Villa Park remains a joyless place for Steve Bruce. On his first return since being barracked out of the job as Aston Villa manager two years ago, he saw his latest team, who had been in decent form, perform so badly that Newcastle fans may now get on his back. Again.
Villa fans, meanwhile, have mostly moved on to hailing Bruce’s successor, with Dean Smith asked to wave to them even before the end of this convincing – and important – victory.
Bruce, admittedly, was invited to do the same but was in no mood to satisfy fans he had previously found so hard to please. At least no one threw a cabbage at him unlike, infamously, on the day before he was sacked by Villa in October 2018 after a two-year reign that he has described as “one of the most unsavoury times of my career”, even though results were never as dire as the treatment of him suggested.
The win was as deserved for Villa as it was encouraging after a run of three defeats. Conor Hourihane, signed for Villa by Bruce three years ago and reintroduced by Smith to the starting lineup after being omitted for the past three matches, opened the scoring in the 32nd minute before setting up Anwar El Ghazi for the second goal four minutes later. “For £1m he’s not too bad,” said Bruce wryly of the Irish midfielder.
Although Villa looked shaky a few times in the second half when Newcastle ran at them, the visitors were too weak in midfield and ragged in attack to do that often. Villa would have won by an even higher margin if not for Newcastle’s goalkeeper, Martin Dúbravka, and some scruffy finishing.
Villa had been vulnerable to counterattacks in their previous match, a defeat at Wolves, and Newcastle troubled them with one in the third minute. Joelinton led the charge before the chronically wayward Miguel Almirón finished in all-too-familiar style, wafting a shot way off target from 20 yards.
Newcastle did not threaten again until just before the break, by which time they were 2-0 down. “What was disappointing was that we were too passive with the ball and without, especially in the first half,” said Bruce.
Villa, by contrast, were vibrant, continually probing as they dominated possession. Newcastle initially defended well and it took a moment of delicious subtlety from Jack Grealish to create the first opening, the forward dummying a pass by John McGinn into the path of Matt Targett, whose probing low cross from the left practically pleaded with a forward to tap it home. El Ghazi did not react sharply enough to do so.
Villa’s relentless passing eventually worked chinks in the visitors’ defence. Douglas Luiz forced a fine save from Dúbravka with a wicked curling shot from 20 yards on the half-hour after a tee-up by Grealish.
One minute later the goalkeeper had to pick the ball out of his net after DeAndre Yedlin barged into Grealish at the edge of the area. Hourihane rolled the free-kick short to Grealish in order to improve the shooting angle and then curled a wonderful shot around the wall and in at the near post.
Four minutes later Grealish won another free-kick. Hourihane, owner of a cultured left foot, sent a gorgeous ball across the face of Newcastle’s goal and El Ghazi – perfectly alert this time – gave his markers the slip to finish from inside the six-yard box.
Heaton made sure Villa got to the interval with their two-goal lead intact, turning a header by Federico Fernández over the bar after a corner.
Newcastle briefly hinted at a comeback at the start of the second half but Tom Heaton tipped a fine shot by Allan Saint-Maxim round the post.
For a while Villa became jittery but they still created the better chances, with Wesley twice denied from close range by Dúbravka.
Bruce replaced one of his three centre-backs with Andy Carroll and switched to a 4-4-2 formation. The striker soon showed his menace by chesting down a cross by Yedlin and firing a ferocious volley goalwards from 16 yards. Heaton held it well.
After that Newcastle never hinted at a comeback on what proved an unhappy return for Bruce.