Newcastle United are heading to Wembley on Sunday for the biggest occasion in the club’s recent memory, but also in the knowledge they are returning to the scene of some era-defining disappointments.
This sleeping giant, with a city-strong army of supporters behind them but no domestic success since 1955, and none at all since 1969, face Manchester United in the Carabao Cup final.
They’ve been here before, hoping and dreaming only to be let down.
Since winning the FA Cup 68 years ago, Newcastle have three times finished as runners-up in the competition, lost once in the League Cup final, twice in the Charity/Community Shield and, for good measure, twice finished second in the Premier League.
“I’ve been at Wembley four times with Newcastle and we lost every time,” former Magpies midfielder Rob Lee tells BBC Sport.
Lee was part of the last Newcastle side to play in a major final, in the 1999 FA Cup against the Red Devils. The game ended in a 2-0 defeat, a year after the same result against Arsenal.
That day 24 years ago the Magpies were a club divided and the final proved a real nadir in Lee’s career – he found himself, and senior players including Alan Shearer, locked in a bitter civil war with manager Ruud Gullit.
“It wasn’t a great time for me,” he said. “We played Arsenal in ’98 under Kenny [Dalglish] and I was captain, but I wasn’t on speaking terms with Ruud.
“I’m not sure he even wanted to play me but had nobody else to play on the right of midfield. I only played in cup games.”
Victory was everything for Newcastle because it felt like such a rare chance, but for Lee, it would have meant the end of his time at St James’ Park.
“If we’d have won, I’d have left because Ruud would have been in a very strong position. It is strange knowing the best-case scenario overall is the worst for you.”
Gullit resigned the following August when the power struggle between himself, Lee and Shearer reached breaking point in the Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland.
Both players were absent, although Shearer made a late substitute appearance, and defeat at St James’ Park forced the Dutchman’s hand. Sir Bobby Robson arrived and reconnected everybody, taking Newcastle back into Europe and a position of strength in the league, but still no trophy came.
‘We have been a laughing stock’
In 2007, Mike Ashley swept in as the club’s new owner, with chairman Freddy Shepherd saying the billionaire businessman and his company would be “excellent custodians of Newcastle United’s heritage”. But his 14-year tenure was divisive, with Ashley criticised for a lack of investment in the transfer market and some supporters protesting about the way he ran the club. The Magpies were relegated twice in that time, and it was openly stated cup competitions were not a priority.
“Newcastle United has felt like the butt of all jokes; we’ve been a laughing stock,” says Adam Widdrington of the True Faith fanzine and podcast.
“Under Mike Ashley, cups weren’t prioritised because they couldn’t be. The limited resources we had were bunched into keeping the club in the Premier League.”
Now things are different.
Newcastle are more united than they have been in years, challenging for Champions League qualification and with ambitions to make this weekend the first of many historic occasions.
The Saudi Arabian-led takeover of the club in October 2021 and the money that has brought has been undeniably crucial to the club’s overall development. At the time, Newcastle were floundering, winless at the bottom of the table with unpopular manager Steve Bruce in charge.
The fact it has taken less than 18 months for the Magpies to become truly competitive is testament to the work of Bruce’s successor, Eddie Howe.
“This is tangible; it makes us a serious club again. It is phenomenal; when the takeover first happened, we dreamed of this in five years’ time,” Widdrington adds.
“But that shows how resourceful Eddie Howe is.”
‘Living my dream’ – a new-look Magpies
Newcastle are tactically very astute, with an incredibly strong defence that has only conceded 15 league goals this season, an average of 0.7 per game.
Improvements in players he inherited, such as midfielder Joelinton and wide forward Miguel Almiron, are the best way to measure Howe’s impact.
Another player who falls into that category is academy product Sean Longstaff, who was beginning to drift under Bruce after a string of injury problems.
“From the first day with the new manager it was something different,” says Longstaff. “He improves you as a player and a person and how much he really does care about you.
“He is someone I will be forever grateful to and he has saved my Newcastle career in a way.
“When you play with better players, they make you look better. I have Bruno [Guimaraes] next to me and Tripps [Kieran Trippier] behind me; the game is a lot easier. I have a smile on my face, and I am living the dream.”
‘I want winning as the only option’
Blyth-born defender Dan Burn, one of the first signings made under the current regime in January 2022, says the entire club’s mindset has to be right if they are to be successful.
“We are fifth in the league and have made a League Cup final so we are doing something right. Hopefully this is the first of many,” he adds.
“The new ownership and the way the club is approaching cup competitions is something which has not been done in the past. I don’t want us to be happy to be here and if we lose people say ‘you did well to get there’, I want winning as the only option.”
Burn, Longstaff, Elliot Anderson, Mark Gillespie and Paul Dummett are all from the local area and they have a deep understanding of what it would mean to win on Sunday, and their team-mates are well aware too.
“The staff do a lot for the players from outside, making presentations showing them about the area,” Longstaff adds.
“It’s been so long since this club’s won a trophy. If we can do it we’ll be running on it forever.”
Source – BBC Sports
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