Tonight saw the replay of the FA Cup third round tie with Birmingham at St James Park and a few shocks in the line up with three players handed first team debuts.
STARTING XI: Sels, Yedlin (Hayden, 75), Hanley, Findlay, Lazaar, Shelvey, Tiote (Colback, 82), Ritchie, Barlaser, El-Mhanni (Perez, 70), Gouffran
Starting for the first time ever at senior level would be Stuart Findlay who’d partner Hanley at the centre of defence, Dan Barlaser who’d play in central midfield and a 21 year old winger Yasin Ben El-Mhanni who has been building a fantastic reputation as a real talent in the under 23 squad if only for his silky skills and tricks.
For Gateshead born Dan Barlaser it couldn’t have had a better gift on his 20th birthday. For Rafa, the chance to see if a few of his academy players are anywhere near breaking through to the first team and the chance to rest a few players given all the injuries the squad is carrying at the moment.
Tonight may also signal a significant moment for Cheick Tiote who is widely expected to leave the club after this game with reports that a move to La Liga side Sporting Dijon being very close and could be finalised even before this weekend.
A scrappy start to the game would see things start at walking pace as Newcastle’s new look team and Birmingham’s horrendous form seemingly combining to cancel each other out.
But with all the focus on the new lads it would be our established and returning playmaker who would cause the first damage. A loverly through ball to Gouffran would see our number 20 felled in the box by the blues keeper giving the referee the easiest of decisions in awarding Newcastle a penalty.
Matt Ritchie would step up to thump the resulting spot kick straight down the middle and past keeper Legzdins in the Birmingham net with just 9 minutes gone.
Either side of the goal Tiote, well, Tiote would just be Tiote. Tough, clumsy, you know!!
Gouffran though would seize his chance, and having already made the penalty he would then see his headed effort clip the outside of the post.
Then with 35 minutes on the clock the same combination that created the penalty for the first goal didn’t need any help with the next. Another cracking but simple ball from Shelvey would set up Gouffran who turned brilliantly before curling a cracking shot that gave the Birmingham stopper no chance. Gouffran up front. #InRafaWeTrust.
Next it would be Ritchie’s turn to get in on the act, almost as once again the post would see Birmingham though after great work from the Scotsman who'd see his effort bounce off the frame and clear of danger.
At that rate it certainly didn’t look like Zola was getting his first win as Birmingham boss who's team had been thoroughly awful And with the half time whistle blown Sels would not have had to make a single save.
2-0 Half Time.
The second half would start with no changes for either sides in front of another excellent crowd of 34,896.
Some early pressure from Birmingham would force a couple of corners for the visitors and whilst they would come to nothing they would at least show more intent than in the entire first half.
Newcastle would start to turn the screw again as the half ticked on with Ritchie and Lazaar both seeing chances well saved. Shelvey would also see a corner almost go straight in, and but for the fingers of the keeper and clipping the bar it would have.
No sooner had Ben El-Mhanni made way for Perez and with Newcastle looking in total control, Birmingham would half the Magpies lead with a rare attack. Jutkiewicz the creator playing in Cotterill who’s shot somehow found it way through Sels after the keeper seemed to go down very early.
Rafa, who said he wouldn’t want to risk Hayden, then did just that as he turned to the ex Arsenal man to steady the ship in place of Yedlin on 75 minutes.
Newcastle now looked a little rattled.
And as Birmingham pushed forward and finally came to life the game would be stretched with half chances at both ends.
But with the game edging into what could have been an nervy spell of injury time Newcastle would seal it. Some lovely work from Shelvey once more, this time after exchanging passes with Perez before crossing to Ritchie to bundle home. No doubt who our man of the match would be and it’s not two goal Ritchie but returning hero Shelvey who was inspirational throughout.
And that would be that. 3-1
Not since 2012 have Newcastle been into round 4. And with a fixture away to Oxford, currently 13th in League 1, there is a great chance to progress even further in a competition we’ve underachieved in for so long.
And given all the changes tonight will be seen as a job well done.
Onwards and upwards.