Updated: Oct 16
It was always going to be a difficult start to our 2023/24 season with all four of our games before the first international break break of the season coming against sides that also qualified for Europe. Despite a 5-1 win over Aston Villa to go top of the league after the opening weekend of the season, a 1-0 loss at defending champions Manchester City was followed by throwing away a 1-0 lead at home to ten man Liverpool to lose 2-1 then a poor performance in a 3-1 loss at Brighton & Hove Albion to leave us 14th in the league with only three points on the board.
However, there is still plenty of time to get back up to where we want to be in the league (and one win can always change the mood amongst our fans) and hopefully, looking at some of our previous misleading starts to seasons will give fans hope that this is just a blip.
The first season we'll revisit is the 1994/95 season - having finished 3rd in our first season back in the top flight the previous season, we won our opening six games and remained unbeaten until a 2-0 loss at defending champions Manchester United in our twelfth league game of the season on 29 October. Our winning start included beating Coventry City and Southampton 4-0 and 5-1 respectively at St James' Park and a 3-2 win at Arsenal.
Following our defeat at Old Trafford, we would only win another two games before New Year and suffered defeats away to Wimbledon, Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City before fans were stunned by the departure of top scorer Andy Cole to Manchester United. Although Keith Gillespie arrived on Tyneside as part of the deal, we slid down the table and a run of two points from five games towards the end of the season meant that we dropped out of the European places. We beat Crystal Palace 3-2 on the final day but Liverpool's 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers (who still clinched the title on the day and beat us 1-0 six days earlier thanks to a first half header from a certain Alan Shearer) meant that we finished 6th and missed out on a UEFA Cup spot.
Like this season, we came into the 2002/03 season on the back of a 4th place finish (having finished 11th the season before that) and with Champions League football to look forward to. We also started the season by hammering the team who finished 7th the previous season by four goals at St James' Park (on this occasion, West Ham United were on the end of a 4-0 scoreline) before losing 1-0 away to Manchester City (although back then, they obviously didn't have the anywhere near same quality of players as they do now) and facing Liverpool in our third game. We came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Anfield thanks to late goals from Alan Shearer and Gary Speed but defeats at home to Leeds United and away to Chelsea left us 19th in the table with just four points after five games.
This even left us below rivals Sunderland (yes, a side that would break the record for the least points in a Premier League season) when they came to St James' Park for the first Tyne-Wear derby of the season on 21 September but first half goals from Craig Bellamy and Alan Shearer gave us a 2-0 win. After that, we won 17 of our next 25 league games to give ourselves an outside chance of winning the league going into the spring international break, defeats to Everton and Manchester United ended our title bid but we still earned a 3rd place finish and another crack at the Champions League (although we would fail to reach the group stages after losing to Partizan Belgrade on penalties in the third and final qualifying round).
Things were getting toxic in the summer of 2018 as Mike Ashley failed to back popular manager Rafael Benítez, who had guided us to 10th place in the 2017/18 season in our first season back in the top flight following promotion despite only spending £30,500,000 (not including the money spent to make loan moves for Christian Atsu from Chelsea and Mikel Merino from Borussia Dortmund permanent). As the Spaniard entered the final year of his contract and we received more money for transfers than we spent that summer, fan protests took place against Ashley on matchdays and the mood wasn't helped by early season results. Our only points in our opening ten league games were 0-0 draws away to Cardiff City, Crystal Palace and Southampton and we sat joint bottom of the league, having also lost 2-0 at home to Leicester City and 1-0 at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, making our worst start to a league season in 120 years.
Benítez was able to turn things around and received the Premier League Manager of the Month award for November after wins over Watford, Bournemouth and Burnley and despite Ashley's neglect, we finished 13th and comfortably survived (whilst also bettering our points tally from the previous season). It was helped by the club record signing of Miguel Almirón from Atlanta United in January whilst forwards Salomón Rondón and Ayoze Pérez netted 23 league goals between them, 21 year academy graduate Sean Longstaff impressed when he got his chance to shine and we beat Manchester City 2-1, came from 2-0 down to beat Everton 3-2 and hammered relegated Fulham 4-0 on the final day. Sadly, Benítez did not sign a new deal and walked away that summer but the job he did under the circumstances will be remembered for the right reasons.
And the final season in this list is last season. Whilst we only lost one of our opening seven league games before the September international break (which would've been a draw away to Liverpool if it wasn't for an extra three minutes stoppage time being added on), we had also only won one game (a 2-0 home win over newly-promoted Nottingham Forest on the opening weekend). Eight points wouldn't have been seen as such a bad start if we were still stuck with Mike Ashley as owner and just aiming for survival but it wasn't a sign of a team about the break into the top four, especially with frustrating draws at home to Crystal Palace and newly-promoted Bournemouth.
A turning point in our season came on 1 October, when we hammered Fulham 4-1, giving them their first home defeat following promotion. The result started a run of nine wins in twelve league games, which saw us climb to 3rd in the league and whilst we dropped to 6th in early March, we won nine of our last fourteen league games to finish 4th and qualify for the Champions League as strikers Callum Wilson (who's form had dropped following the World Cup) and Aleksander Isak (who'd been out of action for four months with a hamstring injury) came into form at the right time whilst Jacob Murphy, Sean Longstaff and Joe Willock also played better towards the end of the season.
I could've included the 1999/00, 2005/06 and 2021/22 seasons but our change in fortunes in those campaigns were largely down to a change in manager. Anyway, if there is anyone out there writing the season off after four games, let's hope that reading about how we started these seasons can remind us that we can still have a season to remember for the right reasons (even if I did include a season that didn't end as well as our start to it suggested it would).