Champions League football was not even on the agenda for Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United at the start of the season.
But, after securing a top-four finish by drawing with Leicester on Monday night, next season the Magpies will be in Europe’s premier competition for the first time since 2003.
When Howe took the helm on 8 November 2021 Newcastle were 19th in the Premier League table.
“[Our expectation this term] certainly wasn’t top four,” Howe told Sky Sports after his side’s draw with Leicester.
“I think you always hope, you always believe and you have to dream.
“But we didn’t feel that we were ready for that. After last season’s battle with relegation it was whether we could consolidate and become a better team.
“To not have that flirtation with relegation and try to give it a go, it’s just been incredible.”
From relegation-threatened to ‘buzzing’ for Europe
“If you told us two years ago this was going to happen, we wouldn’t have believed you,” Newcastle midfielder Sean Longstaff told Sky Sports.
On 7 October 2021, Newcastle, struggling in the Premier League relegation zone, were controversially taken over in a Saudi Arabia-backed £305m deal.
Thirteen days later manager Steve Bruce was sacked. By December, and with Howe now in charge, the Magpies had only seven points from 14 matches.
Being able to spend £85m in January – on full-back Kieran Trippier, ex-Burnley striker Chris Wood, midfielder Bruno Guimaraes and centre-half Dan Burn – helped transform their season as they finished 11th.
This campaign they have lost just five league matches, bringing Champions League football back to St James’ Park for the first time in 20 years.
“We’ve beaten Juventus here 1-0 [in the Champions League], you see it on old DVDs,” added Longstaff. “To be a part of this, I’m buzzing. It’s going to be special.”
Howe was quick to play down any talk about big summer spending in the transfer market.
He said: “There is a very small pool of players to look at. We have to recruit wisely, as we have done in every transfer window to date. This will be our toughest one.
“We’ll think about next season during the summer. We don’t want to go far away from what we’ve done. We are realistic to know there will be more games and that’s a challenge.
“Whenever you achieve something you’re not just happy to participate. You want to succeed and want success. I want success massively for this football club. We’ll enjoy tonight, but we want to bring silverware here if we can in the future.”
‘This town is solely about football’
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports: “I am delighted they have got that position. It is a joy to watch Newcastle now. I think Newcastle are two to three years ahead of schedule.
“They have spent money but that team on paper is not a top-four team. A lot of people felt Eddie Howe would be the guy to get them through a year, but he has done one of the best jobs in the Premier League.”
Ex-Manchester United defender Gary Neville added: “Howe has played a blinder. The next step will be interesting.
“I thought the owners would be lavish when they came in but it has been measured. It has been bold, but measured. You see many new owners come into clubs, appoint more fashionable managers, sign more fashionable players, but I like what they have done.
“There is a humility about what they have done. They need to stick to these principles. There is a challenge about how they move forward. We have seen the likes of Neymar linked in recent months but that would scare the living daylights out of Eddie Howe.
“The challenge is it would have been a three-four year plan for Howe and Newcastle and next year if they dip a little and finish sixth, it would still be a good season, but how would everyone assess that? We need to remember that they are well ahead of schedule.”
Newcastle face Chelsea on the last day of the season on Sunday. A win would take them to 73 points, which would be their highest Premier League total since 1996.
They have scored 67 goals already this season, their most in a top-flight campaign since 2002.
“These people love football, this town is solely about football,” midfielder Nolberto Solano, who played in Newcastle’s last Champions League match – a 2-0 loss away to Barcelona – told Sky Sports.
“It hasn’t been the best times but everyone must be so proud.”