So, a New Year dawns and brings with it, inevitable as ever, the brief dalliance with the FA Cup that has still not stretched into the second month of the year since Alan Shearer retired.
This time the third round at least brings a kind draw, as we go into a home tie against a side three divisions below us. However, I’m sure there will be many like me for whom the thought of Luton in the FA Cup brings a nervous shudder.
It is a testament to how easy it is to get old quick that it’s an astonishing 24 years since we last clashed with the Hatters in this very competition, albeit at the dizzy heights of the fourth round stage. It has just occurred to me that even some of the fellow parents at my son’s playgroup may not have been born at the time of this match, so it’s worth setting the scene.
Imagine if you will a different time, a time of hope, belief and joy on Tyneside. Kevin Keegan’s cavalier side had smashed their way to the old first division title and barely checked their stride on elevation to the Premier League, marauding at everyone in their way with reckless attacking abandon to devastating effect. United spent the season in and around the top six, ultimately finishing third and claiming a coveted UEFA Cup place, with the mercurial Andy Cole smashing the club’s scoring records by notching an incredible 42 goal season.
The country loved us, as Sky couldn’t get enough of the side they christened ‘The Entertainers’ and the future looked very, very bright indeed. It was a fine time to be a Newcastle fan.
With this memorable season in full effect, I can vividly remember the expectations of early 1994. With the top two of Man Utd and Blackburn too far ahead to make a realistic title challenge, the prospect of the FA Cup brought a genuine optimism for potential-fulfilling opportunity. Keegan’s side could beat anyone on their day and the straightforward elimination of fellow Premier League side Coventry in the third round added fuel to the fire of expectation. A fourth round draw at home to a struggling first division (second tier) side heightened the hope. It was on here, we were off to Wembley.
Then it went wrong. Luton turned up and proved frustratingly unbeatable at SJP, with Peter Beardsley’s late equaliser from the penalty spot a huge relief.
The replay at Kenilworth Road would surely see business as usual in a season where we won at Anfield and White Hart Lane among others, with the same brand of direct attack seen at Gallowgate.
It went wronger at Luton in front of our friends at Sky, with my abiding memory being Mike Hooper’s calamitous dash from his goal line, allowing a young John Hartson to make it 2-0. It was unbelievable, our opportunity was gone and Luton, not us, got to play at Wembley, repeating their giant killing antics against West Ham before bowing out in the semi-final to Chelsea, courtesy of former Magpies hero Gavin Peacock.
Chelsea got thumped in the final as Man Utd claimed the double, which sort of helped as Newcastle would probably have fallen short against Ferguson’s dominant side had we continued down Luton’s cup route. Instead we’d have to wait five years to lose a final to them disappointingly.
Speaking of Man U, a few months later they turned up at St James for a cup tie themselves, with a far happier outcome as we sent them out of the League Cup. This was notable as being the first season where a manager has sent out reserve/fringe players in a cup competition, although the fact that the youngsters on show that night turned out to be Beckham, Scholes, Neville etc meant we were potentially playing their strongest side. There was uproar in the press but the Home Counties favourites continued to devalue the League Cup and others inevitably followed their lead.
This brand of disdain was ultimately to spread to the FA Cup itself, with Man Utd again leading the way by neglecting to enter altogether due to qualifying for the World Club cup in 2000. Originally the privilege of the elite, the disease soon started to spread throughout the league, as clubs prioritised staying up or gaining a bigger slice of lovely Premier League money over the world’s most famous knockout competition.
Which brings me neatly back to Luton.
Earlier in the week I was asked to be a guest on the Luton fans podcast, to give a perspective on their trip to Newcastle.
I was asked if I thought an upset could be on the cards, as a side full of confidence at the top of League Two may well fancy their chances on the big stage. The sad fact is though, that an FA Cup giant killing isn’t really a thing any more.
There will doubtless be four or five Premier League clubs fall to lower league sides and few will bat an eyelid. The Newcastle team beaten by Luton in 94 was the same team that turned out every week in the league, but the defeated PL sides this weekend will be ragtag mish-mashes of reserves, fringe players and injury rehabilitees.
The managers whose sides have been humbled will look decidedly nonplussed as opposed to uncomfortably embarrassed and the media covering the game will gently skate around the issue that sides with no right to disregard coveted silverware, have basically tossed off the cup to focus on making as much money as possible.
I genuinely hope the incredible turnout of 7,000+ Luton fans enjoy their weekend in the toon, and I would love to believe we can win, advance and get the benefit of kind draws, perhaps see a side rich with reinforcements and boosted by a takeover attack the fifth round in February with hope of that elusive return to Wembley.
In the event of this being the expected pie in the sky, we may even be better off bowing out early on to the Hatters. However, there will be no giant killing, as in today’s game there are none. Maybe we should be grateful.
Follow Jamie on Twitter @Mr_Dolf