It took some time, but finally a performance clicked for Newcastle at home. In football, the saying goes that your home ground should be a fortress – well it’s been anything but at St. James’ Park this season.
However, against Cardiff, all that changed, largely through the actions of a particular Swiss centre back.
Fabian Schar has looked like a pretty inspired bit of business already in his time donning the black and white – having cost the Magpies just £3m thanks to a release clause. The centre back is comfortable on the ball, confident and boasts an impressive passing range and accuracy.
He’s also offered fans a slight hope in the misery that is Newcastle’s ongoing injury crisis, having displayed proficiency playing further forward in midfield.
That versatility will serve him well under Rafa Benitez, who is known to respect players who offer him flexible. It’s the reason Vurnon Anita became such a key part of Benitez’s Championship squad.
In this match, Schar stepped up even further to the mantle. Newcastle have been crying out for a leader on the pitch in recent games. They’ve needed somebody to put their teammates on their back and lead by example.
When he collected the ball not far from the halfway line, I don’t think anyone in St. James’ Park thought Schar was about to be that man. Here and there, a fan or two may have secretly hoped their man would drive at Cardiff, but even the most optimistic were likely stunned by the outcome.
It was a brilliant run, reminiscent of one Hatem Ben Arfa, and a cultured finish considering it was on his weaker left foot.
Even if Cardiff did very little to defend against the chance, it still relied exceptional belief and composure from Schar to finish it off.
You could see the joy in the Swiss international’s face too, as he sprinted to the corner flag to celebrate, roaring towards the Gallowgate End – who responded equally. It was the sort of thing that within an instant got the belief and the positivity pumping around St. James’ Park again.
Clear as day too was the confidence it gave Schar. Grabbing your first goal for your club can be an enormous boost for a player, and for the Magpies’ summer signing it turned an already brilliant performance into the game of his life.
He seemed to be just about everywhere.
No more so than in the second half when he cropped up in the exact right place at the right time to direct the ball into the back of the net once again.
It may have lacked quite the same grace as his first goal, but it required just as much footballing intelligence. There was no accident that Schar got on the end of the ball, because he was alert in the box and quickest to react when a chance fell his way.
He could have gotten a third too, later in the match, but his powerful header glanced wide of the upright.
Yet, as ridiculous as it sounds, Schar goals weren’t the thing that stood out to me most in the match. His performance was much more than just one of attacking brilliance, but instead an all round display.
Having already scored twice as a central defender, you’d forgive him if some defensive complacency slipped into the Swiss star’s game, but he remained sharp throughout.
As Cardiff broke on a rare dangerous attack, they got in behind the Newcastle defence and looked certain to score – with an unmarked blue shirt waiting in the middle of the box for the cut back.
Almost everyone watching the attack unfold resigned themselves to losing the clean sheet – except Schar – who came sliding in with an inch-perfect interception. It denied a certain goal, and in my opinion, was just as impressive as one.
As the game neared its end Salomon Rondon, who was immense up front again, set up Ayoze Perez to wrap up the game.
After a series of less-than-desirable results and growing dissent and frustration among fans, this was exactly the result that we needed. It lifted some of the dark cloud that had been hanging over Tyneside after the woeful home form.
It also offers an interesting dilemma for Benitez in the coming weeks at centre back.
Schar, if he keeps playing at even a fraction of this performance, looks untouchable in the side. Florian Lejeune, meanwhile, has recovered remarkably from his pre-season cruciate injury and is once again showing why Newcastle spent an entire summer transfer window pursuing him.
It’s for that reason that, once Federico Fernandez come back into fitness, it may well be captain Jamaal Lascelles who’s place in the side is in danger. Last season, that’d have been unthinkable, but now it’s a real possibility.
Either way, the 3-0 win over Cardiff has brought back some belief in this Newcastle squad and highlighted a few positives in this Magpies squad that fans had perhaps overlooked in recent weeks.