For years at Newcastle United, it felt like Groundhog Day. So desperate were the club and fans to escape the laborious purgatory that was the Mike Ashley era at St James’ Park, but with each passing season, there was a reset with no great ambition to change anything. Much stayed the same, Newcastle were stagnant and, therefore, going backwards.
It was common practice to end a season strongly, though; relegation was always a lingering threat, growing closer with every year, but somehow, in recent seasons particularly, there were green shoots of possibility visible as a campaign came to a close. Under Rafael Benitez, the man supporters hoped could guide them into the light despite Ashley’s cold, tight grip on the club, there were days filled with hope and freedom; victories over Chelsea and Fulham, in 2018 and 2019, showed what was possible with a little bit of momentum in May. But by the time pre-season rolled around the following July, it had dissipated; everybody was flat, hoping for inspiration rather than walking towards it. On the second of those occasions, Benitez had departed; that was when the dread felt worse, but it wasn’t new. It was just the way under Ashley.
Even Benitez’s replacement, Steve Bruce, who never enjoyed the same relationship with supporters but neither attempted to replicate the bridges built by the Spaniard, had similar moments. At Fulham last season, there was a comfortable 2-0 victory in a curtain-closing game that for long periods felt like it could be decisive in the battle at the bottom. With thanks in particular to the record-breaking form of loanee Joe Willock, who scored at Craven Cottage that day as part of seven goals in as many games, it wasn’t that urgent. But Newcastle left the pitch with evidence of the way forward; sign Willock early and get ahead of the game. Instead, they dithered, waiting to fight for scraps in the market with Ashley already emotionally checked out and desperate to sell, even more so than usual.
While Willock signed in the end, he was late and the only arrival. Players who desperately needed to be moved on for years were kept and even re-signed to new contracts in order to fill places in the squad, because it was easier and cheaper than upgrading them.
For long periods of this season, it felt like Ashley’s special brand of negligence would finally weigh too heavy on a team lacking depth and quality, as well as direction and conditioning. Even after the takeover, by the Saudi Arabian-backed consortium, which changed everything in October, bringing the end of Ashley and Bruce, the tide was difficult to turn. But with the help of emergency January spending and new manager Eddie Howe’s shrewd tactics and calm demeanour, there has been a turnaround of epic proportions on Tyneside. Fears over a return to the Championship soon turned to excitement over what was possible; what it certainly means is a chance to break out of purgatory and trust the club to hit the ground running when it all gets going again.
But there will be moments to pause and say thank you; for all the bitterness of recent seasons, there is a core of players who never shirked responsibility. When Newcastle last fell into the Championship in 2016, their squad was heavily criticised for a lack of character. Benitez, who had stayed after initially arriving to save the club, wanted a team both good enough and strong enough to gain promotion. They did that, and the likes of Dwight Gayle, Ciaran Clark, Isaac Hayden, Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles became mainstays. Part of the problem was their reliability; they would always remain professional and never complain, making them perfect squad players in Ashley’s eyes, even as they aged and their suitability waned.
Now is the time to say goodbye, but those players deserve their dues. They’ve played their part in modern Newcastle history, saving and stabilising the club and reaffirming the relationship between fans and players. They may still say they can do a job, but there is a realisation that this is the end and the time is right. Doing a job is no longer good enough; this club is thinking bigger and it needs quality to match their personality. Signing Matt Targett, Bruno Guimaraes, Dan Burn, Chris Wood and Kieran Trippier at the turn of the year showed what was possible in that regard. Even some of those players could be looking over their shoulders soon.
Trippier, renamed in the England squad after his injury return, is the new standard-setter at Newcastle; the man brought in to show the path to better things. Bruno, who spoke about winning the Champions League at his unveiling after joining, is proof of concept; crucially, both players have the character required to make things work.
Finally, the good feeling at the end of this season feels like it will continue and set the tone for the next. Newcastle will break free from themselves and finally leave remnants of the past behind. That past should be appreciated in part and acknowledged, but now is the time to go full speed ahead into the future.