Scott Robson reflects on a season over twenty years ago when under Sir Bobby Robson we exceeded expectations to qualify for the Champuions League. Could history be repeating under Eddie Howe?
Everyone has a favourite season and a favourite Newcastle United side. Most folks obviously pick the Keegan era but for various reasons 2001-2002 was my personal high point.
I didn’t miss many away games, it was my second year of having a season ticket and my life and money fully revolved around Newcastle United and it was absolutely amazing.
Seeing Mags away at Southampton this season enjoying every second of the game brought memories flooding back to me and got me thinking how similar 2001/02 and this one are shaping up.
Twenty years ago Newcastle United was back and now we are ready to dine at the top table again. For Sir Bobby Robson see Eddie Howe
The situations of the takeover are completely different and Newcastle United being owned by the Saudi state is a different animal to Freddy Shepherd, Sir John Hall et al as major shareholders and both born and bred in the NE.
It’s a different world in fact but after a disappointing season the year before when United slipped from top in September to a mid-table finish was as disappointing as it sounded.
SBR had pulled off the escape act the season before but in 200-2001, the side just didn’t click despite recruiting three South Americans (Bassedas, Gavilan and Acuna) and £7m on Carl Cort.
The squad was still full of star talent in Shearer, Speed, Solano, Dyer and Lee but it was desperate stuff at times and even Shearer started to look passed his best and with a medical history straight out of Casualty. He played only twice after the New Year, one of those being one of the worst performances I can recall; a 1-0 home defeat in the sleet to relegation bound Manchester City. It was as painful as you think.
Just like now minimal but masterstroke changes were made. Craig Bellamy was signed for what seemed a very hefty £6.5m giving his injury record and a knack for starting a fight in an empty house. Scepticism was high but offset by Shepherd finding money for SBR to spend big on Laurent Robert. He’d been top scorer with 32 goals for PSG the previous season.
Not since Shearer had United invested so heavily in a bona-fide world-class player.
Still though most United fans were not expecting much, predictions ranging modestly between 10th and 11th.
The season started in early July when United entered the Intertoto Cup to try and get into Europe through the backdoor. After two enjoyable games against Lokeren and 1860 Munich we lost on away goals to Troyes, drawing 4-4 after being 4-1 down. Don’t ask.
The lack of continental football might not have suited Robert, but it was to be a blessing in disguise with free weeks between games as others played demanding European fixtures between PL matches.
It didn’t really come into anyone’s heads at that point but we started well enough.
Clarence Acuna scored an unlikely equaliser as we got a rare opening day point at Chelsea, before daylight robbery ensued in an early season Tyne -Wear Derby (remember them?) as Sunderland escaped with a point as Nobby Solano missed a hatful. The Mackems provided our first chance to see Bellamy in action. He tore them apart all day, scored and was a complete bell end. There was much more to come in every way from him.
The next two games were magnificent. A complete destruction of Middlesbrough at The Riverside and like Bellamy introduced himself before Robert said hello at Boro with an exhilarating performance which provided Shearer with renewed vigour. His toying with Roy Keane in the next game at SJP showed he was back and so was Newcastle United. That 4-3 victory against Manchester United was our best win in years and lives long in the memory.
United being United meant they followed this up with a 3-0 defeat to West Ham and defeats to Liverpool and Tottenham followed in the next month, but something was stirring and after edging out Leicester, Shearer, Robert, Bellamy and Solano all scored as we thumped Bolton away in an attacking performance not seen since the entertainers. We were unplayable that day.
Bellamy was a revelation, Shearer loved it. He chased, he hassled and did the work which Shearer couldn’t do anymore, Bellamy saved two careers by signing for United – his own and Alan Shearer’s.
Against Villa at home, the point was rammed home as Shearer scored a goal of the season contender, while Bellamy was man of the match scoring twice.
That result took us third, almost to the day that our win against Southampton this season did.
Acuna even scored again as we beat Everton away 3-1. It was as enjoyable then beating the Scouse Mackems as it is now.
We lost predictably at Fulham, our London hoodoo now just shy of 30 (yes, thirty) games, but for a few hours after beating Derby County 1-0 at home with a Shearer pen we went top of the league before Manchester United collected 3 points and normal service was resumed, mores the pity.
I saw Pulp at the City Hall that night oblivious to Ferguson’s side winning and rightly got hammered at being top of the league. Ignorance is sometimes bliss.
The London winless run continued with a draw at Charlton but that was the first day of one of the best December’s in Newcastle United’s history in which we went from surprise packages to real deal title challenges.
Solano got us a 1-0 away win at a foggy Ipswich while youngster Olivier Bernard dug us out of a hole with a winner at home to Blackburn. These games were the foreword for a week which was heaven sent.
Arsenal (a). It was London of course and let’s not forget how good Arsenal were at that point. We went 1-0 down early but after Ray Parlour was sent off in a rare pro United move by Graham Poll, we incredibly roared back. Andy O ‘Brien rivalled his Sunderland goal by equalising. Bellamy was also sent off but on 85 minutes Poll decided Campbell took out Robert and Shearer blasted the pen in.
It got better in injury time as Robert raced clear to make it 3 from Lua-Lua’s pass and a corner of the Clock Stand exploded in B&W joy.
Henry nearly strangled Graeme Poll at FT and it was life affirming stuff. We went top on goals scored. In his own classy style, SBR rebuked Wenger and his players for a complete lack of sportsmanship and we headed back up the road buzzing.
Then the Saturday. Snow fell three days before Christmas as we faced another top dog away, Leeds United at Elland Road with another massive Mag following packing out the away end.
This is my favourite game of all time. 3-1 down to win 4-3. Top of the PL at Christmas, it was Leeds, it snowed, we sung “Hey Lee Bowyer, I wanna know how you’re not in jail” just like we do now. Nobby Solano’s picture book winning goal in front of an away end going berserk provided a feeling few Newcastle United moments have matched in my time following the club.
A caravan of Geordie love snaked back to the NE in atrocious conditions but full of Christmas cheer. It was the match by his own admission that started the beginning of the end for David O’Leary as Leeds manager. Shame that.
After one of the best Christmas’ ever, we beat Boro 3-0 on the Boxing Day to stay top as Shearer, Speed and Bernard scored.
The team that made it a double from Boro that day:
Given, Hughes, Elliott, O’Brien, Dabizas, Speed, Solano, Dyer, Bellamy, Sheaerer, Robert. Yes it was as good as it sounds.
We were brought back down to earth in the New Year by defeats To Man U who celebrated their 3-1 win like they had won the World Cup, a sure signal we mattered and Chelsea won 2-1 at St James’ tpo beg the question if the bubble had burst?
Well no, we just got back up and started again. A 0-0 draw at Leicester was frustrating but we won 5 out of the next 6.
Leeds were dispatched again a clinical midweek 3-1 win after going behind early as Dyer and Bellamy again ran riot against the Yorkshire side That was before a magnificent 3-1 midweek win away to Tottenham with Acuna, Bellamy and Shearer getting the goals at White Hart Lane.
The London hoodoo was no more. Jermaine Jenas announced himself that night having joined for £5m from Forest. At this stage he looked like the final piece of the jigsaw in that classic navy Adidas blue top. Shearer then scored 4 in the next two home games as we beat Bolton and Southampton 3-2 and 3-1 respectively to stay 2nd.
Next up was Sunderland and as ever they were hell bent on spoiling anything good we had and the thought of beating us to end a title challenge would have given them boners.
We of course won 1-0 with a Dabizas header which was the final hurdle in me believing we could do it. Sunderland was the hardest game for us as they threw everything at us but it wasn’t enough.
We won, took the piss and stayed second. It was beautiful. Dabizas’ iconic celebration in front of the away end was unforgettable.
It couldn’t last and the pressure of having to win every week is something we couldn’t sustain.
Arsenal showed us who was boss by winning 2-0 at SJP with that fluke Bergkamp goal. Then the old Anfield wounds were reopened with a standard 3-0 defeat.
They didn’t help but the result which really ended any title bid was a 2-2 home draw with Ipswich as Shearer missed a pen at Easter. It was freezing and I crashed my first car. A bad day all round for yours truly.
The title may have gone now but qualifying for the Champions League had not and that became our focus – a target that seemed completely out of reach at the start of the season.
A good Friday 6-2 hammering of Everton, despite it being 2-2 at half time, got us going again but we still laboured in draws with Villa and Fulham. Liverpool’s form was ominously good too.
The turning point was Derby away. 2-0 down midway through the second half we looked like we were going to throw it all away.
Shearer and Lee were both injured but Robert rifled in a free kick before Solano put Dyer in to level. Lua-Lua then scored the winner in injury time despite looking a mile offside and the tide had turned. Thank God VAR didn’t exist then.
Charlton were routinely beaten in the next game 3-0 and it meant we needed only a point at Blackburn in the midweek to confirm Geordies were in the Champions League and to get the passports ready.
Again it was a roller coaster (it wouldn’t be us otherwise) Andy Cole and Keith Gillespie both scoring to put the boot in but Shearer scored twice against Rovers and we had done it!
Going back on a dark A69 that early morning and thinking about what we had achieved will remain with me forever.
Shearer made it 22 for the season as we beat West Ham 3-1 on a party night at St James’ before a final day 3-1 away defeat at Southampton only really remembered for Dyer’s injury after a horrific tackle and a lot of drink.
For Shearer think Wilson, Almiron for Bellamy, Bruno for Speed, ASM / Lua-Lua though the defensive wall we have now is far superior to what Bobby had back then.
Like this season, a couple of signings in key positions did the trick and players already here were revitalised.
It’s so similar it’s unreal. If United get back into the Champions League, you heard it here first.