Picture Credit: BBC Sport
Wednesday 23rd August 2000
Newcastle 3-2 Derby County
When Newcastle extended the capacity of St James’ Park by almost seventeen thousand seats in the summer of 2000, our famous stadium was transformed into the second largest in the whole of England. With Wembley being rebuilt, the only ground bigger than our fortress was Manchester United’s Old Trafford.
This increased capacity meant that many fans like myself who had previously struggled to attend (especially league games) now had the option of being in proud possession of a season ticket guaranteeing entry to a spine-tingling nineteen matches each and every year.
Whilst the majority of my friendship group were blissfully enjoying their school summer holiday, I was counting down each and every day until the very last week where I could take my place in the family enclosure and watch home matches against both Derby County and Tottenham Hotspur safe in the knowledge that this would be my seat at every single match until the following May.
Ironically, we’d started the season away at the only ground in the country bigger than ours. A 2-0 defeat to reigning champions Manchester United however did very little to dampen the spirits of those new season ticket holders taking the magical walk towards the cathedral on the hill.
Before the match had even kicked off, it was clear the atmosphere was going to be extra special for this one. An entire summer of looking forward to the season starting coupled with thousands and thousands of enthusiastic new fans meant that the black and whites kicked off to an encouraging roar from a whopping fifty two thousand fans, our highest home attendance for twenty seven years.
We knew how things felt when thirty six thousand fans went wild with the joy of celebrating a Toon goal and we didn’t have long to wait to see just how loud it would be with seventeen thousand more. With four minutes on the clock, Solano broke free down the right hand side, turned his man and bent a perfect cross into the area with the outside of his boot. New signing Carl Cort made the perfect start to his home debut by shrugging off his man and powerfully heading home at the Leazes End.
The seven million pound striker had been on fire during pre-season and had hurt United in the past by scoring for Wimbledon three years previously. Although most have probably forgotten these high hopes, many Toon fans felt Sir Bobby and Shearer would be the perfect mentors to help Cort step up to the England first team following on from his prolific spell for the under twenty ones. Unfortunately form and fitness issues would dog his time at NUFC but he’ll always have the honour of scoring the first goal at our new-look stadium.
At this stage, Newcastle looked rampant as we began attacking Derby at will. Whilst we were struggling to create many clear-cut chances, we were clearly on top and it seemed a matter of time before the Toon would go on to double the advantage. It appeared we would have the perfect opportunity on fifteen minutes when Alan Shearer was blatantly held in the area. The entire stadium held their breath, waiting for the whistle, but the referee waved play on incurring the fury of every black and white sympathiser in the crowd and a certain number nine who was incandescent that he hadn’t been given the chance to score and reach two hundred league goals.
The game continued in a similar pattern until Carl Cort limped off on the half hour (something we’d get used to seeing during this time on Tyneside) which seemed to disrupt our rhythm.
Derby spent the last fifteen minutes of the half finding their feet and easing their way back into the game. They created one of two half-chances that Shay Given was equal to before seeing an effort narrowly clear the crossbar. By the point Deon Burton found himself through on goal, Newcastle were on the ropes and grateful for the fact he didn't get a clear strike of the ball that would have levelled the tie.
If United thought they’d go in ahead at the break though, they were to be proved wrong. In first half injury time Strupar took advantage of a lucky deflection to calmly slot the ball home at the Gallowgate End to even the scores. At halftime, the score was 1-1 and both sets of supporters knew that the result would be very difficult to call.
If anyone had missed the Derby County goal by heading to the bar just before halftime, then I hope they got back to the stands for the start of the second half. With many fans still taking their seats, new signing Cordone turned the defender with a clever dummy before firing home his first for the club as the Toon regained the lead.
With both Cort and Cordone scoring good goals on their home debut, you could be forgiven for thinking the future looked bright for Sir Bobby’s new signings. Unfortunately both of them would have disappointing spells at NUFC but that's a story for another day.
Nine minutes later and the vast majority of this capacity crowd were in absolute dreamland. There seemed little danger when Stephen Glass picked the ball up miles away from goal, he took a touch and unleashed an unbelievable effort from at least thirty yards that simply flew into the back of the net. Over the years, it seems to be forgotten just how good this goal was but make no mistake, this was a serious contender for our goal of the season due to the superb technique. A brilliant strike and at this point it seemed the game was safe. We’re Newcastle though and long suffering followers of NUFC know that things are never simple on Tyneside. Inevitably, at some point, we’d find a way to make things difficult for ourselves.
With the Toon two goals to the good and enjoying a sustained period of pressure, most new season ticket holders in the crowd were dreaming up images of legendary scores. The way things were going, at this rate we could go on to score four, five or even six. Alan Shearer was briefly through on goal and with the crowd roaring him on, was fantastically tackled by the last defender.
Derby were struggling to get out of their own half and United continued attacking them, hungry for further goals. This topsy-turvy match was far from over however and the momentum was about to swing back towards Derby County. During a rare break upfield, Deon Burton got goalside of Warren Barton and attempted to race through on goal at the Leazes End. Unfortunately, Barton felt he had very few options but to grab hold of the attacker’s shorts and pull him back. The unimpressed referee (on account of Barton being the last man) promptly showed a red card and with thirteen minutes still to play, all of a sudden the two goal lead didn’t seem as unassailable as first thought.
Derby had very little to lose and potentially a point to gain so decided to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Shay Given and his defence. Sir Bobby could sense this shift in the pattern of play and brought on defender Charvet for attacking midfielder Solano. United, having enjoyed being in the ascendency for much of the second half, were now on the back foot. Inevitably the dam would eventually burst and the fifth goal of the evening came on eighty three minutes when Seth Johnson prodded home to make it 3-2.
With seven minutes plus injury time still to play, it would take a brave man (or woman) indeed to bet against the rams snatching a point from this hugely entertaining encounter. Having spent an entire summer wishing my weeks away so I could attend the match, I was now desperate for the game to end so I could go home and celebrate a victory that was very much in doubt. If my nerves at this point were almost at breaking point, they were increased even further with less than five minutes to go when Derby substitute Dean Sturridge brought the ball down and curled a superb effort past the despairing dive of Shay Given. For a split-second, I felt certain that Derby had equalised and gained a point that they may well feel was fully deserved, thankfully though the ball was just over the bar and there were to be no further chances of note.
When the final whistle went, the roar was one of relief rather than celebration. Three goals and three points (despite the late tension) was a fine return from my first match as season ticket holder and hopes were high that United could kick on and enjoy a successful season.
Just three days later, Newcastle would host Tottenham Hotspur and enjoy a fully deserved 2-0 victory with goals from Speed and Cordone. Any Toon fans who were under the illusion that this new-look St James’ Park would become something of a fortress though were to be sadly mistaken. United would stutter through a stop-start campaign where early exits from both cup competitions were coupled with a hugely disappointing eleventh place finish.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, Sir Bobby Robson just needed this year to consolidate. Twelve months and two signings later, he’d guide the Toon into the Champions League and a truly epic adventure would begin.
Picture: Getty Images