IAN LADYMAN: It’s dramatic and unfair, but can Eddie Howe afford to miss the top 4?
Mark Hughes does a fine job in the second division at Bradford City but was once in Eddie Howe’s position as manager of one of the wealthiest football clubs in the world.
When Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City in 2008, Hughes was in charge and when we met last summer he looked back fondly but also with educated eyes.
“I should have spent more on players,” he laughed. “And I should have realized how quickly the club wanted to move.”
The second point was the serious one. Hughes tried to lay the groundwork, but City’s owners wanted bang for their buck, and at the first sign of regression they fired him in the winter of 2009. The Welshman had been in office for 18 months.
Howe is doing well at Newcastle and will be offered a longer contract and possibly a new contract. He has been at St James’ Park since November 2021 and has the club fifth with two games ahead of Tottenham, the team above them.
Eddie Howe has done a great job but needs to ensure he secures Champions League qualification
Howe will be aware his side might not have a better chance of finishing in the top four
Newcastle co-owners Mehrdad Ghodoussi (L) and Amanda Staveley (R) are expected to face England’s elite in the future
Howe’s efforts couldn’t have been more impressive. Newcastle were in danger of relegation when he arrived. Still, he doesn’t want to let the opportunity that’s now in front of him pass him by.
Qualifying for the Champions League was not a priority this season. It was not to be expected. But now that it’s possible, it feels like Howe needs to get his team over the line.
Consider the likely landscape of the Premier League next season. Manchester City and Arsenal are unlikely to fall behind. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are all expected to improve. Tottenham? Well, they could go either way.
The picture of a stronger, more competitive top 4 is clear. So if Newcastle don’t succeed this season, there’s no reason to expect next time to be any easier. You were great.
With their current score of 47 after 26 games, they would have been under or around the top 4 last season. Still, this year’s table has undoubtedly been skewed by troubles at Liverpool and Chelsea and by the early days of a new era at Old Trafford.
So Newcastle have to be there this time. The club – Saudi-owned – are fabulously wealthy but subject to the same financial fair play restrictions as everyone else.
So the tens of millions of pounds available to Champions League clubs – from prize money, ticket sales and TV earnings – will be part of Newcastle’s summer spending if they can qualify.
And that’s before we even start talking about the magnet that Champions League football is for European players looking to switch clubs.
The Magpies are currently fifth but could move up to third with a win at the weekend
Howe is reminded of the similar situation Mark Hughes found himself in at Man City
Newcastle is a great city but not in vogue when it comes to elite footballers. It falls well behind London and well behind Manchester. This makes it difficult to sell to players. money helps. But also Europe.
So the challenge to Howe is now clear. Get Newcastle in the Champions League this season and he can embed himself. If he doesn’t, the start of next season looks very important.
Any sign of a halt or change in trajectory of what he’s already started on Tyneside and he automatically begins to seem slightly less confident.
That sounds dramatic and premature and unfair and in fact it is all of that. If Newcastle United beat at St James’ Park on Sunday night they will finish third. It sounds extraordinary to say that.
You’ve already been to the final of the Carabao Cup at Wembley. Whichever way you look at it, that represents success. However, with that success comes a change in perception – which is good – and a change in expectation – which is often not the case.
Newcastle’s owners have been sensible in a way that City’s have not always been at the start. Their recruitment was solid and strategic. There was no “statement” signing, only clever ones.
Newcastle’s new owners initially singled out Howe but that doesn’t mean they won’t ditch him to succeed
All of this bodes well, as does the fact that Howe was chosen as manager by the owners. It wasn’t Hughes. Abu Dhabi inherited him.
Still, the Saudis didn’t buy Newcastle United in order to stay in eighth place in the long term. They bought it to win the league and become important European players.
Sportswear, as a rule, does not accept a good expense. That doesn’t get you heard around the world.
Howe has taken Newcastle further than anyone expected this season. Along with Mikel Arteta, Erik ten Hag and Thomas Frank, he is in the running for manager of the year.
But the ground can shift quickly in football. Between now and the end of May, opportunity is knocking at Howe and his players. It feels pretty important that they take it.
The 45-year-old has managed to lead Newcastle beyond expectations this year
WHY I TILT ARSENAL TO FALL SHORT
Manchester City’s win at Arsenal in February felt like a pivotal moment in the title race, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Arsenal won the next six league games, scoring 19 goals. This is master form. However, the widespread view that Mikel Arteta’s team must collapse if they are not to win the league is wrong.
They could actually play quite well and still come up short. The last two times City have had to fight hard to win the Premier League. They won all of their remaining 11 games in 2019 and eight of them – three draws – in 2022. If they do a similar thing this time, they will accumulate between 88 and 94 points.
That means Arsenal will need another 21 or 22 of their remaining 10 games, on a conservative estimate, to prevail. Three of those games are away to Liverpool, City and Newcastle – so for Arsenal the challenge is real.
They could win six, draw three, lose one and easily finish second. The champions are eight points adrift, but if they win their game against each other and then beat Arsenal at home, they’re two adrift. That’s why my money stays with the team in blue.
I’m betting on Arsenal stumbling in the next couple of games and slipping in the title race
DAY WE HAD OUR CHIPS AGAINST FRANCE
Mike Keegan’s sad account of Manchester United’s old training ground, The Cliff, recalled an episode from two decades ago.
In France with United before a Champions League game against Nantes, the English media played against our colleagues. Our wrestler was ex-United midfielder Mickey Thomas but he had been out the night before and was quite ‘uncomfortable’ at the corner flag.
We were then invited to a sumptuous lunch at City Hall. We met the mayor. Two weeks later, before the second leg, we asked United for something in return, but the best they could do was fish and chips at Harry Ramsden’s at the end of East Lancs Road.
If the French were unimpressed (and they were), they took it out on us when we met at The Cliff the next day. They beat us 5-0 and I pulled a hamstring after three minutes. Even when I was young, I was old.
Former Man United winger Mickey Thomas helped referee a game I played between English and French media
This week, the 1996 Picador Book of Sports Writing was pulled from the bookshelf. Inside is a beautifully written essay by the late Hugh McIlvanney on George Best and other things.
Written shortly after the Premier League was formed, McIlvanney despises our big clubs. “Nothing obscures the truth that their overwhelming priority is profit,” he noted.
Then comes a blanket generalization about game standards. “The domestic game is technically impoverished,” he said.
Since then, some things have stayed the same, and fortunately others have not. Premier League football is far from bankrupt and we are lucky to have it.
EFL attendances speak to the strength of our football pyramid and are encouraging.
A proposal by the broadcaster DAZN to show all games live on TV – including those on Saturday at 3 p.m. – threatens that.
Clubs are tempted by the TV cash on offer up front, but a word of warning: if we lose our paying customers at the turnstiles on a Saturday, we may never get them back.
Streaming platform DAZN submitted a £200million bid that would see them air all 1,656 games
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