In his latest Reporter Notebook, Sky Sports News’ Keith Downie discusses Newcastle’s massive Carabao Cup semi-final tie with Southampton as the club look to end their long trophy drought.
Is this Newcastle’s best chance of a trophy since 1955?
It certainly feels that way talking to the fans. I wasn’t around covering the club in the late ’90s and early ’00s but there’s a real belief amongst this fanbase that I’ve not seen in a decade covering the club.
I’m fairly certain that was evident in the Kevin Keegan years too, when Newcastle were a swashbuckling, entertaining side that could beat anyone on their day, but they also struggled with the mental aspect of getting over the final hurdle.
While we don’t yet know if that will return with Eddie Howe’s side, what we can say is this team is made of strong stuff. It’s maybe not the free-flowing football witnessed under Keegan, but Howe has instilled a sturdy, pragmatic element that most teams are finding almost impossible to break down.
St James’ Park has become the fortress Howe asked for at his opening-day press conference 14 months ago – they’ve yet to lose a game there this season – and he’s assembled a defence that’s by far and away the best in the country, conceding just 11 goals in 20 league matches. Goalkeeper Nick Pope has nine clean sheets in a row.
The combination of the defensive record and the fact the second leg of the semi-final is at St James’ gives supporters the confidence they can ease past Southampton and get to Wembley – and then it’s a matter of a one-off game against teams below them in the table.
What’s the mood like around St James’ Park at the moment?
There’s excitement and confidence, and that’s something that’s been missing for many a year. The fans are enjoying going to matches, the city is awash with black and white. Matchday in Newcastle is now one big party and it helps that they can’t lose.
As a number of fans have said to me since the takeover 15 months ago, ‘I’ve got my life back again’. Football is a matter of life and death to many Newcastle fans, it’s ingrained in their DNA. For the 14 years of Mike Ashley’s control they were merely existing. Now they can dream again. They’re closing in on decades of misplaced dreams becoming a reality.
The team on the park still have work to do, and the fans understand that. They’ve been here before. But for the meantime, they’re just enjoying every step of the journey. If the club’s new owners were to end their trophy hoodoo so early into their reign, and earlier than planned or expected, who knows what could follow in the coming years.
Why would a trophy mean so much?
They’re fed up of being the nearly-men; the gallant losers. They want and they deserve their moment in the sun. Generations of Newcastle fans haven’t seen their side lift a trophy; a full generation hasn’t even watched them compete in a semi-final.
Largely under Mike Ashley the team were told not to try in the cups. That’s why, irrespective of what happens at St Mary’s, next Tuesday at St James’ Park promises to be a very special occasion. A team, trying with every fibre of their being, to end the hoodoo. That’s a feeling the Newcastle fans had thought was gone forever.
Would Toon fans take a trophy over a top-four finish?
Ninety per cent of the fans I’ve spoken to would rather win the Carabao Cup than finish in the top four. There’s a feeling that getting the trophy monkey off the back would be the biggest shot in the arm and they can build from there.
The new owners hadn’t planned for Champions League football this year so Howe and his team are over-achieving. There would also need to be drastic work in the summer bulking up a wafer-thin squad should Newcastle qualify.
A top-six or seven finish would be more of a natural progression and allow them to evolve rather than revolve. But try telling the Newcastle manager that! He wants to aim as high as he can, and his players are producing.
But surprisingly for many who don’t support the club, lifting a domestic trophy and ending 68 years of pain is whetting the appetite of the club’s loyal fans more at this moment.
How will Howe manage squad rotation?
Howe will go as strong as possible at St Mary’s so the majority, if not all of the players, will be asked to go again. He made big changes for the FA Cup trip to Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle were sent tumbling out – only their second defeat of the season.
That result if anything else underlined the lack of quality depth at the Newcastle boss’ disposal, but the big-hitters will all play in both legs – Howe knows the fans’ hopes are pinned on it.
I think he could freshen things up slightly by bringing in Allan Saint-Maximin and/or Alexander Isak from the start, but that wouldn’t be weakening the team. If anything it will give it an additional attacking verve. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he plays the same team that has started the past three league games.
What has Howe’s approach been towards cup games during his tenure?
Howe has gone strong in this tournament so far, particularly against Bournemouth in the first match back after the World Cup. He could easily have rested those just back from Qatar (Pope, Schar, Trippier, Guimaraes and Wilson) but decided to throw them back in at the deep end at St James’ Park as he knew the importance of the game. It was a similar story against Leicester in the quarter-final.
I reckon the weakened team that lost to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup was down to the fixture schedule. Had that match fallen at a less hectic time he wouldn’t have made so many changes. He felt it was necessary, and on the night Newcastle could and should have stayed in the competition.
As a result Newcastle now have a free weekend sandwiched in between the Southampton midweek semis, so he can – and will – attack both with his strongest team. I expect him to keep it tight at St Mary’s, before taking the shackles off his players at St James’ next Tuesday. Newcastle fans expect that and respect that.
A draw at Southampton would be favourable; anything else is a bonus. At home they will fancy a rested-up team to finish the job with the incredible backing of the Geordie faithful getting them over the line and setting up their first Wembley appearance since the year 2000.
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