The one tedious word that undermines Newcastle United’s Champions League qualification

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If sorry seems to be the hardest word, another simply rolls off the lips when discussing Newcastle United’s resurgence to become Champions League competitors.

After all, it was ‘only’ Eddie Howe, a man that was not so politely castigated as ‘the fella from Bournemouth’ who ‘got a team relegated’ by his predecessor at St James’ Park, a statement that ignores the fact he had taken the Cherries from the brink of going out of existence to life among English football’s elite.

Not one for such provocative comments, Howe has kept a cool head throughout what has already been a memorable reign on Tyneside. Since taking charge of a fractured, demotivated squad in November 2021, the ‘fella from Bournemouth’ has restored belief, reinvigorated flagging careers, and laid the foundations for potential to be realised.

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Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe.Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe.
Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe.

Not a tubthumping football romantic like Kevin Keegan, nor an emotional and much-loved Grandad figure like Sir Bobby Robson, Howe perhaps draws a closer comparison with Rafa Benitez, with his attention to detail and unwavering determination to stick to his core belief underpinning everything he does on the training pitch and in the technical area.

He has, without question, been aided by a transfer spend of well over £200m, but it is his ability to draw improvement out of the underperforming players he inherited from his predecessor that has played as important a role in the Magpies resurgence as anything else.

Every transfer move has been brandished with a familiar caveat, with Kieran Trippier ‘only’ leaving Atletico Madrid to join Newcastle for financial reasons, despite taking a drop in wage to move back to the Premier League. Money was also said to be the root of Sven Botman’s decision to snub advances from AC Milan. Further use of ‘only’ came with the deal for Nick Pope, who was ‘only’ a goalkeeper that was part of a relegated Burnley side and Dan Burn, who was ‘only’ Brighton and Hove Albion’s third choice centre-back or emergency left-back. Yet those four players have been part of a back five that has established itself as one of the Premier League’s meanest defences, conceding just 32 goals in 37 games and laying the foundations for a surprise push for a Champions League place.

Bruno Guimaraes and Alexander Isak are arguably the most high-profile additions under Howe, with the duo said to be ‘only’ able to impress in Ligue 1 and La Liga respectively. The hustle and bustle of the Premier League was said to be too much for them - yet they have both firmly grabbed their opportunity and seem to be relishing life on and off the pitch on Tyneside.

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There were, unsurprisingly, those that claimed United’s progress from fighting to avoid a drop into the Championship to ending their 20-year absence in the Premier League was ‘only’ down to the significant wealth invested by the club’s PIF-led ownership - and, in the interest of balance and fairness, there is some truth in that statement.

Howe’s cause has undoubtedly been aided by the arrival of several new additions - but the United manager has more than played his part by reinvigorating the careers of a whole host of the players that were already part of the Magpies squad upon his arrival.

Joelinton, a former club record signing no less, was converted from a goal-shy forward to a force of nature in midfield. Sean Longstaff, once viewed as possession vast potential prior to a draining of his confidence, is now once again being discussed as a possible candidate for an England place and as essential to drawing the best out of the likes of star man Guimaraes.

There had been sporadic flashes of inspiration from Miguel Almiron. But under Howe, the Paraguayan international has put end product on the of promise and is now viewed as a real threat. Fabian Schar and Jacob Murphy looked on their way out of Tyneside after becoming peripheral figures - but they are now trusted members of Howe’s squad after coming out of the cold to find red hot form throughout the season.

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Where limited investment, discontent and stunted ambition were once the ‘only’ bywords that preceded any reference to Newcastle United. Now identity, intensity, passion and ambition are the driving factors in what is still the early development of this new world on Tyneside.

It is true the Magpies have not yet won a trophy under Howe, they have ‘only’ qualified for the Champions League - but the connection between club and city and the belief things can improve even further are the ‘only’ things that matter to Newcastle supporters.

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