This month Allan Saint-Maximin donated more than 60 care packages filled with luxury French chocolates and high street shopping vouchers to NHS staff on Tyneside.
Starting a match for the first time since February on Saturday, the former Nice winger seemed laden with on-pitch gifts for teammates, creating counterattacking chances virtually every time he dribbled at West Ham’s increasingly panic-stricken defence.
Indeed Saint-Maximin did more than anyone wearing black and white stripes to dent David Moyes’s hopes of leading the east London side into the Champions League next season while also helping Newcastle open up a nine-point advantage over their most feared relegation rivals, Fulham.
While Steve Bruce’s team survived a highly self-destructive second half spell to rise to 15th, and 35 points, West Ham remain fourth.
Ironically Moyes’s side only started convincing after their reduction to 10 men following Craig Dawson’s 37th-minute dismissal. Their manager will now be acutely conscious that with Chelsea and Liverpool, and to a slightly lesser extent, Tottenham and Everton, breathing down his team’s neck, this is not the time to tread water.
Afterwards Moyes looked very much like a man who fears a long planned grand tour of Europe is about to be replaced by a rainy staycation. “It was a chance lost today,” he admitted. “The most disappointing thing is to have got back to 2-2 from 2-0 down and thrown it away again.
“My players know they’ve made mistakes but this was tough. Newcastle have just found some form and hope but we gave them a real lift by the way we gifted them the first two goals.”
Appropriately, Saint-Maximin conjured the opener. When Dawson felled Joelinton on the halfway line, the referee, Kevin Friend, played an excellent advantage, allowing the Frenchman to pounce on the loose ball and accelerate into the area before unleashing a low shot. Although Lukasz Fabianski stretched a hand towards it, Issa Diop was in the way and the ball rebounded off the defender’s leg before crossing the line.
As Newcastle celebrated, Dawson, already on a yellow card, was sent off and it was not long before his side conceded again. This time Fabianski fumbled what should have been a routine save from a corner and Joelinton swivelled sharply before tapping home from point-blank range.
Although Moyes’s side enjoyed a decent amount of first-half possession they had done precious little with it as Bruce’s defence delighted in negating the danger from the visiting set-piece routines before Saint-Maximin, Miguel Almirón and friends broke with alacrity and incision.
Even before Dawson’s sending off it was difficult to dispute Jonjo Shelvey’s pre-match assertion that Newcastle’s squad was “just as good as West Ham’s”. Indeed judging by the way Moyes’s players failed to capitalise on the handful of occasions when Shelvey’s lost concentration and passed to opponents, the home midfielder had arguably been a bit generous.
Down to 10 men though, West Ham improved significantly during a second half in which Newcastle were worryingly slapdash and dropped far too deep.
Given this collective loss of focus it was no real surprise when an unmarked Diop was able to connect with a cross, direct a downward header into the ground and watch its bounce deceive Martin Dubravka en route to the net.
If neither Federico Fernández nor Dubravka will relish viewing replays, Newcastle’s goalkeeper was powerless to stop West Ham’s equaliser. When Ciaran Clark diverted a long throw with his forearm, a VAR check confirmed handball and the previously strangely subdued Jesse Lingard gleefully whipped an unstoppable penalty beyond the Slovakian.
Belatedly, Bruce’s players woke up. Jacob Murphy’s goalbound effort was blocked by Ben Johnson and then, seconds after stepping off the home bench, the Arsenal loanee turned Newcastle super-sub Joe Willock sent a superb header crashing beyond Fabianski after stealing in front of Johnson and meeting Matt Ritchie’s stellar cross.
As Moyes’s European horizons contracted, relief was writ large across Bruce’s face. “This job should come with a government health warning,” he said. “But I always said we’d be OK when Allan [Saint-Maximin] returned from injury.”