Newcastle's new No 9 Cissé starts with a bang
Newcastle United 2 Aston Villa 1: Thirteen months. That was the length of time since the last time St James' Park had seen a striker in the Newcastle No 9 shirt scoring a goal.
Much can happen in 13 months on Tyneside. Big players can leave in helicopters, unexpected stars can emerge, there can even be an attempt to rename the ground. The constants offer assurances to the supporter. Like a comfort blanket, the No 9 shirt has added meaning; romance keeps a club like Newcastle strong, and they dote on their strikers.
Into that vacuum (created when Andy Carroll flew to Liverpool for £35 million) stepped Papiss Cissé; fresh from an £8m move last month from Freiburg and a stunning collective team failure in the African Cup of Nations with Senegal. He was supposed to be eased in. He was left on the bench as his countryman, Demba Ba, was afforded a starting role. But less than a quarter of an hour had passed when Leon Best crumpled underneath a block challenge from Stephen Warnock and Newcastle's supporters had their wish. Cissé was on and if ever it is doubted what that particular shirt means in these parts, the standing ovation that was afforded to a player most of the near 50,000 crowd had not even seen play before was a telling reminder. No pressure then.
Perhaps there was no love in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. What did not happen for Senegal had already happened for Newcastle 15 times before yesterday, before the new pairing had even been made. Ba scoring has become a matter of course. On his return, as in his last appearance at St James', against Manchester United, he scored. His goal in the 30th minute was his 16th of the season in 17 games, sweeping a shot past Shay Given from close range after Ryan Taylor put his body on the line, taking a bruising challenge that ended his own afternoon to get the ball to the forward. Ba is revered for that record.
By then however, he was not even centre stage. When the No 9 shirt gets dusted off (Ba turned it down) and handed, like a crown, to a willing heir, everything gets cranked up about three notches. Thus Cissé walked on to a crescendo of noise, saw his first touch cheered and then headed at Given with a great opportunity. It felt like it could be his day, and there was precedent. Kevin Keegan scored on his debut, albeit in the No 7 shirt; Les Ferdinand scored on his debut; Alan Shearer and Carroll scored on their home debuts in the No 9 shirt.
But in the middle of all this was an Aston Villa side who should probably be doing more than they are, and certainly have, in the irate Alex McLeish, a manager who believes they should be doing better. His was a day spent raging on the sidelines, in the first half, after the opening goal, at Stephen Ireland, a spat that ended with the player, no stranger to controversy, telling his manager to "eff off".
"No, I never saw the 'eff off' thing," said McLeish. "I know he spoke back, but at the same time players don't always like hearing their managers screaming at them from the touchline. I kick every ball with them, I'm passionate, I care and I wouldn't be so petty as to take a player off for something like that. Stevie had an ankle problem and wasn't able to close down and when [Danny] Guthrie stepped up to put that cross in, I thought it was too easy. It was clear at half time that he didn't have the capacity to get close to people. It's trivial."
The criticism that came from his own club's supporters at the introduction of Emile Heskey for Charles N'Zogbia felt harsh. By then Villa were level, the excellent Robbie Keane scoring from close range after a N'Zogbia run and cross. N'Zogbia was jeered mercilessly all afternoon for the manner in which he left Newcastle. It was in contrast to the warmth and appreciation shown for another former United player, Shay Given.
However, it was ultimately the time for a new hero. By the 71st minute, Cissé had placed himself into folklore, taking a Jonas Gutierrez cross on his chest and cracking a left-foot shot into the top corner of the Villa goal.
"His goal was something special and lifted the roof off the place," said manager Alan Pardew. "It really was a great hit and it wasn't too bad for his weaker foot. That goal makes the shirt lighter. If you wear that jersey at Newcastle you need a good start. It's Boys' Own Annual stuff.
"After the game he does the interview and shakes everyone's hands, including the staff. Those moments are very nice. He has come here without any agenda other than to be a top player for us.
"It's a big investment for the club. Although Mike [Ashley] sanctioned it and Derek [Llambias] had to see the deal through, I have to spend the fans' money. I like to spend it well. We worked hard on that and we took our time. We hope we've got it right."