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Newcastle United – A bit of what if?

3 years ago

Last week saw a Golden Anniversary…because the summer of ’69 was a big one. Bryan Adams got his first real six string; my dad met my mam; and Bobby Moncur captained our vertical stripes to victory against Ujpest Dozsa and their horizontally striped goalposts. According to my dad, the grainy footage of the away leg was tucked away on the news, but not live on TV. My mam has no recollection of this and even less interest.

A decade, two Wembley defeats, and a relegation later for Newcastle United, European games were the exotic end of the footballing experience. This was partly because the TV and radio commentary on away legs sounded like a phone call demanding a ransom, and partly because they only seemed to happen to other teams. Playing Wrexham in Division Two did not count.

Only two seasons before the first time my dad was dragged to St James Park by the puppy-esque devotion of little me, Newcastle United had played in Europe again but Bastia’s Johnny Rep had ripped us a new one (in 1977). Yet it had only been a few years since Bobby Moncur and co had lifted the beautifully pointy Fairs Cup.

My dad misted over telling tales of the home legs; he chuckled through the snow against Setabul, and edged his way through the Rangers excitement. Then he landed back in reality, watching Steve Hardwick jump up and down on the goal line.

The mist became fog.

Throughout that first season of taking me, dreaming a Disney football dream, and ultimately, ending in predictable disappointment, European football was, at best, unlikely. Our Cinderella existence meant that we never went to the Ball; we weren’t even wallflowers. Think the end of ‘Pretty in Pink’, but just staying at home and no Psychedelic Furs.

It was with this sub-conscious vision of European competition that, in the stunning spring of 1994, we qualified for the UEFA Cup, at the end of our first season in the new Premier League.

It was more than vindication of the most exciting football ever TM.

It was more than the ‘Entertainers’ tag.

It was the accepting of an invitation to an exclusive party; one where the other esteemed guests had words like ‘Sporting’, and ‘Real’ in their titles. Mind, Blackburn Rovers had qualified, too. No one said the romantic lead had to be beautiful.

Drawn away for the first leg against Royal Antwerp, and Blackburn live on the telly, meant that this party was going to be listened to on the radio. Blackburn went a goal down on the TV, which was on silent, while we listened to the Newcastle match. We were not on silent. Robert Lee scored a hat-trick of headers, and with goals from Scott Sellars and Steve Watson, the dream was coming true. 5-0. Away from home. In Europe. Europe, the place with lines across the number sevens.

The home leg was a formality. We cheered the Antwerp fans who sang songs about not liking Sunderland very much (they must have been taught well in the first leg), and even gave them a cheer for their first goal. 10-2 on aggregate.

A slightly naive home performance against Athletic Bilbao (but we looked amazing in the blue Asics away kit) had given the Basque club a significant foothold in the match (from 3-0 up to 3-2), and we ultimately lost on away goals. But the taste for the high life was there, and stunning evenings against Barcelona, Inter Milan (San Siro pictured above), Marseille, and Juventus, would mean we fancied our chances against other highly respected European teams. The floodlights, the late nights, the Champions League music… the invitation was almost perennial.

It couldn’t last.

It didn’t.

Losing out to Benfica in 2013 was a false dawn; a last dance before midnight.

How far away are we from a return to those evenings?

Five years? Fifty? This summer will decide whether European nights will mean Juventus, or Cardiff in the league. Or watching two teams I don’t care about.

But just in case, I’m going to wrap black tape around the bairn’s goal in the back garden.

You can follow the author on Twitter @georgestainsby


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