Georginio Wijnaldum handed under-pressure head coach Steve McClaren some welcome relief as Newcastle beat in-form Liverpool to slightly ease their relegation fears.
Reports in the run-up to the game suggested that the former England boss had just two matches to save his job, while talk of a rift among his backroom staff had done little to ease the tension on Tyneside.
However, players pilloried fortheir abject capitulations against Leicester and Crystal Palace produced a performance of real character and got their reward when Reds defender Martin Skrtel deflected Wijnaldum’s 69th-minute shot over keeper Simon Mignolet. The Dutchman then added a second four minutes into stoppage time to hand McClaren’s men a priceless 2-0 win.
Liverpool, for whom the defeat was just a second in 12 attempts under new manager Jurgen Klopp, were not at their clinical best with Christian Benteke and substitute Daniel Sturridge both guilty of bad misses, but the Magpies were good value for the points on a day when they restored a measure of pride.
Fans who had turned up fearing the worst having seen the Reds put six past Southampton in the Capital One Cup in midweek were pleasantly surprised as a previously hapless defence proved resilient and a midfield which had created little started to fire, if sporadically.
The visitors were fluent in their passing and forced three corners inside the opening 70 seconds, but they had to wait 21 minutes to create a meaningful opportunity when Dejan Lovren headed down Alberto Moreno’s corner and Benteke stabbed the ball over from close range.
But as the half wore on, the Magpies started to make an impression with Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko prominent, and Papiss Cisse might have fired them ahead eight minutes later when, after skipper Fabricio Coloccini had dispossessed Benteke on the edge of the Newcastle penalty area, Wijnaldum slid the striker in.
However, as he tried to cut inside Skrtel, Lovren arrived and the pair managed to snuff out the chance.
Chancel Mbemba headed over from Cisse’s flick-on on the stroke of half-time and Jordon Ibe blasted inches too high seconds later to suggest there might be more to come after the break.
Wijnaldum saw a 55th-minute shot deflected wide after good work by Sissoko and Jack Colback, but the visitors responded in kind with Ibe running at the home defence at will, and Klopp threw Adam Lallana and Sturridge into the mix when he replaced Benteke and Firmino with 28 minutes remaining.
But it was Newcastle who took the lead when Wijnaldum’s persistence allowed him to send in a right-foot shot from a tight angle and in his efforts to block it, the sliding Skrtel could only help the ball over Mignolet.
Sturridge fired wastefully wide after being played in down the right with 15 minutes left and Lovren headed weakly at Rob Elliot as time ran down, but victory was assured deep into stoppage time when Wijnaldum deftly chipped Sissoko’s pass over the advancing Mignolet to raise the roof at St James’ Park.
McClaren was delighted with the win and felt it was well deserved following a tough period, with his Newcastle players giving their all for the cause.
“That’s what you have to do to win a game in the Premier League,” he said. “You’ve got to work really hard and crawl back into the dressing room and that’s what they’ve done, every time we’ve won and got a result - that’s what they’ve done.
“Now we need to maintain that and they’ve just proved the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Reds boss Klopp was visibly disappointed with the result, saying: “If you see the situation that Newcastle is in and the situation we are in, I have to say they deserved the win....maybe we could have deserved a point.
“I couldn’t see that we should have won three points because we were not good enough, we didn’t do what we could do.
“I have to see it again, I have to analyse this game so I know more about it.
“It’s hard work - that’s clear, but it shouldn’t be this hard because we could do better and play much more football.
“We played no counter-pressing. Pressing was not good....we were not compact enough - a lot of things we didn’t do well.
“Better you lose a bad game than a good game.”