On Thursday evening, The Athletic’s Newcastle correspondents George Caulkin, Chris Waugh and Jacob Whitehead, plus host Taylor Payne, appeared at the Gosforth Civic Theatre for Pod on the Tyne: Live.
Joining them throughout the night were a string of guests, including Newcastle Women’s manager Becky Langley, captain Amber-Keegan Stobbs — and Gosforth’s most famous son, Alan Shearer.
Over the course of 90 minutes, topics discussed included Newcastle’s rapid post-takeover rise, the 4-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain, the ambitions of the women’s team, and potential upcoming transfers.
These are the best bits, with some answers edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the podcast from the live show below.
October 7 marked the two-year anniversary of Newcastle’s takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. While the takeover brought scrutiny and criticism, the club’s rise has also been quicker than any expectations — both internally and externally.
Alan Shearer: I don’t think anyone in this room could have imagined two years after the takeover, what would be achieved and who would be beaten. We thought it might happen in five, six, seven years, but I don’t think anyone could have imagined that it would have happened in two years. I mean, I expected us to beat PSG last week, I thought that at home with our fans behind us, then we could compete with the very, very best.
Chris Waugh: What’s been amazing about this takeover and the success subsequently is that unlike PSG or Manchester City, it wasn’t that just everything was basically thrown out and started again. The roots of what Newcastle could build from were already there.
You look at the first-team squad. I don’t think any of us expected the improvement there has been, but some of the players who are thriving in the team now — Fabian Schar, Sean Longstaff — all of these players have just improved immeasurably from having a head coach who’s come in and really improved them.
Behind the scenes, you’ve had changes. There’s actually an executive structure now, but then below (sporting director) Dan Ashworth and (CEO) Darren Eales, a lot of the people who are there were there beforehand and have been empowered.
What I wanted to ask Alan was how, in the mid-1990s, things changed internally within the club when Sir Bobby Robson came in, how did it feel as a player on the pitch?
Shearer: People say it shouldn’t really matter who or what the owners are. And I sort of get that argument, because as a player that shouldn’t really have anything to do with you — you should always be expected to go out and perform, but it doesn’t work like that. It’s very similar to what’s happening at Manchester United. Eventually, it always filters down into the workshop. It might take time, but it drips and drips and drips and it eventually gets onto the pitch.
So new owners, new manager, it’s just a huge relief for players that didn’t feel part of it. All of a sudden you get a fresh dressing room, all the players have then got something to prove again. When you’ve got a new manager, you’ve got new owners, and then put all that together with an expectant or a crazy crowd who have basically been fed nothing for years, when all that comes together, it should be pretty powerful.
Another key factor has been Newcastle’s recruitment. Since Eddie Howe’s arrival, the club’s new signings have had an almost 100 per cent success rate. How much of a reflection is that on the management?
Caulkin: The recruitment has been insanely good. It’s astonishing. It’s not been about getting the big names and bringing them in straight away. But if we’re talking about the manager, I think he’s already up there in the pantheon of Sir Bobby and Kevin Keegan.
I think the interesting thing about that is how different he is as a personality. Both Kevin and Bobby had that magnetic side to their personalities; they were man managers, they were Pied Pipers, you would just follow them into battle. And Eddie is this sort of insular workaholic. He’s not that expressive personality with a load of charisma. But somehow he’s tapped into part of our psyche in a way that both of those great men did.
I love the fact that Eddie has come in and taken that part of our personality and said, ‘We’re not going to get given anything, so we have to go out there and get it for ourselves.’
Shearer: You always want to be loved, you always want to feel as if you’re part of it. With Ruud (Gullit), I never felt any of that with him. From the very first day that he walked into the dressing room, I knew that we were just not going to get on.
Sir Bobby’s greatest strength was man-management. He came in and just made everyone feel special. Bobby, he loved everyone. He gave everyone an opportunity. And very much like what’s happened now, is that he used that to his advantage. You use that to get the crowd going. And we know if you get the crowd going up here, then you’re practically already 1-0 up. So that’s what the new owners have done. That’s what Eddie’s done.
Newcastle’s 4-1 win over PSG was arguably the best game at St James’ Park since the 5-0 victory over Manchester United in 1996 or 3-2 win over Barcelona one year later — both games Shearer played in.
Taylor Payne: Alan, there was a lovely shot of you at the end of the PSG game stood in your box looking…let’s say emotional.
Shearer: What a night. I did expect that we could beat them but certainly not in that manner or in that style. Other than the first two or three minutes, I think when (Ousmane) Dembele had that shot past the far post, we totally dominated. It was just an unbelievable night, one that we’ve craved, one that all the players worked so hard to get, because that’s ultimately what they worked their nuts off for last season.
When the draw was made, I thought it was an unbelievable draw. When we won the league at Blackburn, we sat around the television as a squad waiting for the draw to come out. Blackburn had never been in the Champions League. Our draw was Rosenborg, first team out, second team was Legia Warsaw and the third team was Spartak Moscow and I could see everyone go, ‘F***ing hell’.
Caulkin: It’s been 20 years since Newcastle’s last Champions League campaign, and surely back then you thought it was the beginning of something, not the end of it?
Shearer: Yeah, it was Inter Milan at the San Siro, we drew, and soon after that (after a home loss to Barcelona), that was it. Never ever did we think that would have been it. In football you never know what’s coming around the corner, so it’s hugely important that you enjoy what’s in front of you, and what’s happened in the past.
For this team, it definitely won’t be the last, and there will plenty more of those nights. Is that as good as it gets? It’s not if, but when we win something, and surely it can’t be too long.
It is really, really difficult to win a trophy, because you look at all the other huge clubs that are after the same thing. That’s why there was so much resistance to Newcastle, because they know that the power and strength of Newcastle is not going to go away. We have to savour what we get, and hope and pray that we get one — and that first one will be the hardest one.
There is awareness within the club that they need to continue to strengthen to keep up with the big six. One question from the audience asked whether Newcastle needed to do any significant business in January.
Waugh: You have to keep strengthening and progressing the squad to freshen it up. I do think Newcastle should be active in January, I think that they could do with another defender, a centre-back. Jamaal Lascelles has come in and done excellently in the last few weeks, but that’s forced Fabian Schar onto the left when he’s more comfortable on the right. With (Sven) Botman out, that’s where Newcastle look light.
Shearer: Not at striker? I love Callum (Wilson) and I love (Alexander) Isak, but I think history tells you that Callum is only going to play a certain amount of games. Going into the schedule they’ll have, potentially only having one is a huge gamble. They’d have to go for top-drawer — there’s going to be a few big hitters after (Napoli striker) Victor Osimhen. So why not? That’s the level Newcastle have to be looking at now.
Caulkin: I suppose the ‘why not?’ would be FFP, the three letters no one wants to hear.
Shearer: Are there any ways around that?
Caulkin: Well, the club are absolutely paranoid of it, they’re not just conscious of it and mindful of it, they’re paranoid about not getting themselves into trouble. To answer in a less specific way, if there’s a player there, if there’s room to do it, they will. The ownership are looking to strengthen every window, and that was always the plan.
Payne: You have to be careful about bringing in bodies at the right time though, don’t you?
Jacob Whitehead: That’s what Howe has been so good at, easing in those signings. Sandro Tonali was an exception in that, but Anthony Gordon is the perfect example. Last season, he wasn’t given a place, he had to work, deal with the ego blow after being the main man at Everton.
Six months later, alongside Kieran Trippier, he’s arguably Newcastle’s player of the season. If you’re trying to sell the club to players, you have that track record.
Last season, Newcastle were especially potent when it came to shithousery — using the dark arts to grind out results. This season, those tactics are not as prominent. What has happened to Newcastle’s not-so-secret weapon?
Caulkin: For the first time in a long time, we’ve got a Newcastle team that’s going places and not giving a shit about upsetting other teams and not being there to be patted on the head. Even if they lose they’d give everything to win. I do wonder though, if other teams are now expecting it, do you have to change it up a bit? Is there not a point to be made that if you’re slightly less good, or in a slightly less good vein of form, you have to shithouse more?
Whitehead: I think that’s part of it, but last season, Newcastle’s actual shithousing far exceeded their expected shithousing (xSh). This season is much more of a regression to the mean…
Caulkin: Here come the nerds to spoil it for all of us.
Shearer: It becomes very difficult to do when everyone’s highlighting what you’re doing. They were new to it, so you could get away with it. The goalkeeper’s now the only one who can go down injured without coming off the pitch.
Whitehead: Does George pointing it out mean that he’s the one who’s ruined it?
The takeover has not just affected the men’s team. The women’s team were subsequently brought under centralised control, and this summer became the first third-tier team to become fully professional. They made several summer signings — including Amber-Keegan Stobbs who was immediately appointed captain by Becky Langley — and are currently unbeaten in the FA WPL Premier Division.
Becky Langley: When Amanda (Staveley) and Mehrdad (Ghodoussi) came in with the owners, they were so supportive of our women’s team. I think having a female to drive our team was massive. It was previously charity money used to fund our team, so to now be under the club’s umbrella is fantastic. They pushed and pushed to get us into the position we’re in.
Players last season were part-time, working full-time jobs and football at night. We had teachers, we had police officers, we had everything — the sacrifices the girls made was fantastic.
Caulkin: When the owners outlined their plans, could you believe what they were saying to you?
Langley: I remember waiting in the summer to find out if they’d go full-time, and I was waiting. There was a big board meeting with all the owners. Dan Ashworth texted me at 11 o’clock in the evening that they’d gone for it. I honestly cried my eyes out, not just for me but for what it meant for women’s football moving forward.
If our club could push for women’s football in tier three, everyone else will have to follow that. It’s a massive milestone, and I’m just so proud Newcastle have been driving it.
Whitehead: Amber, you’ve got some history with Newcastle?
Amber-Keegan Stobbs: Just to clarify, I am a Newcastle fan. So my parents are nuts, in a good way. I was born in 1992, when Kevin Keegan was manager. And my dad was going, ‘I’m calling her Keegan’, my mum was like, ‘No, you picked the son’s name’.
On the birth certificate he just snuck Keegan on there as a double-barrel while my mum was still coming back round. He was just like, ‘I just put Amber-Keegan, no problem.’ So I am named after Kevin Keegan.
Whitehead: But there’s another Newcastle legend involved in your life story right? Part of the reason you’re in the room tonight?
Stobbs: When Becky didn’t know if they were going to go full-time or not, we met in the coffee shop by St James’ Park. And it was only because myself and Alan Shearer connected over Twitter.
When the women’s team started doing well in tier four, I just randomly messaged him and was like, ‘What do I have to do to get me to play for Newcastle?’ I just thought I’d be hanging my boots up without ever doing it. He was just like, ‘We’ll make it happen.’
And I was thinking no chance, but he was like, ‘Leave it with me.’ And then he did make it happen, to be fair. I asked for offers whether they were full-time or part-time — but I sold myself short because I was really coming either way.
Langley: I was coaching late on a Thursday night and saw an unknown number text come through. I’m scrolling and it’s just signed off ‘Alan Shearer’. I thought I’d better text back! So it was class, but the story has obviously worked out, and Amber’s now our captain.
Newcastle’s cup odyssey, part 11: A night of insanity for Newcastle. Who knows what could happen now?
(Top photo: Shearer, Caulkin, Payne, Waugh, Whitehead and producer Ollie Bellwood; copyright The Athletic)