NUFC win ‘that’ UEFA Cup Semi-Final against Marseille – Newcastle United sliding doors moment
Sliding Doors Moment: Episode 2 – What would have happened if Newcastle United had won ‘that’ UEFA Cup Semi-Final against Marseille?
May 6th 2004.
Sometimes when you watch football you can predict moves almost before they happen.
Almost subconsciously your brain does a series of lightning quick calculations. It happened when I was watching the 2004 UEFA Cup semi-final on TV, from an electric Stade Velodrome.
In the 17th minute Laurent Robert played a smart quick free-kick to fellow Frenchmen Olivier Bernard, down the Newcastle left wing, but there was a problem, we had committed too many players forward. Too much weighed on Bernard putting in a perfect cross.
The cross was cleared and my heart started to sink. United were outnumbered and Marseille were lighting quick on the break, particularly with Drogba.
Aaron Hughes is pacey but he can’t do it on his own.
Seconds later, the ball is at the other end of the field. Drogba Brilliantly cut inside Hughes and slotted the ball beyond Shay Given. Heart wrenching.
In the second half another smart free-kick is taken. This time it is from Marseille…and leads to Drogba smashing in his second. Thank you and goodnight (2-0 on aggregate, the first leg ended 0-0). Toon fans’ dreams of Gothenburg finally crushed once and for all.
Many defeats down the years have been hard to swallow but that one felt particularly painful.
The UEFA Cup that year was a huge opportunity to end our trophy drought.
Many point to the defeat the following year against Sporting Lisbon as a turning point in our club history but by that point the rot had already set in. Graeme Souness had managed to replace Sir Bobby as manager for a kick-off.
The team was far better in 2004, highlighted by another excellent Premier League season in which we only lost twice at SJP.
Perhaps this sliding doors moment should instead be the penalty shoot-out defeat to Partizan Belgrade at the start of the season.
Despite winning 1-0 in Belgrade in the first leg, a disastrous performance at home saw us lose 1-0 on the night and exit after the dreaded spot kicks.
Losing that Champions League qualifier essentially froze club finances and made life difficult for Robson before the season had even begun.
The Marseille semi-final though offered redemption, both the club and Bobby could still find a way to make it a successful season.
Even if we had eventually lost the final against Rafa Benitez’ Valencia side (as Marseille did 2-0), the club would have still had something positive to hang onto. The excitement of a trip to Sweden for a European final, the feeling that we were getting closer and closer to winning major honours.
Instead, a dark mood descended over the club. After the final home game against Wolves (a 1-1 draw), St James Park wasn’t a happy place . Even though the club could at that point still qualify for the Champions League, with two away games remaining.
We finished fifth and it was seen as a failure. Eight years later fifth was rightly seen as a magnificent season. What would we do now for a mere top eight finish?
Despite the frustration, as a fanbase it was far from our finest moment. No doubt it allowed Freddie Shepherd to think Robson was easily disposable.
The defeat in the south of France damaged the club for years to come.
The chairmanship of Shepherd never recovered before the club was sold to Mike Ashley in 2007.
Many try to sweep this one under the carpet but Newcastle played well for long periods over both legs and had very little, in fact almost no, luck.
For starters, an away game at Aston Villa earlier in the month sidelined three of our most important players; Dyer, Bellamy and Jenas.
Lee Bowyer was also suspended (shock).
Jonathan Woodgate was superb in the first leg, giving one of the best defensive performances I have ever seen for Newcastle. Drogba was in his pocket for the vast majority of the game, save for one stunning effort which rattled the post.
In between the two legs he (Woodgate) picked up an injury ruling him out of the trip to the velodrome.
On loan, Michael Bridges missed a huge chance right at the end of the home leg. Going away with a 1-0 lead would have changed the whole dynamic in the return game.
Then in the second leg we have two strong penalty appeals turned down. It does seem like nearly everything that could go against Newcastle did.
We did ride our luck in the previous round against PSV, so it could have been a case of evening itself out, but the noises from the club were that Bobby Robson felt his side were genuinely hard done by.
I am not pretending we would still be in the top six now, or that Robson would have managed us for years to come.
He may have only had one more year before retirement anyway.
But he knew how to build for the future and could have left the squad in safe hands with a smooth transition. Instead he wasn’t allowed to finish the job he started.
Our club is littered with moving both players and managers on to soon. The decision to sack Robson was bad at the time, in hindsight…complete madness.
Who knows what it could have done for the club just to make the UEFA Cup final, even if we hadn’t lifted some silverware.
The following season might have been far less painful and our pre-season Champions League elimination might not have proved such a fatal blow.
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