trafford, remains fondly remembered by all those associated with the club.
Unfortunately for United, they couldn’t evoke a 90-minute reminder of the way Miller so often performed for all the teams he represented with such distinction in a dozen years as a player, with Jose Mourinho’s wait for a victory at the place he fondly refers to as ‘Mr Robson’s home’ showing no sign of coming to an end.
From his seat in the celestial stand, the Manchester United manager’s mentor Bobby would have no doubt approved as Newcastle were rewarded for the kind of gutsy display which very much harked back to the footballing Knight’s own celebrated spell in charge on Tyneside, as three priceless points were secured in the fight to stay up.
“Newcastle had their luck, but sometimes you deserve that luck,” said Mourinho, who hauled an ineffectual Paul Pogba off midway through the second-half.
He added: “Newcastle’s players fought for their lives. For me, that’s a beautiful thing.
“After certain defeats, Sir Bobby told me ‘don’t be so sad — think about the happiness of the other side’. Newcastle’s players and fans are very happy with this result. The gods of football weren’t with us, so I have a little smile for Sir Bobby, even though I’m disappointed.”
It’s perhaps a sign of the times that the only goal arrived from a free-kick conceded by a diving centre-back. Chris Smalling deservedly earned a yellow card for dissent, which Jonjo Shelvey pumped into the visitors’ box for Florian Lejeune and Dwight Gayle to fashion an opening for the unmarked Matt Ritchie to power into the bottom corner.
Newcastle had started the contest in the relegation zone, but rose to 13th on the back of a first home win in nine attempts.
The threat of an immediate return to the Championship remains very real for the Geordie nation, but the boost this result has given to their survival hopes is immeasurable.
They looked to have missed their chance as Mourinho’s side weathered an early storm to gain an increasing foothold in an intriguing contest which stretched to seven the number of games the Portuguese has failed to emerge victorious in the league here.
Debutant goalkeeper Martin Dubravka laid early claim to cult hero status on Tyneside, the Slovakian pulling off half-a-dozen stunning saves, which in addition to at least three goal-line clearances from his new team-mates somehow saw the visitors return across the Pennines without a point to their name.
Newcastle went against type to squarely go for the jugular from the first whistle, helped by a semi-comatose start from the visitors.
It almost brought them an early lead, when it took a fine save from David DeGea to beat out a fierce long-range shot from Shelvey on the edge of the area. Ayoze Perez fired narrowly wide from similar range after the excellent Mo Diame dispossessed Nemanja Matic and Newcastle might also have had a penalty when Gayle went down under challenge from Smalling, but after their appeals were waved away their force began to wane, leaving Dubravka to make a memorable first impression.
After pushing Jesse Lingard’s low shot to safety, the 29-year-old further excelled by coming out to block from Anthony Martial after the forward had been put through by Nemanja Matic.
Newcastle’s rearguard effort continued after the break, Lukaku’s header ruled out for pushing before Alexis Sanchez left three defenders trailing only to see his shot from a narrow angle deflected into the side netting. Lejeune then blocked the South American’s goal-bound effort after the rounded Dubravka had for once been left helpless.
The opening goal duly arrived, but at the other end with 25 minutes remaining, as Ritchie confidently dispatched his first goal of the season to elicit the maximum punishment for Smalling’s act of folly when he attempted to con the officials when challenging for the ball with Shelvey.
It was a brief respite for Newcastle as Dubravka beat out an Ashley Young shot, before Martial had two efforts blocked on the line from a Juan Mata corner, by DeAndre Yedlin and Gayle, as the hosts stood firm to record a first victory over top six opposition this season.
“It’s a big boost for us and gives us belief,” Benitez said. “This team cares. We know we have limitations but this is another game where they gave everything.”
Dubravka 9; Yedlin 8, Lascelles 8, Lejeune 8, Dummett 8; Diame 8, Shelvey 8; Ritchie 8, Perez 7 (Hayden 90, 5), Kenedy 7 (Atsu 83, 6); Gayle 7 (Joselu 80).
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1):
De Gea 6; Valencia 5, Smalling 4, Jones 4, Young 5; Pogba 3 (Carrick 68, 6), Matic 5 (McTominay 76, 6); Martial 6, Lingard 3 (Mata 68, 6), Sanchez 7; Lukaku 6.
Craig Pawson 7
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