Phil Bardsley was having flashbacks. Newcastle United were beating Burnley 1-0 on Saturday and the veteran defender had just kicked Allan Saint-Maximin to the ground from behind. Quite how he avoided a booking is anybody’s guess.
This was déjà vu for the former Manchester United and Sunderland defender; he knew all about failing to handle a mercurial French talent at St James’ Park. In a Tyne-Wear Derby back in 2012, he endured a torrid time up against Hatem Ben Arfa on an afternoon which saw him taunted by 52,000 Newcastle supporters baying for blood.
This time, the stands were empty but that didn’t make Bardsley’s life any easier. Ben Arfa departed Tyneside as an enigmatic hero two years later, but the mantle of flamboyant entertainer was picked up by Saint-Maximin after his £16million arrival from Nice in the summer of 2019.
He had opened the scoring in what would go on to be a comprehensive 3-1 victory for Newcastle, which also included an assist in the second half for the first of Callum Wilson’s brace. Steve Bruce faced intense scrutiny over his team’s approach and playing style all week, deciding it best to tackle it head on in his pre-match press briefing. To his credit, the team did the talking on the pitch for him and drew up the blueprint for how they should play in the future. Though you could hardly blame Bruce if all he said to his team beforehand was “pass it to Allan”, such was the breathtaking level of mastery displayed by him throughout.
Bardsley wasn’t the only Burnley player to struggle up against the 23-year-old. He was given a license to cause havoc by Bruce and the slow motion replay of his first half strike, after drifting in from the left and driving at the visitors centrally, was particularly cruel on Dale Stephens. Allan Saint-Maximin twisted and turned on the edge of the box with remarkable ease, leaving the midfielder completely bamboozled before catching Nick Pope off guard with a well-placed shot into the corner.
There were a few nervous moments at half time; it looked as though the Bardsley incident could have forced him out of the game. He had just returned from an ankle problem suffered in defeat to Brighton-and-Hove Albion a fortnight earlier. But he returned to the pitch late before the restart and picked up where he left off; this was nothing new to the watching Newcastle supporters.
Bruce’s growing list of critics were hardly lining up to soften their stance at full time, regardless of his apparent desire to call them out. Newcastle’s problems run deep, deeper than the results of the past year or so, despite performing relatively well in both league tables and cup competitions. Last week they reached the Carabao Cup quarter finals before climbing to sixth against Burnley, that success has rarely been warranted on the pitch.
But the statistics line up perfectly with the action when describing Allan Saint-Maximin’s influence; Newcastle have won just once in the league without him in the team. It is evidently rare that the team will play well when he doesn’t.
That isn’t to say he shines all the time. Against Brighton, before being withdrawn, he was comprehensively outclassed by young fullback Tariq Lamptey, who consistently exploited Saint-Maximin’s weakness in defensive will and instinct. This was the first time he had shown that side to his game in a Newcastle shirt; in part because Lamptey was both quicker and bolder than him on the day.
This was the perfect response, though; emphatic and unmissable. Newcastle only managed to strike such a good deal for a player of his supreme ability because his attitude and end product had been called into question by other interested parties. Nice boss Patrick Vieira vocalised his own concerns profusely but Tyneside has seen no such issues. He has always appeared happy, focussed and consistent with goals and assists.
Injuries have been the only blot on his record, not that he can do much about them. His game is explosive, so his hamstrings are always particularly vulnerable.
As soon as he arrived, Allan Saint-Maximin set about endearing himself to the club and its supporters. Before he had even kicked a ball, he paid a visit to the Newcastle West End Foodbank which, in normal times, can be found taking donations outside St James’ Park on matchdays.
When he is not enhancing the community spit around him, he is regularly on Twitter ruthlessly putting down quips from rival fans, roared on by thousands of his own followers. Saint-Maximin transcends the generations of those who love him most; barely any of them will even be aware that there were doubts over his personality and quality in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest concern for them is the threat of an Allan Saint-Maximin transfer away from Newcastle. He has proven himself in the Premier League over a good period of time now and will surely harbour ambitions of playing in the Champions League, and for France, during his career. Nobody would begrudge him either of those feats but the way Newcastle have built themselves as a club under Mike Ashley will mean nobody will ever be truly relaxed about the player’s future.
Talented, young players have long been signed by Newcastle in order to develop and increase in value ready to be sold on. That means any interest, from the likes of linked clubs such as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain, may not be a burden for the hierarchy, but rather actively encouraged.
As well as the prospect of becoming a force in England and eventually Europe, fans were heartbroken after the Saudi Arabian-led bid to buy the club fell through because they felt it offered them a better chance of keeping their top players. Needless to say, most had Allan Saint-Maximin particularly in mind.
Stereotypes and clichés are often used to pigeonhole and patronise football supporters, specifically those in Newcastle. But they have always loved watching free-spirited footballers like Allan Saint-Maximin in full flow. He gave Phil Bardsley and Burnley nightmares but Newcastle’s current guise means he will have to play like that often if they are to progress anytime soon.