Updated: Oct 17
Picture Credit: premierleague.com
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Saturday 15th September 2001
United 4-3 Red Devils
There’s only one United
Newcastle ended the 00/01 season a disappointing eleventh place, failing to build on the progress we’d shown under Sir Bobby throughout the previous campaign. The final match of the season saw a very welcome 3-0 victory over disorganised Aston Villa but one result did little to persuade many of the black and whites in the crowd that we wouldn't need a huge overhaul to push on and compete for a European place.
Bobby Robson however had other ideas, he insisted that with just two additions to the squad he could have Newcastle near the very top of the table. Not for the last time, he would be proved so very right and his wisdom would pay dividends for NUFC. The pace of Bellamy (who cost just six and a half million pounds) and vision of Laurent Robert (another bargain at just nine and half million) coupled with returning injured teammates, transformed our team and had Bobby’s boys challenging for the title throughout the majority of a highly enjoyable season.
United warmed up for the Premiership campaign by winning five and drawing one match in the Intertoto Cup scoring fifteen goals in just six matches. We unluckily lost out on a place in the UEFA Cup by losing on away goals in a somewhat bizarre two legged final against French side Troyes.
Our league form continued in this vein, coming from behind to draw 1-1 with both Chelsea and the Mackems before dismantling Middlesbrough 4-1 on a hilarious afternoon at the Riverside. By this point Robert had wracked up one goal and a number of assists whilst Craig Bellamy also burst onto the scene with a derby day equaliser, a league cup hattrick (at home to Brentford in a 4-1 victory) and the winning goal in an Intertoto victory. Both new signings had already made quite an impact and today they would be at the heart of everything.
Manchester United were formidable opponents. The reigning champions had won two and drawn two of their first four matches and had lost to the real United just once since that magical day on 20th October 1996 when five goals without reply sent shockwaves throughout the entire sport.
Sometimes, you set off on the walk to St James’ Park and can just sense that the next two hours are destined to be extra special and today was definitely one of those days. This match would mark Sir Bobby’s one hundredth in charge of NUFC, a milestone that was very worthy of being celebrated - the last match before he took charge had seen the same opposition hammer the Toon 5-1 and today would provide the perfect reflection of how far we’d progressed in those two short years.
In addition, the world was still reeling from the horrific events of September 11th just a few days before. Both sets of supporters stood completely still in one of the most intense silences I’ve ever experienced just before the kickoff and the referee’s whistle brought an incredible roar of encouragement. At this point, it was borderline sensory overload as fifty two thousand people were about to provide the backdrop to one of the games of the decade.
The atmosphere was immense as the match kicked off and it was clear that it had taken on something akin to a snarling derby-day bear pit with every black and white touch cheered to the rafters whilst anything favourable to the reds was booed, whistled and jeered in an attempt to unsettle our illustrious enemy. It would take just four minutes for this atmosphere to explode as ninety five percent of the crowd released a cheer of pure ecstasy.
Shearer was barged over when going for the ball approximately twenty five yards from goal to gain an attacking freekick. Laurent Robert stepped up and with unerring accuracy belted the ball past compatriot Fabien Barthez into the top corner of the Leazes End net meaning I was lucky enough to be treated to a grandstand view.
With the Toon a goal to the good so early on, we were either going to kick on and punish Manchester United as we had done six years previously or we would have to back off, shut up shop and soak up a ton of pressure as they tried to get back on level terms.
Unfortunately, it was to be the latter as the reds swarmed all over our heroes and provided a warning when new signing Van Nistlerooy just missed the ball when sliding in on goal (not dissimilar to Gazza in Euro ‘96). This wasn’t heeded however and soon after the score was 1-1 when former Toon favourite Andy Cole set up the same player to turn and bury an effort at the Gallowgate. Van Nistlerooy even had a third chance in quick succession which was well-saved by Shay Given as United’s dam came close to bursting.
What we needed was something to quickly change the momentum - this was to come through a rather unlikely source just four minutes after being pegged back to 1-1. Robert Lee had been a prolific scorer for the Toon in his early years at NUFC but after a decade, his goals had dried up as he was utilised in a more defensive role anchoring the midfield.
There didn’t seem much danger when he picked the ball up just inside opposition territory but Man United backed off and allowed him to skip a couple half-hearted challenges before unleashing a fairly feeble-looking shot. Thankfully the ball bounced at the crucial moment and Barthez completely misjudged the effort, allowing it to bounce off his knee and into the roof of the net, restoring our advantage. This was to be Lee’s last goal for the club and would signal the end of the first-half scoring as the Toon went into the halftime break a goal to the good.
As the second half started, we knew that the next goal would be absolutely crucial. If Man United could again draw level then they would be firm favourites to go on and win the match, another goal for the Toon however would send St James’ Park into raptures and have the fans dreaming of a famous victory. It would take just seven minutes before we were euphoric! A right wing corner from Nolberto Solano found Robert lurking a few yards outside the area who took a touch to control the ball before smashing an effort towards goal. This shot was blocked by one of his teammates Nikos Dabizas who had the presence of mind to hold off two opposition players before lashing an unstoppable effort past the ‘keeper and high into the net.
As St James’ Park exploded with barely contained joy, our Greek hero celebrated by swinging his shirt round his head (something he’d gloriously repeat at the Stadium of Light a few months later) before being mobbed by equally jubilant colleagues. 3-1 to the Toon and the dream was on, this could happen, the Toon could pull this one off. As always with Newcastle United though, things would prove to be anything but simple.
With the crowd utterly delirious at both the performance and scoreline so far, we should have known that the reigning champions weren't going to just roll over and allow the us to fill our boots. Back they came as they redoubled their efforts. With over half an hour to go, there was still plenty of time for Man United to force their way back into the match and they would soon hit us with a double whammy body-blow that would leave the real united on the ropes and struggling to regain composure.
Just ten minutes after Dabizas had smacked the Toon into a two goal lead, the red devils managed to get themselves back in the game. Substitute Paul Scholes had hurt Newcastle in the past and he made an instant impact in this one, running at our defence and having a part in both Man United goals. First Ryan Giggs and then Jaun Veron scored well-taken efforts to tie the contest and at this point most of the crowd felt utterly deflated.
Whereas just a few moments previous, we were in a state of frenzy at the thought of a superb victory, now we were fearful of a humiliating defeat having carelessly tossed away such an advantage. I can clearly remember feeling utterly crushed.
When Ryan Giggs slid in at the back post soon after, the scene was set for the reds to take the lead. Thankfully the effort was skied well over the bar and sparked a positive reaction from the black and whites who rolled their sleeves up and went on the attack in search of further goals.
This desire was reflected in the stands as the atmosphere was once again cranked up. Both teams had the manager, players and desire to win one of the games of the season and neither team would be content with settling for a 3-3 draw.
With just eight minutes to go, Craig Bellamy once again used his electrifying pace to unsettle the opposition defence and played in Nobby Solano who had just the 'keeper to beat in order to score a potential winning goal. The attack minded Peruvian however had already missed four good chances in the draw with Sunderland and he was to repeat that by hitting a shot against Barthez' legs. Before the fans could bemoan this costly miss however, Alan Shearer steamed in to hammer a shot against Wes Brown which saw the ball loop up and into the Gallowgate End net to spark wild celebrations.
What proved to be the winning goal saw Sir Bobby Robson out of his seat cheering before hugging Lua-Lua on the bench in celebration. In the stands, total strangers embraced one another and jumped for joy in prolonged expressions of delight. If you thought this was the end of the drama though you'd be very mistaken indeed.
Manchester United were never ever going to roll over and take a defeat. At that point in their history, they were famed for late comebacks and always pushed hard until the final whistle. On two separate occasions in the remaining eight minutes, Paul Scholes was played through on goal. Uncharacteristically, both times he missed the target (which then pathetically led to him throwing himself to the ground in attempts to claim penalties for non-existent fouls from Shay Given).
Newcastle were dangerous on the counter-attack too don’t forget and Craig Bellamy almost made the game safe in injury time when he rounded the goalkeeper only to then drag his shot wide when trying to beat two defenders on the line. Our Welsh dragon held his head in his hands, knowing that a goal at this point would have settled things beyond any doubt.
Deep into injury time, with the fans whistling in an attempt to prompt the referee to end the contest, Alan Shearer ran the ball into the strawberry corner. He conceded a throw-in and did his best to make sure this wasn't taken quickly. Roy Keane took exception to this gamesmanship and threw the ball at Shearer's head. Whilst the referee went to book the Man United captain with a yellow card, our own captain continued to laugh at his display of petulance. This caused Keane to attempt to lash out at our match-winner and in the process knocked the yellow card out of the official’s hand.
Unimpressed, the referee decided that this now warranted a red card and the future Sunderland manager was sent off in disgrace.There was barely time left for Man United to take the throw. Toon fans were up on their feet, first to jeer Keane down the tunnel and then to roar into the early afternoon sun as the match finished with the score 4-3.
All around the stadium people were smiling, punching the air and saluting the players and manager who had ensured the weekend would be very enjoyable indeed. One or two Geordie fans had clearly hit the liquid refreshments earlier than others and attempted to initiate a chant of ‘there’s only one United and we’re gunna win the league’.
This match was a fantastic advert for the Premier League and by no means a flash in the pan for Bobby’s boys. NUFC would go to achieve eye-catching results against Arsenal , Leeds (twice), Tottenham and Sunderland as we finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League for only the second time in our history. This opened the door to go toe to toe with Juventus, Barcelona and Inter Milan. On days like today, with the manager we had in charge, you truly believed that anything was possible.
Picture Credit: Metro.co.uk