CRAIG HOPE: Howe the catalyst in Newcastle's Champions League return

CRAIG HOPE: Eddie Howe is the catalyst in Newcastle’s return to the Champions League – he will never be an extrovert like Kevin Keegan, but has won just as many hearts and minds through hard work and decency

  • Newcastle secured Champions League football after a 0-0 draw with Leicester 

It was 10.57am in the Austrian village of Saalfelden in July and Eddie Howe was aware that Newcastle’s first training session of the day was in danger of being delayed.

‘Is that Christian Ziege?’ remarked one of the group. The former Germany international had wandered onto a penthouse balcony overlooking the training pitches, coffee cup in hand.

Howe did not avert his gaze from the grass. One of his staff, distracted by Ziege’s appearance, sensed the mood and snapped back into work mode. The session started at 11am.

Here was a glimpse of Howe’s mentality, a man whose tunnel vision somehow encompasses a 360-degree view. He is across everything, yet never takes his eyes off the prize in the distance. Today, that reward is Champions League football after only 18 months in the job.

He and the club’s Saudi-backed owners arrived in the autumn of 2021 with the team 19th in the Premier League. The manager, though, has been the accelerant at the vanguard of their journey.

Eddie Howe has plenty to celebrate after guiding Newcastle to Champions League football

The Magpies 0-0 draw with Leicester on Monday night confirmed a top-four finish this season

Howe was congratulated by Newcastle’s hierarchy as his remarkable 18-month stint continues 

The groundwork for this season’s success was laid in Austria. The physical exertion was one thing but, given they would undergo a second pre-season in Saudi Arabia before Christmas, it was more so the psychological standards that were being set. 

‘You think you’re at your limit, but you’re not,’ barked Howe. Then came the bite. ‘You’ll get f*** all if you are lethargic and don’t work together.’

That morning, Howe spoke to his squad in the team hotel before they free-wheeled on their bikes through the hills and down to their training base. But there was nothing relaxed about his manner now. His message in the earlier meeting was about leadership. 

Why, then, did a team including two of his leadership group – Dan Burn and Kieran Trippier – allow themselves to be outfought and outthought in a small-sided possession exercise? He demanded they formulate a response. Burn led a huddle and, energised, they won the subsequent drill. Howe reminded them that only a ‘united’ team would prosper. Burn, at 6ft 5ins, cut the most incongruous of repentant schoolboys. He has been a leader among men ever since.

But spend time around any Premier League club at that time of year and all of the talk will be about fitness, of theirs being better than it has ever been. There are tales across the land of players being sick beneath a summer sun. It means nothing, really. The proof is how hard, fast and far you are running come the spring. In that regard, Howe and his players have talked the talk and pressed the press.

The head coach laughed earlier this season when told that Burn had declared to reporters: ‘Intensity is our identity’. He was smiling – beaming with pride, in fact – because the mantra he drills into his players every morning was coming back out in their own words.

But Howe has also got the balance right, knowing when to ease his expectations. During a mid-season break in Dubai in March, his players did not so much raise the bar as prop it up, spending much of the first 72 hours in a beachside club. They returned to win three games on the spin and move back into the top four, a position in which they have remained.

It is that emotional intelligence, an innate ability to manage the person as well as the player, that his squad and staff will say is his greatest quality. But Howe is also smart enough to recognise the areas where he needs others to complement his own, more reserved personality.

He set the standard required for his squad during their pre-season trip to Saalfelden, Austria

Howe set his stall out with a big physical exertion placed on the squad that has paid off well

He followed it up with another pre-season in Ridayh, Saudi Arabia during the World Cup break

Howe has a big backroom staff that have all played their part in the club’s success this season

Howe will never be an extrovert like Kevin Keegan but he’s made a similar impact on Tyneside

Jason Tindall is his handsome assistant who, on matchdays, morphs into an ugly guard dog. Graeme Jones is the coach he inherited, not with suspicion but an open-mind, and the pair have grown close. Stephen Purches, say players, is talented enough to be a manager in his own right. Dan Hodges applies the science. While Simon Weatherstone is the person Howe could never be – the outside edge to his straight bat.

It was telling when, in Riyadh in December, Howe brought Weatherstone with him to an event in which they spoke to a room full of supporters. There, the coach told a story about his role in imposing fines for lateness. No cash? No matter, Weatherstone had bought a chip and pin machine!

But Howe has also been wise enough to seek counsel beyond his inner sanctum. During a phone call with Kevin Keegan, he asked for one piece of advice. Keegan told him to be honest with the Geordie public and he would be fine. He has certainly taken that on board. There is no subterfuge or b******t, and not every former manager can lay claim to that.

Keegan was an atomic bomb of charisma dropped on Newcastle in 1992, and from that emerged the foundations of a football club that made possible Champions League football.

Howe will never be an extrovert like his predecessor, but he has won just as many hearts and minds through hard work and decency. His sole focus is the betterment of Newcastle United. There are no distractions. Just ask Christian Ziege.

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