Trevor Steven: Eddie Howe can lead Newcastle back into Champions League
Next week marks a year since Eddie Howe took over as Newcastle United manager and what has happened since is bordering on the miraculous.
When he arrived the Magpies were second bottom of the Premier League. Now they are fourth and have given themselves a chance of Champions League qualification.
The only way you could have seen the club make such strides is if they had gone gung-ho in the transfer market and bought a ready-made top-level team.
They did no such thing, favouring shrewd signings who fitted the jigsaw over big-name players who may have taken time to bed into the set-up.
You have to applaud the decisions made in the boardroom, which is not something Newcastle fans have been used to saying in recent years.
Most of the credit for the team’s improvement is down to Howe, though. I can’t emphasise enough how impressive he has been.
He had a pretty good reputation already but that was all based on his work at Bournemouth, and he wasn’t the new Saudi-backed owners’ first choice for Newcastle.
Howe has been a perfect fit, however. They needed someone who could make them competitive first of all, and he is way ahead of schedule on that front.
He is intelligent, clear and patient. He has also got Newcastle playing an attractive brand of high-energy football.
The next challenge is to make them a winning team, but he has already put himself on the top rung of managers.
Players like Joelinton have really benefited from the appointment of Howe, who saw something in the Brazilian that others didn’t. Miguel Almiron, who has scored six in his last six games, is the latest to blossom.
Key to the revival has been midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, who slotted in seamlessly from day one of his arrival from Lyon in January.
The other pivotal figure has been striker Callum Wilson, and the stats bear it out. This season Newcastle average 2.33 points per game with him in the side and just 0.75 without.
Wilson is a No9 with pace and power but I’ve been really taken with his technical ability too. He has willing runners around him and holds the ball up to bring them into play so well.
With six goals in nine games and full of confidence, I think he has played his way into England’s World Cup squad – as long as he can avoid another injury in the next couple of games.
At the start of the season top six was the highest I could see Newcastle finishing, but a brilliant run of five wins in six games has got them dreaming of more.
Could they return to the Champions League for the first time in 20 years? In my view, they have as good a chance as Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool.
One factor massively in their favour is that, unlike their rivals for a top-four place, they do not have European games to contend with too.
That gives them extra time to recover from Premier League fixtures and makes them less likely to suffer injuries. In that respect, it’s set up beautifully for them.
The financial clout of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund means they also have the resources to strengthen in the January window if the right players become available.
From what I’ve seen so far this term, they are playing better than Tottenham and United. When that form dips, they’ll need to grind out results if they’re to make the next step.