The banner stretched out along the full length of the famous Gallowgate End at St James’ Park as Newcastle United emerged to a thunderous roar carried a message of hope and defiance.
Newcastle’s players glanced to their right as the Champions League anthem blared out before this match with AC Milan to see the words: “It’s Not Beyond Our Wildest Dreams Because We Did Have Some Wild Dreams”.
Those were words previously spoken by the legendary former Newcastle boss Sir Bobby Robson, and for a few minutes either side of half-time, those wildest dreams were not beyond the home side or their supporters.
They were beating Milan 1-0 after Joelinton’s superb 33rd-minute strike while Borussia Dortmund’s lead over Paris St-Germain in Germany meant they were edging into the last 16 ahead of the French champions on head-to-head results.
Cut to the final whistle and those wild dreams had been put to bed until next season at the earliest as Newcastle’s naivety and lack of energy overcame them.
Milan came back to win 2-1 and consign Eddie Howe’s side to the bottom of Group F without even qualification for the Europe League to console them.
It was all a far cry for the emotional outpouring that swept around the place the Toon Army calls “The Cathedral On The Hill” in October. That night PSG were swept away on a tide of Tyneside passion and beaten 4-1 as Champions League football returned to St James’ Park for the first time in two decades.
Let’s deal with the mitigating circumstances first.
Newcastle were undoubtedly hit by injuries during the course of the campaign that reduced their effectiveness and numbers to the point where they have looked exhausted at the end of each of their past three defeats against Everton, Tottenham and Milan.
There has also been, however, a certain naivety about Newcastle and the odd tactical shortcoming that means they cannot simply lean on injuries as an excuse for their demise.
Yes, they may have been cursing the woodwork towards the end of the home defeat against Borussia Dortmund but it was a classic example of one side just being too streetwise and too experienced for the other, a night when Newcastle’s lack of nous at this level was exposed.
Dortmund had too much for Newcastle in Germany while manager Howe will long, and justifiably, regret the controversial decision to award PSG a 98th-minute penalty in Paris, But they were also tactically short and unable to control possession, inviting pressure until trouble and misfortune did eventually arrived. PSG had 72% possession and 31 shots.
Howe can discuss fine margins but the bottom line is they finished at the foot of an admittedly tough group. Both players and manager have looked what they are (and it is not their fault, simply a statement of fact) on occasions. They are Champions League rookies and it has showed against others who have been around this particular block a few times.
Injuries cannot be used as a disguise for the fact Newcastle were eventually found wanting at this level. As learning experiences go it was a brutal one but over the whole piece they actually did not do themselves full justice.
At home there was a shortage of measure about their play. Intensity is Newcastle’s trademark but they seem unable to put the brakes on when control of a game is required. Campaigns like this should put this knowledge in the bank for the future.
Once Christian Pulisic took advantage of shabby defending to equalise for Milan, Newcastle swiftly looked drained and disorganised, losing discipline and shape. The outstanding Milan keeper Mike Maignan did superbly to turn Bruno Guimaraes’ shot on the frame of the goal but the Italian visitors knew Newcastle were there for the taking.
Rafael Leao struck a post before Samuel Chukwueze scored what turned out to be the winner 68 seconds after coming on as substitute. Fikayo Tomori, who cleared off the line miraculously from Joelinton in the first half, also struck a post while Milan were unable to cash on in Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka being stranded at the wrong end of the pitch amid some chaos at the end.
Newcastle’s fans, their dreams dashed, showed appreciation of their side’s efforts but the final table told the tale. The home win over PSG may be remembered forever by those who witnessed a truly special night but it was their only victory in six group games.
Howe and his players will benefit from the bitter experiences of life at this elite level. It will whet the appetite for more, especially from the club’s Saudi Arabian owners who see the Champions League as the most natural fit for their ambitions.
The challenge for Howe now is to fix what currently looks like a broken Newcastle squad so those “wildest dreams” can be dreamed again next season after what turned out to be nightmare end to their Champions League return.