TWO key events will shape the future of Newcastle United this summer. The first is the resolution of Mike Ashley’s ongoing court action against the Premier League; the second is the outcome of negotiations with Arsenal over Joe Willock. At this stage, it is hard to say exactly how either will turn out.

Willock’s importance to the Magpies was underlined again yesterday as his first-half strike helped secure the final-day win at Fulham that lifted Steve Bruce’s side to a finishing position of 12th.

In a game of few opportunities, the 21-year-old came up with one of the two moments that mattered, with Fabian Schar sealing the victory as he rolled home from the spot with two moments left.

Since joining on loan for the second half of the season, the importance of Willock’s impact cannot be overstated. His willingness to drive forward from midfield has transformed Newcastle’s attacking play, helping ensure the Magpies have not suffered the same fate as yesterday’s opponents, who will be spending next season in the Championship. Without him, things might well have been a lot more fraught.

Yesterday’s goal, which came at the end of a driving run that started from inside his own half, means Willock has scored in seven successive Premier League outings, equalling a club record set by Alan Shearer in 1996. If he is going to make it eight in a row, he will have to still be a Newcastle player at the start of next season, an eventuality that cannot be taken for granted at this stage.

Mikel Arteta’s insistence that Willock will be returning to Arsenal might well prove to be a bargaining ploy, but it nevertheless highlights just how much the 21-year-old’s stock has risen during his loan spell on Tyneside. Regarded as something of an unproven quantity at the highest level when he left the Emirates at the end of January, Willock returns to North London as a proven Premier League performer.

Newcastle’s hopes of securing a deal for £20m have surely disappeared, but if Ashley, who was an interested observer in the Craven Cottage stands yesterday, has any intention of trying to drive the Magpies forward regardless of what happens with his legal wrangling this summer, he must surely furnish Arsenal with whatever it takes to sign Willock.

For once, Newcastle need to make a statement of intent. Two years ago, they signed off for the season with a 4-0 win at Fulham in what proved to be Rafael Benitez’s final game in charge of the club. Optimism abounded at a sun-kissed Craven Cottage, but in the 24 months since, the Magpies have flatlined. There has been no meaningful progress, with Ashley’s unsuccessful attempts to sell up effectively ensuring that investment has remained extremely limited.

Bruce will point out that Newcastle have not regressed in the two years since Benitez departed, with the Spaniard’s final season on Tyneside having resulted in a 13th-place finish, with the Magpies on the 45-point mark. After yesterday’s win, Newcastle have finished the current campaign in 12th, again with 45 points to their name.

Stagnation should not be viewed as an acceptable state of affairs though, and for all that Bruce has overcome some significant obstacles this season in order to guide his side to safety, it is hard to avoid the sense that Newcastle continue to tread water.

A change of ownership would change the club’s outlook at a stroke, so the outcome of Ashley’s legal action against the Premier League will have a profound effect on whether the next two years will witness any meaningful progress. If Amanda Staveley’s Saudi Arabia-backed consortium replace Ashley in the boardroom, there is the potential for a new dawn. If, however, Ashley continues in his current role as a frustrated owner looking for an exit strategy, it is hard to see the next two years being any different to the last two. As the vast majority of Newcastle supporters will attest, that is hardly an appealing prospect.

In terms of immediate change, as well as marking the end of Willock’s loan spell from Arsenal, yesterday’s game might also have been the final time Dwight Gayle and Andy Carroll are involved in a Newcastle squad. That neither of the forwards made the starting line-up despite the absence of the injured Callum Wilson and Joelinton said pretty much everything about their standing this season, and it is hard to see them remaining on Tyneside next term. Schar and Federico Fernandez are also due to become free agents this summer, but Newcastle are expected to trigger a clause in the former’s contract extending his stay and are also understood to be in talks with the latter about a possible new deal.

Fernandez started yesterday, with Schar coming on for the final 18 minutes, but any prospect of any of Newcastle’s players being placed under any real pressure disappeared when the Magpies’ improved form over the last couple of months coincided with Fulham’s implosion.

Back in early April, when Fulham’s 1-0 lead at Aston Villa briefly dropped Newcastle into the bottom three, the two sides’ final-day meeting looked like being a winner-takes-all shootout for Premier League survival. Instead, Newcastle went into yesterday’s game 14 points clear of their opponents, and devoid of any worries about ending up in the Championship.

As a result, they were able to play without any fear, although the lack of any tangible consequences for either side inevitably resulted in a game that lacked a competitive edge.

Allan Saint-Maximin fired in a seventh-minute effort that Marek Rodak tipped around the post while, at the other end, Ivan Cavaleiro curled over after he had been teed up by a breaking Ademola Lookman, but the match was meandering along fairly aimlessly until Willock intervened with his record-equalling goal in the 24th minute.

It was a strike that showcased all the 21-year-old’s energy and desire, with his driving upfield run starting from inside his own half and taking him to the edge of Fulham’s 18-yard box. He briefly lost control of the ball as he was tackled, but while there was an element of fortune to the way in which the ball rebounded back into his path, there was still much to admire in the composed way he swivelled before firing home a low finish.

Willock passed up a decent chance of adding a second goal at the start of the second half, failing to make a proper connection with his attempt at a side-footed shot after Jacob Murphy delivered a low cross from the right, and in a rare moment of slackness, the loanee almost set up a Fulham equaliser shortly before the hour mark.

He gave the ball away cheaply to Fabio Carvalho in his own half, but while the Fulham forward teed up Cavaleiro, his curled effort from inside the area sailed wastefully over the crossbar.

Gayle headed Matt Ritchie’s free-kick over at the other end when he should really have at least found the target, but Newcastle were handed an opportunity to cement their success with two minutes left.

Kenny Tete bundled Ritchie over, with referee Chris Kavanagh immediately pointing to the spot. With Willock having missed a spot-kick against Manchester City, Schar stepped up to score.