Champions League football was not on the agenda for Eddie Howe’s Newcastle United at the start of the season.
However, after getting the top-four finish drawing in 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 are 19th in the Premier League table.
“[Our expectation this term] definitely not 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 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 be that flirting with relegation and try to try it, it’s unbelievable.”
From relegation-threat to ‘buzzing’ for Europe
“If you had told us two years ago that this would happen, we wouldn’t have believed you,” Newcastle midfielder Sean Longstaff told Sky Sports.
On 7 October 2021, Newcastle, struggling in the relegation zone of the Premier League, taken in a Saudi Arabian-backed £305m deal.
Thirteen days later manager Steve Bruce was sacked. By December, with Howe now in charge, the Magpies had just seven points from 14 games.
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 turn their season around as they finished in the 11.
This campaign they have lost just five league games, bringing Champions League football back to St James’ Park for the first time in 20 years.
“We beat Juventus here 1-0 [in the Champions League], you can see it on old DVDs,” added Longstaff. “To be a part of it, I’m buzzing. It’s going to be special.”
Howe was quick to play down any talk of big summer spending in the transfer market.
He said: “There is a very small pool of players to look at. We have to recruit smartly, as we have done in every transfer window so far. This is our toughest.
“We will think about the next summer season. We don’t want to go far from what we have done. We are realistic knowing that there are many games and that will be a challenge.
“Every time you achieve something you are not just happy to participate. You want to succeed and want to succeed. I want success big for this football club. We will have fun tonight, but we want to bring silverware here if we can in the future.”
‘This town is all about football’
Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports: “I’m glad they got that position. It’s a joy to watch Newcastle now. I think Newcastle are two to three years ahead of schedule .
“They spent money but that team on paper wasn’t a top-four team. A lot of people felt Eddie Howe was the man to get them through in one year, but he’s done one of the best jobs in Premier League.”
Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville added: “Howe is playing with a blinder. The next step will be interesting.
“I thought the owners would be extravagant when they came in but it was measured. It was bold, but measured. You see a lot of new owners coming into clubs, appointing more fashionable managers, signing to the more fashionable player, but I like what they’ve done.
“There’s humility in what they’ve done. They have to follow these principles. There’s a challenge in how they progress. We’ve seen the likes of Neymar involved in recent months but that’s frightening in the loving light of day from Eddie Howe.
“The challenge is that it’s a three-four-year plan for Howe and Newcastle and next year if they slip a bit and finish sixth, it’s still a good season, but how will everyone assess? It has to be let’s remember that. they’re ahead of schedule.”
Newcastle face Chelsea on the final day of the season on Sunday. A win would take them to 73 points, which is their highest Premier League total since 1996.
They have scored 67 goals this season, their most in a top-flight campaign since 2002.
“These people love football, this city is all about football,” midfielder Nolberto Solano, who played in Newcastle’s last Champions League game – a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona – told Sky Sports .
“It hasn’t been the best of times but everyone should be very proud.”