11 Years Ago: That Night in Rotterdam

FEYENOORD 2-3 NEWCASTLE UNITED, 13TH NOVEMBER 2002, CHAMPIONS LEAGUE 1ST GROUP STAGE, DE KUIP STADIUM

Sometimes, football is beautiful. A 90 minute microcosm of the emotions we face in everyday life. Ultimately it’s just a sport but it’s more than that, really. Newcastle United is one of those clubs where ‘normal’ doesn’t exist; we’re a special club – for better or worse! Today is the 11 year anniversary of my favourite ever NUFC moment, one that’ll live with the Toon Army forever. Are you ready for a nice story?

The Toon Army make themselves at home

The Toon Army make themselves at home

We’re in the Sir Bobby Robson era, an icon of the game and one of the nicest people you could ever wish to meet. Six years removed from Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’, Robson had built his own team of young, hungry talent that had finished fourth in the Premier League. Led by Geordie hero Alan Shearer, with the likes of Shay Given and Gary Speed in support, this spirited team marched fearlessly into the Champions League. The defence was a little shaky but that was ok – we had Nobby Solano and Laurent Robert down the wings, with Kieron Dyer’s wizardry causing havoc for opponents.

Up front alongside Shearer was Craig Bellamy. To this day he’s a controversial figure but in his young pomp, even more so. This night in Rotterdam marked his return from a three match European ban for head butting Dynamo Kiev’s Tiberiu Ghioane. His time at Newcastle ended under a cloud and his personal relationship with Shearer capitulated but, on this night, he was the hero.

Playing in the Champions League for only the second time, Newcastle were in a tough predicament. Drawn in Group E with Juventus, Feyenoord and Dynamo Kiev, we proceeded to lose our first three games and were practically eliminated. A nice consolation win over Juventus at St James’ Park was followed by a 2-1 win against Kiev. Suddenly, the impossible seemed vaguely possible. No team in Champions League history had ever lost their first three group games and still successfully gone through. Surely Newcastle wouldn’t be the first.

Going into this final matchday, Juventus were safely through to the second phase on 10 points, with Dynamo Kiev on 7pts (-2 goal difference). Newcastle’s heroics had them in third place on 6pts (-3 goal difference), whilst Feyenoord were only one point behind. It was so close, you could almost throw a blanket over the three. Teams on equal points were split by head-to-head records, meaning Kiev had the advantage over Newcastle and Feyenoord. So both teams went into the match knowing that only a win would give them a chance of reaching round two.

However, even that mightn’t have been enough. They needed a huge favour from Juventus in Kiev, who decided to rest Davids, Del Piero, Nedved, Buffon and Thuram in tough wintery conditions. Without that favour, the match in Rotterdam would be a battle for third place and a spot in the UEFA Cup, which Feyenoord had won the previous season in their own stadium. Newcastle set out to make their own De Kuip memories.

UEFA Cup victory on home soil, 2002.

UEFA Cup victory on home soil, 2002.

In all honesty, the first half was quite poor. Feyenoord had future Premier League stars Brett Emerton and Paul Bosvelt in their line up but were without former Nottingham Forest talisman Pierre van Hooijdonk. But what the match lacked for in beautiful carpet football, it more than made up for in drama. Early half-chances from Bosvelt and Speed went wayward, as both matches remained goalless. Bellamy missed a one-on-one with the keeper in the 38th minute, whilst Thomas Buffel rounded Given but refused to shoot with his weaker left foot.

Then, in first half stoppage time, a breakthrough. Given’s punt up field was flicked on by Shearer, where Bellamy casually accelerated past Patrick Paauwe to place a shot past Patrick Lodewijks from a tight angle. Cue bedlam in the De Kuip stands, as the referee blew immediately for half time. Newcastle were 45 minutes away from qualification.

It was hard not to be ecstatic at half time. As a 13-year-old who grew up only knowing the good times, this still felt extra special. Ok, it wasn’t a trophy but overcoming such odds to continue the Champions League dream was incredibly exciting. With the prospect of laughing at schoolmates tomorrow, it was even better. The teams emerged in Rotterdam for the second half, yet the restart was delayed in Kiev.

Hugo Viana, playing in place of Laurent Robert, had a difficult time on Tyneside. Signed by Robson for £10m (in the days when that was a significant spend), the talented Portuguese had just won ‘Young European Footballer of the Year’. He showed glimpses of his technical abilities but would only stay at Newcastle for two seasons, having gone down as one of the club’s most famous wastes of money. But this night in Rotterdam was his crowning moment. After some fantastic closing down by Dyer, his cross seemed to miss everyone. Then the TV camera whizzed across and there was Viana, chesting the ball down and hitting it low into the right corner. 2-0 to Newcastle and things were going to plan.

That’s when it all started to fall apart. Kiev had taken the lead in the 50th minute thanks to Maksim Shatskikh, who scored in both games past the Toon. ITV commentators Jon Champion and Jim Beglin began to worry; you could sense it in their voices. Substitute Mariano Bombarda halved the lead after prodding home Bonaventure Kalou’s through ball. As Champion cried “Oh Newcastle, be careful. They were cruising and now they’re stuttering” and something resembling ‘I Will Survive’ blasted through the PA system, a new-fangled feeling of fear kicked in.

Mariano Bombarda gives the Dutch hope

Mariano Bombarda gives the Dutch hope

Six minutes later, it felt like the sky was falling. Dyer’s sloppy pass found its way to Bombarda’s head and the ball took what felt like five minutes to land on Anthony Lurling’s right boot. Rotterdam roared as Newcastle collapsed and the momentum shifted. As Champion put it “Now Feyenoord have the scent of a Champions League second phase place in their nostrils” although, despite Juventus going 2-1 up in Kiev, Dynamo were back in pole position.

Lurling hit the side netting with an 80th minute shot, whilst Jermaine Jenas and Bellamy missed the target completely with wild shots. The score was 2-2, where whoever won would qualify and the loser would be completely eliminated from Europe. A draw helped nobody. Under-strength Juventus were holding up their end of the bargain thanks to the Marcelos: Salas and Zalayeta. Yet time kept ticking away. Stoppage time had arrived and Newcastle were down on their knees.

Chilean Marcelo Salas equalised in Kiev

Chilean Marcelo Salas equalised in Kiev

Then it happened. Andy O’Brien’s hopeful free kick reached Shearer’s head, landing at Dyer’s feet. He surged past Kees van Wonderen but his disappointingly weak shot was hit straight into Lodewijks. For some reason, the keeper let the ball wriggle onto Bellamy’s right foot. But the angle was too tight, really. Maybe it was some divine intervention that squeezed Bellamy’s rebound in off Lodewijks, who knows? All I remember about the next minute was complete delirium. As Champion shrieked “BELLAMMMMYYYYY! IT’S IN! Extraordinary! Has there ever been a more dramatic night in the Champions League?” I’m jumping all over the living room, hugging inanimate objects and making noises I’ve never been able to make since. It’s exhausting to even think about.

Bellamy celebrates after scoring the winning goal.

Bellamy celebrates after scoring the winning goal.

Dad preceded the goal by using the bathroom and declaring “I’m going for a lucky wee”, something which he’s tried to replicate over and over again. To be honest, it’s only ever unlucky these days but it’s a nice souvenir from that glorious night, even if I’m the only one who remembers the time that it worked.

The full time whistle went, Juventus held on in Kiev and Newcastle had done the impossible. To this day, we’re still the only club to have lost their first three group games and still proceed to the next round. Newcastle United made history that night. Held by our black-and-white striped bond, Juventus’ vice-President Roberto Bettega said afterwards that “We promised we would help Newcastle United and we did”. The Geordies didn’t go further than the second group phase, after being drawn with Barcelona, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen. But that didn’t really matter; we got to experience six more nights of playing European giants under the floodlights. Juventus reached that season’s Champions League Final, where they lost on penalties to AC Milan at Old Trafford.

Shevchenko scores Milan's winning penalty

Shevchenko scores Milan’s winning penalty

A superb night that can never be taken away, no matter what Mike Ashley does. Cherish it forever. Happy anniversary.

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