Our win over Brentford won’t be one that stays long in the memory for the quality of football but the win was extremely important. The game reminded me of the Wolves (h) match last season when on the back of some defeats we managed to grind out a victory over the Old Gold despite errors and a less than slick performance. The 3 points infused the team with renewed confidence and off we went again to ultimately round off the season by qualifying for Champions League football.
Forthcoming fixtures will testify whether the comparison I’ve drawn between Wolves (h) last season and Brentford (h) this season is worth anything but I left SJP feeling it might.
We are not firing on all cylinders. Bruno Guimarães hasn’t been the force of nature we became accustomed to but there were signs against the West Londoners he is moving back to his best. We know our Brazilian maestro struggled last season with injury and its unknown if the discussions on his new contract have distracted him but I saw evidence of him moving back to the levels of which he is capable. See also international demands and the task of dealing with a new midfield partner in Sandro Tonali which have required something of a re-set. We know there are levels for Bruno to reach and I’m confident he will.
Our midfield had a much changed look to it v Brentford with Longstaff restored to the starting eleven and Anderson getting his first start of the season along with changes to Barnes and Gordon up top with the excellent Callum Wilson through the middle.
That’s not to say we were a well-oiled machine because we certainly weren’t. We did improve as the second half continued but I look forward to Howe having Joelinton and Willock to choose from.
As ever in a game as dull as this one, we focused upon a few things but before we get to Thomas Frank’s flights of fancy let’s look at the game more generally. We should say how well the backline performed as the whole side recorded the first clean sheet of the season. I felt Botman was exceptional. This lad has so much potential and I predict at some point in his career he will be the best central defender in Europe. Although older fans will continue to say Jonathan Woodgate is the best centre half we’ve seen over the last half century, I prefer Botman – his intelligence, technique, vision and maturity, not to mention consistency and availability for selection set him apart. Whatever your preference between Woodgate and Botman there isn’t a third player vying for the top spot in our minds in my opinion.
Schar is an able partner for Sven and Kieran Trippier is the best full-back I’ve seen in a B&W shirt in all of the years I’ve spent clicking through the turnstiles on Gallowgate. The lad is simply a magnificent footballer in every way. Although the left-back position excites much discussion, Big Dan Burn from Blyth doesn’t let us down defensively even though he’s continually targeted by opposing coaches in their tactical approaches. The United back-line is going to be pivotal in the next few months.
And so … Thomas Frank. I’ll start by saying where I agree with him – yes, St James’ Park is the best place in the world for any football team to play in. I also agree with him, the decision to give us a penalty for the foul on Gordon was soft. We could have got the one the dopey Ref chalked off via VAR before the one we actually did. But the decision not to allow Wilson’s prod home was baffling and its natural Frank was less keen to discuss that one.
We see this a lot now. A manager will focus on something contentious which went against his side whilst ignoring those that favoured them. That leads the press and obviously the subsequent media babble completely ignores Brentford’s determined time-wasting and protests to the referee over absolutely everything.
Frank reckoned his team played well. Sighs. Well, they barely drew a save from Pope though I will say they were decent on the break though their set pieces looked like something Stoke were doing under Pulis to be honest.
Not to worry. We won. Safe journey home. Bye.
The win puts a stop to the rubbish talk of those who wished to frame a run of three defeats (Man City, Liverpool and Brighton) as a crisis with Howe under some kind of pressure. We know that’s rubbish but the counter-argument made rather over strenuously last week served to give the former case far more credit than it merited. We know sections of the national media loathe Newcastle United, not all because of the Saudi ownership but Saturday evening’s win meant the painting by numbers crisis club headlines had to move elsewhere and Man Utd were handily on hand to provide them.
As expected the SJP crowd was excellent – passionate, loud and behind every player from the first moment to the last. This is who we are.
Naturally, we have one eye on an epic trip to AC Milan in the Champions League this coming Tuesday. I sometimes stop and remind myself two years ago we were being told by Steve Bruce his job was to keep us “ticking along” and we recovered from the transfer blow of being unable to bring in Hamza Choudhury in on loan from Leicester City.
Tuesday is so exciting for multiple reasons. Obviously there is the return to the San Siro to face European football aristocracy in AC Milan in one of the world’s most iconic stadia.
We are going to learn so much about the progress we have made on this post-takeover journey and that applies equally to Eddie Howe, his coaching and technical team in how we have prepared for this game as well as the mentality of the players selected and those who will be rotated out. Maybe us as supporters as well and how we should calibrate our expectations of the team and be understanding of the pressures everyone at the football club is facing.
We know Isak and Tonali were on international duty last week with Sweden and Italy respectively. So mindful of Tuesday’s up and coming game whether that meant they were rested on Saturday ahead of the trip to Italy, I couldn’t say. I’d be guessing. But it might.
The same can be said about Barnes and Gordon playing in different positions is unknown as well. Both showed promise on opposite flanks and 90-minutes under his belt won’t have done Elliot Anderson any harm either.
As has been said ad infinitum, this is United’s first Champions League game for twenty years. There’s no-one at the club who has experienced the competition as servants of Newcastle United – that applies in the directors box as well as the dug-out. We are brand new and box fresh in this competition.
We do have players however who have played in the Champions League and will be street wise to it. Step forward Kieran Trippier who once again we look to for his leadership and know-how. The same can be said to Sandro Tonali who has some big experience of the Champions League in the shirt of Tuesday’s storied opponents. I’m not looking to Tonali too much at this point as a leader because he’s only been at the club five minutes and I tend to think he may have a lot of thoughts about his own game and position when he takes to the pitch in Newcastle United colours. Botman, Isak, Guimarães have big game experience at international and Champions League level to a degree but they are relatively new to the competition too.
My hope is for a different mentality to the one we took to Wembley for the League Cup final back in February. There I felt we became over-excited by the occasion and the emotion was in the build up rather than a triumph which eluded us. We should not become overawed by the stage we’re playing on and the badge we’re up against. We can’t take to the pitch exhausted by emotion. I was pleased to see Howe playing it all down in a TV interview and his calm demeanour is exactly what we need in my opinion. Motivation shouldn’t be a problem.
It will take a lot of work from Howe and his coaching team (who are all making their own debuts in European football themselves) to calm nerves, achieve focus and play the game not the occasion. We should respect the opposition but we should not fear them. There’s no room for us to feel privileged to be on this stage, we have earned it and the ambition is for these types of fixtures to become a regular occurrence for the new Newcastle United. I keep saying it but this is who we are now. This is where we belong.
If anyone is going to be starry-eyed then let it be the 5000 Mags high in the San Siro Curva Nord taking it all in. No-one else.
The aftermath of whatever happens in Italy is another test for Howe and everyone else at the club. We can expect United will be physically, mentally and emotionally drained on return to Tyneside. We know the club will have prepared professionally for this and I expect the whole party will depart Italy on Tuesday night immediately after the game.
There follows a trip to Bramall Lane to face Sheffield United who must be heartbroken after losing so narrowly to late goals at Spurs this weekend. Howe will have selections to make, form and injuries to assess as we return to the Premier League football and the vital business of collecting points. There will be new lessons to learn about handling the euphoria, disappointment or whatever of what happens in Milan on Tuesday.
Howe will be accumulating knowledge this week with his first European sojourn of his career with the most talented pool of players he has ever had at his disposal.
For the first time in his career Howe is able to make choices, rotate and rest, deploy new tactics and be part of an outfit that is flying between Tyneside-Milan-Tyneside and onto South Yorkshire. United has the team to plan all of this and the resources to support it but nothing is a replacement for actually doing it and banking the knowledge from it all. To quote Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.
It is impossible for fans not to be giddy at the prospect of a return to a venue older Mags have battered the lugs of younger supporters down the years with tales from our visit in 2003.
This feels like a milestone but it isn’t a one-off to be savoured to be discussed as we have following the game with Inter in 2003. This is the bar Newcastle United has set to become the norm. We will gain knowledge from it on and off the park. Everything is theoretical in how we have prepared for this game and the week that follows it. Now that preparation will acquaint itself with reality. We are about to get Mike Tyson’s punch in the face. We’ll be ready for it I’m sure.
The knowledge we gain this week will be invaluable because it won’t be another two decades before we make a return journey to the San Siro. We are going to be regular visitors to the great stadia of European football.
Safe journey to everyone going, have a great time – Forza The Toon!
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
Michael Martin, @TFMick1892
Newcastle United – Key information for Newcastle fans travelling to Milan for the Champions League tie – click here
Newcastle United Supporters Trust – Supporters Trust Guide to Milan – click here