Time flies when you’re having (very little) fun. Twenty years have passed since United’s famous trip to the San Siro. Two decades folks, two bloomin’ decades. But what a night, one where memories were made. Old acquaintances were no longer forgot.  Sam Dalling chatted to Steven Caldwell, Brian Kerr and Simon Smith – each of whom had prime pitch-side seats – plus True Faith‘s very own Matthew Philpotts. Here’s what that quintet cobbled together. With thanks to Niall and Biffa at www.nufc.com too for kindly allowing us to use their pictures. 

Life contains seminal moments, times that burst out above all others. 11 March 2003: Internazionale 2 – 2 Newcastle United.

There was a palpable sense that United had finally broken the impermeable ceiling. Ultimately, it proved another false dawn, more canapé than feast.  After limping out of the Champions League even before the groups commenced the following season, two barren decades followed. Only now, has real hope returned. 

One night in Milan though represented something greater than the Geordie mind could conceive. A generation had only known the club in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Relegation and a spell in the second tier, almost dropping to the third, before Kevin Keegan rectified that. Yet even the King’s Entertainers did not receive an invite to Europe’s top table. Experience was limited to a single campaign under Kenny Dalglish.

It required a Knight to make United’s armour shine. “Most important, and most difficult to understand now, is just how big it was,” begins Matthew Phillpotts, a True Faith regular and one of an estimated 10,000 who made the Italian pilgrimage. “There was an absolute sense of having to go there if you could. It was representative of things we thought we’d never see, that we’d never be part of. You cannot possibly overstate its importance.” 


European trips require advance travel. United would reach their destination on matchday minus one and this was no different. The day prior to the game, Sir Bobby Robson’s squad entered the bowels of the San Siro to train.  “We were struggling for a third choice goalie,” then goalkeeping coach Simon Smith recalls. “We took a young goalie called Adam Bartlett.” Coincidentally, Bartlett is United’s current goalkeeping coach. “We were only allowed to go on the pitch for an hour,” Smith continues. “But we were crossing and finishing in the San Siro. It was like a proper ‘I can’t quite believe we are doing this moment.’”

“I asked Adam if he wanted to warm up before the game the next day. ‘Of course I do, why are you even asking?!’ The experience for him…he still talks about it. Steve Harper asked Francesco Toldo for his shirt at the end of the game and gave it to Adam. A great touch.”

Smith also remembers being surprised in the tunnel. “There were proper goal frames with red and black nets on.” Milan’s two premier sides famously share the stadium. “They lift the whole thing off and put the other team’s goals up: I remember thinking how odd that was. ‘No, no, we have our own goals, thanks very much!’”

And there was a brush with fame: “I remember Shay (Given) was doing some kicking. I was in their half and ran into Christian Vieri, and had to apologise. You look and just thinking oh my god. You only ever see them on the telly!”

A few kilometres away a black and white swarm buzzed expectantly on the Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s central square. From one Tyneside cathedral to another. The masses meandered around the Duomo of Milan, sipping Peronis in its shadow.  Every watering hole, in every narrow street, was brimming with gleeful Geordies. Five deep, six deep at the bar, the world’s fashion capital was a catwalk of vertical stripes, of sizes not usually adorned by models, of merriment. 

“A tap on the shoulder would be someone you went to school with,” Philpotts recalls. “People I hadn’t seen for 10, 15 years. People I’d seen at matches but didn’t know otherwise. And they were there. You’d have a long, very, very drunk conversation. It was this magical, collective experience. That’s what I will never ever forget. 

“I thought it was amazing: the echoing of singing and how completely incongruous it was. That Newcastle should be there in this setting. It didn’t make any sense on one level.”

And on those cobbled street corners, a ditty was born. It posed a question: have you ever seen a Sunderland native in these parts? The answer was an emphatic no. “Yes, it’s childish, yes it’s small-minded,” Philpotts adds. He pauses, grins and then continues: “But it was funny and it’s still funny now. Because that symbolises who they are and who we are, but also that we felt like we didn’t really belong in Milan. Again, that’s weird because people travel, people have been to all kinds of places. But it just felt like we’d crossed this boundary.”

Back at the team hotel, United’s players were at evening school. Young centre-back Steven Caldwell can still picture the establishment’s glitzy restaurant. He passed through it into a private room at the back. Up stood David Mills, a long term scout of Sir Bobby Robson’s. He had watched Inter several times and was giving United’s stars a rundown. 

Javier Zanetti; Christian Vieri; Sérgio Conçeicão; Iván Córdoba; Toldo; Luigi Di Biagio; Francesco Coco; Fabio Cannavaro. “You’re like ‘oh my God’,” says Caldwell. “It sinks in a little bit more what the next evening is going to be like.”

Álvaro Recoba, Hernán Crespo and Marco Materazzi did not even make the squad, although a pair that would soon become familiar – Emre Belözoğlu and Obafemi Martins – did. “Is there any player in that team that was nay a legend in the game?!” says Brian Kerr, Caldwell’s roommate and another of United’s substitutes.

True Faith’s very own Woody in with the VIPs – including PJ & Duncan!

Matchday. A warm, sunny one, despite the time of year. Or at least that is how it is remembered. 

Night matches, with their twinkling white backdrop, cannot be matched. But by definition, there is a day to fill. An agonising passing of hours, each minute seeing the body physically constrict with anticipation. The post alcohol pain only enhanced that, but many still managed to fulfil tourist duties. 

Philpotts, along with brother Ade and his best friend Richard, took a train to Lake Como, a beauty spot some 80 km north of Milan. “I strongly remember being on the train, sitting outside a cafe in Como trying to eat pasta, and having another bottle of Peroni. It was one of those hangovers where you are still sweating alcohol out of every pore of your body. “ 

As well as the stunning scenery, Como hosts the Casa del Fascio, the epitome of fascist modernism, designed by Giuseppe Terragni. “There is that incongruity, doing the cultural tour at the same time as going to watch Newcastle. That’s a really really strong memory. I remember Rainbow flags with PACE hanging over every balcony, on every block of flats. It added to the sense of difference, sense of cosmopolitanism. Maybe it was an escape from the parochial corner that was supporting Newcastle in the late ‘90s”.

Amongst the few travellers not nursing hangovers were the playing and coaching staff. And given Sir Bobby was a famous tourist, he wanted them to enjoy an experience beyond football. “Bob used to love his little city tours,” explains Caldwell. “He wanted it to be more than just a game. He wanted us to see more of the culture. I loved it. I knew I wasn’t likely to be starting in a lot of these places. But I wanted to see what the place was like.” 

It was the same on each of United’s trips. Smith remembers the qualifying rounds months earlier. It was summer when United’s Champions League campaign began at Željezničar in August 2002.  A city ripped apart by war, Sarajevo was in recovery after almost four years of siege.  The match took place at the Koševo Stadium, with the club’s Grbavica Stadium uninhabitable. “We got invited to go around escorted by the British Army and look at the old ground. It had been under siege for all those years.  

“I remember going with Sir Bobby, John (Carver) and a few others. It was like being in Newcastle. There were that many Geordies spending the afternoon shopping, in the bars. You sometimes say ‘I didn’t hear an English accent’ well I didn’t hear a foreign accent. It was fantastic.”

However, not everyone enjoyed the pre-match routine. “Some of the guys just wanted to be in their rooms relaxing,” Caldwell admits. Names? “I can’t remember. I just remember some moaning at the back of the bus. It added to the humour of the trip. We were probably the only team in Europe who were slightly sightseeing the day of the game, the biggest day of your life. We were just excited to be there and desperate for the night to come.”

Slowly time ticked on. Inter’s Ultras have an unsavoury reputation. Welcome to Milan? Absolutely not. And so the central bars were closed, forcing Mags to seek liquid refreshment further afield. Many landed in Navigli, the last remaining evidence of Milan’s historic waterways system. The city lacks a river and so man-made canals were built between the 12th and 17th Century to help the landlocked Milan flourish economically.  Tynesiders packed it out and further memories were made.  “You know those daft little ‘in jokes’?” Philpotts begins. “We had Paninis and I remember making a crap Panini George joke because Finidi George was at Ipswich at the time.” 

Next came a packed, claustrophobic Metro ride. Desperate for that one final pre-match tipple, Geordies searched for obliging venues. There were none. That was soon forgotten: surrounded by a vast concrete wasteland, the San Siro loomed like a hundred Goliaths.  

Since its 1926 erection, the stadium has sat regally in north-west Milan. Named after a church – the San Siro alla Vepra, near Piazzale Lotto – it has fittingly been a footballing place of worship. It is owned by the City of Milan and after the Second World War finished, there was talk of demolishing the original construction, of relocating closer to the city centre. Instead, the Municipality settled on a 750 billion Lire facelift. At that point Inter moved into La Scala del Calcio – the footballing equivalent of Milan’s storied opera house, and no less monumental either in its scale or the richness of its drama. 

It was only ahead of Italia ‘90 that the San Siro of today was born. An entire team of helical ramps were added, each a 37 degree ascension to join the football Gods.  “Sir Bobby said about St. James’ being the Cathedral on the Hill,” Smith begins. “But it’s also that some of the great grounds are like that. When you get outside… I always feel that Old Trafford is a bit like that. You get a view of it that not everybody sees. Grounds like the San Siro, the Bernabeu, the Nou Camp, are nearly as recognisable from the outside as they are from the inside. Then you know they are special. I’d like to say Gateshead Stadium had the same effect, but it didn’t…not quite!”

Any Mackems in sight?!

Well before kick-off the Curva Sud trembled under the sheer weight of something between anticipation and disbelief. Pinch yourselves, punch your friend in the arm.  “It was packed very early in the warm-up,” Kerr recalls. “The noise they were creating then, even for the subs at half-time. And then after the game for hours when the boys are doing cool downs and extra work for the boys that didn’t get on. They didn’t stop from an hour before kick off to an hour after it. It was really something else to see and be a part of.”

For Caldwell, it was the Milanese reception that jumps to the front of his memory. Up the concrete steps and out of the tunnel: “There were probably 20 or 30,000 in at least at that point. It was loud. They booed us, they chucked a few things. It felt intense straight away. That was cool. You want to die, you want to go through the whole experience.” 

In his thick Scottish accent, Caldwell explains: “The pitch was nae great, and the changing rooms were terrible. It was run down and looked like a semi pro dressing room. The bathroom area was just like a hole in the ground. It was quite weird. That is my memory. I remember thinking ‘bloody hell, we’re in the San Siro and it’s way off every stadium I’ve been to in England.’” 

Conditions for supporters were worse still.  After some frisking that could best politely be described as petting from the local constabulary, United fans arrived at their lower-tier perches. The ‘seats’ were effectively tiny bits of plastic attached to layers of concrete. It mattered little. Not a soul intended to sit. 

For whatever reason, the powers that be housed Milan fans above the estimated 10,000 Newcastle followers. Coins rained down, as did plastic and urine. Flares too. Some even swear they spotted a fuckin’ Vespa up in the Gods! It was not pleasant. It was not how football should be. 

Then, finally, that first whistle. 

Craig Bellamy was back, having served a suspension for lashing out at Marco Materazzi with the return fixture just five minutes old.  Alan Shearer was hot. A first-half hat trick against Bayer Leverkusen a fortnight prior had brought renewed hope to Tyneside. 

The start was almost perfect, Nobby Solano cracking an effort against the angle. Then, shortly before the break, the noise lifted a bazillion notches. Shearer taps in. United lead. “‘One nil to the Geordie Boys’ in the San Siro,” Smith recalls. “And it’s like, oh my God. ‘You’re not singing anymore.’ They’re singing to Italians, ‘you’re not singing any more’ and it’s like ‘really?!’  Unbelievable events.”

‘This could happen you know, this can happen,’ proclaimed Clive Tyldesley to the folks at home. It had happened before. Recently. United had suffered defeat in their first three games of Group Stage 1, only to recover with three successive victories. 

Bellamy’s last-gasp winner at Feyenoord had unleashed delirium. Smith recalls being leapfrogged by a jubilant Steve Harper, while amongst the pandemonium Caldwell’s defensive instincts kicked in: “I was screaming at the guys to get back into shape while they were celebrating in the corner. I wanted to make sure we were on tune. Just me. Everyone else was just enjoying the moment. I was thinking about the ‘what if’?”

And United’s record to date in Group Stage 2 was superior: defeats to Inter and Barcelona were followed by back-to-back victories against Bayer Leverkusen. It was on. 

Then a dose of realism. Just after the break Vieri headed Conçeicão’s cross past Shay Given. “There’s that thing when fans from different countries make a different noise when they score a goal,” says Philpotts. “The San Siro made that noise, the Italian low rumbling.” 

But then came a Shearer prod and a second lead. It drew him level with Hughie Gallagher on 143 goals for Newcastle: just Len White and Jackie Milburn to surpass now. 

What a moment. What a man.

“God we don’t win many away matches,” Philpotts adds. “But scoring a goal, being in the lead even, is amazing. The capacity to celebrate in that moment…we did that twice. In the San Siro. Genuinely incredible, just astonishing.” 

Then another Milan header, another Milan equaliser. Córdoba this time. “An incredible player,” Caldwell says in admiration. “He was probably 5’10. Back then you never saw a centre back who wasn’t 6’1, 6’2 at least. He stuck out for me. The way he could jump ‘oh my God’. The way he handled Alan and Craig – Craig was on fire back then speed wise – but this guy was up to it.”

It was pulsating, electrifying and intense. “You know as a centre back sub there’s less chance of getting on,” Caldwell continues. “But for a game like that you want to be absolutely dialled in just in case so you’re up to speed straight away. “Sometimes you’re watching trying to think about coming on, sometimes you are thinking it’s not a great game. But this was one you get into a bit more than you should. You are half watching as a fan. You learn not to do that as you get more experienced!”

And then came Lucilio Batista’s final whistle, that third goal just out of reach. Inter did everything they could to take the sting out of the contest. One national newspaper liveblog suggested “they’ve been going down like Jenna Jameson all night” such were the antics employed. 

United would next host Barcelona requiring victory to stand a chance of progression. A sense of disappointment, of opportunity gone begging? “Thinking back I should be more gutted that we had to watch two equalisers,” Philpotts replies.  “It was a wee bit like that,” agrees Kerr. “We felt like we could manage anything at the time, it felt like we could really go and do it. Especially at 2-1 up, it was almost like this is there for us, it is in our grasp. The fans were trying to drag another one in for us that night.  They did everything. We just fell just short.”

But as Caldwell points out: “We had clawed ourselves back to a position where we were competing, where we had a chance. There was no pressure on us. I felt like that trip was almost the crescendo of the whole campaign.”  

Navigating away from the ground was supporters’ biggest issue, and not just because of Vieri’s Porsche. There were no trains and the heavy police presence had strangely dissipated. It was nervy, it was dangerous, and it felt like no-one gave a shit. Caldwell had his parents and then girlfriend, now wife there. All was well but it could have been very different. 

The locals were oh so friendly…

Sir Bobby’s influence in all of this cannot and should not be underestimated, both in the context of this fixture and the campaign. “When you look at the two teams on paper, we were playing against some incredible football players,” says Kerr. “Listen, again it was Bobby who pushed us so close with a squad that probably shouldn’t have even gotten close to some of those teams.” 

“Bobby came alive on Champions League nights,” agrees Caldwell. “He lived for the big stage, and would have more energy than normal the night before. He very rarely put extra pressure on us. He was passionate and intense. You knew when you had to perform.”  

That relaxed attitude was never more evident than when United had travelled to Turin earlier in the competition. Ahead of defeat to Juventus, most of the travelling party were too busy fawning over Sting’s presence to notice their manager’s absence. 

“We couldn’t find him anywhere,” Smith recalls laughing, his fondness for his former boss audible.  “He’d found himself a little quiet corner to have forty winks. We get there like an hour and a half before, his work doesn’t really start until an hour before so he’d obviously thought ‘I can get a little snooze in.’  But we completely lost him – we thought ‘oh my god, he’s left us.’ We found him in a little treatment room having forty winks on the bed. He wasn’t overly bothered!”

But he weaved his magic to bring an unlikely group together. “It was a funny group,” Caldwell explains. “There was a big gap between the ages. Speedo, Alan, Harps and Shay. And then Kieron, Craig, Carl Cort…a younger group. Then the French guys, the South Americans. So there were these little cliques, pockets of friends but we all came together when it came to football. It wasn’t the way I saw teams built after those who had a really big culture and team spirit. It was unconventional but it worked for us. We came together when it mattered most.” 

United’s defence that night contained Titus Bramble, Andy O’Brien, Andy Griffin and Olivier Bernard. Not one that would, on paper at least, give too many top-level strikers sleepless nights. “They just had an understanding, a drive and a belief as well. I think that came from the manager,” says Kerr. “They felt like they could do it. They all could do their job and they were 100% per cent guys. They gave you absolutely everything they had. That came from the culture of the club at the time. Everyone believed that if given a chance they had a job to do and were capable of doing it.”

“I’ve often said that quite close to the births of my children, maybe even ahead of them, is seeing Shearer score in the San Siro,” Philpotts jokes to conclude. 

“The biggest thing for me on the night was the black and white behind the goals,” adds Kerr. “It was hard to concentrate on the game because of how loud they were, how much they drove the team forward. The scenes after Alan scored showed it meant a lot. That does nae leave you.”

Caldwell ended his professional career with over 400 appearances to his name: “At this point, some of them are a bit of a blur,” he admits. “But nights like that, you remember every single detail.”  

“Those nights were just so special,” Smith says. “I felt at that time, the teams we played probably had some of the best XI players in the world at the time. That’s what makes the Champions League special.”

Sam Dalling (@SamJDalling)