Club has spent wisely not recklessly under new ownership to secure a Champions League return after 20 years’ absence
Tue 23 May 2023 07.00 EDT
Gary Neville pointed to the floor. “I really feel Newcastle could go like that,” said the Sky Sports pundit, explaining that fifth place was, almost certainly, the very best Eddie Howe’s side could hope for this season.
It was early March and, if Neville’s comments irritated St James’ Park season-ticket holders, they could at least reflect that he had modified his stance since 2015. “Does any top player now want to go and live in Newcastle?” queried the former Manchester United and England right-back in a newspaper column speculating that England’s north-east was “being eased off football’s map” and heading for “irrelevance”.
Neville had evidently bought into the received wisdom that London’s economic might dictated that, bar a couple of oases in Manchester and Merseyside, the game’s power base was drifting inexorably southwards.
If he might have been a little puzzled when, in January 2022, the Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimarães chose Newcastle over Arsenal and told journalists that “we’re going to be a big power in world football”, Neville could not have remotely imagined Howe’s team earning themselves a top-four Premier League place as early as May 2023.
No one expected the game-changing corrective delivered by the purchase of Newcastle in 2021 by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund to kick in quite so quickly. Mike Ashley, the previous unloved and largely disengaged owner, had spent more than a decade trying to sell the club, prompting regular choruses of “it’s too far north” from London-based analysts.
Saudi’s PIF does not make healthy profits from investing in assorted worldwide projects by subscribing to such assumptions. Tellingly, it knew all about 2007 and the decision of their neighbours in the United Arab Emirates to initiate a daily flight between Newcastle and Dubai. At the time countless leading airline executives claimed the city could not sustain the route and it would be a massive loss maker.
Emirates executives preferred to study passenger manifests, detailing the numbers of those flying to the Gulf and beyond from Newcastle via London, Amsterdam and Paris before deciding the demand existed after all. The Emirates Boeing 777 still lands at Newcastle every day, its hold carrying billions of pounds worth of cargo to and from the airport each year and its business class cabin frequently full.
After crunching a different set of north-east figures PIF decided that Ashley’s former advisers had been wrong in asserting that the region was not wealthy enough for Newcastle United to develop the sort of commercial revenue streams normally associated with clubs of its size.
This show of faith in an area all too often dismissed, patronised and, above all, underestimated represents a very big reason why criticism of the Saudis invariably receives short shrift on Tyneside.
Newcastle fans accept the Kingdom’s regime has some extremely serious questions to answer about its grisly human rights record but the reality is that most local businesses and politicians are infinitely more interested in the regional economic boost set to be provided by Champions League football than sportswashing.
No one can argue that Newcastle’s new hierarchy – led by the UK-based director and co-owner Amanda Staveley – have not recruited extremely well.
If Staveley’s stellar performance has exposed the misogyny implicit in the words of those who wrote her off as an unqualified piece of window dressing, Howe has offered the critics who suggested he might flounder away from his Bournemouth comfort zone an emphatic answer.
Part of the reason why Howe is a leading Premier League manager-of-the-year candidate is that the £250m Newcastle have spent on new players since the takeover has been significantly better invested than the similar sum poured into Tottenham’s squad over an equivalent time span.
If Guimarães (£35m from Lyon), Sven Botman (£35m from Lille), Alexander Isak (£60m from Real Sociedad), Nick Pope (£10m from Burnley) and Dan Burn (£13m from Brighton) have proved shrewd purchases, the £12.5m invested in luring Kieran Trippier from Atlético Madrid has not only furnished Howe with an excellent right-back but the squad with a standard-setting, bar-raising captain.
Howe’s amalgam of emotionally intelligent man-management and high-calibre coaching has not merely elevated Newcastle from relegation-dodgers to Champions League returnees inside a year but transformed one of the division’s slowest, least athletic, sides into high-pressing, high-energy, high-paced crowd pleasers.
Along the way, a manager noted for presiding over a particularly porous defence at Bournemouth has constructed one of England’s meanest rearguards. Perhaps even more startlingly, Howe’s new streetwise streak has imbued Newcastle with a mastery of gamesmanship capable of making Sam Allardyce blush.
Evidently, time spent shadowing Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone and that high priest of hard pressing, Rayo Vallecano’s Andoni Iraola, during a post-Bournemouth sabbatical represented time very well spent on Howe’s part.
Could another manager have transformed the quality of Joe Willock’s on-pitch decision making to the point where the former Arsenal midfielder is now close to an England call-up? Might someone else have spotted that Joelinton was more of Patrick Vieira-esque midfielder than a flop of a £40m centre-forward and seen him morph into a top-tier player-of-the-season contender?
Would another coach have ignored widespread theories that Fabian Schär could only operate in a Premier League back three and reinvented the Switzerland international as an exceptional, right-sided, centre-half in a back four? And could anyone else have made Miguel Almirón a goal threat?
The Saudi money has helped but the prize of Champions League qualification at the end of a season originally intended to be all about mid-table consolidation is principally down to Howe confounding the doubters.