Saturday 22nd December 2001
Leeds United 3-4 Newcastle United
Newcastle went into this match on something of a high. We were top of the league having won our last four matches in a row. Just a few days previously, we’d gone to Arsenal and achieved our first win in London for over four years, trouncing one of the best teams in the land 3-1. Highbury’s heroics had instilled belief in fans and players that Sir Bobby Robson meant business and we could enjoy a genuine tilt at winning the title. Leeds weren't to be taken lightly though having reached the champions league semi final just a few months ago and finishing fourth the previous season. Both teams went into the match knowing that a win would send them top of the league. A strange and ultimately magical day began with heavy blizzards in the North East leading many to believe there was a possibility that the match wouldn’t go ahead. That didn’t deter more than five thousand away fans from making the journey to Yorkshire. There was no way we were going to miss this one, it had all the makings of a Christmas cracker!
Leeds were one of the best teams in the country but we’d already seen off Man United and Arsenal in addition to a score draw at Stamford Bridge, we were going toe to toe with the big boys and rapidly becoming the surprise package of an intriguing season. We’d started the campaign by coming from behind to draw with both Chelsea and Sunderland and our first win saw us battle back from a goal down at Middlesbrough to secure a 4-1 victory. Our two most recent matches had also seen us go 1-0 down (to Blackburn and Arsenal) before storming back in the second half to chalk up wins. Today's match would remove any doubt that we really were the ‘comeback kings’ of the Premier league.
Just before we were due to kickoff at Highbury, my Godfather Garth phoned with the best Christmas present I’ve ever had - “Do you want to go and see the lads at Leeds on Saturday?”. I was speechless! Just like that, I was off to my first ever away match and it was one of the biggest of the season. The away end at Elland Road was absolutely rocking, a fascinating backstory was taking place in amongst the match with Lee Bowyer and Jonathon woodgate (both future Toon players) making their return to football following some unfortunate off-the-field incidents. The Toon fans of course lapped this up with a number of new chants dedicated to this series of events. With the Leeds fans not taking too kindly to this relentless taunting, the atmosphere was intense, white hot amongst the freezing cold temperatures.
The match started slowly with (former white) Gary Speed having two long range efforts well saved for us before (future magpie) Viduka went close with a couple of half chances for them. All of a sudden, things exploded into life and wouldn’t settle down until the very end. On thirty eight minutes, the move of the match saw Dyer thread the ball to Shearer on the right wing whilst continuing his run. When Shearer gave it back to Dyer, he ran at the Leeds defence and crossed for Bellamy to power home the opening goal of the game. This intricate passing was full of pace and one-touch skill, a truly underrated team goal. The Toon fans at the far end of the pitch were delighted! Five thousand die hard supporters going wild whilst singing “we are top of the league” was the stuff of dreams, unfortunately it was to be very short lived indeed. Less than a minute later, with NUFC fans still celebrating their superb opener, Lee Bowyer broke through and rolled the ball past Shay Given to equalise. He incurred the wrath of the away support by openly goading them during his celebration. After doing the hard part and going 1-0 up, we now had it all to do again. The righteous anger from the away fans grew into an intense ball of fury when Mark Viduka got away with two blatant red card offences, firstly breaking Nikos Dabizas’ nose with an elbow to the face and then going in hard and high with a studs up challenge on our defender who had to be replaced before the second half began. Naturally Viduka went on to score the next goal of the match not long after halftime. 2-1 to dirty Leeds and finally their supporters decided to make themselves heard. Typical.
It looked like it would be one of those days just six minutes later when Ian Hart thumped home a long range effort to make it 3-1. At this point it felt like game over and whilst the Toon fans sought solace in memories of the amazing midweek victory, most of us at this point believed today was a lost cause. With the regular flurries of snow falling, the picturesque scenes were more akin to ‘A Christmas Carol’ than ‘The Great escape’ and we really needed a Christmas miracle to get anything from the match.
A goal (any goal) soon was essential to get a toe hold in the game and wrest some momentum back from a Leeds side that now looked rampant. Thankfully United (the real United) netted within three minutes from an incredibly unlikely source. Great work from Kieron Dyer who lashed a shot across the face of goal in front of the freezing cold away fans, Leeds keeper Nigel Martyn made a spectacular save but could do nothing to stop Robbie Elliot sending the rebound into the opposite corner of the net with a diving header. The score now 3-2 with thirty one minutes left to play and the momentum (like a pendulum) swung back towards the black and whites which led to a redoubling of efforts both on the pitch and in the stands.
Whilst the Leeds fans slumped further into their seats in a futile effort to keep warm, the all-standing Toon support were roaring on their heroes. We’d lived the dream at Highbury just days ago but this could top even that momentous match. A point from this match under these circumstances would represent a major achievement. Newcastle were pushing for the equaliser and when Solano floated a corner from the right, Toon players were lining up to get on the end of it. Distin got a touch, Robert knocked it back into the mixer and Gary Speed attempted to shake off the close attention of Leeds defender Eirik Bakke. The ball did seem to hit a Leeds United hand but there were no appeals for a penalty from any of our players and even those from the fans appeared half-hearted. Unbelievably, a split second later one of our least favourite officials Jeff Winter was blowing his whistle and pointing to the spot. The tension in the air was palpable. This was the moment we’d all been waiting for, Alan Shearer with the ball on the spot ready to tie the match when we’d seemed dead and buried just twelve minutes earlier. Contrary to popular belief, he did miss the odd penalty in his time at Newcastle, not today though. He stepped up with a calm confidence and smashed the ball into the top left corner in front of the now elated away fans. Leeds 3-3 Newcastle and it would take a brave man to bet any money on the outcome of this encounter.
I must confess, at this point fifteen year old me was praying for the match to finish so we could collectively delight in a score draw and yet another superb comeback. I’m usually an eternal optimist but right now I just felt sick. It seemed way too good to be true - an astonishing victory away at Arsenal midweek followed by a second magnificent comeback away to another top team, things like this just didn’t happen to Newcastle United. I was convinced we’d find a way to blow it and a gut wrenching last minute 4-3 defeat was sure to follow. More fool me! Only one team was going to win this and they were playing the type of pacy, attacking football that only Sir Bobby could inspire. When Craig Bellamy was able to turn in the area and fire a curling shot just over the bar, it felt like our best chance might have gone - how wrong we were. The clock was at eighty nine minutes and fifty seconds when Kieron Dyer (having one of his best games for the club) slipped the ball through to Nobby Solano who casually rolled it across the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the net to send the away fans into raptures. Whilst five thousand black and whites went collectively bonkers celebrating one of the most memorable matches (and weeks) in living memory, our Peruvian match-winner nonchalantly crossed himself before standing arms aloft in front of the incredulous NUFC fans, soaking up their acclaim safe in the knowledge that with one stroke of the ball, he’d written himself into Geordie folklore.
The winning goal was the cue for seventy five percent of the ground (all Leeds fans) to silently shuffle out, they were well on their way home before the match had even finished. Solano had sealed the deal but not quite finished the drama, there was still time for one more incident of note. Deep into stoppage time, Lomana Lua-Lua burst down the left wing and sprinted towards goal completely free, unfortunately he didn’t pick out the perfect pass that would have allowed Kieron Dyer a glorious opportunity to score (which was a real shame as he deserved a goal more than anyone for his man of the match performance), instead he chose to go alone and smash an effort over the bar. Given that a number of our fans (all male I hasten to add) were already topless in the freezing snow at this point then there’s really no telling what on Earth would have gone on in the away end had either he or Dyer made it 5-3 to Bobby’s table toppers. A few seconds later it was all over, we’d done it! The Christmas week had seen three matches, nine points, nine goals, three comebacks and first place in the league. Now that’s what I call a Merry Christmas!
I floated out of Elland road on cloud nine. I tried to ring home but could barely feel my fingers due to the biting cold. Days like this make it all worthwhile. I’d happily go through twenty away day agonies just to live through this glorious match once more. A somewhat bizarre day was made even more special by a chance encounter with Peter Beardsley in McDonalds before a journey home that flew by due relentless singing along with my Godfather and his friends of “There’s only one Bobby Robson”. Magic!
Newcastle would continue with this vein of form through the rest of the season. At the end of February with just eleven games to go, we were serious title contenders and second in the league. Despite finishing mid-table the season before, Sir Bobby Robson inspired the Toon to a top four finish and Champions League qualification. This victory away at Leeds being one of the highlights of a hugely enjoyable season.