Wednesday 17th September 1997
Newcastle United 3-2 Barcelona
What many people forget about this famous match is that it was preceded by one of the very worst performances of a fairly awful season. Wimbledon rolled into Toon just four days earlier and despite being bottom of the league, took United apart. You know things are bad when Joe Kinnear and Carl Cort look like world beaters but a 3-1 win for the Wombles (Warren Barton with a tap in for us) didn’t flatter them one bit. Thankfully Barcelona had one of their coaches taking notes on the match (a certain Mr Mourinho) and we did the perfect job of lulling him into a false sense of security.
Despite the appalling league performance, it felt like something special was in the air during the day of this match. Something intangible that you can’t quite put your finger on but know is there regardless, a bit like being a kid on Christmas eve. St James’ Park has always looked beautiful under the lights and tonight the atmosphere was electric. United playing their first ever European Cup match and it was against one of the very best teams in the world.
It was a privilege to be on a level playing field in a competitive match against the mighty Catalan giants but surely we were only there to make up the numbers right? Wrong! We were there on merit and ready to enjoy this occasion in every sense of the word. We’d earned the right to this match by beating Croatia Zagreb 4-3 over two legs. The first seeing a 2-1 home victory (Beresford scoring twice) and the second finishing 2-2 after extra time with Ketsbia shooting home his first for the club on exactly 120 minutes (Asprilla having earlier scored a penalty).
I turned up to the match wearing the best birthday present I could have hoped for, the only thing I really wanted - a black and white striped Brown Ale shirt with Asprilla 11 on the back. When Tino was in the mood (Middlesbrough away & West Ham at home 95/96 and Metz & Coventry at home 96/97), he really was unplayable and capable of winning any match single handedly. He started this one with his usual array of flicks and tricks, creating chances by drawing fouls through his close control and acceleration of pace. The first twenty minutes really was ‘The Tino Show’ with the Columbian determined to control the tempo of the match. Just as things were starting to settle down, Jon Dahl Tomasson (who didn’t have many Tyneside highlights) threaded an inch-perfect through ball and Asprilla was in on goal with just the keeper to beat. Instead of going for the shot, Tino allowed the ball to run across him and touched it under the goalkeeper whose natural momentum caused him to clatter into our hero. This clash of bodies sent Asprilla tumbling inside the area. Despite the split second of baited breath, iconic bald headed referee Collina really had no option but to point to the spot. In the absence of normal penalty taker Alan Shearer (sidelined with a long term injury), spot kick duties were thrust upon Tino and he made no mistake. Using a languid skip to the penalty spot, he hit the ball hard and far to the goalkeepers right. Credit to Barcelona’s Ruud Hesp who got a hand to it but the strike was accurate enough to see the net bulge and send the stadium into delirium! Aprilla sprinted to the corner to perform his trademark celebration doing a cartwheel before three low punches of the air. Newcastle 1-0 Barcelona and the atmosphere was cranked up even further.
Usually when Newcastle take the lead in such an important match, even the most optimistic fan can’t help but have a feeling of dread in the pit of their stomach. We’ve been kicked in the gut so many times that it just feels inevitable that we’ll somehow find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Not tonight! Rather than take our foot off the gas, back we came at Barca, pinning them into their own half, forcing them onto the back foot and looking to attack at every opportunity. The Nou Camp may have been able to hold three times as many fans as were in St James’ Park on this famous night but I can't imagine it has ever sounded so loud and intimidating. Nine minutes after the first goal, Keith Gillespie (also having his best ever game for the club) absolutely skinned his man down the right flank and powered over a perfect cross. Our main man was up to his tricks again leaping high and smashing his forehead into the ball to send it flying past the completely helpless keeper. Ruud Hesp was still grasping at thin air whilst the entire stadium exploded. One acrobatic cartwheel and three low punches later, the scoreboard said Newcastle 2-0 Barcelona and we’d only played a third of the game. If the first goal had rendered us all delirious then the second had us ecstatic! This was actually happening, we were playing them off the park. As half time approached, Newcastle were swaggering through the match with one man Tino Asprilla at the heart of everything. The crowd got so loud that (me being only eleven at the time) I had to cover my ears as it was genuinely hurting. The noise was incredible.
The fifteen minute break did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the fervent crowd. All around me people were grinning, punching the air and excitedly recounting the goals. The more mischievous element of our fanbase took it upon themselves to taunt the despondent Barcelona followers by waving white hankies in their direction (A traditional Spanish sign of disgust at a poor performance). The start of the second half brought a fresh roar of encouragement, there was genuine belief we would go on to get the job done.
Often when a team has dominated the first half so absolutely, the second begins at a slower pace with it being natural for them to defend their lead for the opening ten to fifteen minutes whilst their opponents try to get back into the match. Not tonight! The second half was just four minutes old when Gillespie picked up the ball inside his own half and had only one thought - to get the ball out of his feet, sprint down the right wing and once again whip a cross into the box. The delivery was superb and for the third time that night Aprilla did the rest, racing past the Barca defence to bury another amazing header. If the first had made the ground delirious and the second made it ecstatic then the third simply had the stadium utterly incredulous. This was beyond even the wildest of dreams, this was fact being stranger than fiction, this was real life ‘Roy of the Rovers’. At this point we really could have gone on to score five or six, in fact that was actually looking quite likely especially when a minute later Gillespie sent in another cross from the right and Asprilla’s low header was beaten away by Hesp.
Some Toon fans were so pessimistic ahead of the game that they chose instead to go and watch Oasis live at Newcastle arena. Oh ye of little faith! Did they enjoy the gig? Probably. Will they be writing about it in such glowing terms nearly twenty three years later? Unlikely. That's the difference between football and other forms of entertainment. Gigs and shows will come and go but some matches really are a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The game and the night belonged to Asprilla but this was by no means a one man performance, Gillespie was unplayable, Robert Lee was our midfield general, David Batty broke up opposition attacks and our defence stayed resolute during Barca’s late onslaught. Shay Given too, can be credited with two world class saves near the end. Fair play to Barcelona who refused to give up and be humiliated. They bundled in two late goals (and hit the bar) to give the scoreline a more respectable look. At the end of the match, Tino strolled towards the changing rooms only to be met by the world's media, all clamouring to catch a soundbite from the man of the hour. He put it better than a thousand match reports ever could “three goals, not bad”.
Although we didn't know it at the time, Tino’s Tyneside tenure was coming to an end. He'd never score another goal in a black and white shirt and was sold to Palma four months later. Newcastle failed to make the knockout stages of the European Cup, winning two, drawing one and losing three of their six group matches scoring seven goals in the process. When we look back on a fairly poor 97/98 season, there will always be at least one special memory to moisten the eyes. That magic night when the stars aligned at St James’ Park.