Sold out stadiums and tickets like gold dust. A combination of youthful exuberance and shrewd old heads propelled the team up the table. A coach who made fans fall in love with the club. Tyneside has seen this before.
Eddie Howe and his team are threatening to deliver the next great era for Newcastle United. Wins over Wolves and Nottingham Forest have left them in a strong position to attack in the race for Champions League football. Fans are daring to dream again.
It’s been 20 years since anyone in the black and white jersey has kicked the ball angrily in Europe’s premier competition, a memorable campaign with more comebacks than an Allan Saint-Maximin dribble in front of the east stand. For those of a certain age, the parallels are hard to ignore. There is excitement about what’s to come. What could be again.
In 2003, it was Sir Bobby Robson’s side that captured the hearts and minds of the Toon faithful. Victory over Zeljeznicar in the knockout rounds opened the door to the continent’s top table as Newcastle threatened to cement their place among England’s elite. Lomana LuaLua was among the scorers as a 4-0 form at St James’ Park sealed a 5-0 aggregate victory and a place in the group stage.
‘I only have great memories of that place’, says the striker, known for his acrobatic celebrations sports mail. ‘Sir Bobby Robson was focused on young people, he wanted to do something similar to Manchester United. He wanted to build a young team, mixed with older players. So that we could also learn from them, get to know each other’s game.
Newcastle United are in a strong position to challenge for a top four spot under Eddie Howe
It’s been 20 years since Newcastle last tasted Champions League football
Lomana LuaLua (left) was part of Sir Bobby Robson’s team that went deep into the competition
‘I was bought as a future player. There were the likes of [Jermaine] Jenas, Kieron Dyer, Titus Bramble, [Shola] Ameobi, [Craig] Bellamy.
‘We had great experienced players like Alan [Shearer]. He was great with the young players. Gary Speed also contributed a lot with us.
‘All the ambition and motivation came from Sir Bobby. He really wanted to achieve something and passed it on to us. We really believe in ourselves. We wanted to give something back to the fans. They can always see what you’re giving away, and we were really excited about that. We knew we had an opportunity for the Champions League and we took advantage of it.’
As far as the fans were concerned, the feeling of excitement was mutual. Marc Corby, a regular contributor to the True Faith Fanzine, owns a season ticket that began attending St James’ Park in 1988.
‘It felt like we had a genuine ambition at that time under Sir Bobby Robson’, he says sports mail.
“For me, even though we beat Barcelona 3-2 in that memorable game in 1997, I always felt that the Champions League campaign was a bit tarnished. It was clear that it was the end of a glorious chapter.
‘We had a very fast and dynamic team. Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas. You had Nobby Solano, Gary Speed - the engine in the middle – players like that were an absolute joy to watch.
‘There was a genuine belief that Bobby Robson was leading us to bigger and better things.’
LuaLua celebrates his goal in qualifying against Zeljeznicar
There was, of course, an inauspicious beginning. Three defeats in a row have seen them bottom of Group E – ‘Almost Out’.
But then came the sprinkling of Sir Bobby’s stardust. A 1-0 win over Serie A champions Juventus and a second 2-1 home win against Dynamo Kyiv.
Both were capped off by an unforgettable night in Rotterdam and a 3-2 win over Feyenoord to reach the second group stage – and a bit of history. They became the first team out of the group, having lost all of their first three matches.
‘In the first three games, I think it was a lack of experience’, says LuaLua. ‘After that, we had nothing left to lose.
‘Sir Bobby would tell us to go out and give the fans everything we’ve got. They will see this and they will be after you.
‘I don’t think people realize. St James’ Park, even when you are playing in the cup against a smaller team, the supporters are always there. It was always crowded. And it showed what it meant to them.
‘The fans were one of the factors that pushed us forward. The noise. We just become stronger, we believe in ourselves more. People started looking at us differently. It was fantastic.’
And that night at De Kuip? ‘I have goosebumps. Everything was unbelievable. Sometimes you feel before a game ‘this is our day’.’
Craig Bellamy celebrates his late win that sealed his historic victory over Feyenoord
That night in Holland paved the way for an extended European odyssey – a second group stage where Barcelona, Inter and the previous season’s defeated finalist Bayer Leverkusen waited.
LuaLua scored his first goal in the competition against the Bundesliga team in Germany. ‘Alan and Bellamy weren’t there, so Sir Bobby gave me and Shola Ameobi the opportunity to show what we can do,’ he recalls.
‘Shola was one of my best friends, he’s like a brother to me. We never thought we would have the chance to start in the Champions League. But it showed how Bobby believed in his children. He wasn’t afraid to play us.
‘You don’t realize you’ve scored in the Champions League until the next day, until you get a call from your friends – ‘Oh my God, you scored in the Champions League!’ Then it starts to sink.
There was also the incredible sight of 12,000 Geordies in Milan. Marc was among the many who made the pilgrimage. Fresh out of university, he spent a month’s salary on the trip.
Around 12,000 Newcastle fans packed the away ground at the San Siro when they faced Inter
Alan Shearer scores one of his two goals against the Serie A side in a 2-2 draw in March 2003
‘At the end of the day, my life was Newcastle United,’ he says. And this was the trip of a lifetime.
From stories of Mark Hughes buying Armani suits among a crowd of Toon fans, to Ant and Dec sending other fans to the wrong square, Milan 03′ is a treasure trove of bizarre and brilliant stories for Marc and thousands more. The match was also quite memorable.
“I remember walking in and it was just a sea of black and white,” he says. ‘Everyone remembers Alan Shearer scoring the two goals which were absolutely brilliant. One of the best experiences of being part of a celebration – it ranks right up there with Robert Lee’s Wembley goal for me.
‘The atmosphere was excellent. I think most people didn’t believe that Newcastle would face a team like Inter Milan at the San Siro.
The memories are so strong for anyone on the field. ‘Even before, you read the newspapers, you hear about how many fans are traveling’, says LuaLua.
Sir Bobby Robson took the club out of relegation worries into European football during his tenure
“We weren’t playing against a normal team. It was Inter Milan. The team was excited, the stadium was amazing. As a football player you always want to live the story. As a player you want to test yourself against the best and Inter was one of the best.
‘I remember I had a little fight with [Christian] I came. But it was amazing to play our small part in the history of the club. I hope we can come back.
A week after the end of the journey, on 19 March, when a 2-0 defeat by Barcelona condemned Newcastle to third place in the group and an early elimination. They have not been admitted back since, with a disappointing qualifying round exit to Partizan Belgrade signaling the beginning of the end of Sir Bobby’s reign the following August.
They have never been more prepared to return than they are now. With less than a third of the season left, they are just two points off the top four, with the Spurs two games straight above them.
LuaLua was involved in a small fight with Christian Vieri in the final moments of the San Siro
“It would be fantastic, sooner than everyone expected,” says Marc. “It would be one of the greatest achievements of a Newcastle manager in my opinion.”
Howe certainly has his admirers. ‘I played with Eddie Howe a bit in Portsmouth and followed him in Bournemouth,’ says LuaLua.
‘When we signed him for the first time, I was happy because I knew the type of football he liked to play. I thought Newcastle fans would like it. Eddie was a great choice and he’s doing great. The fans are loving it and it’s getting stronger.
‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel and I think it will bring back the glory days.’
If he can bring Champions League football back, they’ll be doing somersaults all over Tyne Bridge.