Alright, I have to confess, I was initially against the idea of a double header for the final pre-season Newcastle United friendlies.
The games up until now should have been and were, about getting match fitness across the squad, integrating the team back together and giving chances to those on the periphery. However, the final match should be a dress rehearsal for the eleven that are pegged to start the Premier League campaign.
Having quality opposition from Europe’s best leagues is a perfect test and while Atalanta and Athletic Club absolutely filled that brief, I felt like it would stretch the squad too much to show both sides full respect.
As with most little doubts that creep in these days, I was of course wrong and Eddie was right. Bilbao definitely had to contend with the stronger side, although most of the defence likely to face Forest kept a clean sheet against Atalanta, and both matches delivered – wins, encouragement and a full 90 minutes in the legs of just about everyone likely to feature in the coming weeks.
Of course, this ignores the aspect of this weekend I was always fully on board with, the prospect of back to back matches at SJP within 20 hours of each other. A tantalising prospect after the emptiness of the off-season…but also an opportunity to take advantage of everything Newcastle has to offer as a city. My mate Andy and his lad were up from York for both games, and me and my son met them off the train at midday on the Friday, leaving the city centre only to head home for a few hours kip and a bacon sandwich.
I’m obviously biased, but if you’re fetching young uns along (or if you’re not), the match day experience here is unrivalled. We had a few beers in the scorching heat of the quayside on the balmy Friday, hit the “Save the City” Escape Room on Westgate Road on the Saturday morning.
Had a few racks of pool at Spot White on Stowell street and grabbed our dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe on Friday and Topolino’s Italian (recommend) on Saturday, all in between plenty of bars (the young fellas need to learn the bread and butter of a matchday). I was at great pains to point out to the kids that this can all be done in a state of complete relaxation, knowing that you’re never more than a few minutes walk from the ground.
So many other clubs can offer a fine city centre experience that is tainted by the prospect of an awkward bus ride, overly long walk, or desperate attempt to hail a taxi to arrive on time at an out of town ground, wedged in the middle of a housing estate or industrial park. Then the fans of these clubs get to come here, have all this and have the neck to moan and whinge on about a few flights of stairs up to the away end.
The actual detail of the games are covered elsewhere, largely due to the editor of The Mag having uncomfortable flashbacks upon hearing of my plans for the weekend, to times when he’d have to halt the print run of the old paper Mag while someone had to peel me off a pub floor somewhere (“Jamie Smith is unwell this month”) so just told me to do what I like, which is sage advice for anyone dealing with talented mavericks anywhere.
This was also prudent as, to be quite honest, I struggle to stay focused on friendlies. It’s nice to win but not really that important, and it can become difficult to really invest in hoping everyone has a good runout and stays injury free.
The Atalanta game was reminiscent of one of our ground out narrow wins of the second half of last season, with Chris Wood’s penalty for something or other hopefully a little booster for him ahead of the serious business. The stand out though had to be the performance of Elliott Anderson, who was surely man of the match on his SJP debut and must have sealed the deal for him to get a decent chance with the team in the coming season. It does make me wonder if the alleged bid for James Maddison reported on this day might be limiting for Anderson’s opportunities, but once again I defer to those at the club knowing what they’re doing these days.
For the Bilbao game I thought I was being clever in digging out my blue 1994 Asics away shirt, wisely explaining to the boys how Newcastle wore this at home in that famous tie with Athletic Club in the UEFA Cup. By the time I left the game I must have counted about 15 other people who had exactly the same idea, and the novelty of pointing to them, smiling and going “yeah!” had well and truly worn off.
There was a smattering of Bilbao fans in the away end but I seem to recall it’s not a straightforward trip and maybe one that wasn’t an easy sell for a pre-season friendly. Nonetheless, the positive relationship between the clubs was again reinforced with the visitors presenting fans with a Newcastle / Basque flag dedicated to “wor friends” while wor flags displayed the message “Ongi Etorri Lehoiak” on a huge banner in the East Stand, the words meaning “Welcome Lions” in Basque.
As well as making the team and fans of Bilbao feel welcome, I would hope the pre-match displays would give some idea to Botman of what he has signed up for, as the stadium-wide display for a pre-season friendly was surely a bit special by any measure, an astounding crowd of knocking on 47 thousand made the Bilbao game look like a Premier League match, with 40 thousand there for Atalanta the night before. Incredible stuff and indicative of a sense of optimism and excitement we haven’t been allowed for so many years previously.
Of course, the Maddison question was put to Howe after the games, with general enquiry about the lack of attacking additions. Excellent, composed finishes from ASM and Wilson to defeat Bilbao complemented Wood’s earlier winner, but it has to be said there was still a little impetus lacking from United up front. Athletic Club’s influx of substitutes almost saw them snatch a draw as they scored then hit the post, although this was mitigated by their wholesale changes, whereas we focused on 90 minutes of fitness for all, with Bondswell for Dummett the only sub before the 90th minute.
There’s also the fact that, as I mentioned before, pre-season Newcastle United friendlies are just that bit off the pace of a competitive match. We all seized up in anxiety when Bruno and Joelinton (Bilbao) and Trippier (Atalanta) went down with what looked like proper injuries, only to get up and shake them off. A clean bill of health and a draw would have been far preferable to winning at a cost, but fortunately we seem to have achieved both, twice over.
On the issue of recruitment, I think it’s a fair assessment that the plethora of bids, enquiries and discussions we’ve been involved in, are possibly difficult to see through at this point in time. Clubs who may be open to cashing in will hold off to instigate a bidding war, safe in the knowledge that if this doesn’t transpire, our satisfactory offer can easily be accepted at the back end of August. Same for potential loans, as clubs aren’t going to jump on this right now and eradicate the possibility of someone throwing in an actual bid before the deadline. So it’s feasible that the likes of Harrison, Maddison and Werner may very well play a part in our coming season, but patience, unfortunately, is the watchword.
I’ve mentioned previously how it would be valuable to increase our attacking potency before the very different challenges of newly-promoted Forest, solid Brighton and ominous Man City as our opening games (and how the extremely possible 3/3 from those would set up the season ahead) but it may be that reliance on Wilson’s fitness and performances like last season’s home closer with Arsenal must suffice for at least some of these matches. I do have confidence that there will be added strength to this side at least by the time of Palace’s early September visit, and the ability to win displayed this weekend, should add to the hopes of a great year ahead.
Finally, here are some observations from the weekend:
Ritchie and Krafth on the same wing is confusing as they look too alike, please cease and desist.
The new blue away kit is a beauty and the pictures didn’t do it justice, want one.
Kudos to the man who retrieved the dead pigeon that plunged into the Milburn, would like it if everything possible was done at NUFC to limit kamikaze bird attacks.
Further kudos to the man in the mobility scooter for his one man flag parade in the east stand during the Atalanta match.
Less so to the kids who all copied his actions, get your own material.
Botman’s pass to Joelinton that split the entire Bilbao team was such a thing of beauty, I now expect him to be basically Beckenbauer.
I really hope we get to go to Bilbao in Europe sometime soon, their club is a fine example.
Rights, it’s been a great weekend, but I’d better talk to my wife…
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