I am not a fantasist, and shall take comfort in cautious progression.  I hope we will at least acquire the habit of picking up our first win of the season before we dutifully buy our poppies, and that we’ll still be playing for something (other than survival) come Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps I can legitimately dream that – some time not too far off – I may enjoy a breezy autumn afternoon drinking premium lager in a city square, somewhere like Plovdiv or Zaragoza, as we acquaint ourselves with the earlier rounds of the Europa Conference League.  Maybe I can even entertain an outside hope that Wembley, in my mind, will come to be associated with something other than IKEA and Costco.  Maybe, just maybe.

If this comes to pass, it should never be forgotten that – but for Joe Willock – it never would have done so.  Quite simply, without his goals in the second half of the 2020/21 season, we would have gone down.  The likeable Londoner scored 8 goals in 14 games, without which we would not have beaten Southampton, West Ham or Sheffield United, and would have lost to Tottenham and Liverpool.  Demotion to the Championship would have been the death knell for any prospect of a takeover.  It is worth recalling how awful things were when Willock joined on loan in February 2021.

We were being asked to “look for the positives” in dismal, Amazon Prime home defeats to Leeds and Crystal Palace, and had various parts of Karl Darlow’s anatomy to thank for the fact that we weren’t already down.  The club had all the momentum of a paraplegic gnat.  There is a straight line between Willock’s goals and the club’s rebirth under new ownership.  Even if he were never to kick a ball for the club again, he would be a club legend, every bit as significant to the post-Ashley incarnation of Newcastle United, as David Kelly was to Keegan’s Entertainers.#

Yet last season, for Willock, was mixed.  Despite having been the side’s standout performer in the latter half of 2020/21, he failed to hit the same heights last term.  Nobody (reasonably) expected him to score with quite the same regularity as he did in his loan spell, but it was worrying how some games appeared to pass him by completely (perhaps most notably against Arsenal in November, when nothing stuck to him at all).  He scored no goals at all until February, and – while the arrival of Bruno clearly lifted the standards of both Shelvey and Joelinton significantly – Willock’s performance levels (though they did improve a little, and there were occasional highlights, such as a goal at Brentford in the sunshine, and his role in the build-up to Bruno’s winner against Leicester) failed to see a similarly sizeable uptick.

Concern at the profligacy of Chris Wood in front of goal was exacerbated by the fact that Willock simply failed to chip in as might have been hoped.#

So what can be said of Joe Willock as we enter the first full season of PIF ownership and Eddie Howe’s management?  It seems he has become something of a forgotten man.  Although he was only signed on a permanent basis a year ago, he is no longer shiny or new, given our heightened transfer activity since the takeover.  He does not have the obvious box-office star quality of a Trippier or a Bruno, nor – despite his pivotal role in our rebirth – does he have cult hero status (there are no Hawaiian shirts with his face on, and he is yet to be the subject of a flag display in the Gallowgate).  He is neither reborn under Howe (unlike, say, Fraser or Krafth), but nor is he someone who is necessarily expected to head towards the exits in the next couple of years (unlike, say, Lascelles or Dubravka).

Willock has assumed a quiet anonymity.  And yet, it’s a massive season for him.  We need him to deliver.  While we should avoid excessive alarm at the failure to sign a striker (as is rightly pointed out, this time last year our transfer hopes were limited to hoping that Mike Ashley might find a crumpled-up fiver in his Karrimor sweatpants to afford the Hamza Choudhury loan fee, and that Steve Bruce might liberate Ahmed Elmohamady from his sex dungeon), as things stand we will be looking, again, for goals from midfield.  Wilson will be injured at some point.  Wood will be too busy occupying defenders, to pose any meaningful goal threat.  Bruno is genuinely world-class but three goals in two years at Lyon does not suggest that he can be relied upon to make up the shortfall.

None of Longstaff, Shelvey, Almiron or Fraser can be relied upon to score with any regularity, while ASM remains enigmatic.  We may hope for continued improvement from Joelinton, but – while there is no disguising just how good he was in the second half of last season (Declan Rice must still be buried somewhere in the pocket of our beastly midfield colossus – has anyone seen him since that 1-1 draw in February?) – it would be unwise to place excessive trust in what we have seen from him in the last six months and to ignore all that preceded it.

All of this points to a likely reliance on the young man from Walthamstow, without whose pre-PIF heroics we would be facing the likes of lowly Sunderland in league competition now.  He cannot expect his team-mates to reach the heights that they did in the spring.  He may have to repay the favour and carry them, especially those who will be going to Qatar and for whom the Premier League winter will be a gruelling slog.

So we need a big season from him.  Will we get it?  I’ll be uncharacteristically optimistic and say yes.  He is only 22, and now has a full pre-season under Howe and his coaching staff under his belt.  He developed under the tutelage of Arsene Wenger, and it is notable that Arsenal fans (a curious breed who can rarely even reach consensus on what day of the week it is) were largely united in not wanting him to join us permanently last summer.  There was a general recognition that Willock did not have an obvious place in their side, given how Arteta wanted to set up, but still a reluctance to see him leave.

He has delivered for us before, in difficult circumstances, and can do so again.  His decision to leave Arsenal and join Newcastle suggested a player with the hunger and desire to improve – someone who will not have been satisfied with his contribution last season and will want to better himself.  In any case, he has shown us enough since he joined (both in terms of quality and application), to give us confidence that we can put our faith in him.  Even putting the question of goals to one side, his intelligent movement off the ball and comfort in receiving possession under pressure are attributes which many of his team-mates do not possess.

Along with Wilson, Willock is the player whose football brain suggests he is most likely to be on Bruno’s wavelength.

Let’s hope he hits the ground running, and that – come 5pm on Saturday 6 August – he’ll be yelling “Come on You Maggies!” into a pitchside microphone, coming off the hallowed turf with the match ball, and making everyone scratch their heads as to why Forest are paying Jesse Lingard so much.

He was the future once.  Now we need him to be our present.  Joe, we’re all rooting for you.

YOUSEF HATEM – @yousef_1892