Watching the sun shining on 3,200 singing geordies, Ralph Hasenhüttl may well have been thinking it will soon set on his Southampton tenure.
A month shy of his four-year anniversary, a 4-1 reverse at Newcastle’s hands means his Southampton side ended the weekend in the Premier League’s bottom three, having claimed one victory in their past nine games.
“No,” was Hasenhüttl’s single-word response when asked whether he could see a way out of the slump. “We are under the line. It’s simply not good enough what we have done so far.” And on whether he fears Sunday will be his last day in the job: “I have taken a lot of decisions since I was here. The good thing is, this one I don’t have to take.”
Two years ago to the day, Southampton defeated Newcastle to top the division. But their pressing game is gone, replaced with a method that involves bypassing the central areas – criminally underusing James Ward-Prowse – and playing on the break.
Might it be different had Mohamed Elyounoussi, rather than sidefooting Stuart Armstrong’s cross wide from six yards, drawn Saints level in first-half injury time? Perhaps.
Instead it drew another audible groan from the already frustrated crowd, replaced only by the cheers for the former manager Nigel Adkins’ interval pitchside appearance.
Post-interval Southampton enjoyed a brief uptick, Elyounoussi volleying over and Che Adams smashing wide. But that hope was all too brief. If, or more likely, when, Hasenhüttl goes, it will be a mercy. His time feels up.
For Newcastle, the thing that will take a fanbase fine-tuned to expect the worst the longest to wrap its collective head around is not their rapid rise to third place. Nor is it Miguel Almirón’s purple patch – which continued with a seventh goal in seven – or even a defence not bettered in the division.
No, it is an alien sense of ease and comfort with which, even when not at their most fluent, they are securing regulation victories.
“We weren’t at our best today,” said Howe, who also saw Chris Wood, Joe Willock and – immediately after Romain Perraud had pulled one back – Bruno Guimarães strike. “But we dug in and showed resilience. We were clinical when we needed to be to get the job done. When you’re not at your best levels, to win by the margin that we did is hugely satisfying. I’ve encouraged the players to enjoy this moment that we are in now.”
Almirón gave Newcastle a first-half lead when Mohammed Salisu opened up space by diving in on Callum Wilson near the halfway line. Almirón drove forward, shimmied inside Ainsley Maitland-Niles and rolled in.
Watched by Gareth Southgate, who is doubtless keeping body-language experts gainfully employed in advance of his World Cup squad announcement, Wilson was then withdrawn at the interval. He had been a doubt in the week through illness. “He felt a little light-headed at half-time but is fine physically,” said Howe, who also said that Kieran Trippier’s late substitution was not down to injury.
As is football’s way, Newcastle doubled their lead against the run of play, the substitute Wood curling into the bottom corner from 12 yards. Four minutes later, Salisu again overcommitted, this time deep in Newcastle territory. Trippier nipped in ahead of him, setting Willock racing through.
Three up; game up. Perraud lessened that advantage only briefly before Guimarães restored it.