Friday 29th March 2002 2PM
Newcastle 6-2 Everton
In the Summer of 2001, Bobby Robson signed just two first team players. Many fans at the time felt that we needed more of an overhaul after a fairly poor 00/01 season saw United finish eleventh in the league with early exits in both cups. The pace and enthusiasm of Robert and Bellamy however brought goals and assists to a team that already had the spine of Shearer, Lee, Speed and Given. When you add these players to Dyer, Jenas and Hughes you had a potent mix of youth and experience that provided all the ingredients for a sustained assault on the European places. We’d started the season better than expected with two wins and two draws from a tough opening four fixtures but things really came alive over Christmas when five straight victories propelled United to the very top of the league and dreams of a first top flight title since 1927 were being seriously considered. A derby victory at the end of February had us trailing only Man United with just eleven matches left. The dream was on.
Unfortunately injuries to key players coupled with defeats to title rivals Arsenal and Liverpool left United scrapping it out for the champions league places. A further defeat to Arsenal in the FA cup and a somewhat bizarre draw at home to Ipswich had the potential to completely derail our season. At kick off against Everton, most of our fans would have settled for a spawny last minute 1-0 victory with the ball squirming past the ‘keeper from a backpass. Newcastle needed to win and any win would do.
Against my better judgement, I attended the match with my best mate Lewis Short. Since we’d first watched a match together in 1997 (a 3-0 defeat away to Monaco), it had become a long-standing (and deeply unfunny) joke that we’d never see Newcastle score together. This had lasted over five years and I was genuinely uncomfortable about bringing our jinx to one of the most important matches of the season. I needn’t have worried, both the jinx and an in-form Everton side were about to be blown well and truly away with goals galore from Bobby’s boys.
The match started slowly and whilst squinting through the Easter sunshine, the crowd witnessed a surreal opening goal from former Toon flop Duncan Furguson. The Everton striker had managed to lose a boot in the opening exchanges and took some time off concentrating to bend over and tie his laces. At some point, he became vaguely aware of the ball being in his vicinity, he jumped to get a head on it and when the ball deflected back to him, he completely miskicked a tame effort through the air and towards Shay Given’s goal. Unfortunately, our Irish shot-stopper had a moment to forget as he got his angles all muddled and ended up flapping at the ball as it drifted gently towards the goal and ended up in the Leazes End net like a balloon being carried by a gentle breeze. 0-1 then after just five minutes and this jinx was really starting to get to me! Thankfully, we’d have to wait just seven more minutes before the spell was lifted. Newcastle were awarded an attacking throw-in on the left and when the ball was lobbed towards Alan Shearer, Everton (with seemingly no knowledge of the laws of the game) attempted to play offside and allowed the premiership’s all time top scorer one of his easiest ever goals - running through to slip the ball past a completely stranded goalkeeper. Lewis and I of course suspected the worst and immediately checked the linesman hadn’t misread the situation and flagged to disallow the goal. When it became apparent that all officials had in fact given the equaliser, I immediately checked the heavens for signs of plague, pestilence or alien invasion! The goal stood though and with just twelve minutes on the clock the score was 1-1, the jinx was over and things were about to go from the sublime to the truly ridiculous. moments later, fate conspired to ensure this was going to be a very special day indeed. Laurent Robert
marauded down the left wing and whipped in an inch perfect cross. The scene seemed set for Magpie flop Carl Cort to find a way (any way) to mess this fine chance up but quick as a flash he pulled off one of the best live goals I’ve ever seen. Attacking the ball in the manner of Les Ferdinand, he raced into the box and used perfect technique with the outside of his boot to lash a swerving shot that left the 'keeper with no chance. I had to watch a number of replays before I realised just how good this effort was and genuinely still regard it as one of the most under-rated efforts of recent times. Despite Carl Cort turning on flair more associated with a Brazilian world cup champion, this was still Newcastle United and of course we’d find a way to undo all previous hard work in an effort to seemingly make things deliberately difficult for ourselves. One atrocious Everton goal later and we were going in for our halftime cuppa on level terms. With half the match gone, the score was Newcastle 2-2 Everton and it would take a brave man indeed to bet any money on the destination of the points.
The next goal was always going to be crucial and the start of the second half gave no indication of which team would score it. With a starting line-up boasting the attacking prowess of Shearer, Cort, Dyer, Robert, Jenas and Solano, you could be forgiven by not being overly excited at the sight of Andy O’Brien striding forward when Newcastle were awarded a corner at the Leazes end with just over an hour gone. The young Irish man however had already achieved cult status with crucial goals away at Sunderland and Arsenal (both from Toon corners) and today he’d be in the perfect position to force home the goal that ultimately decided the contest. The corner was whipped into the box from the left and after bouncing around the area like a pinball, O’Brien did just enough to make sure it squeezed beneath the ‘keeper and gently rolled over the line.
The third Toon goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Everton and the last half hour would showcase the very best of Sir Bobby’s entertaining outfit. Chances came and went for Dabizas, Solano, Robert and Cort before two quick-fire goals from our Peruvian play-maker ended any chance of a late fightback. First, Kieron Dyer used his pace to race down the right wing, get to the by-line and cut the ball back for Solano to crash home and this was swiftly followed by Jermain Jenas supplying the pass of the match for Nobby to score his second in three minutes. With the score at 5-2 and the home crowd in the mood to party, there was still eighteen minutes left for the black and whites to torment the demoralised toffees. At this point, there was a very real possibility that the Toon could rack up double figures as United swaggered through the match with ease. Sir Bobby quite rightly had other ideas through and subbed off young Dyer who received a standing ovation for one of his best performances in a black and white shirt. With the match won and crucial games coming thick and fast, we'd need his energy in the coming weeks.
Newcastle could afford to take their foot off the gas, all that was left was to see if Lua-Lua could bag his first Premiership goal. He couldn’t but he did chalk up an assist with just three minutes to play when he sprinted down the wing and played an inch perfect pass to Olivier Benard who was able to sweep the ball into the roof of the net. Having gone five years without a single goal to celebrate, Lewis and I had enjoyed half a dozen in just ninety minutes. This was a crucial win, our biggest of the season, and went a long way to ensuring European football was coming back to Tyneside.
Newcastle would go on to take twelve points from their next six matches scoring thirteen goals in the process. Qualification for the Champions league was sealed on a magical night at Ewood Park and the entire city celebrated this top four finish when putting West Ham to the sword in the last home match of a hugely enjoyable campaign. NUFC were about to go toe to toe with Juventus, Barcelona and Inter Milan. With Sir Bobby Robson as manager, anything was possible.