Updated: Jun 4
19th March 2003 was the last fixture Newcastle United played in the Champions League. It was a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona at St. James Park with Patrick Kluivert and Thiago Motta ending Newcastle's European journey. An era a percentage of Newcastle fans won't remember as it's been twenty years this year since the Champions League anthem was played on Tyneside.
Newcastle have conjured up some fantastic nights against Europe's elite since the European cup competition was re-branded in 1992. In the 97-98 season under Kenny Dalglish, Newcastle put on a breath-taking display against Louis van Gaal's Barcelona as the Toon Army were victorious in a thrilling 3-2 win at St. James Park. Luis Figo, Luis Enrique and Rivaldo started for Barcelona that evening, but it was Tino Asprilla who was the hero on the night, scoring a hat-trick which led to euphoria in the stands and allowed the Columbian to show off his acrobatic cartwheels. Although it was a Wednesday night to remember, unfortunately Newcastle only won two games in the group and were knocked out of the competition.
Fast forward five years and Newcastle claimed fourth spot under Sir Bobby Robson. It was a brilliant achievement after what had been a very inconsistent period of time for the club. The 02/03 season was one to remember in the North-East, as Newcastle not only came third in the league, but Newcastle are one of only two clubs to lose their first three Champions League group stage games and still qualify. It was quite an incredible ride which saw Newcastle shock Italian giants Juventus in a 1–0 win at St. James' Park. They then came from behind to beat Dynamo Kyiv 2–1 at home, before winning the crucial last match 3-2 away to Feyenoord, with striker Craig Bellamy scoring the injury time winner. Newcastle progressed to the second group stage of the tournament, which was the old format where the eight group winners and eight group runners-up from the first group stage were drawn into four groups. Barcelona, Inter Milan and Bayern Leverkusen were waiting in Group A. Although Sir Bobby's team got off to a poor start again in the group stage losing 4-1 at home to Inter Milan and 3-1 away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, it was Lomana LuaLua and Shola Ameobi who got Newcastle back on track scoring the goals in a brilliant 3-1 away win at the Bay Arena against Bayern Levekusen. Alan Shearer then claimed his Champions League hat-trick in a 3-1 win against Levekusen at St. James Park. The dream was still on, and the San Siro held 12,000 Geordies hoping Newcastle could acheive this. Shearer again scoring the goals in a tense 2-2 draw which saw Newcastle lead twice on the evening, but the Nerazzurri had too much firepower with Christian Vieri and Ivan Cordoba responding twice. It showed how far Newcastle had come to be leaving the San Siro disappointed with a draw, and unfortunately it was group leaders Barcelona who were next with Newcastle needing Levekusen to beat Inter Milan. Newcastle finished third in the group and it was a sterling display throughout, winning five games and taking points off some of Europe's best teams.
Eddie Howe’s team are fourth in the Premier League and have officially solidified their place in the top four. Newcastle are way ahead of schedule following last season’s takeover and Europe’s elite competition being no longer the stuff of pipe-dream and bittersweet memory. There are some who predict the expectation on Tyneside will be too much for the management team to handle, but the differences between then and now is that with this ownership model and this coaching staff, Newcastle’s improvement should stick. It will be an incredible journey across the continent and the fans will only enjoy and relish the challenges and environment that is to come.