‘A trip like no other’: Inside Newcastle’s European adventures of yesteryear

Alan Shearer celebrates with team-mates after Newcastle United take the lead over Feyenoord in 2002 - ‘A trip like no other’: Inside Newcastle’s European adventures of yesteryear
Alan Shearer celebrates with team-mates after Newcastle United take the lead over Feyenoord in 2002 - Getty Images/Stu Forster

Newcastle United are back in the Champions League for the first time in 20 years as a fitting reward for their stunning transformation under manager Eddie Howe and their Saudi Arabian owners.

It will be the fourth time the club has grabbed a seat at European football’s top table, having qualified for the competition once under Sir Kenny Dalglish and twice under Sir Bobby Robson. Only the so-called ‘big six’ have qualified for the tournament more often than the Geordies.

Telegraph Sport takes a trip down memory lane to rekindle some magical memories of Newcastle’s previous Champions League adventures as they prepare to take on Paris St-Germain, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund in this year’s group stage.

Newcastle United 3 Barcelona 2: September 17, 1997

Arguably the most famous victory in Newcastle United’s modern history as Tino Asprilla scored a hat-trick and winger Keith Gillespie delivered a performance his countryman George Best would have been proud of. Newcastle had qualified for the Champions League for the first time after a strong finish to the season under manager Dalglish, who had been tasked with turning Kevin Keegan’s entertainers into a more reliable winning machine. It did not work out for the Scot long term, but this was a magical evening.

Asprilla’s hat-trick – a penalty and two gravity defying headers from Gillespie crosses – put Newcastle three goals up and they survived a late fightback to secure an incredible win.

Faustino Asprilla leaps between Barcelona players Nadal (l) and Sergi Barjuan to head the third Newcastle goal and his hat trick goal during the UEFA Champions League match between Newcastle United and Barcelona at St James' Park on September 17, 1997
Faustino Asprilla heads home in Newcastle's famous win over Barcelona - Hulton Archive/Stu Forster

“It was the sort of thing you dream of as a child,” said captain Rob Lee. “To be in the Champions League for the first time, to beat Barcelona, who had some remarkable players. The noise, wow, the atmosphere that night, it’s something that lives with you.

“I was captain that night, but the game belonged to Tino and Keith Gillespie. It was a game Tino was up for, a game he turned up for and wanted to shine. He was an infuriating team-mate in many ways. Sometimes he turned up, sometimes he didn’t.

“That night was probably the last hurrah of the entertainers’ era. Keegan had resigned the previous season, some of the players had been sold that summer, but beating Barcelona was right up there with anything I experienced during those wonderful years at Newcastle.”

Newcastle United 1 Juventus 0: October 23, 2002

Newcastle had suffered three defeats in their opening three group games and were staring down the barrel of an early exit, but they turned things around, starting with a tense win over Juventus.

One of the most remarkable things about Newcastle’s success under Robson was that he went into a Champions League campaign with a defence of Aaron Hughes, Andy O’Brien, Titus Bramble and Andy Griffin. And it was the latter who was the unlikely source of the winning goal.

Andy Griffin celebrates his match-winning goal
Andy Griffin celebrates his winning goal - Reuters/Jeff J Mitchell

“The team was basically an extension of who Bobby was,” said Griffin. “That zest for life, that energy, that enthusiasm, that desire to win. Having a sense of no fear. That’s kind of who we were. Laurent has a free kick just outside the box, on the right hand side and with his left foot, it’s got, Laurent Robert, 1-0 written all over it. He decided to pass to me on the edge of the box instead.

“I’ve managed to round one player and then, with my second touch, I’ve kind of taken it a little too far. I remember thinking, if I just smash it at the goal, anything could happen. Dare I say it, [Gianluigi] Buffon has made a bit of a mistake and the ball’s gone into the back of the net.”

Robson would later describe the victory as “one of my greatest… we have defeated one of the most powerful teams in Europe and a side that had not tasted defeat this season.”

Even better was to follow.

Feyenoord 2 Newcastle United 3: November 13, 2002

A win over Dynamo Kiev at home meant Newcastle needed to win in Rotterdam to progress from the first group stage (the Champions League used to have two group stages rather straight into knockout rounds). No team in the history of the tournament had progressed when losing their first three games.

Newcastle made history in the most dramatic of circumstances, with Craig Bellamy’s – who had been sent off against Juventus for swinging an arm at Marco Materazzi after he had been pinched by the Italian and banned for three games – injury-time winner sending supporters delirious.

Craig Bellamy puts Newcastle United ahead against Feyenoord
Craig Bellamy puts Newcastle United ahead against Feyenoord - Craig Bellamy/Stu Forster

Newcastle had led 2-0 early in the second half, but appeared to have blown until Kieron Dyer’s sublime piece of skill and saved shot, teed Bellamy up to score the winner.

It was almost too much for the 70-year-old Robson to take in: “I’m pretty ecstatic,” he said. “But I’m pretty numb as well. It’s hard to believe we’ve won it in the end…”

Barcelona 3 Newcastle United 1: December 11, 2002

It may seem strange to talk about a defeat as one of Newcastle’s great Champions League nights, but this was memorable for three reasons. The game was postponed for 24 hours because of a torrential downpour before kick-off in the Catalan capital, Academy graduate Shola Ameobi scored at the Nou Camp and Robson was almost brought to tears by the hero’s welcome he received at his former club from fans and media alike.

Sir Bobby Robson in the torrential rain
Sir Bobby Robson in the torrential rain - Reuters/Ian Hodgson

Robson was only manager at Barcelona for one year and was initially derided and criticised, but he won everybody over and was moved upstairs, replaced by Louis van Gaal, having won three trophies. When he arrived for his pre-match press conference with Newcastle, the local media stood to applaud. It was a special moment for him and more evidence of the great man’s enduring popularity across European football.

Inter Milan 2 Newcastle United 2: March 11. 2003

More than 10,000 travelling supporters packed into San Siro, with chants of “Have you ever seen a Mackem in Milan” filling the famous old stadium as Newcastle revelled in their European fame by poking fun at local rivals Sunderland. “There was black and white everywhere inside the stadium,” remembers Shay Given. “It made your skin and your spine tingle.”

Newcastle needed to win to progress to the quarter-finals and came so close to pulling it off, their cause not helped by a series of baffling decisions by the match officials. Robson, who described the referee as “bloody awful” afterwards knew his team had been the better side, but could not turn their chances into goals despite a superhuman effort from Alan Shearer, who delivered one of his greatest displays for his hometown club.

Alan Shearer scores Newcastle's first goal against Inter Milan at San Siro in 2003
Alan Shearer scores Newcastle's first goal against Inter Milan at San Siro - Getty Images/Ben Radford

“It’s such an iconic stadium,” Shearer told the Athletic last year. “I remember looking to my right when we came out of the tunnel and just seeing this wall of black and white. There were thousands and thousands of Geordies there. I scored my first goal at the opposite end and the noise was absolutely deafening. It was just a feeling of ‘wow.’ What a club.

“It is a vivid night for another reason. When I got back into the dressing room after the match, on a high after scoring twice but knowing it was not enough, and there was a message on my phone saying that a horse I owned with a few friends, the best horse the trainer had ever had, had slipped at Cheltenham, ruptured its spleen and had to be put down. It was devastating.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.