Newcastle United 3 Manchester United 3
There were moments when he looked slightly smug. At other times he seemed deeply frustrated and, occasionally, downright furious but there is one emotion Louis van Gaal surely did not experience. It is safe to assume Manchester United’s manager was never bored by his team last night.
Even Van Gaal had confessed to finding his team a little dull but here the visitors served up the perfect antidote. Almost a throwback to the glorious tactical "anarchy" of Alex Ferguson's early reign this was a gloriously exciting game featuring two goals from Wayne Rooney, an impressive Newcastle United fightback and a host of defensive imperfections.
Having spent around €22.5 million this week, Newcastle showed off their purchases on the pitch before kick-off. A pair of midfielders, namely Jonjo Shelvey, newly arrived from Swansea and Henri Saivet, from Bordeaux, were duly paraded in front of all four corners of the ground.
McClaren must trust it was a case of appearances deceiving with Saivet perhaps afflicted by a combination of shyness and a desire to come across as cool. Within minutes though all artifice and pretension was stripped away as St James' held a heartfelt minute of applause in celebration of the life of Pavel Srnicek, Newcastle's hugely popular former goalkeeper, who died of a cardiac arrest last month at the age of 47.
Is it really 20 years since Srnicek was part of Kevin Keegan’s famous Newcastle “Entertainers” who, back in 1996, so memorably challenged Alex Ferguson’s similarly swashbuckling Manchester United for the Premier League title?
Two decades on, Van Gaal’s side would be relieved to simply finish in the top four while Newcastle’s solitary ambition is avoiding relegation. Such hopes received the latest in a long line of dents when McClaren’s team somewhat harshly conceded a penalty.
For all his side's failings, the former England coach has not had an awful lot of luck since succeeding John Carver and here Chancel Mbemba was unfortunate to be adjudged culpable for a handball after Marouane Fellaini rose to meet a corner and headed it straight at his marker's admittedly extended arm. With no room to manoeuvre there was nothing Mbemba could do about it but, nonetheless, Mike Dean – who could perhaps argue the centre half had no need to stick his arm out in the first place and had quite possibly blocked a goalbound header – pointed to the spot.
Wayne Rooney stepped forward to send Rob Elliot the wrong way courtesy of a kick directed to the goalkeeper's left. As it hit the back of the net, McClaren could be forgiven for feeling he had been kicked in the teeth.
Even worse for Newcastle's manager was the sense that the game was settling into an all too familiar pattern. Manchester United were far from the first team to dominate possession here this season but they exuded an increasing aura of control which was starting to depress the Gallowgate end. It could have been worse. When Rooney checked and cleverly beat the home offside trap before accelerating on to a neat pass from the impressively industrious Jesse Lingard, the England striker probably should have scored but instead shot narrowly wide.
Georginio Wijnaldum suggested he, too, had misplaced his shooting boots when, having been put through by Ayoze Perez, he aimed his shot far too close to David De Gea, permitting the goalkeeper to save smartly with his legs.
McClaren appeared to have genuine cause for complaint when Lingard looked to have tripped Daryl Janmaat in the area but Dean refused to award a penalty and then again when Fellaini, already booked and getting away with a litany of niggly fouls, blatantly tugged Jack Colback back.
It was time for Van Gaal's players to show their more attractive side and, sure enough, when Ander Herrera collected a loose ball near the halfway line he provided Rooney with an exquisite pass. After holding the ball up intelligently – and holding off Fabricio Coloccini – Rooney slipped in a superb reverse pass which Lingard, making a blindside run, took in his stride before dispatching the ball low, and assuredly, beyond Elliot.
Coloccini had seemed completely lost during that little cameo but Newcastle's captain made amends with a diagonal pass from which Aleksandar Mitrovic beat Fellaini in the air and flicked on for Wijnaldum to volley unerringly past De Gea.
Wijnaldum’s fabulous finish not only pulled his side right back into the game but quelled early signs of simmering mutiny in the Gallowgate where, a little earlier, stewards and police had acted quickly to usher fans bearing a giant banner emblazoned with the message “Sports Direct Shame” out of an exit.
If Newcastle fans have long since fallen out of love with Mike Ashley, the club's owner, his company and its working practices they are pretty good at giving their team the benefit of some pretty sustained doubt.
True to form they rallied as Moussa Sissoko upped the tempo and drove Newcastle forward on the second-half counter-attack. Such new-found Tyneside optimism was very nearly punctured when Anthony Martial tricked Mbemba and Herrera played an adroit pass from which Lingard should have scored but instead curled his shot unnecessarily high and wide.
No matter; when Chris Smalling virtually rugby tackled Mitrovic to the floor as the jostled at a corner, Dean finally awarded Newcastle a penalty. Although Perez appeared to want to take it Mitrovic grabbed the ball and directed it crisply into the bottom corner.
Wijnaldum had what would have been a sublime goal disallowed for offside before Rooney had his second. Although Coloccini blocked Memphis Depay’s shot the ball rebounded to United’s captain whose wonderful first time shot from just outside the area whizzed into the top corner.
Paul Dummett played an inadvertent part in the ball reaching Rooney but when United failed to clear a cross he made amends, lashing a left foot shot goalwards and watching it deflect off Smalling and evading De Gea's grasp.