THIS time it was different for Shay Given.

More than two decades ago, he was on the pitch and in a bubble of football focus when Newcastle United were competing in the Champions League.

This time around, the former United keeper was in Milan, Dortmund and Paris as a fan and club ambassador.

"The sun was out, the fans were in their element doing the city and club proud, what an experience," he tells the Northern Echo.

There'll be no Champions League next season for the Magpies but there will, providing Manchester City get the job done against Manchester United in the Emirates FA Cup final today, be European trips in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Given believes it's crucial United become part of the furniture in continental competitions but whereas this season was about dipping the toes back in Champions League waters, a tilt at the Conference League would be very different, for the 48-year-old believes his former club would stand every chance of winning it.

And having spent so much of his career on Tyneside, he knows Eddie Howe and his group of players would be immortals in Newcastle if they can finally end the long wait for silverware.

"They will, of course they will," he says.

"You could see the reaction on the streets when they qualified for the Champions League. I remember losing the FA Cup final and coming back and the streets were lined with fans. And that was after a defeat.

"If this group of players and Howe - a brilliant manager - if they can get their hands on a trophy, they'd be worshipped evermore."

Given added: "Because the Conference League is a lesser competition, Eddie might be able to rest a couple whereas you obviously can't do that in the Champions League. So there might be an element of that.

"Realistically it's an opportunity to win a trophy. For all connected with Newcastle, it's been torturously long. The sooner they can get a trophy on the mantelpiece, it puts all that to rest.

"Touch wood, the Conference League, they'd have a real chance of winning that competition."

Newcastle's chances of lifting silverware and enjoying success next term might well hinge on whether they manage to keep hold of star duo Bruno Guimaraes and Alexander Isak this summer.

"That's important," says Given.

"At any club the last thing you want to do is lose your best players. You want to build your team around them.

"Bruno covered the most ground in the Premier League this season. Isak has ice running through his veins when he gets a chance. He's a real top goalscorer and marksman. What price would be on his head? They did pay big money for him so the offer would have to be astronomical.

"If last season showed anything it's that the strength in depth wasn't there. There were times when the same outfield players seemed to play 10 games in a row because they had so many injuries. So it will be key to try and strengthen the squad in most departments."


What should be the transfer priorities?

"Well Botman is going to be out until Christmas, Lascelles is obviously out as well and Schar isn't any younger, so you'd expect they'd be looking at a centre-half," says Given.

"I don't know what's happening with Callum Wilson, hopefully Isak stays. You go round the team, there was weaknesses this year.

"No disrespect to the kids because their time will come but at times this season Eddie turned to his bench and there was a group of kids behind him. This season will have taught Eddie and the owners that strength in depth is key to compete on all fronts."

That point was proven on Friday when a young Newcastle side got thumped 8-0 by an A-League All Stars outfit in Melbourne.

Given the injury crisis Howe has had to deal with this season, plus the extra workload that came with Champions League qualification, a seventh-place finish - in the circumstances - was deemed a success. But what about next season?

"You probably need to ask me that after the window closes," says Given.

"It's difficult sitting here now. I can only talk about the positives of last season but we've already talked about Bruno and Isak.

"Can we keep hold of them? It's difficult to answer that today. I'm sure the recruitment team will have targets in mind because we have to strengthen to move forward. There's no getting away from that.

"Success next season? It's hard to say. The owners have bought the club to be challenging at the top of the league.

"The quicker we get there, the better. But as we've seen with other clubs, it's difficult and very competitive. Even Chelsea. I know they've lost their manager but at one stage a month ago we thought it was between ourselves and Manchester United for a top six finish.

"It's a difficult question to answer. Ideally you want to be challenging for Champions League football but Tottenham, Aston Villa and Chelsea will all be saying the same thing. We did it last year, why can't we do it again?"

Ahead of today's Emirates FA Cup final, Given had a surprise in store for two Newcastle fans - who won a trip to Dubai.

The supporters were taking part in the Race to the Emirates FA Cup, set-up by Emirates, who challenged fans to travel from their favourite team’s stadium to the nearest Emirates airport check-in desk in the quickest time.

Along the way they met football legends and answered fan-focused quizzes before discovering their prize.

Given said: "It was a great challenge and great fun. The lads were massive Newcastle fans and it was good to talk football with them - and great to see them win such a brilliant prize."

Watch how the Race to the Emirates FA Cup played out in the video above.