Newcastle's 'crazy' ambition will give transfer hope as new Champions League route to reopen

Fixture release day was once filled with trepidation as Geordies attempted to map their route to safety. In contrast, in 2024, there is quiet optimism in the air.

Still, given some of the cards Newcastle United were dealt last season, whether it was facing Aston Villa, Manchester City and Liverpool in the opening weeks of the campaign; being thrown into the group of death in the Champions League; or meeting Chelsea and Manchester City away in the cups, supporters may have expected to face the champions at the Etihad on the opening day before a trip to Arsenal a week later. Not quite.

Newcastle start the new campaign at home against newly-promoted Southampton before the black-and-whites make the voyage down to Bournemouth a week later. Newcastle then host Spurs at St James' Park when Sandro Tonali looks set to return from his 10-month suspension. It won't be straightforward - it never is - but Newcastle have a real chance to lay down an early marker.

READ MORE: Man City make huge 'deliberate' claim about Newcastle's rivals in legal row as executive quoted

READ MORE: Allan Saint-Maximin makes 'disturbed' admission as he sends top message to Newcastle diehards

Just as that looks an important window, so, too, does the festive period. Newcastle travel to Portman Road to take on Ipswich Town on December 21 before hosting Aston Villa at St James' Park on Boxing Day. Eddie Howe's team then have back-to-back away games against Manchester United and Spurs.

Picking up points during that run of fixtures will be crucial. After all, last winter was when Newcastle's season hit the rocks. Newcastle were in fifth place, fresh from successive wins against Manchester United and Chelsea, when the injury-ravaged Magpies went on to suffer six losses in their next seven league games. Defeats at the hands of Everton, Luton Town and Nottingham Forest were particularly damaging.

Newcastle have no divine right to beat anyone in an intense, competitive league like this, but the black-and-whites ultimately claimed just four points from a possible 24 in matches against Brighton, Bournemouth, Everton and Luton Town, who all finished in the bottom half. If Newcastle are to sustain a European challenge, that record against sides below them has to improve. As does the Magpies' points return on the road for that matter.

St James' was a real fortress for Newcastle last season - only Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal fared better on their own turf - but the black-and-whites lost a whopping 11 away games. Only Brentford and relegated Luton Town and Sheffield United suffered more defeats away from home. Only Luton, Sheffield United and West Ham let in more goals than Newcastle (40) on their travels.

This is a chance to start afresh and while missing out on Europe was an undoubted blow last season, Newcastle will have more time between games to recover and more time to work on the training pitches at full tilt. That formula was at the heart of Newcastle's top-four finish in 2022/23 and this group already look hungry to scale those remarkable heights again as even new signing Lloyd Kelly alluded to.

"Over the next season for the club, Champions League football is something that I know the fans will probably want to get back to," the defender told NUFC TV after being asked about his aspirations. "Watching the games from before, it seemed crazy."

Further quality reinforcements will be needed, but the ambition is there behind the scenes to strengthen the squad to sustain such a challenge. You only have to look at Newcastle registering their interest in Michael Olise to realise that and other targets have yet to emerge in the public domain from what is a small pool of players. These are not easy deals to pull off, given the interest and wages on offer elsewhere, but this feels like a particularly important few weeks if Newcastle are to be in the best possible state to start the new campaign.

Newcastle at least know that an extra Champions League qualification place could potentially come back into play after Italy and Germany took the two spots last season. For context, in six of the past eight campaigns, finishing fifth in the Premier League would have been enough because English sides' performances in Europe were so strong.

Newcastle, though, won't want to rely on others - the Magpies will just want to finish as high as they can.