The departure was almost gladiatorial. With five minutes remaining, and Newcastle leading the champions Chelsea, Aleksandar Mitrovic made the most purposeful and deliberate of exits from the St James’ Park turf. He waved his fists in the air to all four sides of the stadium. There was a roar from the crowd. The striker grabbed the young substitute replacing him, Ivan Toney, who was at Northampton last month, and hugged him.
There were more fists for the supporters behind the dugout. Mitrovic, who has not scored a goal or completed a full game for the club he joined in the summer, finally made the right impression. On Tyneside they are desperate for a hero.
The contrast to the exit in his previous game could not have been greater. Then he was confused, upset and angry. After a quarter of an hour of his full home debut against Arsenal, Mitrovic’s afternoon was over. As he turned to collect a ball, he raked his studs down the shin of Francis Coquelin. His manager, Steve McClaren argued he was following the trajectory of the ball. It did not matter. He was gone, banished for the remainder of a game Newcastle lost and the three subsequent fixtures all similarly ended in defeat.
There had been a booking within 20 seconds of his debut against Southampton (the ball had been in play for three seconds) when he went through Matt Targett. Against Swansea, the yellow card took 90 seconds to arrive. He was sent off for Newcastle and then picked up another yellow card playing for Serbia.
It raised serious question marks about who Newcastle had signed for £12.7m from Anderlecht. Mitrovic, the only senior centre-forward that a side chronically short of goals had bought in the summer, was heading into liability territory.
“It has been a very difficult few weeks,” said the 21-year-old striker. “It is always very difficult when you have to sit and watch a game but you cannot help your team-mates. I am back now, though, and I have learned a lot from the last few weeks. I will never do the same thing again.
“Maybe it would have been different in other countries, but these are the rules and I know I cannot break them. I am sure I am not the first or last player to get a red card, but the rules are the rules here and I need to respect them.
“I can control myself. I got the red card, but I wanted to take the ball, I didn’t want to kick anybody. I don’t want to get any more red cards, and I am sure I can control myself to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
It is vital for Newcastle’s Premier League safety that he does. McClaren, who pushed for Charlie Austin’s signature from Queen’s Park Rangers, knows the transformative effect the powerful striker has had on his side. They looked far more dangerous with the 6ft 3in battering ram unsettling Chelsea’s defenders than they had at any point of the moribund defeats against West Ham, Watford and Sheffield Wednesday.
Mitrovic had previous when Newcastle signed him. He had been sent off for spitting towards supporters of Bruges, he had headbutted an opponent and, after scoring one particular goal, had stuck his tongue between two fingers, a gesture he claimed was aimed at the Belgian press.
With 44 goals in 90 appearances in Belgium, he was in the age bracket and salary range for Newcastle’s recruitment policy. He was seen by chief scout Graham Carr as a good prospect and a better fit than the 26-year-old Austin. Those inside the club talk of a player devoted to extra training and with a great work ethic.
“I know I can play smart for the whole of a game, and I think I showed that against Chelsea,” he said. “OK, I didn’t get a goal but I still kept on working as hard as I could.
“It’s very difficult when you get a lot of kicks from defenders, but you have to stay calm and think about how to score goals. They kick you all game, but that is my position and I have to deal with it. I need to keep working on the mental side of things but I have shown I can deal with all of that.”
On Saturday it is Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. Newcastle, who have yet to win a Premier League game this season, have picked up two points from their previous nine league visits.
“We have another very difficult game – maybe even more difficult than last weekend’s because we play away,” added Mitrovic. “But I think we have to go there to try to play football and win the game. We have to believe in ourselves, and if we do that, the results will come for sure.”
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