Newcastle survive ‘big moment’ — but their season is still in sudden death

Eddie Howe and Newcastle faced a turning point at Blackburn  (Getty Images)
Eddie Howe and Newcastle faced a turning point at Blackburn (Getty Images)

Eddie Howe had watched the Carabao Cup final with a bittersweet feeling. It could have stemmed from the fact that Newcastle played in it last year, their first final of the 21st century. The more immediate cause to wonder about what might have happened stemmed from this season, from a 1-1 draw and a penalty shootout. Newcastle were seconds from progressing in their quarter-final against Chelsea and instead saw their conquerors go to Wembley.

A couple of days after Howe was a spectator, he found himself one again. A couple of months after the shootout at Stamford Bridge, he was on the sidelines again, powerless as Newcastle beat Blackburn on penalties. “In the normal game I feel involved, I can help, I can shout stuff, but in the shootout you have no control,” he said. “I definitely prefer them as a player.”

Martin Dubravka invoked the cliché they are a lottery, but only after he had disproved it with his excellence. Newcastle took four fine penalties and, despite one meek one, that proved enough. “There was a lot riding on it,” Howe said. “It was a big moment in our season.”

Potentially the end of it. Which would have been an anti-climax and would have brought scrutiny, potentially on Howe. He felt it was a sliding-doors moment; but in the context of a campaign, not his own reign. He certainly did not deem Dubravka’s saves at Ewood Park his ‘Mark Robins moment’. Nor should he have to.

The danger, though, is that a season of overachievement is followed by one of underachievement, and with the question of what that means. In the wake of Saturday’s 4-1 demolition at Arsenal, Howe had concurred with suggestions his squad are playing for their futures. If he may have more power at St James’ Park now the sporting director Dan Ashworth is tending to his garden, thus far Newcastle’s Saudi majority owners have not been tested by failure. There is no illustration of how they might react.

Now Newcastle’s campaign feels in sudden death; again perhaps one game – or one unkind FA Cup draw – from ending. There had been a realism to targeting a top-six finish from the off, to not expecting annual Champions League qualification, but the reality is they are seven points and four places from sixth. Their inconsistency does not suggest the kind of run that would bring a surge up the standings is guaranteed. Or, indeed, an FA Cup win; they will need to be far better than they were against Blackburn.

Theirs has been a curiosity of a campaign, with 10th position obscuring the way the highs have felt stratospheric: the opening 5-1 evisceration of Aston Villa has looked a still better result as the Midlanders have taken Newcastle’s mantle as the challengers to the established order. The 4-1 hammering of Paris Saint-Germain was a seminal night. There have been wins over Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal.

Howe watches on as Newcastle are taken to penalties at Ewood Park (Getty Images)
Howe watches on as Newcastle are taken to penalties at Ewood Park (Getty Images)

But lows have become more frequent. In a sense, they exited two European competitions in one half, courtesy of an AC Milan comeback. December also brought elimination from the Carabao Cup and, probably, the race for the top four.

They have lost their players along with the intensity that provided some of their identity, and which underpinned their rise. They lost their near-invincibility at St James’ Park and their defensive solidity.

At a turning point that could have been a finish, two of those issues had a pertinence. Newcastle had conceded 14 goals in as many league games when Nick Pope was injured; they have let in 31 in 13 since then, the most in the division. Dubravka has been overworked, making saves, retrieving the ball from his net. He is a worse stylistic fit than Pope, his reluctance to act as a sweeper-keeper meaning Newcastle’s high defensive line – and a back four not overly blessed with pace – has facilitated opportunities. Yet Dubravka was their rescuer on a night when Blackburn had nine shots on target; perhaps Pope will be fit for the quarter-final and, should Newcastle get that far, he would be for a potential semi-final. But his understudy took them through.

In November and December, as Newcastle’s injury list was at its longest, Howe became the manager who did not make substitutions. Now, with the absentees still including Callum Wilson, Sandro Tonali and Joelinton but the cast list far bigger, he made five. He brought on a substitute for a substitute, giving the fit-again Elliot Anderson his first game in four months as a specialist penalty taker. He scored. “He was coming in cold,” said Howe.

It was another decision that could have backfired. After months without choices, he has them. After periods when injuries were a mitigating factor, they are not as much now. And if those added alternatives bring an added focus if Howe makes the right decisions – and perhaps he did not with his starting 11 at Blackburn – Newcastle now have a squad and a cup run. And the way they didn’t really have a squad for much of a season and that their campaign now rests on the FA Cup indicates how some of their plans have gone awry.