SITTING in the press room at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium on Sunday, moments before dashing to catch the team coach to the airport for a flight to Australia, Eddie Howe was asked to reflect on the season that had just come to an end.

“It’s been difficult for me because I haven’t really wanted to go there and reflect on what might have been,” mused the Magpies boss. “It would really be an endless tale of different scenarios playing out in your head, and that actually doesn’t help you at all. But, of course, there are moments where I’ve thought about what this season could have looked like. I think it could have been totally different.”

What if. What if Newcastle hadn’t blown so much of their summer budget on a gambling addict who was about to confess to a series of rule breaches that would see him banned for ten months? What if the injuries hadn’t continued to mount to a point where, for a month or so, Howe pretty much had to pick the only 11 players who were fit and available? What if Tino Livramento hadn’t been adjudged to have handled the ball in the Parc des Princes? What if Kieran Trippier hadn’t erred in the final seconds at Stamford Bridge?

Every club’s season will contain moments when things could have turned out differently, but for Newcastle, this was a campaign pockmarked with turning points and forks in the road. Most of the time, although not always, fate decreed what would happen to them rather than anything that was self-planned. As a result, a seventh-placed finish, and a return to Europe next season provided Manchester City win this weekend’s FA Cup final, is arguably an even greater achievement than the previous campaign’s fourth-place finish when the fixture list was light and injuries largely non-existent. In terms of bare statistics, Newcastle have gone backwards over the course of the last nine months. In reality, the club’s position is significantly more nuanced.

That is not to say that mistakes were not made though. Any assessment of the Magpies’ season has to start last summer, and a transfer window that, while not quite the disaster it was looking for much of the campaign, still has to be regarded as a failure.

Spending £55m on Tonali was a calamity for which the outgoing sporting director, Dan Ashworth, has probably not received the weight of criticism he deserves. How could Newcastle have known what was just around the corner? Well, as someone who prides himself on his due diligence, Ashworth should have been aware of the rumours that were beginning to swirl around Italian football. And even if Tonali had not been banned, was he really the solution to the problem of Newcastle’s midfield mix? The Magpies went into last summer needing a defensive midfielder, hence the admittedly far-fetched links with Declan Rice. They signed a playmaker to go along with the ones they already possessed. Perhaps Tonali will come good next season. Perhaps, though, even with his presence, there will still be a gaping hole at the base of midfield that needs to be filled.

The Northern Echo: Newcastle United midfielder Sandro TonaliNewcastle United midfielder Sandro Tonali (Image: Sandro Tonali)

Tino Livramento, Lewis Hall and Harvey Barnes all look like decent signings now, particularly with an eye on the future. But it can still be argued that they were not what Newcastle needed from last summer’s window. As the subsequent nine months have proved, signing another striker would have been a much better use of limited funds.

That said, the campaign began brightly with an opening-day thrashing of Aston Villa that looks even better now than it did at the time thanks to the subsequent achievements of the team that were soundly beaten at St James’ Park.

The fixture list was far from kind, though – another ‘What if’ factor – with Newcastle’s opening four league games pitting them against teams that had finished in the top seven in the previous campaign. Sure enough, after defeats to Manchester City, Liverpool and Brighton, the Magpies were languishing in 14th position as they prepared to kick off their Champions League campaign.

Ah, the Champions League. The promised land for a club like Newcastle, striving to rejoin the European elite under their Saudi Arabia-backed ownership group, and a competition that did not disappoint as the Magpies renewed acquaintances after a gap of more than two decades.

The opening-day trip to the San Siro was exhilarating, with thousands of Geordies taking over Milan, but it was the following home game with Paris St Germain that was truly exceptional. A 4-1 thrashing of the French champions. Dan Burn thumping home a header in front of the Leazes. Fabian Schar curling home spectacularly in front of the Gallowgate End. The pummelling of PSG stands alongside the Fairs Cup win, Tino against Barcelona and Shearer in the San Siro on the list of Newcastle’s unforgettable European nights.

READ MORE:

Sadly, the win was not to be a precursor to qualifying for the knockout stages. Newcastle were uncharacteristically timid as they suffered home and away defeats to Borussia Dortmund – admittedly, the results do not look as bad now with the German side in the Champions League final – and Kylian Mbappe’s last-gasp penalty in Paris meant they needed a positive result in their final group game against Milan to progress. Leading through Joelinton, they were unable to hold on, with their 2-1 defeat meaning they exited Europe entirely.

The Milan defeat was followed by a league win over Fulham that lifted Newcastle back up to sixth in the table, but the seeds of a spring decline had already been sown. Nick Pope was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Sven Botman was also missing, and would subsequently suffer ACL damage that would prematurely end his campaign. Dan Burn? Broken back. Joe Willock? A succession of Achilles issues. Callum Wilson? Hardly ever available. Alexander Isak? Absent whenever Wilson was fit. Harvey Barnes, Jacob Murphy, Elliot Anderson, Joelinton? All missing for months on end.

Newcastle were creaking as they tried to cope with so many absentees, with their defending becoming especially ragged. In the space of eight successive league games between Boxing Day and the end of February, the Magpies conceded two of more goals on seven occasions. The contrast with the previous campaign, when their backline had been all-but impenetrable, was stark.

January’s FA Cup win at Sunderland was a highlight for obvious reasons, but having been unfortunate in the draws for both the Champions League and Carabao Cup, the balls once again failed to fall in Newcastle’s favour as they were handed a trip to the Etihad in the FA Cup quarter-finals. What if? It was hard not to wonder.

The subsequent defeat to Manchester City ended the Magpies’ hopes of winning silverware for yet another season, but at least as the league campaign resumed in late March, some of the injured players were beginning to return.

The final two months of the campaign afforded glimpses of what Newcastle could have been, with Isak excelling, Bruno Guimaraes hitting his stride and the likes of Livramento and Hall showcasing the qualities that persuaded Howe and the rest of the club’s recruitment team to sign off on them last summer. Schar held things together at the back, and was one of the unsung heroes of the season, while Anthony Gordon sparkled as he tore down the left-hand side. Isak finished the season with a hugely impressive 25 goals in all competitions, but Gordon was the standout star.

The Northern Echo: Newcastle United winger Anthony GordonNewcastle United winger Anthony Gordon (Image: PA)

The pair were both to the fore in April’s four-goal thrashing of Tottenham – perhaps Newcastle’s most complete performance of the campaign – and while defeat to Manchester United in the penultimate fixture was a disappointment, Howe’s side headed to Brentford on the final weekend needing to win to keep their European hopes alive, and duly delivered.

As a result, all eyes turn to Wembley on Saturday. The final ‘What if’ moment of a season that has been littered with them? Or belated reward for a campaign that has seen the Magpies successfully confound the challenges that have been presented with? Manchester City, it’s over to you…