Welcome to Newcastle. Twenty-two days into his bespoke survive-and-build mission, Eddie Howe finally got to sit in the home dugout at St James’ Park, for the first leg of a run of games that will define the immediate trajectory of this strangest of seasons.
The hand of Howe had already been felt in this Newcastle squad. Even before the visit of Norwich City, a clash of the bottom two, there was talk of extra sessions, new tech, touchscreen to-do lists at training, a general stirring of the blood.
And why not? At times during the late games of the Steve Bruce era it felt as though someone had wheeled a worn, brown, slightly sagging Chesterfield armchair out on to the touchline and left it there to manage a football team. Howe has a fierceness about him, a modernising zeal. This is basically who Newcastle should have had in charge all along.
And the early optics were good. He looked sharp, fizzing with that familiar ferrety energy. The colours, the staging, the lines, the steely stare, the club tracksuit energy. It felt fresh. It looked new.
Nine minutes later the new manager was already clutching his head and pointing feverishly to the subs’ bench. Ciaran Clark’s red card was the first significant act of this match, one that required the immediate junking of all plans and the scaling back of what had looked a progressive and attacking Newcastle team.
To their credit Newcastle’s players showed resilience, adapting quickly and remaining tightly packed in the face of Norwich pressure – albeit this is something of an oxymoron, the football equivalent of being thrashed to within an inch of your life by a damp piece of kitchen towel.
By the end a 1-1 draw might have felt like an anticlimax, having taken the lead. But Howe will draw comfort from the spirit shown here. Because things are unlikely to become any less strange from here.
Has there ever been a more bizarre, unplanned three‑quarter season than the one that awaits Newcastle’s manager? There will be three stages to this process. The first is the current one: emergency stations, the uplift of a new coach in an old group of players.
After which, well, here comes everybody. There are four weeks to go until the January transfer window. What to expect? Will Newcastle machine gun the world with money, will they grab the moon out of the sky, chop a mountain down with the edge of their hand? Will they sign Renato Sanches, Jack Wilshere and some people they met at the bus stop who seemed nice?
It is to be hoped Howe’s voice is the loudest in that room. Because there were signs of some kind of spark here. And these are delicate moments.
Newcastle’s month of living dangerously had been widely trailed before this game. They play Burnley this weekend. After which it’s mission not very possible: Leicester and Liverpool away, then Manchester City and Manchester United at home. Fail to win the next one and it could be the end of December before a similar chance comes again. Salvation from that point would require a kind of reverse-Keegan.
But then, anything is possible from this point, because none of this has been done before on this scale. Here we have a group of players who have been told they are the living, breathing symptoms of the managed decline of the Mike Ashley era. That group of unwanteds is also charged with keeping the club in the league – so that they can be replaced by better players. Cheers lads. Slip out the back door when you’re done. How do human beings react in this situation? We will find out.
Roared on by a boisterous home support, there were at least signs of something stirring here. Clark’s red card came after he fluffed a clearance into Teemu Pukki’s midriff, leaving him haring off towards goal, but still 40 yards out. Pukki is 31 years old. He’s a game, eager, scurrying figure. Running a bit faster than Teemu Pukki: this is not an unreasonable ambition. Instead Clark grabbed his shirt. Pukki jack-knifed. Clark walked off looking stricken.
And suddenly the game had a different gravity. Newcastle were solid and disciplined. Albeit, solid in the face of a team that have scored seven goals this season. With 58 minutes gone the ball struck Billy Gilmour’s hand at a corner. Callum Wilson buried the kick, just about. Pukki equalised with a wonderful volley. A draw seemed fair.
For Newcastle the avoidance of defeat will come as a relief, not least as the oddity of their situation is yet to fully reveal itself. The window will loom as a kind of cavalry charge. But the right moves here are also unclear. What kind of talent can be thrown, profitably, at this situation?
How to resist the urge to skimp on the dull bits, to just hurl Ousmane Dembélé (or similar) head first into a relegation scrap, to rush straight from the lottery office to the helicopter showroom.
A point against Norwich is hardly a jumpstart. But Howe would be best served building on the qualities he saw here: solidity, defiance, spirit in adversity. This is at least something solid beneath their feet.