Steve Bruce’s only real concern is that Mike Ashley may decide he does not need any expensive new players after all. Newcastle’s owner attended his first home match of the season before a transfer summit with his manager and watched Bruce’s previously shot-shy side not only score freely but monopolise possession to an almost unprecedented degree.
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Much as the manager will have been delighted that home fans chanted his name within earshot of Ashley, Bruce’s worry will be that this walk in the park against Brian Barry-Murphy’s third-tier visitors may have made his pitch to the retail tycoon significantly harder.
It is all very well having an FA Cup fourth round home tie with Oxford to look forward to – not to mention a potential appearance in the fifth round for the first time since 2006 – but Newcastle’s Premier League status is still far from secure and they could do with reinforcement at centre-forward, in central midfield and on the wing.
All the pre-match attention had concentrated on 40-year-old Aaron Wilbraham – or Wilbrahimovic, as he prefers to be known – but Rochdale’s veteran centre-forward barely got a touch against a three-man defence marshalled by the newly fit Jamaal Lascelles.
As Newcastle cantered into a three-goal first-half lead it seemed there would be no danger of Wilbraham being given the cold shoulder by Steve Bruce’s daughter Amy, who recently did the interior design of an extension to the striker’s house in Cheshire.The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.
Rochdale may have conjured the first chance but very soon after Jimmy Keohane’s right-footed shot from outside the area zoomed narrowly wide of Karl Darlow’s goal, Newcastle were in front.
Under Ashley’s approving glance, Matt Ritchie swung an inviting cross in the direction of Joelinton. Unfortunately for Rochdale’s Eoghan O’Connell, the central defender got there first and merely succeeded in diverting the ball into his own net.
Ritchie was starting his first game since sustaining a serious ankle injury in August and, as if hellbent on making up for lost time, the left wing-back very quickly created goal number two. Once again it came from a cross and involved Matty Longstaff taking a steadying touch before swivelling superbly and lashing a shot beyond Robert Sánchez.
Poor Sánchez would soon pay for a subsequent decision to take a short goalkick. After a failed attempt to build patiently from the back featuring Luke Matheson, the visiting 17-year-old right-back, coming under intense pressure, the ball ended up back at the keeper’s feet. Sánchez endeavoured to play it out under pressure but instead merely succeeded in picking out Miguel Almirón. Retaining commendable poise the suddenly prolific Paraguayan used his left foot to score his fourth goal in seven games.
If Bruce was gratified to be serenaded by an appreciative Gallowgate End, he would been even happier to witness something even more unusual; his team retaining possession for protracted periods.
As he almost shyly obliged requests to “give us a wave, Brucie,” Newcastle’s manager was able to admire the sight of his players constructing geometrically precise passing triangles of the sort notable by their absence in the Premier League this season.
Although Jimmy Ryan was only marginally off target with a sublime volley, Bruce remained sufficiently confident to withdraw Lascelles, re-jig his defence and offer academy graduate Tom Allan, 20, a debut at right wing-back.
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Four minutes later Allan had been joined by Andy Carroll – on for Almirón who could probably do with resting his legs before Chelsea’s Premier League visit on Saturday – and Bruce’s Angel of the North immediately set about galvanising teammates who had turned a little careless, gifting Rochdale both the ball and a couple of half-chances.
Carroll also helped Joelinton claim his first goal since August. The £40m Brazilian centre-forward has endured a season of struggle on Tyneside but Carroll’s beautifully weighted pass to Allan enabled the debutant to cue up Joelinton courtesy of a low cross. All that remained was for the No 9 to shoot through substitute goalkeeper Jay Lynch’s legs before racing to the technical area and embracing Bruce.
As Newcastle relaxed, Jordan Williams scored a consolation with a shot that went in off the inside of a post before Carroll hit the bar.
To the considerable dismay of Newcastle supporters, Ashley has long maintained that cups are not a priority and, during his near 13-year tenure, weakened black-and-white XIs have duly exited in the early rounds but Bruce has pledged to change that narrative.
Maybe, just maybe, Ritchie, Almirón and company might have converted the owner to the magic of the Cup. Bruce can only hope he has done enough to convince him he is a manager worth backing.