Shrewd signings, a smart manager and the force of the fans – it’s time to take Newcastle seriously

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You have to go back 10 years for the last time Newcastle were in the top four this far into a season. But to find anything like the excitement emanating out of Tyneside right now, you must rewind even further.

‘It’s probably not since Kevin Keegan that there has been such a buzz around the club and around the town,’ says Magpies legend Rob Lee.

‘Everyone in the city is talking about football again,’ adds Alex Hurst, host of fans’ podcast True Faith. ‘Tickets are selling out within 20 minutes. There is a real desperation to get inside St James’ Park and witness what is going on.’

Hurst, 34, may be too young to have fully appreciated that buzz of the 1990s, but Lee felt it first hand. He joined Newcastle in September 1992, seven months after Keegan took charge. Together, they won the Division One title, finished second in the Premier League and twice qualified for Europe.

Newcastle are flying high in fourth place after enjoying a spectacular start to the season

Magpies legend Rob Lee has backed Eddie Howe's side to qualify for the Champions League

Magpies legend Rob Lee has backed Eddie Howe’s side to qualify for the Champions League

In the season after Keegan’s sudden departure, Lee captained Newcastle to victory over Barcelona in the Champions League. Now, 25 years on from that famous win, the Magpies are daring to dream of European nights once again.

‘I don’t see why they can’t finish in the top four,’ Lee, still a regular visitor to St James’ Park, tells Sportsmail. ‘Manchester City apart, everything is up for grabs and Newcastle are on the up.

‘They drew against City, could have beaten Liverpool away and have just deservedly beaten Tottenham. They know they can play well against the top teams, so why can’t they stay there?

‘It would mean everything to the fans to be in the Champions League again. It’s been too long since they have been challenging for those sort of things.’

Newcastle have not played in Europe’s top competition since the days of Sir Bobby Robson in 2003-04. ‘I definitely think we will be in the conversation as the season goes on,’ says Hurst.

After Sunday's win against Tottenham, Howe has won 18 of his 39 league games in charge

See also  Newcastle boss Eddie Howe already admits he is 'in the firing line' following £95m transfer splurge

After Sunday’s win against Tottenham, Howe has won 18 of his 39 league games in charge

Lee claimed the buzz around the club and city hasn't been like this since the brilliant days of Kevin Keegan's (L) time in charge of the club

Lee claimed the buzz around the club and city hasn’t been like this since the brilliant days of Kevin Keegan’s (L) time in charge of the club 

‘We are not playing in Europe now, we have fewer players at the World Cup and are probably going to add more in January than most of our top-six rivals.

‘It would be a huge overachievement if we did it. It would be an extraordinary turnaround considering where we were just 12 months ago.’

Newcastle’s last foray into the continent was in the Europa League with Alan Pardew in 2012-13. However, they also battled relegation that season and their fifth-place finish to qualify was an anomaly in an otherwise miserable 14 years of Mike Ashley’s ownership.

This time, though, awash with Saudi cash and under the inspired management of Eddie Howe, Newcastle are the real deal.

It is almost a year since Howe was hired with the Magpies second bottom of the table. Since then, he has won 18 of his 39 league matches with a points total of 65, which is a top-six tally.

He also has the best points- per-game average (1.67) of any Newcastle manager in the Premier League since Keegan in his first spell. ‘He’s already achieved extraordinary things,’ says Hurst. ‘I think he will definitely be up there with our all-time greats.’

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Howe’s inspired leadership has galvanised the club and he is hugely popular within the city

Howe was not even the new owners’ first choice to replace Steve Bruce. That was Unai Emery, who takes charge of Aston Villa after their match at St James’ Park on Saturday. Newcastle were also criticised in some circles for not prising Emery’s predecessor Steven Gerrard away from Rangers before Villa. It would be fair to say they have no regrets on that front now.

‘Eddie had his doubters when he joined and I was probably one of them,’ admits Lee. ‘I thought, “Can he manage a club this size?”, but he is delivering.

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‘The managers that have been great at this club like Keegan and Robson have got the area and the people, and Eddie understands what it is all about as well.’

Howe has transformed the club with his calm and methodical approach, and has instilled a team spirit not seen at St James’ since Lee’s day, with bonding trips bowling and go-karting.

The group pictures taken inside the dressing room after each win may be mocked by rival fans but they display a united camp. ‘Most of our pictures were out in the town in a pub or a club,’ laughs Lee.

There is one photo, of goalkeeper Nick Pope and his back four celebrating their 1-0 win over Everton a fortnight ago, which Howe loves so much he is going to hang it up in the training ground. That defence has conceded just 10 goals in the league this season — the best record in the division.

The former Bournemouth boss has also developed a superb team spirit among the first team

The former Bournemouth boss has also developed a superb team spirit among the first team

Howe wasn't the owners original first choice as manager - who preferred Unai Emery

Howe wasn’t the owners original first choice as manager – who preferred Unai Emery

Of course, Newcastle would not be flying quite so high without their new-found wealth. So any success the club enjoys will always have an asterisk in the eyes of some, who believe the takeover by the Saudis — with their appalling human rights record — is sportswashing at its worst.

‘If football authorities want to start giving fans a greater say in who owns their club, it’s definitely a conversation I’d be willing to have,’ says Hurst.

‘If they want to ban state-owned clubs, I understand it. But until that point, I would just be wasting my words because fans have no say.’ Under the new regime, Newcastle have spent £210million on eight players. Although their spree is well within Financial Fair Play rules, it has resulted in some sniping — most notably from Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.

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‘It will be a little bit of jealousy,’ says Lee. ‘I don’t think they have overspent, they have just spent well. They are doing it the right way, gradually.’

Of all Newcastle’s signings, no one has impressed more than Brazilian Bruno Guimaraes, with fans already debating whether he is the club’s best-ever midfielder, surpassing even Lee.

‘He is not that good yet!’ jokes the ex-England international. ‘But seriously, he looks outstanding. He does everything — tackles, passes, scores goals. He is the ultimate midfielder and he seems to love it there. Over the years, Newcastle have bought players that just want to play in the Premier league and use us as a stepping stone. But for the first time in a long time we’ve bought really good players that actually want to play for the club.’

Lee said Newcastle haven't overspent following Jurgen Klopp's comments that there is 'no ceiling' which was aimed at three clubs including the Magpies

Lee said Newcastle haven’t overspent following Jurgen Klopp’s comments that there is ‘no ceiling’ which was aimed at three clubs including the Magpies

 It is not just the new boys, though, that have turned Newcastle into Champions League contenders. Of Howe’s starting XI in last week’s win at Tottenham, he inherited six of them. There are two players in particular he has transformed.

Howe’s reinvention of Joelinton from a £40m flop forward to a box-to-box central midfielder has been remarkable. And the much-maligned Miguel Almiron has scored five goals in as many games — the same total he managed in 44 league appearances over the last two seasons.

It is no wonder, then, that Howe bristled on Friday at claims he has bought success.

‘My response to that would be disappointment,’ he said. ‘It takes away credit from the players and I would want a lot more focus to be on how well they have done. The ones not bought by me, and the contribution they have given, shouldn’t go unnoticed.

‘Money doesn’t buy success. It helps, but you can recruit very badly. It’s about a mixture of things. You need good players, good characters and you need that momentum.’

Right now, Newcastle certainly have that.

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