The attacking highs and defensive lows of Newcastle United’s remarkable 2002/03 Champions League campaign 

The attacking highs and defensive lows of Newcastle United’s remarkable 2002/03 Champions League campaign 

The coach from Sarajevo International Airport to the hotel travelled along the central highway, giving the Newcastle squad a grand tour of the war-ravaged city. High-rise buildings were stained black from flames and the walls of restaurants and shops were still visibly punctured by bullet holes. “The hotel’s fine, the food’s okay, the people are nice, but it isn’t Hawaii,” Sir Bobby Robson said from his lodgings.

The Bosnian city had been so engulfed by the war seven years prior to the match that UEFA deemed the Stadion Grbavica unfit for purpose. Half the seats, along with its 42 trophies, had been razed by bombs during the bloody siege.

Instead, Newcastle played their Champions League third-round qualification encounter against Željezničar at the neutral Stadium Koševo. Although it remains as one of the most highly-attended matches in Bosnian history, it wasn’t the European night Newcastle had envisioned when they’d mounted a fourth-place finish the season before, surprising most along the way.

Robson had sold senior players and signed raw, young and hungry talent, including as Jermaine Jenas and Craig Bellamy, players who snubbed the Premier League’s elite in favour of Newcastle. This brought about a mini-revival of the Entertainers, but just like in the Kevin Keegan era, they were without balance in 2001/02.

The defence, which consisted of Robbie Elliott, Andy O’Brien and Nikos Dabizas, was the 13th worst in the top-flight. During the same summer, Robson decided to take a gamble by bolstering the back line with the haphazard Titus Bramble.

One publication dubbed the side a “Nationwide League defence with a Champions League forward line”, and that, without strengthening, it would be unlikely that Newcastle would enjoy a similar season to the one before. Ipswich Town’s relegation had highlighted the difficulty of impressive league form whilst competing in Europe.

Despite this, it was expected that they’d at least compete in the Champions League. But after they beat Željezničar 5-0 on aggregate, they were drawn into a tough first phase group. Dynamo Kyiv were Champions League regulars who, bar two occasions, had won every league title since Ukrainian independence in 1991. Juventus, in the midst of Marcello Lippi’s second reign, were group favourites and Serie A champions, whilst Feyenoord had won the UEFA Cup the year before.

Dynamo had nine first-team players missing for the opening game in Ukraine. Newcastle’s defensive frailties were capitalised upon, meaning the home side prevailed 2-0, their slick passing and direct style too much for the north-east club, who looked in pre-season form. “We were never going to win all six,” said Robson afterwards, slightly dismissively. “But I’m not afraid of it.”

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Against Feyenoord, O’Brien’s tame header set up Sebastián Pardo for the only goal of the match. Two games had gone with no points and no goals – Newcastle had a fight on their hands. A European fight which, even senior members of that squad, such as Alan Shearer, had barely experienced.

Everything pointed to a disastrous campaign, made worse when Bellamy was given a retrospective three-game European ban for headbutting Dynamo’s Tiberiu Ghioane. Juventus, up next for Newcastle, had demolished Dynamo 5-0 in their first match and won their previous seven home games in Europe.

Robson took a different tactical approach in what was a make or break game against the Turin outfit. Andy Griffin, a conservative wing-back in the squad, posed in front of the defence. His job, he’d been told, was to stop Pavel Nedvěd, who’d soon lift that year’s Ballon d’Or. Kieron Dyer was positioned behind Shearer, replacing Bellamy, in an auxiliary attacking role.

The Old Lady, who wore their away kit, beat the English 2-0. It was a comfortable win thanks to Alessandro Del Piero’s sublime brace.

In the game in Italy, Marco Di Vaio collided with O’Brien, who, as he lay stricken, swallowed his tongue. Robson joked that he wished the striker would suffer a similar fate when Juventus played at St James’ Park for the fourth game, as it would’ve eased the pressure. The Italian media, as a result, labelled him “a cretin” – but the Englishman’s tactic of going all-out attack, pushing wing-backs so forward they practically became wing-forwards, finally paid off in Europe.

In the 64th minute, in what’s become one of those oddly brilliant moments in football, Griffin, the Wigan native who was reinstated in his familiar wing-back role, put Newcastle ahead. In one slick move, he’d jinked through Juve’s entire defence, then played a diagonal cross. The ball rebounded off Gianluigi Buffon’s arm and into the net.

The home support leapt up in ecstasy, then rubbed their eyes in disbelief. It had taken 334 minutes but Newcastle had their first Champions League group stage goal of the season. The Bianconeri’s record of scoring in injury time, something which they had done in their last three matches, drew to a close.

Along with their first goal, Robson’s men got their first three points. But it was the defensive fortitude of Newcastle that truly earned the win. Bramble, the 21-year-old whom Robson claimed had been the subject of a “witch-hunt” by journalists before the game, put in a man of the match performance.

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Newcastle’s chance of progressing to the second group phase went from virtually impossible to remote. They still had to beat Dynamo on home soil or face elimination, but at St James’ they were reluctant to put a foot wrong, playing the first half ponderously and lacking conviction in the final third.

Robson rolled his eyes, shook his head, and winced as he rubbed the three broken ribs he’d suffered falling down a flight of stairs the week before. As advised by his doctor, he was in the director’s box to avoid getting too animated and cause further damage. But when Maksim Shatskikh scored early in the second half, he made his way down to the dugout to dictate proceedings.

The goal had an adverse effect for Alexei Mikhailichenk’s men. It galvanised Newcastle: the Toon Army jumped to their feet and roared the team forward – and the players reciprocated. A corner was whipped across at the Gallowgate End and Gary Speed scored a diving header, his first Champions League goal in a decade. Then, Shearer’s arm was pulled by Andriy Husin inside the box, a silly foul for a defence known for its discipline. The local hero placed his penalty into the bottom left, securing his first Champions League goal for Newcastle. The home side earned a 2-1 victory, and those lingering chances Newcastle had turned into tangible hope.

De Kuip was lit up with red pyro, supporters threw objects onto the pitch, and the whole arena bounced. Hearts were in mouths on both sides. Like Newcastle, the Dutch had to avoid defeat and hope Juventus, who were likely to field a weakened side, turned up and beat Dynamo Kyiv in the later game.

Bellamy, back from his ban, was relentless, despite having a dodgy knee. He missed two carbon copy chances but in stoppage-time, at the end of the first half, the 23-year-old broke through to put Newcastle ahead. Early in the second half, the enigmatic Hugo Viana, on the edge of the box, took a swipe at a ball which bounced in front of him and it trundled in.

Newcastle verged on the unthinkable. Substitute Mariano Bombarda pulled one back for Feyenoord before the home side equalised with 20 minutes to go. Anthony Lurling’s volley put Feyenoord second in the table, with Newcastle on course for a UEFA Cup place in third. The clock ticked closer to the end. Minutes appeared to speed up as the Newcastle dugout became more frantic.

No one was sure why Viana, when substituted, decided to leave the field like Newcastle were a goal up and needed to waste time. Nor why Shay Given took so long to deliver goal kicks. A couple of half chances went begging for Newcastle in the last 10 minutes, but they were unable to execute a finish in the final third.

Two minutes into injury time, a long ball reached Feyenoord’s box. Shearer outjumped his marker to put Dyer through. The attacker neatly cut inside to find himself one-on-one with the goalkeeper, but he hit his effort right at Patrick Lodewijks. A collective sigh of relief echoed from the home support, but the ball spilt to Bellamy out wide. The angle was tight, practically impossible, and the forward hit a poor shot. Somehow, the ball was diverted into the net after it rebounded off the goalkeeper’s chest. “Has there ever been a more dramatic night in the Champions League?” Jon Champion blared into his microphone. You couldn’t think of many.

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From losing their first three matches and dropping a two-goal cushion in their final game, Newcastle were on course to progress to the second group stage of the Champions League, the game in Holland finishing 3-2 to the visitors. It’s a Hollywood conclusion, but really it was Dynamo’s 2-1 loss to Juventus that confirmed Newcastle’s progression to the next group stage, one that brought about an even tougher challenge.

Barcelona and Internazionale were looking for an improvement after they finished fourth in their respective leagues the season before, and Bayer Leverkusen, the last campaign’s Champions League finalists, were fighting relegation in the Bundesliga.

Newcastle were elated from their night in Rotterdam, but a harsh reminder of the brutality of European football was served almost immediately. Most of the seats at St James’ were yet to be taken when Domenico Morfeo scored for Inter. It was a poor but manageable start. That was until Bellamy kicked Marco Materazzi and the defender dropped to the floor clutching his leg. It was a straight red for Bellamy, who would be banned for another three games. The striker left the pitch in tears. “Crying because he’ll be fined six months wages,” according to one rather harsh reporter.

Matías Almeyda then doubled the visitor’s lead with a long-range beauty, before Hernán Crespo made it three. Nolberto Solano scored for Newcastle – but it was a consolation: Álvaro Recoba, who had been on the pitch for less than 30 seconds, delivered the deathblow in the second half.

Not only was Bellamy banned, but video evidence also captured Shearer swinging an elbow to the back of Fabio Cannavaro’s head. “He was given a yellow card early on and, on another day, he might have got another for persistent fouling,” Shearer said. “But that’s what you get when you play the Italians.” Despite his complaints, Shearer was banned for a lenient two matches.

The game at the Camp Nou was delayed for 24 hours due to persistent rain, and it was like a hollow chamber when replacement strikers Shola Ameobi and Lomana LuaLua, both 21, led the line for the Magpies. The subdued atmosphere meant the game played out like a training match – there was no home advantage, and the remaining away support consisted of those who were able to pull a sickie. The majority of the 4,000 fans who travelled went home after the delay.

Dani García scored a header against the run of play to put Barça ahead. Nolberto Solano then nutmegged Philippe Christanval before feeding Ameobi, who scored from inside the box to silenced the last speckle of noise at the ground. Marc Overmars later ferried to Patrick Kluviert for 2-1 despite Newcastle looking the more likely to score.

In the second half, Thiago Motta headed a corner towards goal. Kieron Dyer, who was supposed to be covering the line, only bent out a leg at the last second, his mind elsewhere. The referee judged that the ball went over the line and the game was put to bed, the Catalans winning 3-1.

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Newcastle had once again played two and lost two – but at least they had a couple of goals this time.

Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal were unable to win away at the BayArena the previous season, but the Germans had suffered a remarkable fall from grace ever since Zinedine Zidane rippled the net with his stunning volley in the 2002 Champions League final. It was like the goal was so devastating, it had sucked the soul out of Leverkusen.

The weekend before they played Newcastle, they sacked their manager, Klaus Toppmöller, the coach crowned the “best in the league” by German journalists the season before. Goals from secondary strike-force of LuaLua and Ameobi saw Newcastle to a 3-1 away win, but it was the disastrous display of the Leverkusen defence which ultimately handed Newcastle the three points on a plate.

The buzz around Tyneside was back, and many asked themselves what Newcastle could muster in their remaining games with the return of their two key strikers. The answer: a great deal. Shearer returned from suspension for the game at St James’ Park as Bayer opted for a weakened side, concentrating on survival. “I have no dreams about progressing in the tournament,” new manager Thomas Hörster said. “This game is a distraction.”

But Newcastle could afford to dream some more. Shearer scored a hat-trick, with one of the visitors’ defenders, Cris, at fault for the first two goals before remarkably being taken off on 28 minutes. “Thought last week’s performance by Cris was the worst I’d ever seen by a professional footballer, but he’s surpassing himself tonight,” remarked one commentator.

Boasting six points, with Inter on seven and Barcelona on 10, and two games left, things weren’t quite in Newcastle’s hands: it was unlikely that Leverkusen and their ragged defence could withstand Barça, so the Magpies had to win against Inter in Italy. Defeat would see them knocked out.

Over 10,000 travelling supporters occupied the stand behind the goal at the Giuseppe Meazza. Flags reading South Shields, Gosforth and Gateshead draped over the metallic caged fence on the first two rows as resilient supporters, some bare-chested, taunted the Milanese fans, who threw bottles and coins towards them. The famous stadium did its best to intimidate, while Inter players were equally as unsportsmanlike on the pitch.

Bellamy scuttled past the defence to set up Shearer, who bagged the opening goal, though it looked offside. Christian Vieri then beat two defenders to win a header and equalise, the inconsistent defence costing the English giants again.

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Later, Laurent Robert smacked a wild cross from deep that was spilt by Francesco Toldo. Shearer pounced on the mistake and scored his fifth Champions League goal in two games. The away support’s celebrations created scenes that would be reprinted on mugs, t-shirts and scarfs in years to come.

The wind was in their sails, their top strikers on the pitch, and their supporters were creating bedlam, all in the face of the hostility from the home support. The players had to withstand countless floated balls into the box and ensure they weren’t unnerved by Inter’s rough style of play.

Deep into the second half, Emre Belözoğlu crossed the ball for Iván Córdoba, who stood at five feet eight inches and managed to outleap Gary Speed and head in. On the touchline, Robson gesticulated to assistant manager John Carver, who just shrugged. Newcastle plugged away but Inter bit and fouled their way to a point.

For their final group stage game, not only did they have to beat Barcelona at home, but they also had to hope Inter would draw or lose against the desolate Leverkusen.

Supporters got updates from friends back at home, glued to Teletext: Inter were already winning and the game wouldn’t matter. Kluviert pounced on confusion between Bramble and Shay Given to score. Then, a free-kick was swung in, and the towering Motta doubled the lead. Leverkusen lost 2-0 to Inter, and Newcastle were finally out.

No side had ever lost their first three Champions League games and progressed to the second group stage, and no team has ever naively strolled into the Champions League and matured so much in such a short space that a knockout place was arguably deserved.

At the final whistle, Sir Bobby Robson and his squad walked down the tunnel, sweat gleaming off their bowed heads, to a standing ovation at St James’ Park. It’s possible that supporters were safe in the knowledge that, even though they came away without silverware this time, this young, vibrant side, with their wise Geordie manager, had a bright future to look forward to in the coming seasons. That this all could be part of a greater plan. It wasn’t, but the memories hold firm.

By Jacque Talbot @jac_talbot

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