Almirón: "We are now aspiring to greater things"
Written by Tom Easterby
Miguel Almirón was the first player to be profiled in Newcastle United's official matchday programme, UNITED, in 2022/23. The Paraguayan's Corinthian Prostars-inspired likeness adorned the front cover of last weekend's issue for the friendlies against Atalanta and Athletic Bilbao. Inside the first issue, the 28-year-old spoke about his electrifying pre-season and these changing times at St. James' Park…
Up in the Alps and nestled in a cosy sideroom of the restaurant at the Jufenalm BOHO Hotel, Newcastle United's players and staff were waiting, not-so-patiently, for a performance. Miguel Almirón takes up the story. "What it was, we'd just lost a game, and so we had to…" he begins. It was actually a go-karting race, rather than a game, earlier in the Magpies' training camp in Austria. "We'd lost, our team of five people, and so we had to sing, like as a forfeit."
The group, which also included (and was indeed led by) goalkeeper Mark Gillespie, went for a rendition of I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys. Almirón's turn as the Paraguayan Nick Carter, for which the 28-year-old donned sunglasses, brought some welcome comic relief to the stage as he dutifully chimed in with a 'tell me why!' at the appropriate junctures. "We really enjoyed it," he laughs. "At first, I didn't want to do it because I get a bit embarrassed doing stuff like that. But Serena (Taylor) - Serena is the photographer - and it was her that really pushed me into singing. But then I started to sing, and I honestly enjoyed it a lot. I think we were the best group of all that sang that night."
They were actually the only group that sang that night, alongside a host of solo artists, but the details aren't important and the main takeaway for Almirón and his teammates is that a bond has been developing during the team's travels of the past three weeks. "I think it was really useful for both me and my team mates to be able to spend time together and to bond together as a group," he says, "and also, of course, to get our fitness levels right up to speed. We had a great week of really good training sessions and some friendly games as well, and so I think that we are very much on the right track.
"More than anything, I think pre-season training trips away are also a really useful way of everyone getting together and bonding. We spent a lot of hours in each other's company, and I think that's really positive. I think the team is looking really good. We finished the season really strongly and I think that pre-season has got off to a good start too. The group is looking really promising, and very together and united, and I reckon that's always a good thing as it makes for an excellent working atmosphere."
Almirón, centre, playing teqball during Newcastle's recent training camp in Portugal
Almirón scored twice against Gateshead before featuring against 1860 Munich and Mainz in Austria. He also netted two in the training session with Burnley and another brace in what was a fine individual display at Estadio da Luz against Benfica. It has been some pre-season for him. Like many in the United squad he feels revitalised under head coach Eddie Howe, who coaxed some encouraging showings out of him towards the end of last term.
"More than anything, really, I feel a lot more confident. The manager has shown more faith in me too. I'm playing more on the right-hand side too, and I felt a lot more comfortable in that area of the pitch where I played in the last few games towards the end of last season," he explains.
"I was getting forward a lot more. Obviously, I still need to keep working hard on my goalscoring and providing more assists, but I'm always working hard in every training session so I can ensure that can improve on a day-to-day basis. But if there has been a change, and for the better, it would be that I'm feeling more confident going into games, as well as feeling a lot stronger too, and that's very important."
His summer was a busy one. Almirón was with Paraguay as they rounded off their unsuccessful World Cup qualification bid, meaning there will be a break of sorts for him while this winter's tournament takes place in Qatar. There wasn't too long for him to mentally refresh before work started again earlier this month but 2022/23 brings with it a feeling that hasn't really been present at the outset of any of Almirón's previous three campaigns at the club. There is hope.
"I think the club is improving with each season - I think that's to be expected now with all the new people that are working here," he nods. "I think that are showing improvement every year which is vital for us as players, as well the club and its staff and of course the supporters. This is a real positive and I think it's something that you can see and appreciate on the pitch itself, and the fans see it off the field too. It's very important that the club as an organisation itself is making good progress, and as players we have to value that. We're at a very big club in a great and beautiful city, and I think that's something we have to enjoy to the full, not just for me but for all of my teammates and the fans too.
"I think that we are now aspiring to greater things, we no longer want to be scrapping down near the bottom of the league. Those kinds of seasons need to be a thing of the past, when we're fighting to get out of the relegation zone. We need to be aiming higher and trying to battle it out with the teams that are further up the table, and I think that's going to be vital for us. We've all got that same mentality now, and we're all working towards that, in order to improve and at the same time bring some joy and happiness to ourselves and of course our supporters."
"It's very important that the club as an organisation itself is making good progress, and as players we have to value that."
One of the most intriguing aspects of this new version of Newcastle United is how everything fits together behind the scenes; the effect of new players arriving in the dressing room, the effect on players of others being linked to the club, the various changes which may bring long-term stability but sometimes cause short-term uncertainty. Almirón won't be drawn on how much of that seeps into players' minds. "I think we're all very professional when it comes to stuff like that. Whenever any new player comes here, they will always receive a warm welcome if they are here to help the team and the club. I believe that can only be a good thing and it's something that club needs.
"So yes, as I mentioned, we are all professionals here and every one of us gives of their very best and does their utmost in training and in matches in order to help the team, which at the end of the day is what really counts."
There has been intermittent speculation over the past few years over his own future, too. "I'm always very relaxed on that score. My head is always focussed on Newcastle United, I'm very happy here and I’ve always maintained that." he says. "From the very first day I arrived at the club, people have always treated me very well and so I'm always going to be very grateful to everybody at the club and all the fans for how they have treated me since day one. I've come here from far away and I will always value the love and affection that the Newcastle public have shown me. So, like I say, my mindset and attention is always on Newcastle, I want to put in a great pre-season so I'll be able to be in a position to help the team in the games ahead.
"While I'm here at Newcastle, playing my football, for my part I will always have the right positive attitude and willingness to train hard to the best of my ability in an attempt to improve every single day, and to help my team and my fellow teammates as much as I can. So yes, I believe by doing that I will be helping the cause in some small way, for the rest of the lads and the team in general. It's all about training as hard as you can so that things can keep improving."
Almirón celebrates his second goal against Benfica in Lisbon
There is a sense that weight has been lifted off some shoulders now that they don't have to set their public aim at simply just existing in the top flight. There is the small matter of actually delivering on targets to come but for now it is nice, at this stage before the real thing starts next week, to hear from Almirón - a man with a potentially decisive season ahead of him - that there are loftier goals in mind than Magpies supporters have become accustomed to.
"For me, a good season would mean being able to have a decent run in one of the cups and being involved in the shake-up for one of those cups, say the FA Cup, or the League Cup too," he adds. "If we are wanting to aim high as a group of players and as a club, it would be to try and qualify for one of the European competitions. But you only achieve targets like that through proper hard work, and it's very soon to be saying things like this. But you get success through hard work and so let's hope that this season we are in the mix higher up the table.
"When you take a look at the players that we have here you can't help but be enthused, and that's not just us, but the fans too, when they see the players that are coming in and the players that are already here at the club. I reckon that they get excited too, and therefore their hopes for the future get a little higher too. But first and foremost, I repeat, we don't want to find ourselves in any sort of relegation struggle, that certainly needs to end this season. Then we need to be aspiring for a little more, because it's always a nice feeling when you're involved in the race to finish higher and maybe win an important trophy."