Sold-out stadiums and tickets like gold dust. A combination of youthful exuberance and wily old heads propelling the team up the table. A manager that made fans fall back in love with their club. Tyneside has seen this before.
Eddie Howe and his squad are threatening to deliver the next great era for Newcastle United. Victories over Wolves and Nottingham Forest have left them in a strong position to strike in the race for Champions League football. Supporters are daring to dream again.
It is 20 years to the day since anyone in a Black and White jersey kicked a ball in anger in Europe’s top competition, a memorable campaign with more twists and turns 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 at what is to come. At what could be again.
In 2003, it was Sir Bobby Robson’s side who had captured the hearts and minds of the Toon faithful. Victory over Zeljeznicar in the qualifying stages unlocked the gates 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 formality at St James’ Park sealed a 5-0 aggregate win and a spot in the group stages.
‘I have nothing but great memories from that place,’ the striker, renowned for his acrobatic celebrations, tells Sportsmail. ‘Sir Bobby Robson was focused on youngsters, 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, know each other’s game.
Newcastle United are in a strong position to challenge for a top four spot under Eddie Howe
It is 20 years to the day since Newcastle last experienced Champions League football
Lomana LuaLua (left) was a part of Sir Bobby Robson’s squad that went deep in the competition
‘I was bought as a future player. There was the likes of [Jermaine] Jenas, Kieron Dyer, Titus Bramble, [Shola] Ameobi, [Craig] Bellamy.
‘We had great experienced players, with the likes of Alan [Shearer]. He was great with the young players. Gary Speed had a lot of input with us too.
‘All the ambition and drive came from Sir Bobby. He really wanted to achieve something and he passed it on to us. We really believed in ourselves. We wanted to give something back to the fans. They can always see what you’re giving, and we were really fired up for it. We knew we had an opportunity for the Champions League and we took it.’
As far as supporters were concerned, the feeling of excitement was mutual. Marc Corby, a regular contributor to the True Faith Fanzine, is a season ticket holder who started attending St James’ Park in 1988.
‘It just felt as though we had genuine ambition at that point under Sir Bobby Robson,’ he tells Sportsmail.
‘For me, even though we beat Barcelona 3-2 in that memorable game in 1997, I always felt that Champions League campaign was a bit tarnished. It was clear it was the end of a glorious chapter.
‘We had a very fast, 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 genuine belief that Bobby Robson was taking us to bigger and better things.’
LuaLua celebrates his goal in the qualfiying round against Zeljeznicar
There was, of course, an inauspicious start. Three straight defeats saw them bottom of Group E – ‘As good as out’.
But then came the sprinking of Sir Bobby’s stardust. A 1-0 victory over Serie A champions Juventus, and a second success at home, 2-1, against Dynamo Kyiv.
Both were topped by an unforgettable night in Rotterdam and a nail-biting 3-2 win over Feyenoord to make the second group stage – and a little bit of history. They had become the first team to make it out the group having lost all there first three matches.
‘The first three games, I think that was down to a lack of experience,’ says LuaLua. ‘After that, we didn’t have anything to lose.
‘Sir Bobby would tell us to go out and give the fans everything we’ve got. They’ll see that and they’ll be behind you.
‘I don’t think people realise. St James’ Park, even when you’re playing in the cup against a smaller team the fans are always there. It was always packed. And it showed you what it meant to them.
‘The fans were one of the factors that pushed us. The noise. We just became stronger, believed in ourselves more. People started looking at us differently. It was amazing.’
And what of that night at De Kuip? ‘I get shivers. Everything was unbelievable. Sometimes you feel before a game “this is our day”.’
Craig Bellamy celebrates his late winner that sealed their historic victory over Feyenoord
That night in the Netherlands paved the way for an extended European Odyssey – a second group stage where Barcelona, Inter and the previous season’s beaten finalist Bayer Leverkusen lay in wait.
LuaLua grabbed his first goal in the competition against the Bundesliga side in Germany. ‘Alan and Bellamy weren’t there and so Sir Bobby gave me and Shola Ameobi the opportunity to show what we can do,’ he recalls.
‘Shola was one of my very good friends, is like a brother to me. We never thought we’d get the chance to start in the Champions League. But it showed how Bobby believed in his youngsters. He wasn’t afraid to throw us in.
‘You don’t realise you’ve scored in the Champions League until the next day, until you get a call from your friends – “oh my god you’ve scored in the Champions League!”. Then it starts sinking in.’
There was also the incredible sight of 12,000 Geordies in Milan. Marc was among the many to make the pilgrimage. Fresh out of university, he’d poured a month’s worth of wages into the trip.
Around 12,000 Newcastle fans packed out the away end 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 shopping for Armani suits among a throng of Toon supporters, to Ant and Dec sending fellow fans to the wrong piazza, Milan 03’ is a treasure-trove of bizarre and brilliant stories for Marc and thousands of others. The match was pretty memorable, too.
‘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’s up there with Robert Lee’s goal at Wembley for me.
‘The atmosphere was superb. I think most people were just in disbelief that Newcastle were up against a team such as Inter Milan in the San Siro.’
The memories are just as strong for those on the pitch. ‘Even before, you read the papers, you hear about how many fans are travelling,’ says LuaLua.
Sir Bobby Robson lifted the club from relegation worries to European football during his tenure
‘We weren’t playing a regular team. It was Inter Milan. The team was buzzing, the stadium was amazing. As a footballer, you always want to live history. As a player you want to test yourself against the best, and Inter were one of the best.
‘I remember I had a little bust up with [Christian] Vieri. But it was amazing to play our small part in the history of the club. Hopefully we can get back.’
A week after the journey ended, on March 19, when a 2-0 defeat by Barcelona consigned Newcastle to third place in the group and an early exit. They haven’t been admitted back since, with a dismally disappointing qualifying-round exit to Partizan Belgrade signalling the beginning of the end for Sir Bobby’s reign the following August.
They have never been better primed to return than now. With less than a third of the season remaining, they are just two points off the top four, with two games in hand on Spurs above them.
LuaLua was involved in a small bust-up with Christian Vieri in the closing stages at San Siro
‘It would be fantastic, earlier than anyone expected,’ says Marc. ‘It would be one of the greatest achievements ever by a Newcastle manager in my opinion.’
Howe certainly has his admirers. ‘I played a little bit with Eddie Howe at Portsmouth and I’ve followed him at Bournemouth,’ Says LuaLua.
‘When we first got him I was happy because I knew the type of football that he likes to play. I thought Newcastle fans would appreciate it. Eddie was a great choice and he’s doing really well. The fans are loving it and they’re getting stronger and stronger.
‘There’s a light at the end of the tunnel and I think he’s going to bring back the glory days.’
If he can bring back Champions League football, they’ll be somersaulting all the way across the Tyne Bridge.
Source: Daily Mail Online