Laura Woods
Laura Woods

Laura Woods column: Inside the Premier League with Sky Sports presenter

I come from a family split between the North East and the South West. Somehow I was born in Essex meaning Dagenham will forever be on my passport...

To the deep disappointment of my father I grew up supporting Arsenal, not Newcastle. It’s become my disappointment lately too, believe me.

Incredibly my first visit to St James’ Park was towards the end of last season. Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle was embroiled in a relegation dogfight and Saints, also down in the basement battle, were the visitors.

I sat in the Easter sunshine covering the game for talkSPORT and watched on as Ayoze Perez scored twice in two minutes, then got his hat-trick in the 86th minute. The place erupted and that was the game, 3-1. Better keep hold of him, I thought...

Newcastle went up to 12th, 10 points clear of the drop, safe for another season. I interviewed Rafa afterwards in the stands, he avoided confirming his future at the club, saying contract talks hadn’t progressed. I interviewed him again after the last game of the season at Fulham's Craven Cottage, this time I asked him what his heart was saying. One of those emotional questions where you hope to get an alternative answer. He laughed awkwardly, shuffled on his feet and avoided once again. What I didn’t realise at the time was that his heart was saying Dalian Yifang, that Chinese Super League club. Who knew?

My next experience of St James’ Park was a very different one.

The summer was like a sucker punch to the fans. Rafa was gone, with half of Newcastle’s goals to declare on his arrival in China in the form of Salomon Rondon. Perez was poached by Leicester and there were yet more rumours of a takeover, which seem to be gathering momentum once again as I write this.

It felt like Newcastle was in a state of mourning with the spectre of Mike Ashley still at large. Steve Bruce had endured one of the most anti-climatic welcomes I’ve ever seen and season ticket sales weren’t exactly flying. In fact they were down.

Newcastle fans celebrate their recent FA Cup victory over Arsenal (Note: This photo may not be recent)
Newcastle fans celebrate their recent FA Cup victory over Arsenal (Note: This photo may not be recent)

I asked Graham Courtney, our expert in the North East, whether fans would boycott the first game of the season against Arsenal. He reminded me the Geordies always show up, always. Well this time, a lot of them didn’t.

There were huge pockets of empty seats and the atmosphere was flat. You could hear the managers clearly as they barked their orders and furiously gesticulated on the touchline.

It wasn’t a vintage performance by either team. But at 67 minutes my interest peaked. Off the bench came one of Newcastle’s brand new signings. Allan Saint-Maximin. £16.5m from Nice. Stocky and solid. His dreadlocks bleached blonde, tied up in a black headband poking out the top as he jogged on the pitch, peacocking his way around St James like he owned the place already. Sky Sports' commentators described him as a maverick. I loved it.

It was like someone had let out a Tasmanian devil. His pace was ridiculous, but when he got into a position he’d fluff his lines.

“Allan Allan Allan!” The cries repeat from the edge of the technical area, one of Steve Bruce’s assistants trying desperately to get his attention and offer direction. Now Steve jumps up and joins in. The two of them screaming a perfect chorus of Allans that now resonates around the half empty stadium like those talking marmots on YouTube (I actually had to google what that animal is).

The pattern has continued as we’ve progressed through the season, but nonetheless Saint-Maximin is becoming a Toon favourite.

There was that time he wore his Gucci headband against Manchester United, but had to cover the branding with a sticker. Or when he featured in the mismatch of the season with one of the league’s most senior gentleman Pablo Zabaleta tasked with matching his pace.

Allan Saint-Maximin scores against Sheffield United
Allan Saint-Maximin scores against Sheffield United

A personal highlight - when he tried to rainbow flick all 6’4” of Sebastian Haller. Of course it didn’t come off, but it didn’t matter. It’s the sheer audacity of it that I love.

You only have to watch him for five minutes to see how good he is with the ball at his feet. Last season he averaged more dribbles per 90 mins than Messi and Hazard. This season he’s passing players for fun and does it it with a bag of tricks that make him box office. He’s dynamic and the kind of entertainment St James’ Park has been missing. Not all heroes wear capes, some don Gucci headbands.

I wanted to know what he was like off the field, so I asked a source close to the club. The response was glowing, as expected, but also very amusing.

“Allan’s a proper character. He’s quite laid back around the place but is very funny. He’s well liked by the players, not just because of his personality and his quirks, but because of what he gives the team on the pitch. He’s a big talent and backs up the flamboyance and effervescence. He’s very funny on social media too.”

But the bits I especially enjoyed were when he was taken to the local BBC radio station a few months into his time on Tyneside. He swore live on air. Twice. That was during their drive time show. “f*ck” and “sh*t” his words of choice. “That endeared him to fans even more.”

He also regularly picks up fines for breaking the rules, but only the softer ones, rocking up to training wearing earrings; “Gaffer has a no jewellery rule, which he often forgets about.”

What he’s done particularly well is that he has embraced the city, is eager to learn more about it and its people. The club took him to visit The West End Foodbank earlier in the season, he spent hours there. “He couldn’t have been more genuine.”

Allan Saint-Maximin is quickly becoming a Newcastle favourite
Allan Saint-Maximin is quickly becoming a Newcastle favourite

He recently tweeted out a clip of him in training, skipping past five or six players and doing what the Newcastle faithful are dying to see him do...score. Now if he could just do that against a team that isn’t Newcastle...

He’s registered just the one goal and two assists since joining the club with his lack of quality in the final third drawing endless comparisons with Adama Traore. The comparisons gather momentum with every improvement Adama makes. Can Allan be coached in a similar way? Does Steve have the Nuno touch?

I covered the game against Chelsea where it was his excellent cross that picked out Isaac Hayden for the winning goal in the 94th minute. If he does do an Adama, Newcastle might just struggle to keep hold of him.

Until then the imperfection is something I quite enjoy. Granted owners, managers and fans might feel a little differently. But I like it. It’s rogue and unpredictable. And where would your ironic cheers from the stands go if we didn’t have a level of that in the league?

For now I’ll sit back and appreciate, as he runs the length of the pitch, ruins your defenders and then sends the ball up to Mars in a one-on-one with the keeper.

I wanna say don’t change, Allan, but the half Geordie in me hopes you do. For my dad’s sake.

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