Steve Bruce’s only real concern must be that Mike Ashley may decide he does not need any expensive new players after all. Newcastle United’s owner attended his first home match of the season before a transfer summit with his manager and watched Bruce’s previously shot-shy side not only score freely but monopolise possession to an almost unprecedented degree.
Delighted as he seemed to hear home fans chant his name within Ashley’s earshot, the manager’s worry will be that this walk in the park against Brian Barry-Murphy’s third tier visitors may have made his pitch to the retail tycoon significantly harder.
If so, that would be a shame. It is all very well having an FA Cup fourth round home tie with Oxford to look forward to – not to mention a potential appearance in the fifth round for the first time since 2006 – but Newcastle’s Premier League status is still far from secure and they could do with reinforcement at centre-forward, in central midfield and on the wing.
Here though an own goal, followed by three more from Miguel Almirón, Matty Longstaff and Joelinton – the latter a collector’s item – made everything look easy.
It was Joelinton’s first goal since August and the £40m Brazilian striker was relief personified as he raced to embrace Bruce. “I was worried sick he was going to jump on me and do my knee in,” said Newcastle’s manager. “But watching Joelinton score was the best part of the night for me. The kid’s got a big burden to carry but he’s got a big heart.”
All the pre-match attention had concentrated on 40-year-old Aaron Wilbraham – or Wilbrahimovic, as he prefers to be known – but Rochdale’s centre-forward barely got a touch against a three-man defence marshalled by the newly fit Jamaal Lascelles.
As Newcastle swiftly cantered into a three-goal first-half lead the danger of Wilbraham being given the cold shoulder by Steve Bruce’s daughter Amy, who recently oversaw the interior design of an extension to the striker’s house in Cheshire, receded.
The League One strugglers may have conjured the first chance but soon after Jimmy Keohane’s deceptive, swerving shot from outside the area zoomed narrowly wide of Karl Darlow’s goal, Newcastle were ahead.
Although Eogham O’Connell beat Joelinton to Matt Ritchie’s inviting cross, the central defender merely succeeded in diverting the ball into his own net.
Ritchie was starting his first game since sustaining a serious ankle injury in August and, eager to make up for lost time, the left wing-back very quickly created a second goal.
Once again it came from a stellar cross and involved Matt Longstaff taking a steadying touch before swivelling superbly and lashing a shot beyond Robert Sánchez.
Poor Sánchez would soon pay for a subsequent decision to take a short goal kick. After a failed attempt to build patiently from the back ended up exposing Luke Matheson, the visiting 17-year-old right-back, to intense pressure, the ball ended up back at the keeper’s feet.
Sánchez endeavoured to play it out again but, instead, found Almirón. Retaining commendable poise the suddenly prolific Paraguayan used his left foot to register a fourth goal in seven games.
If Bruce was gratified to be serenaded by an appreciative Gallowgate End apparently no longer pining for Rafael Benítez, he must have been even happier to witness something even more unusual – his team retaining possession for protracted periods.
As he almost shyly obliged requests to “give us a wave, Brucie,” Newcastle’s manager was able to admire the sight of his players constructing geometrically precise passing triangles of the sort notable by their absence in the Premier League this season.
Although the home side became a little careless in the second half, gifting Rochdale an odd half-chance, academy graduate Tom Allan, 20, stepped off the bench to enjoy an impressive Newcastle debut at right wing-back.
He combined with fellow substitute Andy Carroll – who would later hit the bar – to cue up Joelinton. Carroll’s beautifully weighted pass and Allan’s low cross prefaced the Brazilian shooting through the goalkeeper’s legs before Jordan Williams crashed a late consolation shot in off a post.
Ashley has long maintained the FA Cup is not a priority but his latest manager has pledged to change that opinion. Maybe, just maybe, Joelinton and co might have converted the owner to the competition’s charms.
More immediately those transfer talks beckon. “If the owner can help us great,” said Bruce. “We’ll see what happens.”