Shadow of relegation looms over Newcastle ahead of bottom-of-table battle with Norwich

Mapgies manager Howe faces two crucial matches ahead of tough December fixture list

Eddie Howe sees his Newcastle team take on relegation rivals Norwich and Burnley in their next two matches. Reuters

The last time Newcastle United won a match or even kept a clean sheet in the Premier League, Steve Bruce was their manager and Mike Ashley their owner. Brentford were a Championship club, Tottenham had yet to appoint Nuno Espirito Santo, let alone Antonio Conte.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi played for Juventus and Barcelona respectively. And Newcastle, whose victory was their fifth in eight games, were near the top of the form table.

The six-month anniversary of that triumph at Fulham fell last Tuesday. Now they are the lone team in the Premier and Football Leagues without a win. More than a third of the season has gone and the club branded the world’s richest after their Saudi-led takeover could find themselves staring at an ignominious return to the Championship.

“We need to start winning,” said manager Eddie Howe, in an understatement. Only one side has ever stayed up after making such a long winless start. This week seems to assume colossal proportions: Norwich and Burnley visit St James’ Park before Newcastle face Leicester, Liverpool and both Manchester clubs.

“We are aware how important these games are but it is a danger to look too far ahead,” added Howe. “I was aware of the fixture list in December but the world looks very different with one win.”

Perhaps Tuesday’s visitors are proof of that. Win and Norwich will have taken the most points in November. It could make Dean Smith a candidate for manager of the month, even though he has been sacked — by Aston Villa — in November. Newcastle, however, have had neither a new-manager bounce nor a new-owner bounce.

It has hardly been an ideal start. “Covid hit me hard physically,” said Howe, who felt luckless when coronavirus confined him to a hotel room for what should have been his debut as manager, against Brentford. “A really unique experience,” he explained. “I had no control because I was so detached from the game. I could hear a delayed noise when we scored and from so far away hearing that, you think: 'What would it actually be like if I was in the stadium?'”

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A first clean sheet might not bring such a roar but would be equally welcome for a team who have conceded the most goals in the league. “We have to improve the defending side of our game,” said Howe, whose 44th birthday yesterday was spent on the training ground attempting to engineer it.

It is rendered harder by the suspensions that rule out his captain Jamaal Lascelles and wingback Matt Ritchie. Howe nevertheless argued he has seen positive signs, whether in having 23 shots in the 3-3 draw with Brentford and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka’s fine display in Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to Arsenal.

“I have been boosted by the players, their reception to us and I know if we stay united and together we can achieve great things together,” said Howe. Yet Newcastle’s malaise is such that reinforcements are required to take them anywhere close to greatness. Howe has the funds to buy, but Newcastle will have a diminishing allure if they are cast adrift at the foot of the table.

“I think we have half an eye on January,” said Howe. “But it would be foolish of me to make rash promises. You have to attract the players, the players have to want to come, they have to be the right players and they have to improve your squad. That is why January is an incredibly difficult window, especially when your league position is difficult.”

Newcastle’s is 20th. It could be 19th tonight and 18th on Saturday. Or they could enter 2022 perhaps 12 points from safety.

Updated: November 29th 2021, 12:58 PM