Picture Credit: nufc.com
Sunday 7th March 1999
Newcastle 4-1 Everton
When Ruud Gullit replaced dour old Kenny Dalglish in August 1998, he promised a return of ‘sexy football’ to St James’ Park. It had taken just eighteen months for ‘King Kenny’ to completely dismantle Keegan’s cavalier entertainers and Toon fans were yearning for a return of the regular goal-fests we’d been treated to under the messiah.
Kenny Dalglish had however got one thing right during his time on Tyneside, he’d led United to our first FA Cup final in twenty four years. Whilst Ruud Gullit would unfortunately imitate Dalglish’s disappointing thirteenth place league finish, he’d also replicate something much more special - another march to Wembley to compete in the cup final!
When the Toon beat Crystal Palace, Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers (after a replay) we were once again in the latter stages of the most famous cup competition in the world and fans were dreaming of another trip to the home of football (preferably this time to bring the cup home).
First we had a quarter-final to win and a match against an Everton team who had already beaten us in the league. It’s safe to say Ruud Gullit didn’t give us many golden memories during his time as NUFC manager, this afternoon though (live on ITV), Newcastle United blasted their way into the Cup semi-final and played some truly sexy football.
The Toon warmed up for this one with an impressive draw, coming from behind to claim a point at home to champions Arsenal and had lost only one of the past six league games. What many people forget about this match though is that it very nearly didn’t go ahead, heavy overnight rain had left the pitch sodden and an inspection was called for 10.30 where it was just about deemed playable. Further persistent rain however meant another pitch inspection at noon could very well see the match postponed.
Thankfully the game would eventually go ahead and the freezing temperatures, intermittent cloud bursts and swirling wind made this one way too tough to call. With former Toffees hero Duncan Ferguson out injured, fans were keen to see what new signing Silvio Maric was made of. His thunder would be well and truly stolen however by a Georgian madman determined to send the Toon into a scintillating semi-final encounter with Tottenham Hotspur.
The match started slowly with the adverse weather conditions doing neither side any favours. Both Newcastle and Everton struggled to find any rhythm and the game was bereft of clear-cut chances with playing the ball along the ground very tricky indeed. That is until Temuri Ketsbaia picked the ball up just inside the Everton half on twenty one minutes. With very few options ahead of him, he ran at the Everton back line and lashed a long range effort that deflected off an opposition defender before skidding on the wet turf and flying past the helpless ‘keeper into the bottom corner.
Ketsbaia had been on fine form since the turn of the year and this was another excellent strike to add to his collection. He'd opened the scoring in the previous year's quarter-final at home to Barnsley and here he was again sowing the seeds of another crucial cup victory.
Taking the lead in a cup quarter-final is always a special occasion even if the chant of ‘We’re going to Wem-ber-ley’ was a tad premature (especially as these were the days when Semi-finals didn’t even take place there!) Nevertheless, United had put themselves in a commanding position and further goals for the black and whites would ensure the toffees would be dumped out of the competition.
The rest of the half passed by without incident, Everton huffed and puffed but didn’t come close to an equaliser and both sides picked up yellow cards during an at-times scrappy affair. Halftime came with the players seeking sanctuary from the atrocious weather conditions in the relative comfort of the changing rooms. With the score 1-0 to the Toon, we were just forty five minutes away from being in the last four.
The second half was played out in slightly less rain but with the pitch still absolutely soaking, the game couldn’t settle into a pattern and with there being just one goal between the sides, Everton knew that an equaliser would give them the opportunity to bring United back to Goodison Park for a replay.
There didn’t seem to be too much danger with fifty seven minutes on the clock and the ball bouncing around the outside of NUFC’s area, unfortunately Unsworth stepped up to smash an unstoppable drive past Shay Given. This was the first FA Cup goal our Irishman had conceded since Wembley the previous year (Crystal Palace’s goal against us earlier in the season being picked out of the net by Steve Harper as Given had been sent off near the start of the match).
The game was now on a knife-edge. Everton were on the front foot but Newcastle were at home and with the conditions worsening again, anything could happen. Going behind would be disastrous but thankfully when the next goal came (from a very unlikely source) it was scored by someone in black and white stripes.
Just four minutes after being pegged back on level terms, the Toon were awarded a freekick twenty yards from goal. With Shearer, Hamann and Solano standing over the ball, you could be forgiven for thinking one of these star players would be the best bet to put United back in front. When Hamann belted the ball towards goal however it was parried back into the danger zone by the Everton ‘keeper and defender Materazzi could only deflect the ball via the lurking Shearer into the path of Toon substitute Georgiadis who just about forced it over the line.
The relief amongst fans and players was palpable. This goal was absolutely crucial and the Everton players looked massively dejected, they’d fought tooth and nail in battling through the elements to tie the match and now they had it all to do again with less than half an hour to play.
Everton’s desperation to force another equaliser left them open at the back and this would go a long way to deciding the cup tie. Shearer was in a menacing mood and came close with two chances to put the match beyond doubt.
Ketsbaia was also terrorising the blues and just over ten minutes after we went 2-1 up, our Georgian nutcase picked up the ball just outside the area and smashed a superb strike across the face of goal and past the ‘keeper to send the fans into raptures!
Up until the previous season, we'd spent years struggling to put together a cup run of any description, now we were staring at a second successive FA Cup semi-final and potentially another shot at Wembley glory.
At this point, Everton were beaten. Two goals down and soaked to the skin, the players were going through the motions of trying to get back in the game but there was really only one team looking likely to put further goals on the score sheet.
With just nine minutes left, Ketsbaia again fashioned a chance to score by turning a defender in the box. Just as it looked like he might pull the trigger to complete his hattrick he unselfishly cut the ball back to the on-rushing Shearer. Our number nine made absolutely no mistake as he powered home a simply stunning effort from twenty yards.
Whilst St James’ Park exploded into ecstasy, Ruud Gullit punched the air in delight. Newcastle United were on their way to Old Trafford to do battle with a Tottenham side featuring former favourites Sir Les Ferdinand and David Ginola. At 4-1 with victory assured, the Toon Army was once again daring to dream.
The disappointment of last season’s cup final, tantalisingly close to being atoned for. Fair play to Everton who still managed to create a late chance in an attempt to bring respectability to the score line but the match and the occasion belonged to the Toon.
We’d have to wait five weeks for the Semi-Final with Spurs, Alan Shearer scoring twice in extra time to send United to our second successive Wembley Cup final. Unfortunately May 1999 would bring the same kind of disappointment that we’d experienced twelve months earlier, a limp 2-0 defeat under the twin towers meaning we’d have to go at least another year without a major trophy.
I spent that fateful day in a brand new replica shirt with ‘Shearer 9’ printed on the back - thankfully I was unable to get my hands on a Gullit-style dreadlock wig that the twelve-year-old me for some reason thought was a good idea.
Newcastle endured an inconsistent 98/99 campaign that ended in disappointment at Wembley. When we look back on Ruud Gullit’s time as manager, it’s hard to remember many matches where the team lived up to his promise of ‘sexy football’. On this cup quarter-final afternoon however, United turned on the style in one of the highlights of the season.
Picture credit: nufc.com