The gap between Newcastle United’s two Premier League encounters with Everton was just over five weeks, but for Allan Saint-Maximin, they were worlds apart. On the evening of February 8, the Frenchman stood in the centre of the St James’ Park pitch, arms outstretched, singing along to ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles as he was serenaded by 52,000 people having inspired a season-turning victory. On Thursday night, if he’d checked his social media, he’d have received a raft of unfair criticism and accusations following a rather flat defeat.
It showed the volatile nature of Newcastle’s future. Everything has changed in a few short months on Tyneside since their Saudi Arabian-backed takeover in October; budgets are bigger, targets more ambitious, and the sense of perspective seemingly now warped. There could be no greater contrast between eras; the only similarity between them is the year one ended and another one started. Mike Ashley’s pond was a paradox, simultaneously existing as a self-effacing and a tumultuous institution; there was very little joy, flair or hope involved. So when Saint-Maximin came along with his blonde, dreadlocked hair and trademark Gucci headband, the perfect side order to his daringly quick feet, there was little doubt he would become a firm fan favourite.
With Saint-Maximin in the team, there was reason to watch; for Steve Bruce, the final manager of the Ashley era, who some would say was most representative of its many negative traits, he was a shield and a protector. His lack of tactical innovation was often covered up by Saint-Maximin’s own inspiration; in a team that barely raised a glove collectively in attack, he possessed the ability to give opponents a bloody nose. For so long, he was the game plan; the aim was to stay in the game, feed Saint-Maximin and watch on in hope. Given their lack of control over the situation, fans were right there too, willing and praying for him to produce some magic. It was all they had, but they loved him for it.
Weighed down by pigeonholes and perceptions from his youth, the feeling quickly became mutual for Saint-Maximin. He thrived on the responsibility, and the reception from a fanbase with a track record for taking Gallic flair to their hearts without judgement. Issues with defending or working hard were nothing new, but they never cared because so long as they were entertained. That connection mattered, especially with one of the few bright sparks they had in the darker times.
But with a new era comes new expectation and a different emphasis. Since October, when the club went through its big change as they floundered winless in the Premier League, the message has been one of collective work ethic, striving to improve and go far as one; Eddie Howe, the man who replaced Bruce as manager, has used that as his mantra. Individualism, which many people would say best describes Saint-Maximin, suddenly became secondary. What had been clung to as the only source of positivity gradually felt tolerated; for all the flashes of brilliance were roared on like before, each flaw in the French winger’s game has been magnified and inflated until they have become major issues within themselves.
And so, egged on by baseless and unhelpful speculation about his mindset, mentality, attitude and actions, there is a sense of resentment growing towards Saint-Maximin. While nobody is immune to criticism and he has never been perfect, the situation he finds himself in is unfair and undeserved. Bruce gave him the freedom to play as he pleased, often speaking about the concessions he would make in order to get a tune out of Saint-Maximin in spite of his complexity. Perhaps this was in lieu of a detailed plan, but it was necessary to help the player thrive. It was so obviously appreciated, evidenced by a farewell message posted on social media; from that moment, suspicion arose that perhaps he wouldn’t react as well to a more regimented, team-centric approach, something Howe has certainly brought.
Once a narrative sets in, there is a desperation to fit around it. Saint-Maximin has never worked hard, just like incredibly popular past figures David Ginola, Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa; his game has been about making the difference going forward, something he has continued to do on a regular basis under Howe, not least in that first Everton game, when he was the catalyst on the night that set in motion a run which has helped Newcastle pull well clear of relegation, something that seemed impossible to conceive of as recently as half way through January.
How Saint-Maximin has been criticised is where the bitter taste truly originates. It seldom seems as though a poor performance – the most recent of which can be explained by a calf injury and then illness, meaning he has barely trained for a month – is enough in isolation; there is an obsession with finding a deeper meaning to it, including claims that he exaggerated his fitness issues and has lost his desire to play for Newcastle. Saint-Maximin has used his love affair with supporters as fuel; that lack of existential scrutiny helped bring out the best in him; signed by a regime which actively encouraged players to leave for a good price, he has stayed for the fans, vocalising what they deserve.
An underlying entitlement in a growing section of Newcastle fans is threatening to undo everything. Saint-Maximin has made clear his awareness of the souring feeling towards him by posting on Instagram about how quickly people forget, but has made it his mission to prove everybody wrong. Suddenly, having previously accepted that his potential was destined to be fulfilled elsewhere during the Ashley years, there is a debate over his place at Newcastle as they go on to better things.
Allan Saint-Maximin should be judged fairly, not by hearsay, assumption and hastily-concluded thoughts. His role at Newcastle remains as important as ever; he cares for the club and the fans, but deserves to regain their respect before any damage between the two parties becomes irreversible.