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Armchair Fan brings you: My (least) favourite match Part Four – Newcastle 1 Sunderland 2

6 months ago
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In the absence of any live football for the foreseeable future, I’ve decided to take a trip down memory lane and visit some of my favourite (and least favourite!) Toon matches since I started attending in the mid-nineties.

The past twenty five years have seen a number of ups and (far too many) downs for those of a black and white persuasion so let’s reminisce about some of the matches that are guaranteed to live long in the memory.

Part three focussed on Sir Bobby Robson’s triumphant first match at St James Park when we annihilated Sheffield Wednesday 8-0.

Contrary to popular belief though, Sir Bobby didn’t have it all his own way when managing the Toon. To enjoy the highs you must also endure the lows and the following match was one of the lowest lows I’ve ever experienced

(*Disclaimer – The following is not for the faint-hearted. Anyone of a nervous disposition should wait for part five. This is a real life horror show guaranteed to chill you to your very bones. Abandon hope all ye who enter here:)

Saturday 18th November 2000

Newcastle 1 Sunderland 2

Derby Despair

In August 2000, the capacity at St James Park was increased to just over fifty two thousand fans. With Wembley being rebuilt, only Manchester United could boast of a larger stadium in England.

This expansion meant that fans like myself who’d previously struggled for tickets (especially for league matches) had the option of buying a season ticket guaranteeing entry to every home game. I was in heaven!

Being a season ticket holder started brilliantly with a 3-2 victory over Derby County and a 2-0 success against Tottenham. In fact after four matches, Newcastle were top of the league and there was real optimism that Sir Bobby Robson’s first full season would see European qualification for the Toon.

Unfortunately, things began to unravel rather quickly and poor defeats to Southampton, Charlton, Everton and West Ham left us languishing in the mid-table positions where we’d remain for the rest of the season.

As soon as the fixtures were released, there was only one match I was looking for – Sunderland at home!

This was the big one, the game of the season and my first ever derby match. Every Toon fan was itching for revenge against their red and white rivals. The previous season had seen a shocking Sunderland victory at St James Park in monsoon conditions on a night where no match should have gone ahead. They’d also cheated their way to a point in the return match when Kevin Phillips scored a ludicrously offside late equaliser in a 2-2 draw. This season would be different though, Newcastle were ready to extract revenge on their Wearside rivals and I couldn’t wait!

Despite the poor early season defeats, Newcastle warmed up for this match by coming from behind to beat Ipswich and draw with Leicester. Sunderland had been beaten by Tottenham and conceded a late equaliser to Southampton. In my utter conviction that we would win the match, I forgot that this really was too close to call. If Newcastle were going into the game as slight favourites then that would count for very little in the intense heat of derby drama.

Walking up to the stadium made the butterflies in my stomach multiply a thousand times, you could feel the atmosphere building into a wall of noise. Entering the stadium was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Nerves and adrenaline mixed with ear splitting noise gave me a complete sensory overload.

In later years, I’d try to combat this with ridiculously early drinking sessions but at fourteen years old I was yet to discover the joys of alcohol. A massive shame considering I could have done with a rather large drink by full time!

Against a backdrop of burning, snarling passion, Newcastle almost made the absolute dream start. After just eighteen seconds, Gary Speed was through on goal at the Leazes End with a glorious chance to open the scoring. Unfortunately, the usually reliable midfielder couldn’t connect with the ball properly and sliced a poor effort well wide of goal.

We wouldn’t have long to wait before those groans of disappointment were turned into screams of delight. Less than three minutes later, Nobby Solano broke down the right wing and curled a glorious cross into the danger zone. Our Welsh Dragon atoned for his earlier miss by thumping a header off the foot of the post and hooking in the rebound before anyone else could react. The stadium exploded in wild ecstasy, at the time I’d never heard St James’ so loud.

This was pure, unadulterated joy! Over a week’s worth of pent up anxiety collectively being released as forty nine thousand people bounced in unison, celebrating the perfect start to the biggest match of the season.

Newcastle spent the rest of the first half in enemy territory, swarming all over their rivals and looking to create more chances at every opportunity. Travelling Sunderland fans were mercilessly goaded and abused with no option but to stand there and take it. Sunderland were just about keeping it together but a second goal would see the dam burst for certain. Another goal before half time would ensure a derby defeat for the mackems.

Unfortunately, there was to be no further first half scoring, which crucially allowed Sunderland a fifteen minute breather and a chance to regroup. The Toon fans were still fervent but the second half started slowly. Peter Reid sensed that our momentum had slowed, loosening our initiative and chose to take off a defender for an attacking midfielder. This decision altered the course of the match and ultimately decided the destination of the points.

There didn’t seem much danger when Kevin Phillips picked up the ball on the left wing but he found an inch or two of space and crossed an effort across the face of goal. Newcastle’s defence allowed the ball to bounce and Don Judas Hutchison turned it in for 1-1, the Geordie lad had already scored the winner for Scotland against England at Wembley a year earlier and here he was again striking a dagger at the heart of one of his own teams. With the score level, the match was there to be won by the team that wanted it more. With twenty five minutes still to play, the next goal would be crucial.

On seventy minutes, Newcastle were awarded a free kick that seemed miles away from goal. Shearer shaped to shoot and ran over the ball, Gary Speed did the same and Solano crashed an effort off the post with the goalkeeper completely beaten. This was mere centimetres away from being a brilliant goal at the perfect time. The whole stadium was up celebrating for a split second before realising the ball had bounced away from goal rather than flying in. Unfortunately, it was to be a margin as fine as this that would deny Newcastle’s fans derby delight as there was plenty more drama to come.

Five minutes after Solano’s woodwork woe, another Sunderland cross was blasted into orbit and the big friendly giant (Niall Quinn) headed an effort into the top corner. Shocking football but effective in the sense that launching a ball onto the head of a gigantic beanpole won them the game (although thankfully never ever allowed them to qualify for Europe). We knew now that we were up against it and on the brink of losing home matches twice in a row to our deadliest enemy. In a blind panic we roared our lads on.

On eighty two minutes, with the crowd in a state of frenzy, Robert Lee broke free in the Sunderland area and was wiped out by a blatant foul after a shocking sliding tackle by goalscorer Quinn. The cheer was one of utter relief when referee Graham Poll pointed to the penalty spot. Thank God for that! Newcastle were saved! We were not only given the chance to equalise but had eight minutes left to go on and win the match.

Shearer stepped up and for some reason I didn’t have the usual calm confidence I often did before a Shearer penalty. We were used to a guaranteed goal where England’s number one would smash it top left out of the keeper’s grasp but today we got the complete opposite. For some reason, the finest striker the premiership has ever seen decided to tap the ball bottom right allowing the keeper his one moment of glory.

When the save was made, the entire stadium went silent apart from three thousand Sunderland fans who actually celebrated louder than either of their goals. Their ironic chant of “Shearer, Shearer” boomed round the stadium and I felt physically sick. There was still eight minutes left though and I tried my hardest to cheer the lads towards an equaliser that never came.

The full time whistle was horrible, confirmation that we’d lost twice in a row at home to our arch rivals. I slumped in my seat, refusing to leave the stadium, already dreading the p.ss-taking that Monday morning at school was going to bring. I’d have to wait exactly one year, three months and six days for revenge.

Sunderland’s victory was to be their last over the Toon for many a year. Newcastle United were ready to take the Tyne-Wear derby by the scruff of its neck. The next nine would see three draws and six Toon victories with moments of glory for Andy O’Brien, Craig Bellamy and especially Nikos Dabizas. Out of darkness comes light.

I’m presuming the above wasn’t your favourite ever match! What next though? cup classics, promotion parties, European excursions or something else equally special? Feel free to leave a suggestion in the comments section below and it may just feature in part five?

The Armchair Fan has his very own blog here and you can follow on Twitter @NUFCarmchairfan

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