Newcastle mix homegrown heroes and fast-paced progress to stand on the cusp of history
Oxford and Luton have won trophies more recently than Newcastle United. So have Wimbledon and Coventry.
Since the Magpies even went to a final, fourth-division Bradford have played in one. Wigan and Birmingham, Swansea and Portsmouth have won them. There are success-starved clubs and then there is Newcastle United, a big club in terms of history and stadium and support and, now, spending power and ambition, but where no one has needed to open the trophy cabinet since the Beatles were still together, England were the reigning World Cup winners and Neil Armstrong had yet to reach the moon.
It is a long time since they won the Fairs Cup in 1969; longer still since they got major domestic silverware in 1955. Suffice to say no one had heard of Carabao then or the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Much has changed in 15 months at St James’ Park, let alone in 68 years.
Eddie Howe, born a year after their last League Cup final in 1976, some 23 years before their last FA Cup final, is shaping up as the history-maker who concentrates on the present. “I live the day to day work here,” he said. He is respectful of the past, not referential. “I tend not to think too much about previous teams,” he said.
He is nevertheless one win from achieving something Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson, revered figures with roots in the North East, did not and bringing silverware to St James’ Park. “We really want to embrace our past and be very proud of what’s happened here before, but we also want to create new history for ourselves,” he said.
The semi-final win over Southampton was, the match-winner Sean Longstaff said, “a special night”. It was witnessed by those who could be forgiven for feeling envious. Alan Shearer watched two of his former clubs in a black-and-white scarf. Shay Given filmed the celebrations on his mobile phone, capturing a grinning David Ginola. The teams of the 1990s were nearly men: second in the league twice, runners-up in successive FA Cup finals, one of English football’s best sides who never got silverware.
The group Howe inherited went on Newcastle’s longest winless start to a league season. The side he has now are on their longest unbeaten run in top-flight football.
He did not envisage coming this far this fast. “Certainly not when we first walked in because all we saw in front of us was the relegation fight,” he said. “It was only in the summer when we were setting out our transfer plans and you think, ‘we have a good squad here’.” And yet, as he conceded, that in itself is no guarantee of success.
Astute recruitment forms part of the transformation. Bruno Guimaraes may prove the best buy but his red card against Southampton has the capacity to derail their top-four challenge; his three-game ban will be served there, while he will be eligible for Wembley.
The pragmatist in Howe talked about focusing on the league in the meantime. The dreamer in him is confined to when he dozes off. “I have no control at night time what I do when I fall asleep,” he said. Yet others’ dreams are being realised.
A Geordie struck in the quarter-final win, in Dan Burn. Another scored twice in the semi-final, in Longstaff. The local heart to the team is important. “Absolutely,” Howe said. “I am a strong believer in that. They understand the club and the feeling of the club. They represent the club in such a good way and educate the new players.”
As he accepted, the fans on the pitch need to be good enough. Newcastle’s story has many strands and one is of how they have reached new levels. Burn seemed a short-term signing to keep them up last year before the arrival of a higher-class centre-back, in Sven Botman, but has now established himself as the first-choice left-back.
Longstaff was not in Howe’s side initially. Now he is a revelation, an automatic choice for a team third in the Premier League and in a cup final. All of which would have sound implausible a while back. Each has carried himself further than he ever seemed likely to go. Momentum can be a powerful drug for Newcastle.
“This is a club on the up,” Howe said. “You want to be in finals of competitions to increase your status and make yourself more desirable for people to join.” And if Newcastle lured Guimaraes and Kieran Trippier when in the relegation zone, that may be a warning on the horizon for the current group of achievers: they are at risk of being upgraded.
In the meantime, Wembley looms on the horizon. They have already gone further than any Newcastle team since 1999. “We are really pleased to be in the final but now we want to go one step further and win a trophy,” Howe said. And it would be a step no Newcastle team since the 1960s has taken.