Wednesday 13th August 1997
Newcastle 2-1 Croatia Zagreb
When Newcastle finished second in the Premiership in May 1996, it was a crushing disappointment. Keegan’s cavalier team had led the league for the vast majority of the season and to miss out on a first title since 1927 was ultimately gut-wrenching. A year later however, Kenny Dalglish’s new look Magpies finished runners-up amid scenes of great jubilation. For the first time ever, second place meant qualification to the European Cup and United would be going toe to toe with the elite of the continent. The only thing stopping us playing (and beating) the likes of Barcelona was a two legged play-off against the daunting Croatia Zagreb. The Croatian champions had earned the right to this tie with a scintillating 5-1 hammering of Partizan Belgrade.
After a mixed preseason that included a catastrophic injury to Alan Shearer (on the same day Sir Les was sold to Tottenham), the Toon started their campaign with a 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday with both goals coming from Asprilla. In this midweek European encounter, they’d be relying on a much less likely hero.
I attended the match as an excited eleven year old. Having only visited St James’ on one previous encounter, I’d never seen the Toon score. Tonight would be a night of firsts. My first goals, first win and the Toon's first ever match in the Champions League. There was something about those European nights in the mid-nineties that always got the blood pumping. With an incredibly tough trip to a hostile environment to come, Newcastle were always going to need an advantage to take from their home match, preferably without conceding. The crowd were in the mood to roar their heroes to a first leg victory before the match even started. Every player warming up was cheered to the rafters. Unfortunately this led to a rather amusing blooper when the PA man told the crowd that fan favourite Tino Aprilla was coming out the tunnel. When he ran out, the fans went wild cheering and chanting ‘Tino, Tino’ until they realised it was in fact Des Hamilton! Not to worry though, a victory tonight and every player in black and white would be a hero.
Come kick off, the atmosphere was electric! The notorious ‘Bad Blue Boys’ from Zagreb were determined to make a hell of a racket and every one of their chants was the cue for the Toon Army to attempt to drown them out. The lads on the pitch did their best to help this dynamic by spending most of the first half on the front foot. John Beresford hadn’t scored in eighteen months but was about to begin the most prolific season of his Toon tenure. He came close to opening the scoring with an early header and would end the night being the Toast of Tyneside. New signing Ketsbaia would also have a hugely influential part to play in this tie and he too came close to opening the scoring following a darting run. Newcastle were in the ascendancy and it took just over twenty minutes for the dominance to reap rewards. Apsrilla was the architect of everything and his skill and trickery led to Robert Lee being played through on goal. Lee showed his class by unselfishly squaring the ball to John Beresford who had the simple task of knocking the ball into an empty net. The dream was on, Newcastle were on the way to a famous European victory and the mighty Barcelona were quaking in their boots. Croatia Zagreb came back at us for the rest of the half without creating anything of note and halftime arrived with Beresford being the only name on the scoreboard. All the talk at halftime revolved around whether United would go on to win and the importance of not giving the Croats a crucial away goal.
The second half began with a redoubling of efforts from the away side and just six minutes in, disaster stuck. Future black and white failure Salivio Maric was the golden boy of this team and he played the perfect through ball (something he never did for us) to set up the equalising goal. As the bad, blue boys tumbled over one another in a reaction of sheer ecstasy, the party atmosphere among the Newcastle fans was in very real danger of going completely flat. We now knew Zagreb had an absolutely vital away goal and were currently firm favourites to progress into the group stages. Toon needed at least another goal and had just over half an hour to score it. In an attempt to shore up our attacking options, Dalglish brought on Keith Gillespie for the struggling Jon Dhal Tomasson.
A score draw at home would not be a good result and thankfully United would go on to achieve a victory they just about deserved. When the winning goal came however, it wasn’t without controversy. A long cross into the box was headed high into the air by Faustino Asprilla, as the ball dropped he won another header by clattering into the goalkeeper. Once again Beresford was on hand to force the ball home. At this point, the Zagreb players were furious, protesting vigorously that a foul on their goalkeeper should have seen the effort disallowed. The goal stood though and the tie was wide open for a rematch in two weeks time. There would be no further scoring this match but the next leg would be packed with goals, drama, controversy and ultimate glory as United marched through Europe.
Wednesday 27th August 1997
Croatia Zagreb 2-2 Newcastle (AET)
Temuri’s Terrific Timing!
Croatia Zagreb were used to coming from a goal down to win European ties. In the previous round, they’d gone away to Partizan Belgrade and lost 1-0. The second leg however was a different story, a 5-0 demolition saw Zagreb handed a two legged tie against the Toon for a place in the group stages of the Champions League. A 2-1 Toon victory in the first leg did very little to settle black and white nerves. As a naive eleven year old, I recall a worried conversation with my brother that their scorelines in the previous round could mean the Toon being handed a 6-1 beating in Croatia. The blood pressure was not eased by the fact the match was being shown on the new and shiny channel five. The planned launch of this terrestrial channel had been anything but smooth with most homes in the North East having perfect audio but a screen filled with nothing but a thick snow storm when trying to watch. Back in the day, there were no internet streams so it was a night in front of local radio for me.
Croatia Zagreb had an away goal, they were safe in the knowledge that scoring the first of the evening would put them ahead in the tie and they had two early chances to do just that. Thankfully, Shay Given was equal to both efforts and NUFC kept their noses in front. We even survived a scare when Zagreb smacked an effort off the post before the most controversial moment of the tie came just after the half hour mark. Tino Asprilla had been on the receiving end of some rough treatment throughout the early stages and decided to retaliate with a blatant forearm smash. Thankfully the referee didn’t see the incident or our hero would have been sent off without question. He was allowed to continue though and every touch of his was booed and jeered by the home fans for the remainder of the match. These jeers however would turn to Toon cheers just before half time when Tino launched a long ball that set Jon Dhal Tomasson free. Our young Danish attacking midfielder had enjoyed a superb preseason but was yet to score his first competitive goal. Before he had the chance to finish, he was sandwiched by a combination of defender and goalkeeper to earn a definite penalty. The referee deemed the defender at fault and promptly sent him off. When Asprilla crashed home the penalty, Newcastle were 3-1 up, a man to the good and seemingly on their way to an easy passage towards the champions league group stage.
The second half started brightly for NUFC and Tino Asprilla (who by this point was public enemy number one) had the chance to put the tie beyond doubt when through on goal. He controlled the ball perfectly, sprang the offside track and bore down on goal. With the five hundred travelling fans gearing up for a wild celebration, our talisman unluckily rolled the ball just wide of the post. Despite this miss, Newcastle seemed certain to win both the match and the tie without problem. Anyone who has ever supported the Toon however knows how rarely things are that simple. On the hour, we gave away a cheap free kick and a free header later meant the scores were level on the night. With the match tied, United still held a one goal aggregate advantage and chances came and went for another away goal.
Newcastle played out the last half hour in full control of the match and had a number of opportunities to seal the deal. Unfortunately, the ball wouldn’t go in the net and with the aggregate still only 3-2, there was always the chance that Zagreb could level the contest. The tie moved into the final ten seconds. All the Toon had to do was keep possession. At this precise moment though, Batty played a careless pass to Pitstone allowing the opposition one last sight of goal. This was too good an opportunity to miss and Zagreb duly obliged by smacking a low shot past Shay Given and into the bottom corner of the net. The tie was now locked at 3-3 with both sides having scored one away goal. With the Toon players slumped on the turf, they now had to find the energy to win in extra time. The momentum had swung back towards the home team and once again they found themselves as favourites to make it through.
The additional thirty minutes was less frantic than normal time with both teams beginning to show fatigue. Asprilla once again was found wanting when presented with a chance in the opening exchanges before Given pulled off the save of the tie to keep United level. With just fifteen minutes to play, a dreaded penalty shootout seemed inevitable. NUFC had never won a shootout in their history and it seemed the best chance of victory had gone when conceding so late at the very end of normal time. The clock ticked towards one hundred and twenty minutes. We'd already had two hours of drama but the best was yet to come. Ketsbaia had been on the pitch for just eighteen minutes, the decision to bring him on was about to change our European history forever. The referee was ready to blow his whistle, the players were dead on their feet, the fans were preparing for a nerve shredding shootout when David Batty closed down a Zagreb pass and played the ball to Tino who slipped it through to Ketsbaia. This was the moment, the one chance to fire us into the group stages. Our Georgian Geordie (who would go on to earn quite a reputation for last minute goals) made no mistake, losing his balance as he slid the ball past the keeper and into the back of the net.
The goal signalled euphoric celebrations from the United players, staff and especially fans. There was barely time to kick off again, Newcastle had done it! Every Croatia Zagreb player fell to the floor when the winner went in and even as Toon fans, it was almost hard not to feel a degree of sympathy. This was a tie neither side deserved to lose. In total we’d enjoyed two hundred and ten minutes of pulsating football featuring seven goals, two last minute strikes, one red card, controversial incidents and more talking points then we could have possibly imagined. In later years, historic victories over Barcelona and Dynamo Kiev have somewhat overshadowed this portion of our European adventure. At the time though, this victory was considered so special that the club released the entire second leg on VHS, the front cover displayed Ketsbaia arms aloft in celebration. This was aptly titled ‘Glory in Zagreb’.