Ideas & Observations
Final spotlight confirms Magpies’ return from the shadows
February 15, 2023
One more game to end 68 years of hurt, writes Colin Young.
Ninety agonising minutes at Wembley, against an old enemy who kept the Premier League title from their grasp.
But history will mean very little come February 26, when Newcastle United face Manchester United in the Carabao Cup final.
Because this Magpies’ squad is actually quite good, its defensive soundness matched by attacking intent and self-belief.
And it is about more than money and Saudi investment too.
Under Eddie Howe, players have been transformed and rejuvenated.
South Americans Joelinton and Miguel Almiron are different players under the bright boss from Bournemouth, North Shields-born Sean Longstaff – the scorer of the goals that confirmed a first Wembley final for two decades – another resurgent figure.
The win over Southampton was comfortable, if a little – and unnecessarily – nervy.
But it wouldn’t be a night on the Toon, with a final place at stake for the first time in 23 years, if there wasn’t some anxiety in the final stages of that Carabao Cup semi-final.
St James’ Park was rocking an hour before the stadium flags were filling the Tyneside sky, and it was swaying 20 minutes after the start when Longstaff hammered the second of his two goals into the back of the net.
Che Adams may have silenced the Toon for a nanosecond, and Bruno Guimaraes’ late red card nearly put a dampener on the night, but Howe’s team were not to be denied.
Because this Newcastle team can defend.
England goalkeeper Nick Pope, another shrewd recent investment, and the players directly in front of him, have the best defensive record in the Premier League this season.
The gung-ho ‘Keegan Entertainers’ this ain’t.
Once Adam Armstrong missed the Saints’ best chance following Guimaraes’ departure for a late tackle, Southampton manager Nathan Jones knew the night was over.
Armstrong, booed throughout the game, was the one Geordie in the ground who couldn’t enjoy the occasion and join in with the cup final anthem.
“Tell me ma, me ma, we won’t be home for tea, we’re going to Wembley,” Newcastle supporters sang, as their dejected former youth striker headed down the tunnel.
Howe and his players are now just a game away from achieving one of the targets he set at the start of this season; a target every Newcastle manager has set for the last 68 seasons, but which has never felt more achievable.
Newcastle haven’t won a major trophy since winning the European Fairs Cup in 1969 – a competition which no longer exists – and they last won a domestic trophy in 1955.
That was their third triumph in the FA Cup in five years, but since then nothing; they have never actually won the League Cup.
The Carabao Cup final will be Newcastle’s first final appearance since 1999, when Ruud Gullit’s team were comfortably beaten by Manchester United.
In the years since the Saudi takeover, Newcastle – the club, the team, the stadium – have become unrecognisable, and never has the argument been more pertinent that former controversial owner Mike Ashley didn’t really know and understand what he had.
Years and millions wasted, cup competitions treated with disdain, defeats and early exits accepted.
Coming into 2022, Newcastle were in the bottom three, about to lose to Cambridge United in the third round of the FA Cup.
Another failure, another low point that widened further the chasm between club and supporters.
But it didn’t take long for the new owners to build bridges.
After years hiding in the shadows, Newcastle are in a different room now.
They have started to deliver on their promises and, as the Saudi investment shows no signs of abating, the whole city can look forward to building its relationship with the club, which will transcend football and winning cups. Although that will help…
In their first interview with The Athletic’s George Caulkin, shortly after ousting Ashley and relieving Steve Bruce of his services, Amanda Staveley and her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi made a number of promises to supporters.
And they have delivered on a large number already.
From the cosmetic, such as restoring Alan Shearer’s statue to the front of the stadium, to the recruitment of influential players like England defender Kieran Trippier and Brazil star Guimaraes – recently voted footballer of the year by North East football writers – the addition of sporting director and chief recruiter Dan Ashworth and increased investment in the women’s team, much has happened.
The club had a relatively quiet winter transfer window, but still spent nearly £50 million on Anthony Gordon and Harrison Ashby, talented young players from Everton and West Ham United, respectively, who Ashworth has been tracking for years.
The former Brighton recruitment king has a whole list he can bring to Tyneside.
Money and the backing of owners prepared to pay big wages helps, but Newcastle is a very attractive club to young talent now.
Howe and Ashworth are also keen to push home-grown and educated academy players into the first team environment and, after years of neglect under Ashley, Newcastle’s youth teams are bulging with some of the region’s best players again, players who have the incentive to follow the likes of Longstaff, Dan Burn, Paul Dummett, Elliot Anderson and Mark Gillespie, who will all be in the squad for Wembley.
Howe said: “Those guys in particular represent the club in such a good way, and they also educate the new players coming in. I think that’s such an important process.
“You can’t keep players from the local area if they’re not good enough – we’re at an elite level, but it’s certainly my wish that that remains the same.”
The clamour for tickets started weeks ago – probably when Newcastle beat Leicester City in the quarter-finals.
And just like the new-found fervour around the club, it’s only going to grow.
“Tell me ma, me ma…”