Newcastle United are hoping to secure Champions League football for next season, and it would only be appropriate if they took another big step towards that goal away to Leeds United on Saturday lunchtime. After all, that’s the fixture that kickstarted their entire journey, all the way back in the middle of last season.
Defeats away to Arsenal and Liverpool and at home to Manchester City early in his reign were understandable; losing 4-0 at Leicester and drawing at home with fellow strugglers and eventually-relegated Norwich and Watford, less so.
A first win of the season was delivered against Burnley in early December, only to be followed by a trio of losses. United had not strung two wins together since the final two games of the 2020/21 season, and even those were both against Sheffield United and Fulham – sides whose relegation to the Championship had long since been confirmed beforehand. The FA Cup was meanwhile hardly a priority, but a home loss to third-tier Cambridge United at the first hurdle was a bad look regardless.
Weeks after the turn of the new year, then, Howe needed a catalyst to help spark his reign into life. More urgently, he needed wins: that victory over the Claret was still the club’s only victory of the campaign to date, leaving them in the bottom three and a long way adrift of the midtable pack. Howe’s side finally granted both wishes on their trip to Elland Road on January 22, 2022.
Not that anyone could have realised that at the time, mind. The game itself was hardly a classic, with both sides struggling to create clear-cut chances, with Martin Dubravka stopping a possession-hungry Leeds from going ahead through a Daniel James strike early on but then being called into action just three more times.
A Jonjo Shelvey free-kick settled the game 15 minutes from time, pushing Newcastle just one point off safety with a game in hand over 17th-placed Norwich City – and from there, they made it all look so easy.
United dropped just two points in their next six games as they beat Everton, Aston Villa, Brentford, Brighton and Southampton, with a respectable draw away to fifth-placed West Ham tossed in the middle.
That little run was enough on its own to effectively silence any talk of relegation, even after suffering three straight defeats to Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur either side of the late-March international break. Even after those losses, Newcastle were up to 15th, nine points clear of the drop, having won more games in the past two and a half months than the bottom three combined.
But there was to be no resting on laurels, and the win machine fired up again: Wolves, Leicester and Crystal Palace were all sent home from the north-east empty-handed before Norwich were beaten by three goals on their own turf, putting Newcastle in the top half for the first time in nearly two years.
Losses to Liverpool and Manchester City did nothing to dent the new-found optimism about what might lie ahead next season, with wins over Arsenal and Burnley ending the season on an even more upbeat note and setting the stage for Newcastle to start the current campaign with just one defeat in their first 23 league games.
Those dominos of joy were set in motion by that innocuous win at Leeds United. The same trip this weekend could help mark the tail end of a long and extremely enjoyable rally – and the beginning of another.
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