The day has finally arrived! We are back at St. James’ Park for the first game of the 23/24 Premier League season. Whether you’re a season-ticket holder, a lucky ballot winner or watching from home, our opening fixture against the tricky Aston Villa promises to be a thriller!
Aston Villa, St. James’ Park
Saturday 12th August, 5:30PM
Live on SKY SPORTS
From the southern banks of both the Tyne and the Clyde, to the US and then back to Barrack Road, it’s been a hectic summer of unbeaten friendlies for Eddie’s Mags. However, this Saturday evening sees the real thing return. Premiership football is back, and first up it’s a vibrant Aston Villa.
Our Midlands visitors endured, then enjoyed the 22/23 campaign in pretty much equal measure. The first half of the season, largely under the ‘tutelage’ of Steven Gerrard, they looked an expensively assembled bunch of strangers on the pitch. I recall driving home from our draw at Molineux with the constant accompaniment of the dull-vowelled, dulcet tones of Brummie ‘606’ callers, basically preparing for another relegation.
When they arrived at SJP in October, after winning just two of their opening twelve league games, they’d peddled their Liverpudlian head coach and were contemptuously put to the sword by four goals to nil. We were on fire; they just looked like absolute cannon fodder.
All this was to swiftly change, as they plumped for Villareal’s manager, Unai Emery. The Spaniard had previously been courted by United’s new owners, and it looked a shrewd appointment from the outset. As we ourselves have discovered, it’s amazing the difference a proper football manager can make.
Villa went on to win fifteen of the next twenty-five league games under their new man. Quite simply, they were a team transformed. A barometer of this change was made evident in April, when the bullied became the bullies versus the Magpies at Villa Park. True, we chose this day to give our most insipid performance of the season. However, that should not take away the fact that our 0-3 drubbing could (should) have been a lot worse due to the home side’s attacking verve.
Villa finished the season in an upwardly mobile seventh spot, which was enough to give them European Conference League footy this time around.
Sections of the English tabloid press had previously taken the piss out of Emery during his unfortunate stint at the Emirates. They latched onto his mispronunciation of ‘good evening’, and were largely dismissive of a guy who should’ve garnered much more respect following many trophies in his cabinet.
He, like agent Moyes at Man United, was dealt a poor hand, following a club legend who’d hung around a few years too many. I don’t think there are many amongst our ranks who’d currently consider swapping him for Eddie Howe, but had he taken the Gallowgate gig, I reckon he’d have also been a success here.
Anyways, back to the Mags. The scene is set: Tyneside awaits impatiently for us to get going. As I write, we’ve three notable signings champing at the bit to get started in black & white. Messrs Tonali, Barnes and Livramento are a calibre of player that we could only have dreamt about a couple of years ago. Throw a more ring-ready Anthony Gordon into the mix and it’s clear that Mr Howe now (particularly) possesses an embarrassment of riches in his midfield.
Which of his newbies will he pick this weekend? I don’t know. I’m just pleased it’s not down to me to make the calls. Too tricky, man.
Whilst these days it’s always exciting to see a new transfer make their Premiership bow, I’m personally hopeful that Elliot Anderson gets the nod on Saturday. There have been social media ‘Gazza’ references, and the Bristol Rovers fans labelled him the ‘Geordie Maradona.’
This is all very nice, but could he make the transition from lower league superstar to the Premiership? What I saw last season was a kid trying to find his feet, for the most part. I reckon that all changed with a ‘coming of age’ performance at the City Ground. During a second half cameo, he looked the real deal. Unplayable. This was capped off by a superbly ‘Shearer-esque’ header which looked to have won the game until dubious officialdom erroneously robbed him of his glory. That performance seemed to spur him on, and he looked a more rounded player during the run-in.
Being the top-scorer for United in pre-season, he looks bang up for the Villa game. Let him at them, I say.
On to Saturday. This is a rather tough one to call, in my opinion. There is so much attacking pedigree in both sides. I think you can expect a few goals. If there’s one worry for us, there’s currently a lack of pace across our back line. I do have a concern re teams targeting Dan Burn, if he’s to continue at left-back. Ollie Watkins exploited this a few short months ago, and they’ll need to be on their toes.
To be honest, if I was them I’d be harbouring similar fears though. I’ve long felt that Tyrone Mings is an accident waiting to happen, and fancy either Isak or Wilson to cause them grief centrally.
With a peeved-up home crowd roaring us on, I fancy us to shade this 2-1. I think there’s the possibility of a 90+11th minute winner, with the new ludicrous ‘ball in play’ rules. Let’s hope I’m right, and it’s them sobbing on the Tyne again. With some sickly sausage rolls thrown in for good measure.
It’s good to be back. Howay the lads….
Nick Clark @Clark5Nick