By Damian Spellman, PA
Newcastle boss Eddie Howe has admitted Champions League qualification was not even in his thoughts as he embarked upon the new Premier League campaign.
The Magpies secured a top-four finish and a return to the big stage for the first time since the 2002-03 season with a 0-0 draw against Leicester on Monday evening to complete a remarkable turnaround.
They were in severe danger of relegation when Howe took the helm in November 2021 but will now rub shoulders with the continent’s elite next season.
A delighted Howe said: “This wasn’t in our sights at that moment. We had escaped relegation impressively, from the position we were in.
“We were hopeful of improving and staying away from danger and growing the team to a position where maybe we could compete for Europe in a couple of seasons, so we’ve shot ahead of schedule.
“With that comes big challenges for the future, but when you’re in these moments and there’s an opportunity of something like this, you have to take it.”
The club’s Saudi-backed owners have ploughed in excess of £250million in the squad since buying out Mike Ashley, but have received an earlier than anticipated return on their investment.
Newcastle reached the Carabao Cup final in February only to lose to Manchester United at Wembley, but were not to be denied a place at Europe’s top table.
Howe said: “The difficulty is there’s no trophy. It’s an amazing achievement, an amazing thing in terms of where we’ve come from in such a short space of time.
“But it feels difficult to celebrate it like you’ve won a league or something like that. It’s right up there, of course it is. It’s an amazing thing at a very special club.
Asked how he would celebrate, Howe added with a smile: “I don’t know how I’ll celebrate. I’ll wait and see. I hope it’s not with a tea and a biscuit.”
St James’ Park was bouncing at the final whistle and Howe, his staff and players performed a lap of honour, although the mood in the Leicester camp was very different.
The Foxes remain two points adrift of safety, although victory over West Ham on Saturday coupled with a draw for Everton at home to Bournemouth would keep them up on goal difference.
They did not muster a shot until stoppage time, when Magpies goalkeeper Nick Pope kept out Timothy Castagne’s volley to deny them a priceless victory, but boss Dean Smith was defiant over his safety-first approach.
Smith said: “I make no apologies for the way we set up today. We haven’t kept a clean sheet for too long and the reason we are where we are is because of that in my opinion.
“My mind was made up when I watched Newcastle play Brighton on Thursday, one of the best footballing teams in the Premier League this year, Brighton, and in that first 20, 25 minutes, they steamrollered them.
“We had to keep a clean sheet and hope, because we had to make sacrifices with our team sheet today and hope then we were still in the game.
“It almost worked exactly to plan, but the goalkeeper made a really good save in the 90th minute, which was our only shot, I think.
“If it’s too little, too late, who knows? But we’ve taken it to Sunday now.”