LESS than a minute into Sunday’s surreal footballing comeback on Tyneside, and the silence in a deserted St James’ Park had been well and truly shattered.

“Get tight Isaac, get tight,” was closely followed by, “Come on boys, win the header”. A minute or two later, and as the instructions became more and more hurried, so the pitch became even higher and more barked.

Matt Ritchie, the self-styled agitator at the heart of the Newcastle United team, was emerging from lockdown. On a normal matchday, his manic urgings are masked by the roars of 52,000 fans. At the weekend however, with the empty stands steepling to the sky, it was possible to make out every word. Good luck to any of his team-mates with the temerity to ignore him.

“Yeah, I realise anyone watching on telly without the crowd noise will have heard me,” laughed Ritchie, who has become such an influential member of the Magpies dressing room since joining from Bournemouth in 2016. “No one should be surprised about that. Everyone has their own way, We have many leaders in our squad but I have my own way of leading - and yes, it’s loud!

“I like to think I help others but, in some ways, it is quite selfish because if I am always demanding high standards from everyone else, then that puts me in a position whereby I am opening myself up for criticism if I do not do that myself.

“Shouting gets me at it. It’s a way of getting me in the zone, fully focused. My mind is solely on what’s best for the team, I try and help others, keep at them. I like to think I’m tactically aware so if I’m a voice in the ear, that’s a positive thing. Everyone has their own way of going about it and that’s mine.”

But don’t his team-mates grow tired of the incessant urging? “They’re used to it because I’m like that day in, day out on the training ground,” he added. “They are all probably sick of it to be honest – I get a few, ‘Shut up Mattys’ - but they know I only do it for the best of the team.”

Whatever his motivations, Ritchie’s pleading is clearly having the desired effect. A Newcastle team widely tipped for relegation at the start of the season find themselves on 38 points and all-but-guaranteed of safety with eight games still to play.

That is quite some achievement given the state of things in the autumn, when a 5-0 thrashing at Leicester left Ritchie and his team-mates in 19th position and having to fend off criticism from all quarters.

The transformation as the season has progressed has been remarkable, with Ritchie quick to attribute much of his side’s success to manager Steve Bruce.

“It’s no coincidence that everyone inside the game rates him highly,” said the Scotland international. “He’s doing a fantastic job here. He’s got all the lads on board, we enjoy his training sessions and playing for him.

“Everyone I know who has played for Steve Bruce has only good things to say about him. We are on track for a very good season when a lot of people were predicting the worst. He’s certainly proved them wrong.”

Project Restart continues tomorrow when Newcastle host a struggling Aston Villa, before Manchester City visit Tyneside on Sunday evening in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. It is dangerous to look too far ahead with Newcastle, but by the start of next week, Ritchie and his fellow squad members could be in the top-half of the table and the last four of the cup.

“We’ve given ourselves a big chance to have a really good season,” he said. “It’s a great start for us, but let’s not jump the gun. We have to keep our feet on the ground. One win is a platform, nothing more.

“What’s really positive is that, after lockdown, we’ve risen to the challenge – winning 3-0 and playing well. We’ve scored three goals and kept a clean sheet again, which is very pleasing, but there are a lot of big games coming up. Villa are fighting for their lives, so that will be tough, and then we have a big home quarter-final.

“We want to keep the good results going, who knows where we’ll end up? We finished tenth two years ago so it would be great if we beat that. If we do, you’d have to say it’s been a good season.”