WEMBLEY STADIUM — Newcastle United’s upward trajectory has been so dizzying over the past 12 months that it has perhaps obscured just how far they still have left to travel if they are to truly compete.
Eddie Howe’s pretenders didn’t actually play badly here and Manchester United didn’t really play that well. There wasn’t an awful lot wrong with Howe’s game plan either and a cogent case could be made that the Magpies were actually the better team for significant spells.
But strip out the emotion and all the conjecture about their trophyless generation and the conclusion is simple: they have a dearth of world class quality at either end of the field.
“We will be back stronger and better,” co-owner Jamie Reuben tweeted defiantly after the final whistle. And make no mistake, the resolve is there in the black and white corner, along with cash stumped up, controversially, by the Saudi state. But it will cost them because they are perhaps a top-class striker, a midfielder of presence and an extra defender light of bridging the gap to the likes of an upwardly mobile Manchester United.
In the current climate, that might land them with a £250m bill and that will require a nimble traversing of financial fair play rules that have been designed to maintain the status quo and keep the established order in place. The intent is there but expert execution will be required from the club’s executive team.
How they yearned on Tyneside for this team, devoid of egos, collectively more than the sum of its parts, to be the one that ended that long wait for silverware. They travelled in numbers to the capital, loud, proud, good natured and intent on enjoying a weekend that culminated in a pre-game display that was drenched in feeling and emotion.
Indeed the understandable temptation will be for Newcastle fans to get misty eyed about the scenes at Trafalgar Square, that beery, beligirent clarion call of a club and city moving in unison that played out on Saturday night. That will live long in the memory and supporters should cherish those moments.
But as has been spelled out clearly, this iteration of Newcastle is not here for the craic. They’re here for a crack at the best, which is why this will feel like an opportunity spurned for a team that had enough of the ball to cause more problems than they did.
If Qatari ownership manages to wrest control of Manchester United from the reviled Glazers, an established force will be further renewed by a well of apparently state-sponsored financing. Even if they don’t, under the brilliant Erik Ten Hag their forward momentum really is ominous for any pretenders.
“They’ve come from a totally different place from us,” a deflated Howe admitted afterwards.
“We were fighting relegation last season – we achieved that comfortably last season – so this season was an unknown for us. The players have done exceptionally well to elevate us to an incredible position but we’re not the finished article, not by any means. It only gets harder for us because the opposition improve as well.”
Consolation will be sought in the way the Magpies ploughed on in this game despite being hit by a pair of first half sucker punches from Casemiro and Marcus Rashford.
A chastened Newcastle might have collapsed but instead re-emerged with renewed resolve. Howe showed bravery to call for Alexander Isak from the bench and the forward asked questions of Manchester United, slipping into pockets of space where he could carry a threat.
But their pressing lacked punch and their final touch was devoid of poise. Allan Saint-Maximin threatened to burst into life but never quite managed it, unable to dig the ball out from under his feet when he did threaten to puncture the red wall.
Ten Hag sensed this second half shift in momentum and sent for Scott McTominay and Marcel Sabitzer to take the sting out of the contest. A goal from Newcastle would have altered the complexion of the match but it never felt imminent. That has been a recurring theme in recent weeks, but the hurt at the final whistle was that bit more acute here.
Howe and his players trudged up the Wembley steps to collect their silver medals at the end looking as if they would rather be anywhere else in the world. The culture he is trying to imprint on Newcastle is to be bad losers and there was no consolation in warm words from club co-owner Amanda Staveley and Yasir Al-Rumayyan afterwards.
“You feel like you’ve failed, you feel like you’ve not achieved what you set out to feel,” Howe replied when asked what was going through his mind. “That’s how it should be. I don’t think there’s any other way to feel.”
The presence of Al-Rumayyan felt significant. He signs off the cheques from Riyadh and has been in Newcastle this week learning about where progress still needs to be made. There is talk of a major recruitment drive this summer.
“We can’t stand still. We have to prove we are something,” Howe said afterwards. He remains the man to do it, however painful this setback was.