Newcastle United season preview: what would signify genuine progress and the search for a Hugo Viana moment

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What would represent progress for Newcastle United as they look to build on a remarkable 12 months at St James’ Park?

It is a question no Newcastle United supporter will be asking - who can be this season’s Hugo Viana?

Unquestionably talented, with bags of potential, a player possibly ahead of his time, Viana was probably the right player in the wrong time after joining the Magpies from Sporting CP in the summer of 2002. Once vaunted as possessing just as much potential as fellow Portuguese youngster Cristiano Ronaldo, Viana’s time on Tyneside was as underwhelming as it was disappointing.

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Can Newcastle find their next Hugo Viana moment? Can Newcastle find their next Hugo Viana moment?
Can Newcastle find their next Hugo Viana moment?

Yet there were still eye-catching moments for the former Sporting CP midfielder as he struggled to make significant progress under the expert guidance of Sir Bobby Robson.

A first goal for the club played a part in securing their place in the Champions League group stages as Bosnian club Zeljeznicar were vanquished in the final qualifying round. Viana also scored on a memorable night in Rotterdam when Robson’s men became the first side to recover from losing their first three group games to progress into the next round with a dramatic 3-2 win over Feyenoord.

A real moment of class came in a crucial 2-1 home win against Chelsea as Viana’s precision came into play with an inch-perfect pass in the mould of David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne that allowed Olivier Bernard to score the winning goal. But perhaps his biggest impact came in the penultimate game of the season as the midfielder curled home a sumptuous free-kick to see off Birmingham City and ensure United returned to the Champions League for the second consecutive year.

More than that, the goal also signified progress. There was more than some surprise when United finished the previous season in fourth place in the Premier League as Robson’s side brimmed with pace and youthful exuberance, yet relied on the vast experience and knowhow of senior men like Alan Shearer and Gary Speed.

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Progress would be difficult in an era where Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were in their pomp, the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ were coming to fruition and Chelsea, Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers all threatened the top four.

Yet as Viana’s free-kick curled over the Birmingham wall and nestled into the back of Ian Bennett’s net, confirmation arrived Newcastle had progressed from fourth to third in the space of 12 months in what felt like a giant leap forwards - and that same giant leap forward is exactly what the modern day Magpies are looking to take during the new Premier League season.

There can be no doubt Eddie Howe’s side surpassed all expectations last season in a manner that had strong echoes of Sir Bobby’s side of two decades ago. With local lads like Dan Burn and Sean Longstaff coming to the fore and exciting talents like Bruno Guimaraes, Alexander Isak and Sven Botman proving their worth, the Magpies more than deserved their fourth placed finish after embarking on a season of unexpected consistency.

Sean Longstaff of Newcastle United celebrate with team mates Dan Burn, Sven Botman and Fabian Schar after scoring their sides third goal during the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Newcastle United at Craven Cottage on October 01, 2022 in London, England.Sean Longstaff of Newcastle United celebrate with team mates Dan Burn, Sven Botman and Fabian Schar after scoring their sides third goal during the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Newcastle United at Craven Cottage on October 01, 2022 in London, England.
Sean Longstaff of Newcastle United celebrate with team mates Dan Burn, Sven Botman and Fabian Schar after scoring their sides third goal during the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Newcastle United at Craven Cottage on October 01, 2022 in London, England.

But what next? Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the landscape at St James’ Park is very different to the one experienced by Viana following his move to Tyneside in the summer of 2002. There was, as former Magpies chairman Freddie Shepherd put it, no ‘Geordie Abramovich’. Now, the main source of financial backing comes from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, although its impact is somewhat limited by the constraints of Financial Fair Play for the time being as the club’s commercial arm is rebuilt after years of negligence under the former owner.

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Howe’s squad has still been strengthened with over £100million of talent that includes AC Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali, Southampton full-back Tino Livramento and Leicester City winger Harvey Barnes. At least one more signing is expected with the Magpies hierarchy keen on adding a centre-back and a left-back to Howe’s ranks.

There are still deficiencies within Newcastle’s squad and they will be addressed over the coming months, whether that be before the end of the current window, during the always challenging January trading period or in 12 months time in what could be another transformative summer at St James’ Park. This is, as many within the Magpies hierarchy suggest, a long-term plan where the aim is to become annual challengers for major honours and a top four place, not just enjoying brief jaunts into rarified air.

Eddie Howe has worked wonders since becoming Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe has worked wonders since becoming Newcastle United manager
Eddie Howe has worked wonders since becoming Newcastle United manager

Asking the question of what represents progress for Howe and his side this season is a difficult one. After making the leap from lower mid-table to Champions League qualifiers in the space of 12 months felt monumental and arguably came well ahead of schedule in the club’s plans for progression.

They are, in some ways, playing a weird game of catch-up. ‘Riding the black and white tiger’ was how Kevin Keegan used to describe it. Newcastle, with momentum, can be an uncontrollable beast, difficult to tame, and always feeling on the brink of going out of control.

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Expectations are often discussed when the subject turns to the Magpies. Indeed, expecting too much is often used to cruelly put down, or worse, mock the Gallowgate faithful. They expect effort, passion and ambition, rather than demanding trophies or regular jaunts among European football’s elite. During the barren years under their former owner, when ambition and forward-thinking were conspicuous by their absence, Magpies supporters could only dream of anticipating the adventures that lie ahead over the new season. It feels new, it feels exciting, a journey full of potential with memories that will last a lifetime.

Newcastle United midfielder Sandro Tonali. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)Newcastle United midfielder Sandro Tonali. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)
Newcastle United midfielder Sandro Tonali. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

The progress of the last 18 months have been cherished and celebrated. The next step could be even more difficult because of the unexpected nature of what has come before. There has been no Messi, Mbappe or Neymar arriving on Tyneside and that was never part of the plan, no matter how much certain sections of the media told us it would be. Signings have been made with plan and purpose, the biggest picture is always in mind.

So, back to ‘what represents progress?’

Fourth to third will be a challenge, becoming genuine title challengers feels out of reach for the time being. Dropping out of the top four would be viewed as regression for some but in reality, given the increased demands on the Magpies squad, it is a genuine prospect. Just as it was 12 months ago, when the conversation turned to targets, a realistic aim would be European qualification and a good run in at least one of the cups.

There may be no Hugo Viana moment - but there is a belief Newcastle can continue their remarkable progress in whatever form that may be.

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