Jamaal Lascelles is the sort of centre-half who likes to lead by example. Newcastle United’s captain most definitely subscribes to the view that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and, deep in stoppage time, he re-emphasised his importance to Steve Bruce’s side.
Minutes earlier Ciaran Clark had scored a freakish own goal which threatened to be calamitous in Newcastle’s struggle to avoid relegation but, by meeting Jacob Murphy’s left-wing cross and powering a bullet header beyond Emiliano Martínez, Lascelles salvaged a potentially vital point.
It is no exaggeration to say that equaliser might well have saved Bruce from the sack but his, and his side’s position, remain precarious. They stand 16th, only two points ahead of both 18th placed Fulham – who play Manchester City on Saturday – and 17th placed Brighton – who face Southampton on Sunday before hosting Newcastle next weekend.
Outwardly at least, Bruce remains upbeat. “It was a hideous goal to concede, a bit of a fluke but we showed the desire to get back into the game,” said the former Villa manager. “There’s still 10 games to go and I’m convinced we’ll be okay. There’s no question managing Newcastle is difficult. There’s a huge spotlight – but that’s the way it should be and I’m ready for the challenge.”
St James’ Park may have been virtually empty but the handful congregated inside clapped as loudly as possible during a heartfelt pre-kick-off minute’s applause for Glenn Roeder, who died two weeks ago.
Had the ground been full it would undoubtedly have been an emotional occasion as fans paid tribute to a much loved former captain and manager but it is now more than a year since the turnstiles last closed here.
The absence of supporters has arguably kept Bruce in a job and home season ticket holders would doubtless have been unimpressed as Villa began in determinedly zealous mode, winning virtually every second ball.
Nonetheless Joelinton really should have scored in the 14th minute after connecting with Jonjo Shelvey’s through pass and sidestepping Tyrone Mings. The £40m Brazilian was left with only Martínez to beat but hesitated at the vital moment, taking one touch too many and permitting Ezri Konsa to make an intelligently timed interception.
Both sides were without injured attacking catalysts – Jack Grealish in Villa’s case and Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almirón in Newcastle’s – and their absence explained the under-employment of both goalkeepers.
Although Martin Dubravka expertly parried Trezeguet’s angled shot after the forward dribbled past Paul Dummett, Newcastle’s keeper was generally well protected by a highly efficient defence. Bruce’s problems lay further forward, specifically in an attacking department where Joelinton’s industry could not camouflage the general shortage of improvisation and incision.
If the effort and sometimes almost painful endeavour on view was creditable, the lack of elan suggested Villa may have hit a ceiling in their clamber up the table.
Admittedly a Konsa header flashed across the face of goal and Clark did extremely well to block Bertrand Traoré’s fierce shot but Matt Targett was slightly fortunate not to head an own goal after Joelinton’s cross caught him unawares. Meanwhile Martínez looked mightily relieved to see Murphy’s shot rebound off the bar. “That was the best opportunity of the night,” said Bruce.
According to the so-called immutable law of the ex it is not uncommon for footballers to score against their old clubs but when Ollie Watkins’s header took a hefty deflection off Clark, the former Villa defender appeared to have registered the winner for his old employers.
Clark and Lascelles are close pals and the latter delighted in easing his friend’s misery by heading arguably the most important goal of his career. It left Dean Smith sanguine. “We didn’t deserve to win,” said Villa’s manager. “It was a very scrappy game, we have a few players short on confidence and we’re not creating chances.”