Sunday 19th September 1999
Newcastle United 8-0 Sheffield Wednesday
Newcastle had endured a dreadful start to the 99/00 season. Inexperienced manager Ruud Gullit was blindly leading us straight into a relegation dogfight. Decisions off the pitch were baffling, performances on it were shambolic. An opening day defeat at home to Aston Villa was followed by heavy losses away at Tottenham and Southampton. A match at home to Wimbledon did show some promise until a 3-1 lead was carelessly tossed away, the match ending in a 3-3 draw. When Newcastle hosted the Tyne-Wear derby against arch-rivals Sunderland, Gullit was directly responsible for our first derby defeat in nearly ten years. The entire club was in disarray. We needed a miracle, a focal point, a beacon of hope to rally round. That duly came in the shape of the one and only Sir Bobby Robson.
What many people forget about this match is that it was not, in fact, Sir Bobby’s first in charge. His first match was away at Stamford Bridge where a much improved performance (we’d just lost 5-1 at Old Trafford under a caretaker manager) saw the Toon desperately unlucky to go down 1-0. His second match in charge was also away from home, a 2-0 victory in the Uefa Cup with goals from Solano and Ketsbia sealing his first victory for the club. His first home match however was to be something very special indeed and would set the tone for a quite remarkable turnaround in our fortunes.
St James’ Park was in the process of being rebuilt, the roof had been ripped off the Leazes End in order to accommodate an extra sixteen thousand seats due to NUFC having one of the longest waiting lists for season tickets in the country. This scenic backdrop was about to become a rather fitting metaphor, Sir Bobby had a lot of rebuilding to do himself - not least the confidence of a set of players who already looked utterly demoralised by a disastrous start to the season. The opening seven matches had seen six defeats and a draw, we sat second bottom of the league with a minus eleven goal difference. Our eighth match was against the only team with a worse start than us. Sheffield Wednesday also had just a solitary point from their opening seven matches but with a goal difference of minus twelve, kept us just off the bottom. Make no mistake about it, this was a basement battle where defeat for either side (even at such an early stage in the season) would go a long way towards confirming relegation.
Sir Bobby Robson beamed his way onto the pitch before the match started, waving towards all four stands as every single Toon fan stood to applaud, by full time they’d be cheering him from the rafters. The sixty six year old had achieved almost everything in the game, from FA cup success with Ipswich Town to European Triumph at Barcelona via a World Cup semi final with England. The mess he was left to sort out at the Toon however would be up there with one of his toughest challenges in football.
Newcastle started the match nervously and, with just a few minutes on the clock, were extremely lucky not to go behind. A miss-kick from Steve Harper at the Leazes End presented Sheffield Wednesday with an open goal. De Bilde headed towards the empty net only for strike partner Booth to ludicrously help it in from an offside position. If he’d left the ball alone, Newcastle (with confidence shot to pieces after their terrible start to the season) would have been 1-0 down and the rest of the match could have panned out very differently.
On twelve minutes (against the run of play) fine work down the left wing by youngster Kieron Dyer led to the opening goal. The new boy beat his man before flighting a perfect cross into the box for Aaron Hughes to head the ball into the bottom corner. This was a huge goal in the context of our season, we’d have settled for a 1-0 victory right now. Not in a million years could we have dreamed what was to follow especially as the game continued in a similar, nervy vein until the thirty minute mark. That was the precise moment when Alan Shearer’s partnership with Bobby Robson began to bear fruit and the rest, as they say, is history. With half an hour played, the England captain escaped his marker from a corner and side footed an effort low and hard to the back of the net. The relief on his face as he celebrated the goal said it all. This was his first goal from open play all season and he was in the mood to make up for lost time! Just three minutes later, he was given an opportunity to double his tally for the match when United won a penalty. There was never any doubt he’d make it 3-0, his confident body language was plain to see as he stepped up and crashed a trademark spot kick into the top left corner. He wouldn’t have long to wait for the hat trick - more superb ball control from Dyer down the left wing and his cross was put away with ease. Shearer was on fire now. This was incredible, a team that hadn’t won all season were 4-0 up and it wasn’t even half time. Sheffield Wednesday were utterly demoralised and we looked like scoring at every single opportunity. Sir Bobby was one of the wisest men in the game though and surely warned our lads against complacency (how Arsenal could have done for the same advice at St James’ Park in 2011!).
When the second half started there were maybe one or two Toon fans in the crowd who allowed themselves a wry smile and thought “it would be typical Newcastle for us to find a way to mess this up”. They needn’t have worried, the second half was less than a minute old when Kieron Dyer (who was fast becoming a fan favourite) nodded home his second goal for the club. At 5-0 it really was all over and understandably, we took our foot off the gas safe in the knowledge that Sir Bobby Robson had steadied the ship and sooner or later the good times were on their way back to St James’ Park.
With just twelve minutes to go, United were at it again. Solano with an inch-perfect delivery from a right wing corner found a perfectly-timed run by Gary Speed to crash a header in off the bar for what was probably the goal of the game. All around the stadium fans were smiling, punching the air, enjoying the day and feeling optimistic about the future of NUFC. A complete contrast to the last home match where bitter recriminations in soaking rain were carried out by sullen fans worried about the genuine threat of relegation. Whereas Ruud Gullit brought us idiocy, arrogance and a disjointed dressing room, Sir Bobby brought us calm, composure and a set of motivated players ready to die for the cause. Our season started here.
Alan Shearer wasn’t content with scoring a hat-trick - he was going to help himself to two more, equalling Andy Cole’s record of five goals in a single premiership game. Firstly he put us 7-0 up with a rebound after a goalkeeper fumble but the real story of the day came when he scored the eighth. It may only have been a penalty but a brief interaction with a young player was worth a thousand words. Paul Robinson went down in the area with just six minutes left and asked if he could take the penalty himself. This was the player who Ruud Gullit had dropped Shearer for in the last home match (one of the stupidest starting lineups in our entire history). The pecking order was well and truly restored when Shearer looked him in the eye, firmly said no and then stepped up to smack the ball into the bottom corner. Our captain was back and now he had the right manager to get the best out of him, he was ready to be our talisman once again. Not long after, the referee blew three times on his whistle to signal the end of the match and that was the cue for an almighty roar from the St James’ Park faithful. The chant of “There’s only one Bobby Robson” went up and soon the entire crowd was belting it out. Fittingly, this was soon followed by “there’s only one Alan Shearer”. Both men were deserving of being serenaded of a joyous crowd, this was to be the start of something special.
Despite the early season relegation fears, Bobby Robson would lead United to a mid-table finish as well as a Wembley cup semi final. This 8-0 victory was one of a series of eye catching home wins that also included a 5-0 demolition of Southampton, a 3-0 victory against European champions Manchester United and a 4-2 destruction of Arsenal. Newcastle were back and, thanks to one of the best managers we’ve ever had, were ‘United’ in every sense of the word.