Most of us, if we’re being honest, were very surprised indeed when Newcastle United hired Eddie Howe in the aftermath of their takeover by the Saudi oil sheiks. It didn’t seem like the sort of big statement appointment we had all expected them to make.
They had their pick of all of world football, and they took the guy who bottled out of coming to Scotland because his mates weren’t with him. That was a strange one alright.
But the more I think about it, the more it made perfect sense. They hired a guy who knows the local game. A guy familiar with the league. A guy very familiar with the culture of the club and what its fans expected. Not instant gratification, but their pride back. Their enjoyment of watching their team. It was, in short, very smart business.
And he’s done well there, of course.
Well enough that we can understand why Celtic was willing to sit and wait for nearly a whole summer in the firm belief that he was on his on his way to our club. We were wrong. I no longer hold that against either Celtic or him. We ended up with the right guy, and that has covered a multitude of sins and put me in a forgiving frame of mind.
Eddie Howe has spent some £300 million since becoming the Newcastle boss. It’s a lot of cash and their wealthy owners can easily afford it, but that’s the point.
They could have spent six times that and instead Steady Eddie has been careful and selective, and you know, that’s rather to his credit. He’s got his side in a Champions League spot … that’s some foundation for the future.
Financial Sustainability regulations might just stand in their way of moving to that fabled “next level” … but if they don’t prevent that then Eddie Howe is going to experience something akin to whiplash. How he handles it will decide his fate.
It’s one of the under-appreciated truisms of football that over achieving is easy, relatively speaking. If you’re taking control of a side on the bones of its arse, or one that hasn’t won a trophy in a long time, then you know what the goal is. Get better. Win something, even if it’s a little something. Rise up the league. Get higher than people expected
Sometimes circumstances can conspire to help you.
Newcastle’s Champions League place coincides with a dismal run of form at Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool. It coincides with the collapses of two of the EPL’s stalwart middle table sides, Southampton and Everton. Leicester are now out of relegation bother and Rodgers safe from the sack for now … but they are 13th and settling back into mediocrity, a shadow of the club they’d hoped to be.
Newcastle has won just 10 games this season, out of 21.
They’ve only lost one, yes, and that is absolutely outstanding and says a lot for the job he’s done … but 10 wins out of 21 isn’t normally what you would regard as Champions League club form.
Aside from that, Steady Eddie has made a cup final, and that’s the real issue for him now because fourth in the league, in a cup final and with the zillionaire owners no longer thinking of you in terms of being a stabilising force … this is where the trouble starts.
Because now fourth in the league and getting to finals is no longer shooting the moon.
Eddie Howe has gone from being the guy whose followers expect the unexpected to being the guy big things are expected of. And that’s a critical difference as he’ll find out.
Benign conditions and calamity elsewhere have helped Howe enormously. His team is overachieving by any acceptable standard, especially when you look at the results. But when you exceeded expectations what you find is that people’s expectations change, sometimes quite dramatically, and very often completely unrealistically.
Ibrox fans were overjoyed when their side fluked its way to last season’s Europa League Final. I take a great amount of satisfaction from having a called it a fluke the whole way through. I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that they started thinking of themselves as a club on the brink of cracking the Champions League. I thought that was quite insane.
That’s why I was very, very confident in predicting that they would take a doing if they got to the Champions League Groups.
Did I think they’d finish rock bottom of one? Yeah, but not with the worst record in the history of the tournament. But I was quite confident that they’d get found out because it was obvious that too many people didn’t look beneath the hood at what was actually going on during that run, and so for many of them those Champions League results were like a seismic shock.
Van Bronckhorst got the biggest shock of the lot of them.
He suddenly found himself surrounded by people who thought that it was a disgrace to lose to Ajax in Amsterdam and couldn’t take the idea that Napoli came to their home ground and swatted them aside.
Neither he nor those hapless players stood a chance of meeting those newly calibrated ambitions and the waves just washed over the club. The Mooch took over from him and did the worst thing he could possibly do; he promised the Earth and everything in it and he will very soon come to regret that epic folly if he isn’t starting to sweat it already.
Look at what Ange did.
He apparently over-achieved and then said “it’s no big deal, this is what I set myself up for when I came to a club which needs to be winning.” That man isn’t an over-achiever at all, and never has been. He meets expectations, sets new ones and then rises to the challenge of meeting them, and he gets players to do that as well.
What did he say at the end of last season?
Next season we’ll be better. Better than double winners.
That’s not a man who will ever be afraid of anything, a guy confident that he and the players in his charge can consistently hit the mark. He knows we won’t always do it, but over the course of his time at Parkhead he will achieve almost everything he tries for.
Eddie Howe has never had that kind of pressure, even at Newcastle up until now.
He is doing just fine, relatively speaking … but on paper, if all you’re looking at are the teams still in with a chance of winning something and the positions teams are in the league he looks like a miracle man.
And sadly for him, that will change what people expect of him.
It’s how he copes with that kind of pressure which will tell us what kind of manager he actually is, and I’ve got to be honest I’m kind of hoping that he meets that challenge head on. I’m actually hoping that he hits a home run. Because I do like the guy in spite of what happened with us, and he’s never said a bad word against our club.
Ange, we never have to worry about.
He’s dealt with the pressure of meeting expectations for his whole career. His daily battle involves staying at the top, staying the very best, and we know that he handles that just fine.