The revealing remark from Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe which hints at what his players needed after Steve Bruce
The club was winless and 19th in the Premier League. The team had no identity, no belief, and many supporters feared that another relegation was inevitable, even though there had just been a long-awaited change in ownership.
What Howe saw in his first days at the club’s outdated training ground was quite different.
Significantly, United’s new head coach, appointed as Steve Bruce’s successor, found a group of players, many of whom had been together since Rafa Benitez’s time as manager, that “wanted to be coached”.
“My first impressions were genuine, a really willing group that wanted to be coached, that wanted help, so I felt there was a really good starting point,” said Howe, who took the club up to third in the Premier League table yesterday.
The coaching of Bruce – who had guided the team he inherited from Benitez to 12th and 13th-placed finishes – had come under scrutiny from supporters.
What the team didn’t have under Bruce – who chopped and changed systems and playing styles – was an identity.
Howe arrived with what he described as a “blueprint” for how he wanted the team to play.
Yes, the club’s £200million-plus transfer spend has helped – it addressed years of under-investment from former owner Mike Ashley – but the coaching of Howe and his staff, and the culture they have implemented, have been fundamental to the team’s success up to now.
Asked if there was anything he changed immediately, the 44-year-old said: “It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot, but I don’t think we necessarily changed anything, because we didn’t know what was happening.
“We had very clear ideas of what we wanted to do based on my understanding of the best way to do the job.
“I’ve been a manager for a while, so I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do. I tried not to focus on what had gone on in the past here. I think that’s a very dangerous thing, you can be too reliant on certain things that have happened, or traditions and cultures that exist.
“Of course, we respected that, but we wanted to come in with our own ideas and blueprint of how we wanted to play – and how we wanted to work. We just set about implementing that.”
It took time for Howe and his staff to implement their ideas, and it would be almost a month before the club got its first win, a 1-0 success over Burnley.
However, in Howe’s view, the turning point didn’t come until late January, when a goal from Jonjo Shelvey gave Newcastle, still second-bottom, a 1-0 win over Leeds United at Elland Road.
“Now the results weren’t matching that expectation initially, and that leads to an element of doubt,” said Howe. “You need the result to validate what you feel, and it was really from the Leeds game onwards that things started to turn in a positive direction.”
A week earlier, an 88th-minute strike from Watford’s Joao Pedro had denied Howe’s side a win at St James’s Park, and that fixture and the club’s home FA Cup defeat to Cambridge United earlier in the month are cited as the two lows of his tenure so far.
Asked for his low points, Howe said: “I think Cambridge is the obvious one, and I can still feel that today – the disappointment, the loneliness.
“That was a game we wanted to win, and we wanted to build a winning culture, and we felt that was an ideal game to do that and do well in the cup – and there was a real lowness after that.
“Also the Watford game, we were close to a win at a pivotal time, and we didn’t get over the line and coincided late. Those two games were every close to each other, and from those games afterwards there felt a long way to go, a long way back for us.
“Thankfully the reaction to those disappointments was very strong.”
There was also the “must-win” home game against Norwich City in late November. Ciaran Clark was dismissed early in the game, and 10-man Newcastle – who took a second-half lead through a Callum Wilson strike – conceded an equaliser 11 minutes from time.
The dismissal of Clark, though, led to an enforced reshuffle which saw Joelinton switched to midfield – and the Brazilian, signed as a striker, never looked back. The 26-year-old quickly looked like a £40million midfielder.
Also, Clark’s sending off, and the on-pitch adversity which followed, seemingly galvanised both players and fans for the challenges ahead.
“There’s been a lot of highs and lows,” said Howe, who also ordered a training ground makeover. “When you step into the job a year ago, the size of the task ahead was huge, absolutely massive.
“The early stages were very difficult for us as a team. We didn’t win games that really every one said Norwich at home and Watford at home that we had to win to stay up.
“There was almost that feeling that it was going to become even more difficult for us, but thankfully the players grouped together. That win against Leeds was the turning point. We haven’t really looked back from that game, a really good ride to today.”
Howe, certainly, is enjoying the ride.
“Time catches up with you, doesn’t it? It just flies by, and here we are,” said Howe. “I think back to what I was doing this time last year, I was probably looking a lot at Newcastle and trying to formulate my plans and what I may do if I got the job. Yeah, the rest is history.
"It’s gone so quickly, but I’ve loved every moment of it.”
Newcastle fans are loving every moment too.