Newcastle United have posted a strong start to the season, with a marauding win over Aston Villa and a narrow loss to fellow Gulf nation satellite side Manchester City in their opening two league games. A lot is expected of Eddie Howe and his side this year for myriad reasons but what would constitute success?
Their surprising top-four finish last season, which came after a relegation scrap just 12 months before, defied all expectations both inside and outside the club, and massively speeded up their intended climb up the ranks.
It can’t be denied that Howe, and his extremely shy assistant Jason Tindall, have done a brilliant job to date, which has also seen a first domestic cup final this side of the millennium. A 2-0 loss to Manchester United came in the 1999 FA Cup final and also the 2023 Carabao Cup final, but it was progress, nonetheless.
All of this happened with a rather low-key and unfashionable set of players, which included Dan Burn, Joe Willock and Nick Pope, all of whom have been signed since Howe took over midway through the 2021/22 season.
Of course, there have been more high-profile signings in Kieran Tripper, Bruno Guimaeres and Alexander Isak but these were not the status of player anticipated to arrive on Tyneside when Saudi Arabia, sorry Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), took over the club in November 2021 after a protracted process, which grimly was more about piracy issues than human right abuses.
Based on those ironclad ‘legally binding assurances’ gripped ever so tightly by Premier League CEO Richard Masters, there is a clear separation between the tyrannical regime and its PIF, despite MBS being at the head of both.
Further reports from Human Rights Watch this week have outlined even more atrocities from the state and its army, which has involved the mass murder of Ethiopian migrants. Of course, Howe hasn’t had much time to think about that because of his schedule!
The Saudi ownership of the club is an outright disgrace and another symbol of how broken football is, and unfortunately Newcastle’s success cannot be separated from those who own and use the club for its own aims – who’s funding all of this, after all?
We as #NUFC fans linked Ashley’s mismanagement of the club with his exploitation of Sports Direct workers on zero hour contracts.
The very least we and Eddie Howe can do today is condemn the attrocities committed on the Yemen border by the dictatorship which owns our club . pic.twitter.com/0v1aP23ryJ
— NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing (@NoSaudiToon) August 22, 2023
Now that’s been pointed out for the 427th time by this publication, let’s try and ‘stick to the football’ as some so weirdly try and do these days.
How can Newcastle improve on last season? Do they need to finish higher in the league and go a step further in one of the domestic cups? How about their return to the Champions League?
A third-placed finish seems a bit of a push with their now busier fixture list but another top-four finish is definitely within reach, which might actually be the top five when the much-maligned Swiss model kicks into place at the end of the season and England gets another Champions League spot. Oh joy!
So, the goal in the league should be to consolidate their position amongst the usual suspects and fully turn the Big Six into a Big Seven. That task will be even harder this year with Liverpool ‘reloaded’, a resurgent Aston Villa, and a Chelsea and Spurs who surely can’t be worse than last season.
Of course there’s also Brighton, who continue to defy the odds even after losing multiple stars and executives, notably head of recruitment Dan Ashworth to the Magpies, which explains the transfer success. He will be judged this year on the performances of Sandro Tonali, Harvey Barnes and co.
Speaking of the Champions League, Newcastle’s name will be in the draw (which takes place on August 31) for the first time since the 2002/03 season – they got knocked out at the third qualifying round the year after.
Given their fourth-placed finish and low coefficient points, a tough to very tough group can be expected. How about a group of death with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and AC Milan?
Most of the Toon Army would revel in welcoming the biggest and the baddest European football has to offer to St. James’ Park and absolutely no side will be thrilled at the prospect of a trip to a likely freezing cold north-east this winter.
For some fans, just being back in the big time will be enough but for the club and its owners, performance on the European stage is paramount to their long-term ambitions. Getting out of the group and seeing what happens from there sounds like a reasonable aim for now.
What else? Geordies have been absolutely starved of success as a fanbase, with their last major trophy coming in 1955, and starved of cup runs until last season. They hadn’t played in a domestic cup semi-final since 2005 until 2023, which largely can be blamed on Mike Ashley.
Trophies are tangible success and would be remembered far more than a top four finish on Tyneside.
More success should also come in the form of continued crossover between Newcastle and Saudi Arabia, with the club so kindly gifting the use of St. James’ to the country’s national team for a pair of friendlies next month.
It only feels fair after the Magpies went to the Kingdom for a training camp last season. They’ll likely do the same again this year, perhaps bringing back Neymar and Jordan Henderson on convenient loan deals.
Achieve most of this (bar the loan deals maybe) and Eddie Howe’s job will be safe. Not, and who knows what might happen? Maybe MBS will start taking training.