ALAN Pardew claims qualifying for the Champions League at Everton tomorrow afternoon would be as important to Newcastle United as their Championship title triumph of two seasons ago.
Newcastle travel to Goodison Park for their final game of the season knowing a victory could result in a return to Champions League football for the first time in nine years.
The Magpies could finish as high as third if they beat Everton and both Arsenal and Tottenham lose, while they will claim fourth position if they win and one of the north London clubs fail to claim all three points from their games against West Brom and Fulham respectively.
Qualification for the group stages of the Champions League is worth around £30m, a figure that dwarves the £3m that Newcastle are likely to earn if they compete in the Europa League next season.
“It's off the scale what it could mean,” said Pardew, who is expected to name an unchanged side tomorrow. “It's almost as great as getting promotion from the Championship to the Premier League – it's that significant.
“The figures only come in if you get through to the group stage, and it actually means nothing if you don't make it through to that.
“Third place puts you straight in the group stage and that is massive. That is a big, big jump for any football club. The Champions League is the pinnacle of the game and it is great to have a chance of qualifying going into the final game.
“I don't think there is any doubt in the group that they feel they can play Champions League football.”
Whatever happens tomorrow, Newcastle are guaranteed to be involved in the Europa League, and as they can finish no worse than fifth, they will not be required to play a third preliminary round game ahead of the opening weekend of next season.
That is a major bonus, but Europa League football would still present a series of problems that would have to be negotiated.
Stoke City's league form has dropped off alarmingly this season, with boss Tony Pulis admitting his side have struggled to cope with the demands of long continental trips on a Thursday evening followed by a domestic fixture on a Sunday afternoon.
Pardew expects to be increasing the depth of his squad this summer, but if it is to be the Europa League next season, the Newcastle boss accepts his side will be taking something of a step into the unknown.
“Even now, it's something I'm trying to get the players' minds around for next year,” he said. “This year, the policy has been a bit easier for me because we've not had as many midweek games, so therefore if we have great performances, I just pick the same team and maybe change things a big tactically.
“Next year, we might have to make four or five changes even if we win because I'm going to need to rotate the players. For instance, someone like (Fabricio) Coloccini is going to have to understand that he can't play in every game.
“It's a question of managing the players and calling it right, and we'll be taking all the information from Stoke and Fulham and all the teams who have participated in Europe to get as good a knowledge as we can to make sure we get it right.”
That is for the future. For now, Newcastle can simply take pride in a season that has exceeded all expectations whatever happens this weekend.
Pardew has had to take some crucial decisions in the last nine months, from sanctioning the departure of senior players such as Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and Jose Enrique to adapting his side's playing style in order to introduce a more progressive, passing approach.
He has watched the likes of Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye produce a string of impressive performances after signing for the Magpies, and promoted Tim Krul at the start of the season when it might have been easier to stick with the more experienced Steve Harper.
The vast majority of his biggest decisions have been a success, even if a number looked risky at the time they were taken.
“You have to make decisions you totally believe in and you have to stick with them” said Pardew, whose favourite moment of the season was Shola Ameobi's dramatic equaliser against Sunderland. “When you make a decision you've got to try not to leave any grey areas in it. And it has to be a decision you can stand by.
“One or two decisions I've had to make have been contract related – Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton to an extent. But you have to have a group that are pulling in the right direction.
“Then when you get a player like Hatem (Ben Arfa), they have to grasp it otherwise they're not going to be loved by the rest of the players. If you are not loved by the rest of the players, you're not going to play well at any football club.”