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Newcastle United – A question of loyalty, balance and appreciation

2 months ago
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I have to say, 2023 been one of the best years of my Newcastle United supporting life.

We’ve had a bit of a rough end to it but, all in all, it’s been a long time since we’ve experienced such an astonishing calendar year.

I didn’t know whether to travel through this article chronologically or to break down all the key components. I’ve gone for the latter.

Return to the Champions League

Let’s revel in this first.

Not only had it been 10 years since we’d featured in any European competition (the 12/13 Europa League the one time during the previous tenure that passports had ever been required) but it was a full two decades since we’d graced Europe’s top stage.

Our dreams were shattered in heartbreaking circumstances but in a group that we were told we had no chance in, we came close to qualifying. We didn’t lose to PSG’s team of superstars across two games and were robbed of a brace of victories. Our home annihilation of them will surely be remembered in the same vein as the Barcelona game (we didn’t qualify that time either).

We battled at the San Siro to scrape a point and were possibly a little unfortunate in both games versus Dortmund. Dortmund’s pedigree and knowhow (plus some huge missed chances by us) meaning they earned a pair of victories against us.

That final match, at home to Milan, we were brilliant for the first hour.

Miguel Almiron Tomori Clearance AC Milan

Tired legs let us down and, with us needing a win, it became a swashbuckling affair. Milan were the greater swordsmen in the end but it could have all been so different had we not conceded that outrageous penalty in Paris. Had we won that game, a draw would have seen us through and the Milan match could have been so different.

Fortress St James’

In 2023 we played 20 games at home in the Premier League.

We won 14 of those games, losing only four and drawing the other two. That means that we won 70% of our home games and lost only 20%.

It’s unfortunate that the most recent of those was to a struggling Nottingham Forest. The other three were to title chasing Arsenal and Liverpool twice (one of which we had ten men and the other we dominated with and without an extra man and should have been 3 or 4 nil up before conceding two late goals).

Being at home didn’t matter all that much in the dark old days. It meant we were marginally less likely to lose but it didn’t give us the confidence that we have nowadays. I back us against anyone at home.

Return of the Entertainers

We have scored four goals or more in nine different games this year. Eight of those were in the Premier League, the two really special ones being the six we stuck past Spurs and the record 8-0 away victory at Brammall Lane. We also celebrated our biggest ever Champions League win whilst inflicting PSG’s biggest ever loss in that 4-1 domination.

For years it has been us regularly receiving 4, 5, 6 goal wallopings. We’ve only conceded more than three goals once this entire year, with that 4-1 loss to Spurs earlier this month.

Our batteries may be running on empty now but, for vast stretches of 2023, intensity has been our identity but there has been abundant class evident too. With so many of our key players young and bristling with potential, I can only see the entertainment levels improving over the coming years.

Carabao Cup Contenders

This calendar year alone we have won five Carabao Cup matches, getting to a final and quarter final. That is more wins in the competition than Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez managed between them in six seasons! And that’s just this calendar year. If you add the extra three games that we won in 2022 that makes it eight games in this competition that Eddie Howe has won in just two seasons. You have to go all the way back to the last season under Alan Pardew in 14/15 for us to have registered as many wins in total. That’s right, we have to look back over eight different seasons and four permanent managers to get to the same tally that Eddie has reached in just two campaigns.

What an experience it was seeing local lad Longstaff score a brace at St James’ to seal our place in the final. A momentous night in London followed as half of Newcastle descended upon Trafalgar Square to revel in our glory. The final itself was forgettable but the journey there was not.

Black and White Flags Wembley

Three of the toughest possible ties followed this campaign but we got past Man City at home with a much changed starting eleven, battered Man Utd away in similar circumstances and then came within a whisker of another semi final when leading for most of the tie away to Chelsea.

The Carabao Cup has been an energising experience.

The Dominant United

I haven’t trawled through the history books but I wonder if there has been a calendar year where we’ve beaten Man Utd three times. If there has been, has there been one when we have been so dominant in all of those victories?

Unfortunately, we played them four times and the one we would have wanted to win the most was that cup final. However, to respond with such a one-sided 2-0 victory that same season before dispatching them 0-3 in the Carabao Cup with a rare win at Old Trafford and then absolutely bossing them in the most flattering of 1-0 victories. That’s six goals scored and none conceded against those devilish foes since the cup final heartbreak.

We Have A Club That Tries

This isn’t exclusive to 2023.

It began with the takeover in 2021 and continued last year and into this one. This year saw the announcement of the return of Adidas as kit provider, with us named one of their elite tier clubs. Our new shirt sponsorship with Sela was announced, dwarfing our previous arrangement with Fun 88. We’ve continued to see additions to the boardroom and we’ve invested in the team at every level as well as making numerous other partnerships.

The women’s team, so long not officially connected to the club is now taken seriously and gained promotion last season and are doing brilliantly again this time out (currently five points clear at top and 10 points clear of third having played a game more than their closest rivals).

Newcastle United Womens FC Champions

In Eddie Howe and this group of players we have a club that tries and a team that, more often than not, wins. We are bound to have difficult spells but there have been a lot more good times than bad this year. Our manager never embarrasses and shows an honesty and integrity so often missing from some of his contemporaries.

A word on Eddie Howe and the rest of this season

I can’t help but feel dismayed when fans go over the top in their criticism of Howe and/or the team. Sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion but if that opinion is that Eddie has taken us as far as he can, then my opinion is that that opinion is idiocy. Just my opinion…

You only have to look at Eddie Howe’s career to see how he has evolved and adjusted whilst climbing through divisions and embracing new challenges. I genuinely think if he stays as our manager for the next five years, he will win trophies and reach legendary status with our club.

I see comments like, we can’t keep using injuries as an excuse, or why isn’t Howe changing the team around.

Well firstly, I would say the injuries are a valid reason, not an excuse and secondly, as long as we have this extensive injury list, it’s a pretty valid reason. We’ve had anything from eight to twelve injuries since September. A lot of the players out have been key ones. If you are playing every game, every few days, you are going to be physically and mentally knackered. It’s as simple as that. The longer that goes on, the worse it’s likely to be.

I don’t understand those that are saying we can’t keep using it as an excuse. It doesn’t make any sense. Sure, when we’ve got a bench full of players that could arguably be rotated into our first team then the mitigation disappears. We still have nine players out. Our bench against Forest had two teenagers and three players that normally would struggle to make the bench had other players been fit. The longer it goes on that we have this volume of absentees, the more valid this reason becomes. Not less so.

Eddie Howe Flyer Newcastle United

Likewise with Howe changing the team around. Until a couple of weeks ago the team picked itself. Nobody was going to draft in Ritchie for Almiron or Dummett for Lascelles. We do have players coming back now so we should start to see some rotation in the team. If we go into January and play the same eleven players every game and lose all of them whilst the likes of Livramento are being routinely ignored then criticism of team selection will be justified but not long ago we had a bench with three keepers and four players aged 20 and younger.

The positive going into next year is that we will start having gaps of a week in between matches. That gives us more time to train, more time to study the opposition, more time to rest and more time for players to get back to fitness.

Managers need time. Managers need trust. Managers need patience

When Jurgen Klopp came in at Liverpool (a team with a long history of investment and high Premier League finishes) he steered the team to 8th in his 30 games in charge during the 15/16 season (they were 10th when he took over). Once he had his feet firmly under the table, he led Liverpool to Champions League finishes every season until the most recent one.

After being shocking for a large chunk of the first half of last season, Liverpool were in 9th place come the end of October. Bear in mind the season started in the first weekend of August due to the World Cup break. So, after three full months and 14 games Liverpool were way off the pace in 9th and had just lost back-to-back games away to newly promoted Nottingham Forest and then at home to, eventually relegated, Leeds United. There were rumours that he may be sacked and many of us neutrals were hoping for it. The fans, players and board kept faith, and he ended up almost chasing us down for that final Champions League spot, finishing 5th. This season they are title challengers once more.

Mikel Arteta came into Arsenal as a project and didn’t go tearing up any trees in his early days. Two eighth place finishes was the best he could muster. He then missed out on Champions League football thanks, in part, to our fantastic home win against them late that season which condemned them to a 5th place finish. The project was developing though and last season they finished 2nd and they are right up there in the title hunt again this time out. This again, is a team with a much longer history of investment in the playing staff and infrastructure than ours. It would have been easy to see that project with Arteta as a failure after a couple of seasons and tried another route. Would they have done so well last season and this had they changed manager? We all know the story about the early years of Alex Ferguson.

Mikel Arteta Arsenal Eddie Howe Newcastle

IMAGO/Colorsport

This is a blip

In reality, our start to 2024 couldn’t be much more daunting.

We play three of the top four in the league, two of them away, as well as a trip down to our biggest rivals in the FA Cup. We may well lose all of those games (I personally don’t think we will). There is every chance we will be in the bottom half of the table when February arrives. But I think we will do some business in January. I think we will see lots of our injured troops returning to the frontline and I think we will start to see that intensity and discipline returning. When we get into February, we will have a run of matches that can get our season back on track.

Obviously, nobody knows, but I would be surprised if anybody could have done what Eddie Howe did for us last season, 22/23 was an astonishing campaign, beyond all our expectations.

This calendar year has been mesmerising for the most part. Howe is a manager that has grown throughout his career and he has enough credit in the bank to have the odd bad month or two. Even a bad season wouldn’t have me calling for his head. This has shades of Bobby Robson all over again and look what happened when he was forced out. Eddie has been a victim of his own success to a degree but I have full faith in him and his players to turn this around.

Wishing you all a fantastic new year and here’s to a 2024 that is anywhere near as good as 2023!

You can follow the author on Twitter @billymerlin

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