Eddie Howe grimaced as he climbed out of his seat at Newcastle’s pre-match press conference, explaining that a bad back was troubling him ahead of the club’s season opener against Nottingham Forest.
Contrary to what it might feel like at times for Newcastle’s dynamic, meticulous manager, it was not sustained carrying the weight of expectation of a city that has rediscovered its reasons to believe in the last ten months.
If Newcastle’s controversial takeover back in October fired up a city which had fallen out of love with its club, Howe was the man able to provide substance behind the Saudi Arabians’ sales pitch. Re-establishing a culture of improvement at the club almost immediately, Howe was able to extract remarkable developments from players who had floundered under his predecessor Steve Bruce, and Newcastle finished the season boasting the best form of any team outside the imperious top two.
The revolution was one of mindset as much as it was playing style: Newcastle began to play a more expansive, possession-based game and the support was incredible. Tifosi-style flag displays reflected an enthusiasm which reached its peak when Arsenal were blown away in last season’s final game. The Premier League stood up to take notice.
But now the question is: how far can a Newcastle team which has only been marginally improved this summer really go?
The belief on Tyneside is that Howe’s methods and the group he has assembled with some sensible investment in the transfer market will continue to improve. But there is no consensus around how far they can dash up the league. A push for Europa League qualification? It’s possible. Another mid-table finish? Some would accept that if you threw in a cup run. For others, muscling into the group that includes West Ham, Wolves, Leicester and a troubled Manchester United is a must this season.
The boss, sensibly, is not putting a public target on the expectation. But it was a marked change of approach to hearing a Newcastle manager on the eve of a new season talking about winning something rather than simply consolidating.
“We would love to achieve [a trophy] for everyone connected with the team – whether that is this season or beyond,” Howe said. That sort of language had been an anathema in previous pre-seasons, it was put to him.
“If I sat here and said I didn’t want to win a trophy there would be something wrong with me. That is my dream, to win silverware. I have to dream big on behalf of the club. It is not saying we will do it, [just] it is my dream. We have to work to do it and I push the staff and players to try to make that dream a reality.”
Howe is not a social animal – preferring to walk his beloved dogs on the Town Moor in the small hours rather than making the most of Newcastle’s famous hospitality – but even he has sensed the excitement that surrounds a new campaign.
His car pulled into the training ground at 6.15am on Thursday – a quarter of an hour later than usual, he stressed – to be greeted by a clutch of Newcastle fans seeking autographs. When he left 14 hours later, there was still a smattering of supporters lining the road into a facility that currently resembles a building site.
“I can generally feel the positive energy at the moment, a positive vibe. I’ve had supporters stop me at quarter-past-six every morning this week. That’s incredible and they’re staying ’til late. It shows their positivity, energy and enthusiasm for the club.”
The truth is, we’re still in the embryonic stages of Newcastle’s new era and it has been a surprisingly sober start for the Saudi-financed ownership group. PIF have maintained a very low profile amid the valid accusations of sportswashing. Investment has been fairly restrained – sticking to an original plan of £50million per transfer window – and the club are at pains to point out that their scope for further funding is constrained by Financial Fair Play regulations.
Instead they have concentrated on laying foundations. Director of football Dan Ashworth – yet to speak in great detail publicly – brings a wealth of knowledge and contacts while new CEO Darren Eales will join later this month from Atlanta United in the MLS. Internal recruitment in medical, sports science, scouting, Academy, commercial and media roles has gone hand in hand with a training ground upgrade that was sorely needed.
On-the-field Newcastle have a good first XI but they are vulnerable to an injury to Callum Wilson, which is why the club need to sign both a striker and right-sided attacking midfielder. Miguel Almiron – mocked by Jack Grealish in a boozy end of season faux pas as he partied after Manchester City’s title win – has been the most impressive pre-season performer. Youngster Elliot Anderson is one to watch while the mercurial Allan Saint-Maximin has plenty to prove.
It will not be a great leap into top four contention but back Newcastle, driven on by a reinvigorated support, to maintain their steady improvement as they plot a course back towards being competitive at the top level.