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 debut-making Scotland winger’s high energy skills suggested he will be a big hit with his new public. By way of added bonus, Fraser’s performance also offered a welcome distraction from yet another woeful display on Joelinton’s part.
The stands may have been empty but things still kicked off against a dramatic backdrop. After all, it is not every week that the owner of a top-tier club engages two 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 seems 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 manager’s current first-choice XI won at West Ham last Saturday in the league.
The change of competition to the Carabao Cup brought a change of both pace and personnel, with Bruce making 10 changes as he welcomed Tony Mowbray’s Championship visitors to Tyneside. The fresh faces included Mark Gillespie, the third-choice goalkeeper who made his debut following a free transfer from Motherwell, the recalled £40m Brazilian striker Joelinton and Fraser starting his first game after joining from Bournemouth as a free agent.
Although Fraser looked lively on the left wing as Bruce reverted to a 4-4-2 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. With the winger so 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 subplot.
Nyambe, though, did find time to hurtle down the right and unleash a low cross which really should have prefaced a goal for Lewis Holtby. Instead Mowbray’s former Germany midfielder shot wastefully wide from around 12 yards and Bruce breathed a little easier.
Shortly before kick-off Blackburn announced they had reinforced their defence with the signing of Daniel Ayala from Middlesbrough but the backline on duty here were more than holding their own on a night when the biggest home threats came from 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 find a way beyond defenders as obdurate as Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams.
Almirón though is nothing if not persistent and, in the 35th minute, his gorgeous reverse pass to Fraser as Newcastle counter-attacked at speed finally unhinged Mowbray’s backline. It left the new boy one on one against Thomas Kaminski and Fraser duly delighted in beating the visiting goalkeeper with a low right-foot shot.
As is so often the case with Mowbray’s teams, Blackburn were easy on the eye, monopolised possession for prolonged periods and could regard themselves as a little unlucky to begin the second half a goal down. Before the goal Kaminski had not had a noteworthy save to make.
Nonetheless such superficial slickness camouflaged a certain dysfunction when it came to actually getting the ball into the box. Damningly, Blackburn’s centre forward, Ben Brereton, had barely seemed to get a touch as Gillespie found himself 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’s follow up.
Suitably spurred, Rovers upped the tempo and as a dangerous Holtby shot was deflected wide Bruce glanced at his watch with more than a hint of anxiety. Newcastle needed to get the ball to Joelinton but when a chance did fall the increasingly peripheral striker’s way he shot straight at Kaminski.
Very shortly afterwards a thoroughly disgruntled looking Joelinton was replaced by Allan Saint-Maximin as Blackburn piled on the late pressure, creating a litany of chances, the best falling to Williams. Newcastle somehow clung on but the sight of Saint-Maximin hobbling badly at the final whistle left Bruce frowning.