Hometown hero finally sends Newcastle back to Wembley
It took a Longstaff to end a long wait. For the first time since the 20th century, Newcastle United have a final to look forward to and, at a ground where they play Local Hero, Sean Longstaff proved just that.
The midfielder was 18 months old when Newcastle lost the 1999 FA Cup final to Manchester United. Now the two Uniteds are likely to reconvene at Wembley courtesy of a Newcastle-born player. For much of Longstaff’s life, Newcastle had neglected the cups, particularly under Mike Ashley’s regime. Now Eddie Howe is a game away from winning their first trophy since 1969. He stands on the brink of a historic achievement, even if for some it would be clouded by the presence of their Saudi Arabian owners in the background.
But while Newcastle have spent some £250 million since their takeover, they were powered to Wembley by a player who cost them nothing. Longstaff was a local hero and, perhaps, an unlikely one. He had not scored at St James’ Park in almost four years, but after a barren run of 54 games, he had a brace inside the first quarter. With an early half-volley thudding into the side-netting and a second-half volley parried by Gavin Bazunu, it could have been a hat-trick. Southampton may have eased Newcastle’s passage to the national stadium twice: first by eliminating Manchester City in the quarter-finals and then with a hapless start.
Their more purposeful second-half performance came at a cost to Newcastle. Seeking to avert danger, Bruno Guimaraes instead lunged at Samuel Edozie and, after an intervention from VAR, got a red card that has the potential to harm Newcastle’s challenge for Champions League football.
Perhaps it would not be Newcastle without a fraught moment but, even with Idris Elba watching, it didn’t go down to the wire. Even that rarity – a goal conceded at St James’ Park, for the first time in almost four months – did not prevent progress by two goals over two legs. Howe’s side brimmed with confidence and were rewarded for their early ambition.
St James’ Park was a swirl of scarves, a mass of flags, a series of songs about Wembley. There was an air of celebration. Semi-finals can mean more to clubs who are not accustomed to being in them. They may be regular affairs for Newcastle in the future, but this had more of a sense of occasion.
Joelinton’s winner at St Mary’s last week had provided the platform. Unbeaten at home this season, Newcastle merely had to extend that record. They improved it with another victory. Longstaff made for a doubly fitting match-winner. He is one of the symbols of Howe’s ability to transform Steve Bruce’s players with his coaching. One of the most-improved players of the season, Longstaff was the sort of figure who could have been swept aside by the flood of signings that can follow a takeover.
Instead he is teaming up with them. His first goal was set up by the captain Howe lured as a flagship first signing, his second by two remnants of the previous era. First he drove in a shot from 12 yards after being found by Kieran Trippier. Then, emerging unchecked again, he supplied the finishing touch when Joe Willock powered clear, Miguel Almiron angled a run from right to left to supply the cutback and Longstaff proved equally precise.
Thereafter, Guimaraes was inches from adding a third; his next action was to plant his studs in Edozie’s heel. The initial verdict was a booking; having reviewed the incident, referee Paul Tierney upgraded the yellow card to red. He will be back for the final, but a three-game ban could harm Newcastle’s chances of a top-four finish.
Nor was it the only dismissal. Southampton had first-team coach Alan Sheehan sent off in the tunnel at half-time. It may have been an indication of frustration. Nathan Jones made four changes from the first leg, gave a debut to his ally from Luton James Bree and switched to a back three, but his side started in a state of disarray. They were ripped apart on their left flank and reverted to a back four for the second half, when they fared better.
Yet they reduced their deficit before the break. Che Adams drilled in a shot from 20 yards; it was the first goal Nick Pope had conceded since Southampton’s Romain Perraud scored, but that was almost three months and 930 minutes of football earlier. Pope made a fine save from the Geordie Adam Armstrong in the second half but Newcastle’s 10 men held on.
Armstrong left St James’ Park five years ago. Jonjo Shelvey waved farewell at half-time, with Nottingham Forest beckoning for him. Before kick-off, the new arrival Anthony Gordon was paraded on the pitch. Each is a sign of changing times and expensive ambition at Newcastle. But when they go to Wembley, it will be with a Geordie from North Shields Juniors at the heart of the midfield.