NEWCASTLE: The wait for silverware goes on at St. James’ Park, but Champions League football has returned.
Having suffered the seemingly endless pain of one relegation battle after the next, this season has proven a welcome distraction for Newcastle United.
Under Eddie Howe, and with PIF at the helm, the days of feeding on scraps at the foot of the Premier League seem long gone. This very much feels like the era of progress and positivity on Tyneside.
The season that was full of highs, with the odd low along the way, but it all ended in success with a top-four finish in the bag and trips to Barcelona and Madrid in the offing, rather than fears of Preston and Barnsley.
Looking back, here’s our take on the highlights, lowlights and the standout performers across the season.
Player of the season
You know it’s been a remarkable campaign when you find it impossible to mention your 18-goal, Premier League fourth top-scorer for the season, Callum Wilson, in your top three players for the season. In fact, he might not even make the top five, such has been the competition at the top.
Honourable mentions must go to the likes of Bruno Guimaraes, Fabian Schar, Kieran Trippier and Nick Pope, who have all more than proven their value over the course of the season, but in my opinion, it is very difficult to look past the talents of last season’s official POTY, Joelinton. He’s a player who just keeps getting better and better.
Signed as a forward and used in a back-to-goal, central role on arrival, the big Brazilian looked like a fish out of water in the Premier League. It is easy to forget that it must have been hard to settle during the COVID-19 lockdown, not speaking the language, playing in a new country, new environment and being asked to perform a role that you had never played.
Those days, though, seem long gone. And while the shoots of recovery were evident in the latter days of the previous manager, Howe sprinkled some magic on the player in his opening weeks, dropping him into a deeper midfield role, with the switch paying instant dividends. From then, Joelinton has been used as a left forward or to the left side of a central midfield three, bursting forward to score goals and also provide cover to the backline with his physical, commanding style.
This season, playing largely in midfield, Joelinton had his most successful season in front of goal, netting eight — and from his deepest starting slot yet. Bigger than any Arab News player of the year gong, Joelinton received his maiden Brazil call last week, just reward for his outstanding form and growth under Howe.
Most improved player
Sean Longstaff. Always undervalued, never by Howe and his coaches, though.
In the space of a year, Longstaff transformed from a player who appeared to have lost his way under previous boss Steve Bruce and was heading for the Newcastle exit door. The North Shields native — a city suburb on the banks of the Tyne — never wanted to leave his boyhood heroes. However, his breakthrough under Rafa Benitez and big money links to Manchester United seemed a million miles away from the reality of this time last year.
And even after penning a new deal, one which saw his chronic underpayment readjusted, things in the garden weren’t exactly rosy for Longstaff, with Jonjo Shelvey ahead of him in the midfield pecking order, as well as usual suspects Joelinton, Joe Willock and Bruno Guimaraes. But a knock to Shelvey in pre-season in Portugal opened the door to the Geordie, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Makeshift left-back Dan Burn could easily make a case for unsung hero, too.
Young player of the year
Elliot Anderson had a brilliant breakthrough year, and bigger and better things are expected of the youngster next season, but this one is really a two-way shootout.
Sven Botman and Alexander Isak, both signed last summer, enjoyed sensational first seasons at the club, the latter despite a long, frustrating spell on the sidelines.
Isak, signed for a club record fee, broke on the scene with a flawless display on debut at Liverpool and looked set for great things, only for an injury, sustained while away with Sweden, to keep him out until the new year. But after his return, Isak displaced top-scorer Wilson as the club’s central striker and netted 10 goals in total himself. His most memorable contribution probably came on the blue half of Merseyside when he weaved in and out on the left to tee up Jacob Murphy. It was every bit a throwback to Thierry Henry at Arsenal. Rumour has it, Everton’s Michael Keane is still twisting and turning to this day.
Botman, on the other hand, has been Newcastle’s Mr. Consistent, a rock alongside Schar at the heart of the Magpies’ backline. And while he hasn’t put in the flashy shows like Isak, his solidity, in his debut campaign in the joint best defense in the division, means he gets the nod for me.
Underperformer for 2022/23
This one isn’t difficult. Allan Saint-Maximin. He started the campaign like a house on fire, but injury curtailed his blistering start, which saw Kyle Walker turned inside-out in a 3-3 draw with Manchester City as never seen before. It was a flash of the old Maxi. Sadly, flashes are all we get these days.
When fit — and that was rarely this season — Saint-Maximin struggled for gametime even though he showed a willingness to bend to Howe’s more disciplined tactical approach. It has never quite felt like enough, though. And even though more flashes were shown on the final day at Chelsea, you’d have to feel his time on Tyneside may well be up.
The player himself took to Instagram to post this very cryptic message on Monday. It read: “When I joined @nufc in 2019, nobody understood my choice. I always believed in this club, as soon as I step onto the pitch, the fans directly adopted me. Since then there has been highs and lows, when we were in the relegation zone, but I always believed in the team and trusted the project even if it was hard to stay in the PL, I knew that the club deserved much better and we had to prove it. I gave everything on the pitch to keep the team at the highest level. I am grateful that some people remember that.”
It continued: “I am now entering a turning point in my career and I will give everything until the end to achieve my dreams. It’s often said that human beings forget quickly, but me I won’t be able to forget everyone that love me for who I am and believe in me in difficult moments, it’s in these hard situations that we see the real supporters. Thanks to everyone for the support, whatever happens, I will always give everything when I have the chance to step onto the pitch. Thanks, God, for everything.”
It’s fair to say that message has got fans guessing.
Goal of the season
Newcastle had two contenders in the Premier League’s goal of the season competition, and both deserve a special mention.
Miguel Almiron’s cracker of a volley, which was stroked in at Fulham as it dropped over his shoulder, is up there with the best the league was graced with in the past 12 months, however, you would have to go a long way to see a better strike than the one produced by Saint-Maximin at Wolves.
The goal meant a lot, it rescued a point for Newcastle in their first real struggle of the season, but the technique in itself was worthy of winning any competition. Hit with such velocity, having dropped from so high, first time, in the 90th minute from 1-0 down, it was the pinnacle of the Frenchman’s ultimately disappointing season.
Result of the season
Spurs. It had to be: 21 minutes of unbridled mayhem, five goals and a team decimated without getting out of second gear.
This was one of the finest, most brutal, Premier League performances I’ve ever seen. Easily the most impressive period of play, in those opening exchanges, ever produced in the Premier League by a team in black and white.
Sitting in the St. James’ Park press box, we were swamped by fans falling off their seats and jumping with joy, time and time again that day. Jacob Murphy’s face told the story of the masses — no one could believe their eyes, particularly those furnished in sky blue. It was a long trip back, no doubt. Final score, Newcastle United 6, Tottenham Hotspur (Harry Kane alone) 1.
Moment of the campaign
In a campaign of many moments, for me, one stands above all. The final whistle at the end of the first leg of the Carabao Cup semifinal.
Newcastle United dominated their struggling opponents from near minute one to 90, and with just 20 minutes to go, edged themselves in front via Joelinton. The job wasn’t done yet, but still, at the halfway point, playing a side who’d go on to finish bottom of the top-flight last season, it felt the groundwork had been laid.
I was at Wembley — the old pre-development one — as a fan in 2000, the last time Newcastle played there in a cup competition. And as the whistle sounded, for the first time, a wave of realization swept over me that a return was on the cards.
That being said, the win over Brighton, which all but sealed a Champions League spot, was also up there in a close second. The outpouring of emotion that night, on and off the field, was a joy to behold.
The one big regret...
At almost any given time this season, Newcastle would have bettered Manchester United. But in front of 87,306 people on Feb. 28, they barely laid a glove on them. Sadly, for Howe and Newcastle, it was the most meaningful afternoon of the whole campaign.
Losing the Carabao Cup final was not really something alien to the club; they’ve lost final after final before. However, there was something a whole lot different this time around, yet so much remained the same.
This was not the Man United treble-chasing side of 1999, nor was it Arsene Wenger’s pre-Invincible, but near untouchable Gunners of 1998 — the last two teams to beat the Magpies in a showpiece finale. This was the fallible, very beatable Man United, one in transition, moving toward glory of old, but lacking belief that a win was an inevitability. That’s why losing it felt so painful.
The thing to take from this moment, though, and the whole season, is that these times will come again for Newcastle — but next time, they’ll be in a stronger position to grasp the opportunity — and silverware — with both hands.