NEWCASTLE: Qualifying Newcastle United for the Champions League was not even in Eddie Howe's thoughts at the start of the season but on Monday the club's remarkable transformation saw them secure their place back amongst Europe's elite.
A 0-0 draw at home to Leicester City meant Newcastle will finish in the Premier League's top four and will be mixing it with the continent's big guns for the first time in two decades.
After celebrating on the St James' Park pitch with his players, Howe was asked what the targets had been back in August.
"Certainly wasn't (top four)," the former Bournemouth manager told Sky Sports. "You always hope and always believe and you have to dream. But we didn't feel we were ready for that.
"After last season's battle against relegation, it really was whether we could consolidate and become a better team and not flirt with relegation like last season.
"I can't praise (the players) enough for that mentality, their attitude what they've given me and the club."
When Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund bought an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle in October 2021, ending Mike Ashley's barren 14-year ownership of the North East club, the initial task was to keep them in the top flight.
Newcastle were 19th in the table and without a win and Steve Bruce was shortly sacked and replaced by Howe.
Even then it took Newcastle until the 15th game of the season to get a league win, but after that, with the help of some astute signings such as England right back Kieran Trippier, Brazil midfielder Bruno Guimaraes and defender Dan Burn, the fog that had shrouded the Tyneside club finally began to lift.
Newcastle eventually finished 11th and the momentum carried into this season with the club splashing some of the Saudi cash on club record purchase Swedish striker Alexander Isak.
While, on paper, Newcastle have riches to rival any club in the world, they have not yet signed the sort of galactico players the fans might have been dreaming about.
But the likes of Isak, former Burnley keeper Nick Pope and defender Sven Botman have enhanced Howe's squad.
They began to turn a succession of draws at the start of the season into wins and apart from a mid-season dip when the goals dried up, Newcastle have been a model of consistency.
The fact they have finished above the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, speaks volumes for Howe's impact and he can now start planning for the next step.
"We have to recruit wisely which we have done in every window so far," Howe said. "But the next window will be the hardest. We know next season the challenge will be bigger."
While Newcastle's first top-four finish in the Premier League since 2003 sparked celebrations on Monday, Howe said the next step is to deliver a first major trophy since 1955 after falling in the League Cup final this year.
"I want success massively for this football club," Howe said. "So we'll try that. I feel like we've achieved something great but there's no trophy. We'll enjoy tonight be we want to bring silverware here in the future." — Reuters