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Eddie Howe is safe – but an FA Cup run would salvage Newcastle’s season

File photo dated 10-02-2024 of Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe who is confident Newcastle’s topsy-turvy season can still end on a high note as he targets FA Cup glory.
Eddie Howe has described Newcastle's season as 'challenging' - PA/Bradley Collyer

Newcastle United always anticipated this season was going to be far harder than the last, but as we head towards the spring, Eddie Howe desperately needs another FA Cup win to prevent the campaign fizzling out into regrets and anti-climax.

Newcastle have been in danger of unravelling for a while. They are not going to qualify for the Champions League and could miss out on European qualification altogether given their stuttering form.

The defence, which had third-choice goalkeeper Loris Karius in goal last weekend, has become an embarrassment: error-prone and too easy to run in behind. Meanwhile, the midfield three – forced to play every game because of injuries and suspensions for months – of Bruno Guimaraes, Sean Longstaff and Lewis Miley is being overrun, not just by the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, but by Bournemouth and Luton Town too.

Newcastle have conceded 23 goals in their last eight games and have taken 11 points from the last 12 matches in the league. The defeat at Arsenal may have been their first in five, but Newcastle are not playing well enough to believe they can rely on a route back into Europe via the league table.

Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe applauds the fans as Kieran Trippier looks dejected after the match
Newcastle's hopes of Champions League qualification are all but over - Reuters/Andrew Coulridge

They have become a team with obvious weaknesses and Howe has been unable to fix them. He has refused to change system, sticking with the 4-3-3 formation that is easy to pass through in midfield and vulnerable to pace at the back.

“You can always change system,” said Howe in response to a question on this subject. “I think then you’re saying it’s system-related, I have a different view.

“I don’t think our system is necessarily the issue, it’s how you perform within the system. And that could be any system you pick.”

For the first time his judgment is being questioned, but he retains a huge amount of goodwill and his job, according to well placed senior sources, is under no threat at all.

Nobody beyond a few attention seeking voices on social media is calling for him to go, but he does need to rebuild some momentum. This bad run began at the start of December with costly and painful exits from the Champions League and the Carabao Cup.

Newcastle were 90 seconds away from beating Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the League Cup only for Miguel Almirón to stupidly shoot when he should have run down the clock and for Kieran Trippier’s blunder in his own box to gift their hosts an equaliser. Chelsea won on penalties. Almost everything that has happened since can be traced back to that moment. Confidence and belief disappeared and even the victories since, have felt like a struggle.

Much of their problems remain in personnel. Goalkeeper Nick Pope has been a huge miss since he dislocated his shoulder during the 3-0 win over Manchester United at the start of December. He will not be back until the middle of March either. Centre forward Callum Wilson cannot stay fit, Joelinton is out until May after surgery. Sandro Tonali is banned until September.

Long-term absentees like Harvey Barnes and Joe Willock are starting to return, but they are well short of match fitness and can only be relied on for short cameos. Barnes had been out since September, Willock since October.

Newcastle were trying to sell Almirón in January, and less than a month later he is being asked to start every game – as he has most of the season – as there is nobody to replace him. Anthony Gordon has played almost every minute of every game for the same reason. No wonder he looks exhausted.

Anthony Gordon of Newcastle United applauds during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and AFC Bournemouth at St. James Park on February 17, 2024 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England
No Newcastle forward has played more minutes than Anthony Gordon - Getty Images/George Wood

The FA Cup, though, offers respite and retribution. It also keeps silverware dreams alive. That matters, especially at a club that has not won a major trophy since 1969.

The biggest sea change since the takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in October 2021 compared to the Mike Ashley years, is that Newcastle have been able to attack cup competitions. Howe has always been consistent in his approach.

The 46-year-old guided Newcastle to the Carabao Cup final last year, their first cup final appearance since 1999 and he can do so again in the FA Cup this time around. In that respect, Blackburn Rovers is Newcastle’s most important game of the season so far.

The same was said before Newcastle’s surprisingly comfortable victory over bitter rivals Sunderland in the third round back in January and the club cruised into the next round, following it up with another impressive win on the road against Fulham to set up Tuesday night’s trip to Blackburn.

Newcastle 180 minutes away from another Wembley trip

Paired with Championship opposition again, albeit away from home, Newcastle simply must reach the quarter-finals where they will potentially be one kind FA Cup draw away from a second visit to Wembley in as many years.

“We are still in the throes of deciding where this season ends up,” said Howe. “Nothing is decided for or against us.

“I definitely want to squash that feeling that we are feeling sorry for ourselves because that has negative connotations. We need the players to be excited and ambitious, thinking brightly about the future.

“I always have a positive outlook. I’ve been in football long enough to know that it changes very quickly both for and against. You have to commit to everything you do, be at the best you can every day and hopefully if you do, good things are around the corner. This season can still be very special for us, but we have to make it happen.”

Injuries have decimated Newcastle since the start of the winter, but there are bodies coming back and both Elliot Anderson and Matt Targett returned to training on Monday.

And the bottom line is, Newcastle’s progress since the takeover was never going to be in a straight line. There were going to be challenges to overcome and Howe remains steadfast under pressure.

“This season has been all of those things [frustrating and disappointing] up to this point,” he added. “It has been very challenging. When you start the season it could be one thing but there have been so many scenarios that have happened that have led us to this point.

“But I think we will be better for it. The squad will be better for it, we will be better for it and the thought we could have had another season where everything seemed to go for us again, that very rarely happens in football. It’s how you navigate the situation and come back better.”

Getting through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup will make everything seem better. At least for a while.

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