Newcastle United fans are unlikely to find even the richest, most indulgent Easter egg remotely as satisfying as the evening that rubber-stamped their teamâs Premier League status for another season. A yellow card that should have been red, a smart second half switch to 4-4-2, two clever substitutions and four dramatic goals, three of them scored by Ayoze PÃ©rez, this was a game that kept on giving.
Indeed it was so good that for 90 minutes home fans all but forgot about the enduring impasse between Rafael BenÃtez and Newcastleâs owner, Mike Ashley, over negotiations to extend a managerial contract that expires in June. By the final whistle PÃ©rez had registered his first hat-trick in English football and nagging, albeit slim, relegation worries still lingered on for a Southampton side who started and finished badly but impressed in between.
Ralph HasenhÃ¼ttlâs side survived a second-minute appeal for a penalty after Pierre-Emile HÃ¸jbjerg appeared to handle in the area but, much to BenÃtezâs chagrin, the referee, Anthony Taylor, was not buying it.
If Newcastleâs manager was mildly cross about that little cameo, he was downright disgusted when James Ward-Prowse escaped with a yellow card after a cynical body-check on a rapidly counterattacking Miguel AlmirÃ³n. Considering that Ward-Prowse was the only remaining marker between the Paraguayan playmaker and Angus Gunnâs goal, everyone wearing black and white was convinced it was the denial of a clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity and an automatic red card.
Taylor presumably ruled that Ward-Prowse should be spared being sent off as, at the time of the offence, AlmirÃ³n was still in his own half but that judgment provoked a torrent of Spanish swear words from the usually more measured home manager, who did not seem to appreciate being told to âcalm downâ by Kevin Friend, the fourth official.
Given the bodycheck was so blatant it was arguably worthy of a dismissal alone and there was a real sense of justice being done when PÃ©rez scored two goals in quick succession.
His first began with Ki Sung-yueng dispossessing HÃ¸jbjerg before picking out PÃ©rez with a fine pass that left the Spanish forward with his back to goal on the edge of the area and quite a bit to do. Fortunately for BenÃtezâs blood pressure, he proved more than equal to it, holding off Maya Yoshida to swivel superbly and direct a low-angled shot through the legs of Jan Bednarek before watching it brush the inside of a post en route to the bottom corner.
The celebrations had barely subsided when PÃ©rez registered his second after dodging Ryan Bertrand on the wing-backâs blindside, sliding in to connect with a SalomÃ³n RondÃ³n cross and leaving his right foot to do the rest.
Southampton resembled a side who had spent the day dozing in the unseasonably warm Tyneside sunshine and, seemingly immune to the dipping sun and fast-dropping temperature, could not quite wake up. They failed to deal with AlmirÃ³nâs coruscating pace and did not appreciate Newcastleâs assiduous closing down in a midfield dominated by Ki and Isaac Hayden.
Admittedly Paul Dummett made an important interception to block an apparently goalbound shot from Josh Sims but that visiting chance came very much against the run of play. Sims was withdrawn at half-time along with Jack Stephens as HasenhÃ¼ttl introduced Stuart Armstrong and Mario Lemina and switched from a back three to a back four.
This revamp â perhaps allied to a few choice words from their manager at the interval â had a radical effect on the visitors as they finally blitzed Martin Dubravkaâs goal. Armstrongâs advance prefaced a dangerous Ward-Prowse cross, which was headed tantalisingly wide by Yoshida.
Although Ki saw a low shot rebound off the base of a post with Gunn beaten, the change to 4-4-2 had transformed Southampton almost beyond recognition and no one looked too surprised when Lemina reduced the deficit.
Like Armstrong he was proving an inspired substitute and emphasised the point courtesy of a memorable finish. After Armstrong had helpfully held Nathan Redmondâs cross up before letting the ball drop for him, Lemina sent a low shot curving, subtly and exquisitely, beyond the diving Dubravkaâs grasp.
Suddenly Newcastle were straining every sinew to protect their lead and when AlmirÃ³n over-stretched he appeared to damage a hamstring and was replaced by Christian Atsu. Another Redmond cross resulted in Yoshida volleying fractionally over the bar from six yards before Haydenâs deflected volley very nearly restored Newcastleâs two-goal cushion.
That job fell to PÃ©rez, even if he possibly did not know too much about it as he deflected Matt Ritchieâs goalbound header into the net and St Jamesâ Park morphed into full in party mode.