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Opinion

The season kicked off in mid-July and another chance for Newcastle United

3 days ago
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A summer without a World Cup or European Championship could be something to fear. A block of time with likely tepid weather and no football, feeding off UEFA cup 1st preliminary round scores and transfer gossip, a bit like now, can make you a bit stir crazy.

Sometimes its a relieving break. On one occasion it was both.

It was summer 2001, Roger Sanchez’ ‘Another Chance’ seemed the tune of this summer and a fitting theme for Newcastle United.

Another chance for returning players (from injuries and exile), European football, second chances in the transfer market, Sir Bobby’s second full season and, as were on about Billy Joel and KLF these days, N-Trance’s ‘Set You Free 2001’.

I was glad of the break after Sir Bobby’s first full season. All’s well that ends well I suppose. A comprehensive win (3-0) over Aston Villa at St James Park on the final day of the (2000/01) season.

It didn’t disguise the ten month slog that went before. Difficult to appraise. Not as simple as a mid-table side getting mid-table results  /performances. Superb against the Leeds Galacticos (beating them home and away), awful in recurring fashion at home to Everton, Charlton and Man City. A hideous home draw with Southampton followed the very next week by an encouraging home draw with Arsenal. No Shearer, Cort or Dyer for much of it.

The post-season lap of appreciation after the 3-0 win over Villa was therefore not fully attended. Certain mythology has it that when the same thing happened in 2004 it was ‘hounding out’. Yet that’s not applied to this and this was the final game and a winning one.

Shepherd had been bullish (or a word like that with a ‘t’) about our transfer kitty around season ticket renewal time. Somebody, not to Freddie’s displeasure I imagine, got a Dennis Bergkamp link onto Sky Sports News. Plausible, I reasoned, with his no longer being a first choice at Arsenal and our not being a threat to them.

The Mag Issue 148 August 2001

Issue 148 – August 2001

Robbie Elliott, now weathered, returned from Bolton on a free. A no-brainer. Wayne Quinn signed permanently. Oliver Bernard was back from a heralded loan at Darlington. We chased left sided Boudewijn Zenden from Barcelona and as a token non-left-sided player, Everton striker Francis Jeffers. After enhancements of the departed, to great ovations, Glass and Gallacher.

Jeffers looked to many a natural striker and just what Arsenal needed given accusations of trying to walk it into the net. Zenden had been poor at Barcelona in Van Gaal’s Dutch enclave but who were we to talk?

We missed out on their signatures to Arsenal and Chelsea respectively. While we took our eye of the ball and allowed Southgate to leave Villa for Middlesbrough.

Our alternative was to sign Craig Bellamy from Coventry, just relegated after a long stay and several close shaves in the top flight, and Laurent Robert from Paris Saint Germain.

Bellamy had flopped after a big money move from Norwich, scoring just five goals and had been noticeably unimpressive for Coventry at St James. Robert, I hadn’t seen, but he’d scored 18, probably with a bullet as we’d discover. Couldn’t see that going wrong. They were better stats than the last winger we signed from them after a season in the Champions League and he weren’t bad.

Jeffers was a disaster at Arsenal and soon completely forgotten, whilst Zenden continued to fail to impress at Chelsea.

It was also another chance for the Intertoto Cup. Reintroduced in 1995. NUFC having then finished sixth, we were possibly the first club to opt against participation. Spurs, Sheffield Wednesday and Wimbledon took the offer but not seriously, fielding teams of trial, youth and reserve players in games played at the likes of Rotherham and Brighton to small crowds.

Its eye of the beholder whether these matches count as European games but its amusing to think Wimbledon (and about 30 other English clubs) have played more games in Europe than Sunderland.

In those days of title challenges it seemed a nuisance. That wasn’t even a pipedream (so we presumed) so perspectives were different. I could get down with breaking up the summer with Intertoto ‘friendlies’ with an edge and something to gain potentially at the end of it in UEFA cup football – a welcome alternative to a domestic campaign where it seemed in 2001 all we had ahead now was to finish higher than them down the road. A sad way to live but a lifestyle they wallow in. Nothing to celebrate in itself, only that it would shut up their ‘top dogs’ stuff, an honour that only exists once in a blue moon when it suits them.

Debating whether it would mean we were less fresh or more sharp when the season started for real, people seemed to side more with the latter.

We started July 14th against Lokeren with a comfortable 4-0 in Belgium with a bit of a fringe side. Bedecked in our new thicker striped shirt. As it’s 2001, the extra thick stripes resembled black monoliths. A source of evolution in that film, hopefully that would apply to us. Its most memorable for Lua-Lua’s overhead kick goal.

The formality second leg took place on the day Love Parade had been scheduled to take place in Newcastle. Cancelled just a week prior. I liked the idea some people would do both (the parade and the match, that is) and decide to wear something suitable for the parade would turn up at the match in leather catsuits with tail whips or something.

The game was a chore and a scrappy goal accredited to Bellamy won and suited it. Trying to get out the way of a header he succeeded only in diverting it into the net. The biggest draw for me was ticking off another competition and with the East Stand closed for refurbishment, sitting in the Leazes to complete the set of having either sat or stood in all parts of the ground.

The smattering of away fans for these games were housed in the Leazes / Milburn corner as they had been the last time we’d played in Europe two years prior and it was that sort of campaign I wished to replicate.

It was up for grabs how the competition would be received but the near 30,000 crowd suggested plenty Newcastle fans were taking an interest.

This cup felt a bit of a cheat even before we could say we played European football in Munich’s Olympic Stadium. Albeit in the Intertoto and against 1860, not Bayern. A controversial often poorly attended (even by Bayern) stadium that was rudimentary but for the distinctive glass roofing covering one side of the bowl.

An early Solano goal made for a comfortable night. Even at 2-2 I still felt we’d win the tie comfortably and quite liked the idea of the scores being tight to maintain an edge not yet captured this summer. A Hughes winner after Nobby squandered the chance of a hat-trick meant it was 3-2 to NUFC at the end.

A typical Gary Speed header gave us another early lead and the tie for sure it seemed, Schroth though bundled in the equaliser just before half-time, so 4-3 to Newcastle on aggregate going into the second-half.

At half-time our new signing, Laurent Robert, was introduced. Dressed casually but sharply, if boy-band-esque, in a tight white t-shirt looking more pleased than he was expecting and humbled by the reception while paraded in front of the Milburn.

The Mag Issue 150 October 2001

Issue 150 – October 2001

Unavailable for this competition, he’d start in the league by either scoring or directly assisting our first seven goals. In a different kind of way it was as blistering a start as Ginola made.

As we sealed the tie, even by the standards of the bloke next to me, I got engaged in the suspense of whether Lua-Lua would finish after skipping past the keeper and pushing it to an angle, he did and that was that. Solano adding a late penalty to rub it in, a 6-3 win on aggregate. Legend Thomas Hassler appreciated the decency from the smattering and that made it worthwhile. A crowd of 36,000, again the biggest gate of the round, was 32,000 up on the game that determined our next opponents, where a last minute goal surprisingly put Troyes into the final at Wolfsburg’s expense.

Feeling we were even more likely to win than against another German side, future European travel plans were discussed in the pub one Saturday night, unironically whilst Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Take Me Home’ played. Scared of flying I happily noted the UEFA Cup final was in Rotterdam.

The Intertoto final first leg was a tense 0-0 draw in France.

Ahead of the second leg, having a pre-match meal, well a kebab in Munchies, we sat with two brothers, Scottish, one of whom had played for Spurs yonks back, I forgot who in what immediately followed and lost a rare and tepid claim to fame. A foreshadowing of what was to come.

The atmospheric pressure had built now there was something to lose, not just the UEFA Cup, I now quite liked the idea of lifting that nothing (Intertoto) cup. The atmosphere at kick-off recognised as much, barely dying down when Nobby capitalised on it and blasted a long-range goal. But they were good. Annoyingly so, even if it was a Given howler that invigorated them. The better team, they were 1-4 up after 61 minutes before we bludgeoned our way back, levelling the scores at 4-4 on 90 minutes and on the brink of a remarkable comeback. It wasn’t to be though, Troyes winning on away goals.

Europe, maybe even the season, was over before it even started. This must be what it was like for Rangers and Celtic losing all those preliminary qualifiers all those years. Or how cancelling Love Parade must have felt. Like the end of summer.

Less than a year later we’d be back in Europe, a CL qualifier first leg away against Zeljeznicar.

Another chance at the Champions League.

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