Newcastle United’s Eddie Howe already under pressure as shadow of Rafa Benitez looms

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Eddie Howe and assistant Jason Tindall on the touchline (Reuters)
Eddie Howe and assistant Jason Tindall on the touchline (Reuters)

Pressure is building on Eddie Howe. The Newcastle United manager takes his team to Elland Road tomorrow to face Leeds United desperately needing a win. The prospect of relegation is growing by the week.

There are plenty of points still available and things can change quickly. St James’ Park insiders were talking about the importance of beating fellow strugglers before the 1-1 draw with Watford last week, speaking in terms of a mini-league of the bottom five sides in the table. Leeds were very much in the mix at that point but two consecutive wins for Marcelo Bielsa’s men changed the mood at the Yorkshire club. If they continue that run of form with a victory tomorrow, Leeds will be 13 points clear of Newcastle and, effectively, will have left the relegation group chat.

Howe was charged with one task when he was appointed in November: keeping the team in the Premier League. The 44-year-old was not the first choice of the new owners on Tyneside – Unai Emery turned down the job – and even internally there was some scepticism whether the former Bournemouth manager was a good fit for the role. Now the shadow of Rafa Benitez is hanging over the Newcastle boss.

Benitez, who was sacked by Everton last week as the Merseyside club slipped down the table, was originally earmarked by the Amanda Staveley-led and Saudi Arabian-backed consortium to take control of the team when the takeover was completed. The Spaniard grew tired of waiting for the sale to be ratified by the Premier League and accepted the position at Goodison Park. That decision turned out to be a disaster for the 61-year-old. When the new owners took control in the north east in October, they made overtures to Benitez before starting their search for a manager. He would not leave Everton. The ramifications of that refusal are wide ranging.

It is probably going too far to say that Newcastle’s owners have made a mess of their first three months in charge. The timing of the handover did not help them. Ideally, they would have been given the keys to St James’ in the summer when more managers were available, the transfer window was open and there would have been time to put a chief executive and director of football in place. Instead, things have had to be done on the hoof and compromises made in almost every department.

New signing Chris Wood salutes St James’ Park after the draw with Watford (PA Wire)
New signing Chris Wood salutes St James’ Park after the draw with Watford (PA Wire)

This leaves Howe out on a limb. There is a recognition that to remain in the post beyond the end of the campaign, he needs to keep the team up. Benitez’s availability underlines that notion.

When it was suggested to a club source this week that Howe will be in position until the end of the season, the response was: “It depends when the season ends.” The meaning was clear. Relegation will lead to an immediate reassessment. Time will not be wasted in planning for life in the Championship.

In this respect, Benitez ticks a number of boxes. He has a longstanding relationship with Staveley stretching back to her attempt to buy Liverpool for Dubai 14 years ago. The supporters on the Gallowgate still admire and trust him after his previous spell at Newcastle, when he became a flagbearer for the fans in their battle to oust Mike Ashley as owner. He also brought the team back into the top flight after a single season in the second tier. The club’s former manager has Championship experience as well as a history of winning trophies. Newcastle may be the only place in England where the failure at Goodison will not be held against Benitez.

Howe earned his reputation on the south coast for playing in an entertaining style but ultimately took Bournemouth down. The concern at Newcastle was always a worry that he may not be able to grind out results and the team would concede too many goals. No manager could fashion the squad Howe inherited into a thrilling side and it is unlikely that even Benitez could have tightened up this defence. Even so, when Watford equalised in the 87th minute last week, a rumble of disappointment spread throughout the club.

Newcastle tired towards the end of that game. Leeds, with their relentless running, will test the away side’s stamina and mental strength. Howe is feeling the strain already. Defeat at Elland Road will make things much worse.

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