Three years ago, almost to the day, a shambolic Newcastle United surrendered to the most supine of defeats at Aston Villa and in the process endured the ignominy of relegation to the Championship.
They were rightly deemed in such disarray to be written off in many quarters as the latest big-name club to be consigned to a lengthy exile in the relative wilderness of the Football League. How times change.
It is an indication of the strides they have made in the ensuing trio of seasons that their fifth-place finish, a quite stunning achievement despite going out on somewhat of a low, should be met with a tinge of disappointment and a palpable thought of what might have been.
St James’ Park will welcome the return of European football next season after a six-year hiatus. That it should stage such a rarified level of competition just three seasons after hosting Scunthorpe and Peterborough as equals is little short of astonishing.
That it is the Europa League and not the Champions League coming to Tyneside remains the only drawback of what has been a stunning campaign. The fact that Newcastle left Merseyside a little downbeat that they will be performing in the former not the latter exhibits the seismic shift in expectation during what has been a momentous nine months.
Whatever had been the outcome of this match and those involving Arsenal and Tottenham — who both failed to slip up in any case, a pre-requisite of the visitors securing an unlikely top four place — this was an afternoon to reflect on a season of huge progress and to look ahead to what promise to be hugely exciting times.
In contrast, this 90 minutes was not one of their finest, their Champions League hopes extinguished within the opening half hour as the hosts made it a fifth consecutive final day of the season victory to seal a seventh-place finish and with it local bragging rights over Liverpool, who they finished above for the first time in seven years.
Clad in their new burgundy away kit — or as someone quipped ‘passport maroon’ for impending foreign trips — they barely posed an attacking threat before the hosts deservedly took a 16th minute lead. Leon Osman beat Cheik Tiote in the air to release Merouane Fellani, whose square pass allowed Stephen Pienaar try his luck from 20-yards, the midfielder’s looping shot finding the top corner courtesy of a hefty deflection off Mike Williamson.
With 27 minutes gone, Nikica Jelavic easily beat Fabricio Coloccini to John Heitinga’s pass, seeing his first shot from 15 yards brilliantly blocked by Tim Krul, but retaining the presence of mind to thump the rebound home right-footed from close range to end the campaign with 11 in 13 starts as Everton finished the season in style with just one defeat in 11 games, sadly for them in the FA Cup semi-final no-show against Liverpool last month.
Had they not lost six of their first 10 matches, David Moyes’ side could easily have been this season’s ‘good news’ story. As it is, despite an 18th final day trip without victory in the Premier League, that accolade rests squarely on Newcastle’s shoulders.
“It was always going to be difficult coming here, and Everton have shown they will be a threat next season,” Alan Pardew said. “Looking at the big picture, we’ve had a good season because we had a group of players in it together. To win 19 games with a goal difference of just plus five shows the spirit’s there to win close games.
“What we have to do now is to try and push on and get those 21 wins next season that will get us a Champions League spot.”
Newcastle’s chances were at best fleeting until a half-time reshuffle saw them pose more questions of the Everton defence. Jonas Gutierrez shot wide when well placed before the break while Tim Howard, a virtual spectator for more than an hour, saved well from Demba Ba’s shot on the turn, and also to deny Yohan Cabaye’s long-range effort.
In between, any hopes of a comeback ended on 65 minutes as Heitinga rose unmarked at the near post to head home a Darron Gibson free-kick from five yards.
The visitors eventually found a way through with 17 minutes left, Tony Hibbert expertly planting a downward header into his own net in his attempts to deal with Ryan Taylor’s ball into the box. Only a fine one-handed save from Howard to keep out a Papiss Cisse header prevented the lead being further eroded.
Osman deserved to round off a stand-out display with a goal, only to hit the foot of the post in stoppage time.
“It wasn’t added incentive to finish above Liverpool,” Moyes insisted. “We just wanted to finish as high as we could. I don’t think you can celebrate finishing seventh, maybe if you finish top four or Europe, but not for finishing seventh.”
Substitute Tim Cahill was red carded at the end for manhandling Cabaye, a needlessly unsavoury end to proceedings. “Tim says he was called something,” Moyes added.
Three years ago, Newcastle were being called plenty of things. Top five finishers wasn’t among them.
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