WHEN they were good, as was the case for the majority of the first half, they were very good. When they were poor, and that certainly applied for most of the second period, they were dreadful. Rarely can a single game have so perfectly encapsulated the course of a club’s season.

Newcastle got there in the end of course, and just as Joe Willock’s dramatic headed winner secured a topsy-turvy win over West Ham, so it also fired the Magpies to within touching distance of their primary goal for the season, Premier League safety. Above Brighton and Burnley on the 35-point mark, while Steve Bruce’s side are not safe yet, they probably need just one win from their remaining six matches to guarantee their survival. Given they briefly dropped into the bottom three when Fulham were beating Aston Villa a fortnight ago, their recovery in the last two weeks has been remarkable.

It has been fuelled by the return of Allan Saint-Maximin and, to a lesser extent, Callum Wilson, and while Bruce’s mantra that “any side would struggle without its best players” has felt like a convenient excuse on occasion this season, there is undoubtedly a significant degree of truth to his comments.

With Saint-Maximin in the side, Newcastle are a completely different attacking proposition. The statistics bear that out – the Frenchman has started 13 league matches this season, and the Magpies have only lost six of them – but you only had to watch the first half of Saturday’s game against West Ham to be able to appreciate the way in which Newcastle’s attacking set-up is completely transformed when Saint-Maximin is playing.

On so many occasions this season, the Magpies’ attacking has been predictable and pedestrian. Opposition sides have been content to allow Newcastle to come on to the them, safe in the knowledge that their threat in the final third was extremely limited. Often, it looked as though Bruce’s side were not even interested in trying to mount an attack, with damage-limitation their sole ambition.

Thrust Saint-Maximin in there, especially if he is playing alongside the energetic Miguel Almiron, and things immediately alter. Time and time again on Saturday, Saint-Maximin would pick up the ball between the centre-circle and West Ham penalty area and simply charge at the Hammers defence. With the opposition terrified of trying to tackle him, the French flier was able to run riot, fashioning space for a cross or shot, or creating pockets of space that those alongside him were able to exploit.

He was responsible for Newcastle’s opening goal, driving into the area before rolling in the shot that resulted in Issa Diop bundling the ball into his own net, and while he might not have drawn the fouls that resulted in Craig Dawson’s first-half dismissal, his presence was undoubtedly a factor in unsettling the West Ham centre-half. Twice, Dawson felt the need to chop down Joelinton because he did not want him to be able to feed the ball into Saint-Maximin’s path.

“He missed two months with Covid, and he’s missed two months with a groin injury,” said Bruce. “When you’re as explosive as he is, you can understand how hard that is. We’ve found it a struggle without our best players at the top of the pitch.”

With Joelinton having added to Newcastle’s opener as he fired home from close range after Lukasz Fabianksi inexplicably dropped the ball from a corner, the Magpies should have spent the second half coasting to victory against ten men. Had they kept their foot on the pedal, and even accounting for the ankle knock that forced Saint-Maximin’s departure shortly after the hour mark, that would surely have happened.

Instead, Newcastle’s second-half display was redolent of so many of the club’s bad performances this season. Instead of looking to force they issue, they sat back and became passive. Rather than looking to extend their advantage, they tried to defend what they already had. What should have been a case study in how to retain possession against ten men became an increasingly desperate series of clearances that handed the ball back to the opposition.

West Ham grew in confidence, and while Martin Dubravka saved from Vladimir Coufal and sprinted from his line to smother a shot from Jarrod Bowen, Newcastle’s resistance crumbled as they conceded two goals in the space of seven minutes.

Diop headed home the first after Bowen crossed from the right – Dubravka might well feel he should have done better with a bouncing ball down to his left – and Jesse Lingard converted the second from the penalty spot after the VAR spotted Ciaran Clark waving his arm above his head as he tried to out-jump Tomas Soucek to deal with a cross from the right.

“It maybe needed that to put them back on the front foot again,” said Bruce. “Joe (Willock) coming in and putting them back up the pitch again was vitally important. We dropped too deep and tried to defend what we’ve got, and I suppose that’s human nature when you’re in the situation we’re in. Everything we asked at half-time, we didn’t do. We just tried to manage the game through.”

Bruce’s reluctance to make either substitutions or tactical alterations when the game was getting away from his side contributed to their second-half downfall, but to his credit, the Magpies boss made the call that ultimately settled things with ten minutes left.

Willock came on to replace Sean Longstaff, and as had been the case against Tottenham two weeks earlier, the Arsenal loanee delivered when it mattered most.

Moments after Jacob Murphy had seen a goal-bound effort cleared off the line, Matt Ritchie swung over an inviting cross from the left, and after being on the field for just 83 seconds, Willock displayed commendable desire as he broke in front of his marker to thump home a powerful header from eight yards.

“We knew we needed to get nine points ahead of the pack,” said Willock, who has now scored three goals in nine appearances to more than justify the decision to sign him on loan from Arsenal in January. “To do that, we had to get a win, so I’m happy I was able to help the team again. Hopefully, we can push on and play like this in the next game.

“I thought the boys played well. In the first half, I thought we were dominant, and you could see that by the scoreline, it was 2-0.

"We started dropping back, and I feel like that self-belief that we need to install in each other, we started doubting it and doubting each other in the second half.

“That’s why we dropped back and we conceded two goals, but it’s credit to the team (for coming back to win).

"It shows how much we’ve grown as a team and how much we want to buy in to what the manager is trying to do. Coming home with three points is really good for us.

“I feel like I’m making a difference, but I want to start games and I feel like I’m not doing enough to start at the moment.

"That’s what the manager is saying to me, so I just need to keep working hard and making a difference when I come off the bench. I’m going to fight for this badge and fight for Newcastle.”