After years of false hopes, the sleeping giant of Newcastle United has finally been awoken by their new ambitious owners, as we look back on the incredible turnaround at St James’ Park.

Newcastle United are a completely transformed club, and their fortunes have turned upside down for the better following a miraculous turnaround this season in which they registered an 11th-placed finish following a 2-1 victory over Burnley in the final day of the Premier League, having looked doomed to relegation only six months ago.

It was an emotional roller coaster for the Toon faithful, who went from being disgruntled and hopeless after seeing so many false dawns over the years to finally having something to look forward to on the weekend, taking pride in their team and being filled with the euphoria of what beckons them. The Hard Tackle will now look back at what was a season of two halves for Newcastle United.

Disjoint ownership, toxic atmosphere, sleepwalking towards relegation

This poisonous ball got rolling on May 23, 2007, when Mike Ashley took over the club, and it has done a lot of harm to the Newcastle supporters in the 14 years after that. The move was not seen negatively by most fans at the start and was, in fact, welcomed.

But it marked the beginning of the worst period in the club’s history of sustained underperformance, filled with dissatisfaction with the club’s actions on and off the pitch, including two relegations, trying to rename St James’ Park, using the stadium as a giant billboard for his business interests, the sacking of much-admired managers such as Kevin Keegan and Rafael Benitez, disrespecting club heroes like Jonas Gutierrez and Alan Shearer – the list gos on.

Ashley’s plan, of course, was to simply survive in the Premier League at the bare minimum investment and with the fewest distractions in sight, which inevitably meant early exits from domestic cup competitions and, most importantly, no prospect of European football.

Then there was the Magpies’ shambolic transfer policy that led to many players fleeing the club due to a lack of ambition. Justifiably, fans were tired of their previous owner’s antics, and attendance began to fall, especially during the Steve Bruce era, due to his negative tactics and unpopular monotonous press conferences.

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This became apparent when Ashley had to give away 10,000+ free half-season tickets to fill the empty seats around his adverts before the pandemic. So, when manager Steve Bruce guided Newcastle to a 12th-placed finish in the 2020/21 Premier League season thanks to a strong late run, there was a bit of hope that with little investment they should be fine next season.

But a disastrous summer window saw Newcastle only convert Joe Willock’s loan deal into a permanent one for £25 million. The talks of takeover revival were once again put on the backburner. The Magpies have had a disastrous start to the season, seven league games without a win, despite three of the seven games being played at St James Park.

Newcastle were out of the League Cup at the first try and reeling in the relegation zone before the second international break. It was a painful watch. There was no atmosphere or drive left in the home crowd to get behind their team. As soon as the opening whistle blew, almost total silence instantly descended on St James Park.

Furthermore, regardless of the results or rusty performances on the pitch, then-owner Ashley refused to act promptly and fire the manager in order to save the reported £4 million compensation fee required. Then there were reports of players being divided, upset with the coaching regime, training bust-ups and dressing room chaos.

Manager Bruce was still coming out with consolatory phrases like, “the gloves are off now and we will do it my way” or “We’ll take a point, and move on to next week.” In truth, there was no identity in the team, and the ingrained resilience from Benitez’s days disappeared. They didn’t press, lacked any composure or cohesiveness on counter-attacks, and rarely defended in a collective manner.

It was just giving the ball to Allan Saint-Maximin and hoping the Frenchman would pull something out of nothing with his individual brilliance. A storm was brewing, and the club was left sleepwalking towards relegation.

A new ray of hope, the controversial Saudi takeover, conflicting media narratives

October 7, 2021, will go down in Newcastle’s history as a day that Toon fans will never forget. On this momentous day, Mike Ashley finally sold the club. A Saudi-backed investment group led by much-familiar PCP Capitals owner Amanda Staveley stepped in, and the resolution between beIN Sports and the KSA over TV piracy meant there were no issues in passing the Premier League’s ‘owners & directors test’.

The consortium actually backed out of the deal in July 2020 when the Premier League demanded proof of separation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and PIF. A legal backlash from Mike Ashley also played its part in the Premier League reaching a compromise.

Naturally, plenty of controversy surrounding the Saudi Arabian-backed £305 million takeover followed, which has made Newcastle United one of the richest clubs in the world. The fans celebrated in large numbers outside the stadium. At the same time, the takeover was met with huge criticism from the mainstream media.

Steve Bruce only survived one game under the new ownership, a 3-2 home loss to Tottenham. He was then fired and replaced by Graeme Jones on an interim basis. Their manager search took far longer than planned, and many questioned the new owners’ competence to make footballing decisions.

Some pundits even said that they made a mistake by sacking Bruce, the only person capable of salvaging the sinking ship. Eventually, after nearly a month without a manager and flirting with unrealistic managerial profiles such as Unai Emery and Paulo Fonseca, Eddie Howe was announced as the new Newcastle United manager, 15 months after he was relieved from his last managerial job.

Obviously, eyebrows were raised with the former Bournemouth coach not being the hierarchy’s preferred appointment, and some sections of the media even predicted it to be a failure based on the sheer number of goals Howe’s Bournemouth conceded in the Premier League and how defensively open they tended to be.

But then, it’s worth recalling how highly rated Eddie Howe was when Bournemouth burst onto the scene in the Premier League. He was tipped to be England’s manager and was linked to big jobs like Arsenal on several occasions. Even then, stylistically, Howe was always going to be a wise appointment in the long run.

As the Cherries’ manager, his ideology was progressive, expansive, and creative football; his teams ran a lot, played an energetic 4-4-2, and relished an inventive set-piece. However, as the seasons progressed, they depended more on transitions and counter-attacks than on possession.

As a result of his ability to coach in both systems, Howe was perfect to transition Newcastle from route one football to the assertive, front-foot, free-flowing style that fans expect and elite clubs possess.

And while the players initially appeared to be struggling to adapt to the new style when they went 14 games without their first win of the season, it all started to click for Howe, as they achieved their objective much earlier than expected to become the first club in Premier League history to stay up after winning none of their opening 14 games.

As for the 44-year-old English tactician, his place among the nominees for Premier League Manager of the Season was well earned. Newcastle United were dead and buried, down and out, without any structure, playing style, or quality on the pitch before Howe arrived and this rescue act is an achievement almost unparalleled this season.

Smart January Business

The January transfer market presented an opportunity to inject some life into a dreaded squad that had stagnated due to underinvestment and poor coaching under the previous regime. Newcastle’s books were clean thanks to Mike Ashley’s frugal transfer dealings in previous windows, and the new owners had the leverage for a massive spend to bolster the lifeless squad without breaching Financial Fair Play regulations.

As expected, they wasted no time in splashing the cash, making instant headlines by snapping up England international Kieran Trippier as the marquee signing to get a headstart in the window. The squad was further reinforced by the arrivals of Dan Burn, Matt Targett (on loan) and Chris Wood before Newcastle pipped Arsenal to the blockbuster signing of Bruno Guimaraes from Lyon.

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All in all, almost £100 million was spent in the winter market, which indeed made them the highest spenders in Europe. And while each of them, in their own way, provided a much-needed lift on Tyneside, the splurge was blown out of proportion by the mainstream media after the Magpies clinched their survival. After newly-promoted Norwich out-spent Newcastle in the previous summer window, it was more of a case of playing catch-up than spending their way out of relegation.

Nonetheless, these newcomers settled in quickly at the club and provided healthy competition for places that was previously lacking, bringing the best out of the existing crop of players. To begin with, Trippier’s leadership qualities helped Newcastle become a more disciplined team, raising the standard and fostering a winning mindset.

The England man alongside Targett fixed the issues at full-back spots with their steady presences, adding quality in attack and defence, with pinpoint crosses generating more chances per game than before. The former also chipped in with crucial goals against Everton and Aston Villa, reminding the onlookers of his quality from free-kicks.

Burn helped shore up Newcastle’s fragile defence, while his influence extended beyond his personal contribution to the progress noticed in centre-back partner Fabian Schar, with the club conceding more than one goal only twice since the arrival of the Blyth-born defender.

Wood, meanwhile, acted as an old-fashion target man, notching up two goals while his hold-up play benefitted the likes of Allan Saint-Maximin and Ryan Fraser to make runs in behind.

The addition of Guimaraes, though, eclipses the impact of all of them. Already a cult figure at the club after making a huge impact, the Brazil international is a complete package and can operate both as a box-to-box goal-scoring midfielder and in a holding playmaker role. He has formed a lethal midfield double-act with fellow compatriot Joelinton and looks set to be the face of Newcastle United’s new era.

One of the best signings in the Premier League for the 2021/22 campaign, he has directly contributed to six goals in 17 outings, while his FBREF chart shows that he has all the elements to become a world-class midfield maestro.

How(e) about that turnaround, a sense of unity, and St James Park rediscovering its magic

Under Eddie Howe, Newcastle’s style of football changed drastically. They tried to play more on the front foot and press the opposition high up the pitch, rather than sitting back and absorbing pressure like they were under Steve Bruce.

Having said that, result-wise, it was a far cry from smooth sailing from the start for the new boss. His opener, which ended in a tense, turbulent 3-3 draw with Brentford, was perhaps an indication of what was to come and the mammoth challenge ahead.

The Wor Flags group brought its beautiful backdrop displays back to St James’ Park post-takeover, helping improve the ambience and matchday experience and generate a buzz and positive feeling in the stands. And soon, breathtaking displays and a sea of black-and-white became the norm before every game for the rest of the season.

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Newcastle finally got their first win of the season when they beat Burnley in early December. While the players embraced Howe’s methods, the results on the pitch remained disappointing, with heavy defeats to Leicester, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester City.

Their error-prone defence’s inability to hold on to a lead was alarming, as they were at the top of the pile for goals conceded and points dropped from leading positions halfway through the season. In fact, Howe only won once in his first eleven games in charge, including a shock FA Cup exit to League One Cambridge United and dour draws against Watford and Norwich.

After claiming only their second win of the season in a 1-0 crucial victory over Leeds thanks to a Jonjo Shelvey free-kick, Newcastle jetted off to Saudi Arabia for a mid-season training camp amid extensive backlash from some sections of the media, who accused the camp of being a Saudi-promotion. But it appeared that the trip allowed the team to bond together, and this proved to be the catalyst for Newcastle’s end-of-season revival.

Howe was also able to gel the majority of his winter arrivals, bringing about a shift in mindset, work culture, and inculcating fun, reward-based intense training sessions, as several players have stated in interviews. The former Bournemouth boss himself admitted that they “returned a fitter and much closer group” after the trip.

And it reflected in their impressive performances and extraordinary form since returning from Saudi Arabia as they went on an incredible nine-game unbeaten streak (W6, D3), including some strong team displays against Everton, Brentford, and West Ham.

Onlookers attributed much of Newcastle’s improvement down to their Saudi-backed January investment in new players, but this overlooks the progression of previously stagnating players such as Joelinton, Ryan Fraser, Emil Krafth, Fabian Schar, Jonjo Shelvey and even skipper Jamaal Lascelles to an extent.

Guimaraes, who was billed as a player who could easily step into the midfield of an Arsenal, Manchester United, or Tottenham Hotspur and immediately improve their team, struggled to break into the team during this period due to the outstanding performances of midfield trifecta Joe Willock, Jonjo Shelvey, and Joelinton.

The most impressive feature of Howe’s 4-3-3/4-5-1 system was Newcastle’s tremendous defensive improvements. The Englishman, regarded as an attacking coach, apparently did his homework before taking the Newcastle job and spent a brief time away from the game at Atletico Madrid, and his Newcastle side now boast some stylistic similarities with Diego Simeone’s team: robust, combative, and making life difficult for the opposition by suffocating midfield press.

The Magpies also turned St James’ Park into a fortress, winning six Premier League games in a row at home for the first time in 18 years. Their dominant 2-0 victory over Champions League-chasing Arsenal in the final home game of the season was their best performance of the season, as they played the Gunners off the park, and certainly one of the best nights that St James’ Park has embraced in over a decade, infusing goosebumps when the full house stayed back to serenade their unsung heroes for the traditional lap of honour.

It may well be a sign of positive things to come; after all, in the second half of the 2021/22 season, they represent the best of the rest, with only Liverpool (48) and Manchester City (51) bettering their tally of 38 league points collected. They ended up in 11th with 49 points, their record season tally since their return to the top-flight in 2017, a scenario that every Newcastle United supporter would have grabbed with both hands at the turn of the year.

From long-running £40 million joke to Newcastle’s Player of the Season: Joelinton’s rebirth

From a laughing stock to one of the stories of the season, Joelinton’s transformation is a perfect embodiment of the club’s transformation, from pre-takeover to post. The Brazilian was written off as a £40 million striker flop after failing to impress while operating as a No. 9 or out-wide in the last two seasons, and was stripped of the iconic number 9 shirt at the start of the season.

Signed from Hoffenheim for a club-record fee, Joelinton was a clear misfit and, in truth, Steve Bruce had no idea of what to do with him. Historically, he never showed the output of an out-and-out striker, nor the poaching instincts required to thrive in the role. But his height, power, tenacity, pressing intensity, and off-the-ball work from a deep-lying forward position made him a handy tool for then-Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann.

And when Howe arrived, he seemed to have acknowledged his traits, but it was not until the crucial Norwich game that he realised Joelinton’s vast potential in a midfield role. Ciaran Clark was sent off nine minutes into the relegation six-pointer in what ended in a dismal 1-1 draw. But it proved to be a blessing in disguise, as it was the turning point in Joelinton’s flailing Newcastle career up to that moment.

Joelinton continued to shine as the new energetic box-to-box midfielder in the following games, becoming one of the first names on the teamsheet. His sheer athleticism, ability to cover ground, winning most of his individual battles, as well as the desire to get into attacking positions really stood out on the pitch.

His FBREF metrics speak for themselves as he ranks among the top ten percentile of central midfielders for non-penalty expected goals, aerials won, blocks, touches and pressures in the attacking third, while in the top 25 percentile for interceptions, dribbles completed and progressive passes received, showing that he is already a competent No. 8 who will only improve in the coming seasons with better players around him.

From possibly on the verge of being shifted out of the club when the new owners arrived, Joelinton has become one of Newcastle’s most consistent performers and the heartbeat of their midfield. He has also become a huge fan favourite for his resilience and a never-say-die attitude and deservedly won the Player of the Season award.

Verdict: The Future is bright

By the looks of how the season has unfolded since the start of 2022 and some proper investment expected in the summer, Newcastle could well be within the conversation of challenging for the European places, be it for the UEFA Europa Conference League. A cup run should be on their radar as well.

However, Eddie Howe’s task will only get more difficult as he will not only have to manage increased expectations, but teams with smart managers like Brentford’s Thomas Frank and Brighton’s Graham Potter will adjust their tactics accordingly next season to take advantage of Newcastle’s style of play and sustained press.

The Toon manager has already ruled out a ridiculous transfer splurge by Newcastle this summer, but new additions are expected to arrive thanks to the ambitious vision of new owners.

So, a top-half finish, competing with some well-run clubs in West Ham United and Wolves would be deemed a realistic expectation next season for the time being, but the sky is the limit on what they can achieve with St James’ Park now back to its rocking best.

The future definitely looks bright for Newcastle United. It is essential that they strive to be not only the best team in the top-flight but also develop as a club, including major upgrades from training facilities to the academy, to the women’s team and to the community work in the local area.

Dan Ashworth’s impending arrival at St James’ Park as director of football will be another step in the right direction towards creating a club ethos and a well-defined structure from top-to-bottom as they look to establish themselves as one of English football’s strongest forces.

It is easy to forget how stale things were under the previous regime, battling for survival season after season with no ambition whatsoever on or off the pitch. This is not yet another false dawn to drain the life out of Newcastle fans, but the real deal, with the sun shining brightly on the horizon.

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