There was no fanfare, not even a bow, as Steve McClaren returned to the Premier League after a nine-year absence.
Instead, he waited until his new side had held on – just – for a point. It might not seem much, but not losing was a start. They have got used to seeing their team lose at St James’ Park in recent seasons, so when McClaren emerged from his dugout and stood near to the centre circle to applaud all four sides of the stadium, he was well received.
Remember the context here is that Alan Pardew could not leave his seat inside that same dugout for one game because of the personal vilification and his short-term successor John Carver stood pitchside arguing with two fans during one game. It is a step.
It was one, however, that could so easily have had the spring taken out of it for several reasons; the two opportunities Southampton spurned at the end, and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Much expectation sits on the shoulders of the centre forward, a 20-year-old, excitable Serb. He was given a tremendous ovation when he took his first steps on to the St James’ Park turf in a competitive game, replacing Papiss Cissé, in the 75th minute.
Mitrovic announced his arrival in English football in the same manner as Paul Gascoigne grabbed the attention in the 1991 FA Cup final.
The record will show that the £12.7m signing from Anderlecht had been on the field for 18 seconds, but with the ball in play, fewer than three seconds had passed when he recklessly launched a two-footed challenge at Matt Targett, who had the sense to jump and narrowly miss the challenge. That probably saved Mitrovic from a red card.
“I think he didn’t touch him but if he did touch him then Matthew is in hospital,” said Erwin Koeman, who took charge of Southampton in the absence of his brother, Ronald, who was recuperating in the Netherlands after an Achilles operation. “It was dangerous. Mitrovic is a player like that. He is a good player, a good signing, but he has to learn some things.”
McClaren conceded the same. “If he’d got a red we would have had no complaints,” he said. “I think in the olden days they were 10 a penny. There was a little bit of contact. The law states he could have gone for it.
“That’s what he is. He certainly doesn’t hold back. He wanted to come on and impress. He’s a young lad. He’s going to be a player. You can see how strong and direct he is, but we were quite fortunate.”
It was an escape, as were the spurned opportunities for Southampton in the 93rd and 94th minute.
There are concerns inside the Newcastle coaching staff at the fitness levels of the players they took over. It looked fairly emphatic in that final 15 minutes, when the zip went from the players in black and white, and McClaren became ever more animated. A largely good day could have finished much more painfully.
With two minutes of added time remaining, Sadio Mané cut in from the left, went past Fabricio Coloccini and his goal-bound shot was blocked by a fine challenge from Jack Colback.
There was no heroism involved in the second miss, coming 60 seconds later. Mané this time cut in from the right, again he ghosted past Coloccini, but with the goal at his apparent mercy, the forward shot wide. Sammy Lee, the Southampton coach, spun on his heels in the visitors’ technical area, his face in his hand in an attempt to cover the anguish.
McClaren had put his hand over his eyes in a half-joke following Mitrovic’s challenge – there would also come the claim of an elbow by the player on Maya Yoshida – but the closing stages aside, it was a day when he could look at this new world and manage a smile.
“I’m absolutely delighted with what I saw,” he said. “For 70 to 75 minutes the team were excellent. Then we didn’t play smart after that and I think fatigue played a part. We gave them opportunities to win it and then Jack made a great block.
“We’ve learnt so much. Can we get better? Most definitely. Once we get up to our fitness levels there is something to build on.”
It will be of concern that Southampton scored both of their goals with crosses that were woefully defended, but it is not news to those who watch Newcastle regularly.
With 25 minutes gone, and after a bright start from the home side, Cedric Soares crossed from the right and Graziano Pelle climbed high, and way above the debutant Chancel Mbemba, to head past Tim Krul.
On the stroke of half-time Massadio Haidara’s left-wing cross took a deflection that deceived Marten Stekelenburg and from under the Southampton crossbar Cissé chested in an equaliser.
Southampton were denied retaking the lead two minutes into the second half, when Krul did well to block Yoshida’s header. From the following break, Newcastle found the kind of extra gear that was so absent from their play last season.
Cissé clipped a clever ball down the line to Gabriel Obertan, and the former Manchester United winger volleyed his first-time centre into the Southampton penalty area, where Georginio Wijnaldum cleverly steered his header into the corner of Stekelenburg’s net.
It was not enough for victory. Shane Long came on to head a 77th-minute equaliser past Krul and then came those chances for Mané. They were spurned and then McClaren took centre field, rather than centre stage.
“I didn’t make a conscious effort [to go on the pitch],” he added. “It’s about the players. My thing at the end was more to get the players to appreciate the crowd. We need to do that a little bit more. We have to show that appreciation.”Reuse content