Updated: Aug 17
Wednesday September 29th 2016
Newcastle 4-3 Norwich
When Newcastle United ended their premiership campaign in May 2016, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking they'd enjoyed a season of triumph. A packed St James' Park celebrated a 5-1 demolition of third placed Tottenham Hotspur like it was the start of something special rather than the end of their six year stay in the Premier League. The real reason for the air of revelry however wasn't the superb performance on the pitch but rather the presence of one man standing just off it. Rafa Benitez had worked miracles in his short time in charge of NUFC and twelve points from his last six matches was only just short of keeping United up from what looked like an impossible position in March. Draws from behind against Man City and Liverpool showed glimpses of what he could achieve and this rout of Spurs was confirmation that with the right man at the helm, United could rebuild and the next few years had the potential to be very special indeed.
Despite the absolute belief and support of those in the stands, the championship campaign of 2016/17 didn't get off to the best of starts. The opening two games (against Fulham and Huddersfield) brought two defeats and just one goal as United struggled to adjust to life outside the Premier league. Five straight victories later however (scoring a whopping fifteen goals in the process) meant that we could even afford to drop points against both wolves and Villa before a crucial match-up with one of our closest rivals for promotion. The two previous matches between Newcastle and Norwich had been high scoring affairs (a 6-2 home victory followed by a last minute 3-2 away defeat on the way to relegation) and tonight would be no exception.
Norwich went into this one on the back of five straight wins and safe in the knowledge that victory at St James’ would have them top of the table. Newcastle however had the incentive of a place in the top three should they get one over the canaries and started the match like they were in the mood for a stylish victory, swarming all over their opponents and racking up chance after chance in the opening twenty-three minutes. Annoyingly the man behind me decided to keep a verbal tally of how many goals we should have scored and managed to get to six before the breakthrough was made by Dwight Gayle sliding home in the twenty-fourth minute. 1-0 to the dominant home team and with the fans baying for more, the scene was set for a straight forward victory. How wrong we were! On the stroke of halftime, Norwich dispatched a penalty at the Leazes End to send the teams in level at the interval. What was to follow in the second half would be truly remarkable!
Credit: BBC Sport
This evening was all the more special for me by the fact that I was attending with my Uncle John. Originally from Philadelphia in the United States, John has lived in North Northumberland for longer than he cares to remember. Despite following the fortunes of NUFC via local radio, he'd never attended a live match before this glorious night and what a match to start! We met up at central station and enjoyed a few pints in the Strawberry before heading to the fortress to soak up the pre-match atmosphere. By kick-off, we were ready to cheer the lads on to victory and by half time, the Norwich equaliser hadn’t dampened our spirits one bit.
The second half began with both teams trying to get their noses in front. The next goal looked likely to be crucial in such a tight contest and things took a turn for the worse just ten minutes later. It seemed like we were in for a night of frustration and misery when the second half swung Norwich's way with two quick fire strikes (the second coming from future Magpie Jacob Murphey) to make it 3-1 to the away side. Newcastle had been far the better team and created the vast majority of chances but with Norwich looking dangerous on the counter attack, it felt hard to see a way back into the match. With just twenty minutes left, some supporters decided they'd had enough and made for the exits. What they missed however was one of the most dramatic and enjoyable endings to any NUFC match ever!
On seventy-one minutes with the crowd still lamenting the deflection that led to Norwich's third, Jonjo Shelvey belted an inch-perfect ball from inside his own half to the onrushing Gayle who prodded home to reduce the arrears. Game on and the fans who were rendered speechless just moments earlier started to make their voices heard. Newcastle began to turn the screw and in an effort to get something from the match, brought on Mitrovic to bolster the attack. Wave after wave of relentless Newcastle dominance failed to bring about many clear-cut chances and with just two minutes left Gayle controlled the ball in the box and lashed it towards the top corner only for the ‘keeper to pull off a fine save. Norwich could sense now that Newcastle's best chance had gone and most Toon supporters had given up hope of a famous victory. The canaries had struggled with such relentless pressure and had made sure to waste as much time as possible throughout the second period of the match, this was to backfire spectacularly when the fourth official indicated there would be a minimum of six minutes injury time. The roar went up from the black and whites in the crowd, there was still time to pull this off.
With five of those six minutes played, Matt Richie blasted a ball goalwards and then wildly appealed for a penalty when his shot was blocked. The ball however landed at the feet of DeAndre Yedlin whose perfect cross found the head of Gouffran to level the scores with a close-range header. The fans who made the right decision to stay exploded in joy and relief as United had salvaged a point (or so it seemed) right at the death. A brilliant comeback to draw the game 3-3 would be celebrated long into the night as we'd shown the courage and fight to refuse to be beaten. Whist we yelled into the night sky and punched the air in delight, we were blissfully unaware that even better was to come.
Norwich lost possession from the kick off and all of a sudden the ball was with Jonjo Shelvey just a few yards inside his own half. For the second time that night, he was to pick the perfect long pass with devastating consequences. Mitrovic leaped inside the area to nod the ball down to Gayle who showed superb footwork to beat two men and drive the ball towards the bottom corner. Uncle John and I were sitting in the Leazes End and I swear the next split second went by in super slow motion! Less than a minute earlier, we were celebrating the fact that we’d salvaged a draw from a seemingly impossible position and now the ball was nestled in the bottom corner of the net to confirm victory. This sent the stadium into the type of incredulous ecstasy that I’ve never seen before or since. As my Uncle and I exploded into each other’s arms, I yelled at him not to expect this every match, this was a complete one off and his first ever match would go down in history. Unbelievably, there was still a chance (in the ninety-ninth minute!) for Norwich to score but thankfully Karl Darlow was equal to the effort and a long night of celebration was assured.
Credit: Getty Images
The day after the night before came with that warm glow that often follows a superb Newcastle United victory. At the time, the win felt pivotal and so it would prove. Newcastle went on to win their next seven matches and finished as champions on the very last day of the season whereas Norwich finished eighth, missing out on a place in the play-offs by ten points. The Rafa-lution had begun, We’d finish top half of the Premier League the next season beating Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea whilst also coming from behind to take a point from Liverpool. We had the right manager, the right stadium and the right fan base to continue this upward trajectory. What could possibly go wrong?!