How safe is Eddie Howe once Newcastle Wembley giddiness wears off?

Ian King
Eddie Howe, Newcastle United, February 2023

Newcastle were well beaten in the EFL Cup final, while their league form has been shaky for a couple of months. So how safe is Eddie Howe, and for how long?

 

It was a long way to travel for a 2-0 defeat, and supporters who made the 300-mile journey from Newcastle to London by train couldn’t even drown their sorrows on the way home.

It was a tough weekend for Newcastle United supporters. Since winning a place in the EFL Cup final against Manchester United – their first cup final in 24 years – the hope had grown that a trophy drought stretching back either 54 or 68 years (depending on whether you count the Inter Cities Fairs Cup as a major trophy) might finally be coming to a close.

Newcastle have taken part in cup finals since 1969, but their three FA Cup final appearances were all – against Liverpool in 1974, Arsenal in 1998 and Manchester United in 1999 – against teams appreciably stronger than them, while losing the League Cup final in 1976 required a rather special winning goal from Dennis Tueart to win the match for Manchester City. On this occasion, they considered themselves on something approaching an equal footing, with just two places separating the two sides in the Premier League.

Perhaps this is the issue with treating a cup final as a barometer of how far you’ve travelled. To do so might be a game too soon. Manchester United had this game effectively won by half-time thanks to goals from Casemiro and Marcus Rashford, and as red-shirted players celebrated their win at the end of 90 minutes, the tens of thousands who’d travelled down to the capital had only the perhaps-now-quite-lengthy-looking journey back to the north-east to contemplate.

On that journey there was a lot to chew over, because 2023 hasn’t exactly been as successful for Newcastle United as 2022. In the league, form has stuttered, with the team having won just one of its last seven games while failing to score more than a single goal in any of them.

They were dumped out of the FA Cup at the first time of asking by Sheffield Wednesday, and their last match before the EFL Cup final against Liverpool began with a chaotic opening 20 minutes during which they conceded two goals and had their goalkeeper sent off, all of which resulted in a first league defeat since the end of August.

All this starts to raise questions about the manager. Eddie Howe had been out of the game for a while since leaving Bournemouth following their relegation from the Premier League in 2020, and much of the 16 months during which he has been turning Newcastle around will have been watched by the owners of the many clubs who lost their managers during that spell and are now wondering why they didn’t pick up the phone and dial his number.

But it’s difficult to shake the possibility that at 4.25 on Sunday afternoon, leading his team out onto the pitch at Wembley in front of 88,000 baying supporters for a cup final, could be as good as things get for Eddie Howe and Newcastle United.

We don’t know what the Saudis expected of Newcastle this season. What can reasonably be expected of a team who finished last season in 13th place in the table? Because while the owners of the club are immeasurably rich, there’s been little sense since October 2021 that Newcastle United are too.

Sure, their net spend has outstripped almost everybody else in the Premier League, but this has to be put into the context that Newcastle haven’t been able to sell many players for much money, because none of those they’d like to get rid of are really worth that much.

And while spending has been high, the mania that Chelsea have found themselves in at the end of each of the last two windows has put anything that the Saudis could throw at Newcastle firmly into the shade. Those who expected the new owners to immediately spend billions on lavish trinkets may be a little disappointed.

But that money has has at least broadly been well spent. Bruno Guimaraes remains the potentially transformative player, the sort of player you could easily see gliding his way comfortably through the sort of Champions League group matches that would very much appeal to the new owners, whose recent absence with a three-game suspension was keenly felt in the centre of their midfield.

His recent red card oopsie aside, Nick Pope has been an obvious upgrade in goal, while Sven Botman and Kieran Trippier have both been accomplished in defence, where a remarkable level of stinginess – 15 goals conceded in 23 Premier League games is the lowest of any team, and by quite a long way – has been the bedrock of their ascent this season.

The only slight disappointment so far has been Alexander Isak, but this has been at least in part due to circumstances beyond the player’s control. Isak exploded into the team with two goals in his first three games at the start of the season, but a hamstring injury left him on the sidelines until the new year and, after having only scored once since his return to action in January, he was left out of the EFL Cup final team in favour of Callum Wilson. At just 23 years old this may well turn out to be a temporary blip for Isak and inevitable when coming back from a nasty injury, but Howe will expect a better return for the €50m they dropped on him last summer.

In the Premier League, there have only been two matches lost in 23 this season, but Newcastle nevertheless find themselves in fifth and with the task of getting into the top four looking more challenging with every point dropped. On New Year’s Day, Newcastle were in third, two points ahead of Manchester United. Two months on they trail them by eight, and while that is partly to do with Manchester United’s electrifying form, it’s also partly due to the fact that they’ve only won once since.

These slips from teams who are not used to being in this position have happened before. In 2021, Leicester City were in the top four for almost the entirety of the season before slipping down to fifth with a game to play. West Ham spent most of the first half of last season in the top four before falling away to finish in seventh. The experience of challenging for these places year in year out appears to have a considerable benefit, though as recent Champions League winners Chelsea and Liverpool are currently finding out, it doesn’t offer a guarantee.

Perhaps that step up in mental toughness is the next that Newcastle United have to make. If they are to challenge near the top end of the table and at the business end of cup competitions, then perhaps the slight feeling of ‘we’re just glad to be here’ will be the next thing to have to go. And this, perhaps, is where you start wondering for how much longer Eddie Howe will be the right man for the job.

None of this is to say that his replacement is anything like inevitable, or that what he has achieved since his time with the club hasn’t been hugely successful. The supporters still seem to be on his side, and the team’s position is still considerably higher than it was when he was appointed.

But if Newcastle are going to tread a Manchester City-esque path to becoming a petro-funded superclub, then they will have to pick up a degree of the ruthlessness that has accompanied City on their journey. For how long Howe can retain the enthusiastic support of the fans is unknowable, but if this club is a project that the owners intend to take to the top, the point may well arrive at which a manager to fit that profile starts to appeal, and this could come sooner rather than later.

We don’t know yet for sure – the patience of the owners of Newcastle United hasn’t been tested since the inevitable sacking of Ole Cabbage Head himself, Steve Bruce, in October 2021 – and they haven’t had much reason to be unhappy yet, but it’s not difficult to imagine an underwhelming end to this season and a slow start to the next resulting in those dread words ‘he’s taken the club as far as he can’ starting to drift across the Tyne.

Other options are available. Perhaps the return of Guimaraes puts a little fire back into their midfield and they win their games in hand on Spurs to go back into fourth place. Perhaps the Saudis decide that, with tighter financial regulation now definitely coming, this is the summer when they splurge in the transfer market, trying to buy their way into that top four. And perhaps Howe makes that transition seamlessly, finally proving himself to be the elite calibre head coach that some claimed he could be all along.

One of the perversities of the EFL Cup final being held so early is the danger that it might signal the end of the season to a team who still have a third of a campaign still to play. Newcastle United’s immediate target has to be to stop that drift settling in like a cloud over the rest of this season. Results so far in 2023 have been underwhelming, but there is a long way to go, and with European football – and still quite plausibly the Champions League – still to play for, there’s every reason for them to keep pushing.

In some respects, Eddie Howe’s season really starts now. If Newcastle are to match the aspirations of their owners, he will have to continue to deliver, and having got the club to their first cup final in 24 years, his next task is now to get them back into European competition for the first time in a decade. And it will be this that determines whether other names become more attractive sooner rather than later.

The new owners of Newcastle United have already dropped more than half a billion pounds on the club, and they will be expecting returns and continuing improvement. For how much longer can Eddie Howe deliver that?