NEWCASTLE: “Something special is stirring at St. James’ Park. Strap yourselves in. Howay the Lads.”
The message was simple but stirring, beautiful while charged with steely intent.
This was a club tweet to follow a statement performance that will have alarm bells ringing from London to Liverpool and Manchester and back.
Newcastle United weren’t meant to stay up this season. They weren’t meant to dazzle and delight. At Christmas the Championship was beckoning. And while the depths of winter despair thaw into spring then summer, pain has been replaced with hope and joy. The sleeping giant of English football is stretching its legs and readying itself for battle.
Having failed to lay a glove on Liverpool then Manchester City, Newcastle United, at the 14th attempt this campaign, beat a side in the Premier League top seven.
And while Eddie Howe’s United look light years away from the top two, they were head and shoulders above shell-shocked Arsenal, who looked like a rabbit in the headlines at an electrically charged St. James’ Park.
Champions League contenders? On this evidence, and playing at this level, it will be Newcastle featuring heavily in the conversation next season, not just Arsenal.
“Brilliant way for us to sign off here,” said Howe.
“I was very, very pleased with our performance, it was probably our best performance by some distance since I’ve been at the football club. The most pleasing thing was we were dominant in the first-half, but I’ve seen that so many times where the dominant team then drop off in terms of energy levels and intensity levels and the game totally changes.
“I’ve got to give my players big credit that we didn’t. We were probably better in the second-half. Full credit to the group and a great way to finish off here.”
Howe’s United put the Gunners on the ropes from minute one. Pressing high and forcing errors, Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson, starting his first game since December, were instrumental in setting a frenetic pace that the visitors could not live with.
Aaron Ramsdale, as shaky as he’s looked all season, had to be at his best to palm away an Allan Saint-Maximin effort, while Ben White was on hand to deny Wilson his seventh of the season.
That pair’s battle was one of the most intriguing on the pitch, with Wilson playing on the shoulder and running in behind at will — and it was one such second-half run that brought the opener.
A bursting Joelinton drive down the left saw the big Brazilian, a colossus in midfield all evening, cut across to Wilson and just as he was about to turn in, White got a boot on it to beat Ramsdale at the front post.
Cue a sonic boom that will send shockwaves into the Tyneside night, reverberating across the English game — rarely, if ever, has St. James’ been this loud.
And United, putting in their best performance of the campaign, weren’t finished there.
Goal-thirsty Wilson came close twice more as he went in hunt of one of his own and it was from his tenacity that No.2 was born.
His challenge at the feet of Ramsdale saw the ball squirt out to Bruno Guimaraes, who netted his fifth of the season.
Beating Arsenal, whose Champions League dream looks to have gone up in smoke, feels like a real move in the right direction.
“Yeah, it feels like a step forward, definitely,” said Howe.
“That was a challenge we poised — could we get a positive result against one of the top six? I felt we were capable of it but we needed to see it. That was the challenge we responded to really well. The way we started the game, the intensity in our play, our pressing was very good.
“I thought you saw tonight a progression and evolution in terms of the football we played. How we handled the ball I thought we were creative, we looked like we could score, maybe not so much in the first-half but definitely in the second. We’re seeing an improvement in all areas.”
Is this a window into the future of Newcastle United? It certainly felt as such.
While this was the end of United’s home season, it very much feels like only the start.
This Newcastle is united. This Newcastle means business. Watch out English football, a new contender is sharpening its tools. Newcastle United are back, and no longer around to simply make up the numbers.
Howe said: “I’m very, very proud to be connected with the club. An incredible thanks from me to the supporters for how they have handled a very difficult situation this year.
“When you think back to Cambridge and Watford, how they reacted after those games was absolutely magnificent and I think that paved the way for us to build some confidence, some unity and the spirit that we needed to go on the brilliant run we’ve been on.
“The support tonight was absolutely incredible. The atmosphere around the stadium was something I’ve not really experienced before. A big thank you to them.”