Picture Credit: BBC Sport
Sunday 25th March 2012
West Brom 1-3 Newcastle
Newcastle began the 11/12 Premiership season with eleven games unbeaten. This run included hugely enjoyable wins against the likes of Sunderland, Stoke and Everton and would set the tone for the most successful season of recent years.
The emergence of new signings Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye was complemented by the return from injury of Hatem Ben Arfa as well as the improvement of stars such as Gutierrez, Ryan Taylor, Coloccini and Krul.
This would be bolstered even further by the January addition of Papiss Cisse who would score an astonishing thirteen goals in his first twelve appearances in a black and white shirt. His baker’s dozen included some absolute worldies and helped fire the Toon towards the top of the table.
Come the end of the season, we actually came remarkably close to qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since we were managed by the late, great Sir Bobby Robson. Our new Senegalise superstar had announced his arrival with winning goals against both Aston Villa and Norwich (as well as a strike in a 2-2 draw with Wolves) and was about to hit a run of form that would go down in Toon Army folklore!
Newcastle warmed up for this one with a nervy 1-0 home victory over Norwich City, this marked a first win in five matches as our push for the European places was in danger of going badly off the rails.
Trips to West Brom (as well as Aston Villa and Birmingham) have always been special dates in my calendar since I met my good friend Andy Black at the age of eighteen. The die-hard NUFC fan had relocated from Newcastle to Birmingham in childhood but has retained his love for all things black and white.
This meant there has always been a place to stay for these away trips and the match would form just a small portion of what would inevitably become a fairly wild weekend. Individually, both of us have pretty poor records of seeing the Toon win on the road and when attending together, our stats are nothing short of abysmal! Once in a while though, the stars align and Newcastle put in a performance worthy of the name to send us heading back to the Birmingham pubs on cloud nine.
Although we didn’t know it, today was going to kick-start our rise towards European qualification and provide the foundation for an impressive seven wins in eight matches orchestrated by superb attacking play, silky skills and plenty of goals. Happy days indeed.
The day started with blazing sunshine and it quickly became apparent that we were not the only Geordies making a weekend of it in Birmingham. The early afternoon train towards the stadium saw plenty of black and white shirts and scarves on display with most enjoying a ‘hair of the dog’ approach to refreshments in the hope of drinking away the previous night’s activities.
With cold cans of lager being passed around the thirsty Toon sympathisers, conversation seemed split between the optimistic amongst us (of which I am a proud and long-term member) confidently predicting victory and the more pessimistic element of our support worrying about our recent form and thinking a draw would be the best we could hope for against a team not yet safe from relegation.
Thankfully, for once, I wasn’t completely deluded in my pre-match belief that NUFC would win comfortably. Cabaye, Ben Arfa, Cisse and Ba were ready to turn on the style and fire United to victory.
West Brom has always been a great away trip. In my four visits there, I’ve found the locals friendly and accommodating (the complete opposite to their odious counterparts from Villa Park) and there to be plenty of choice when it comes to local pubs happy to serve Toon fans (even those of us proudly displaying colours).
My plan tends to be to head to ‘The Vine’ which is approximately ten minutes away from the ground and serves a great selection of alcohol as well as a tandoori barbecue for those sensible enough to want to line their stomachs against pre-match inebriation. From the outside, this looks like a small pub but (rather like Dr. Who’s Tardis) is actually massive once you get in and with the weather being so kind to us, many fans took advantage of the beer garden to sup pints, discuss the match and get the singing going before the four o’clock kick-off.
As always, there was a friendly mix of both home and away supporters with the two sets of fans enjoying a shared sense of camaraderie. As kick-off approached, the atmosphere in the pub built up to a crescendo before it was time to enter the stadium and find out if my confidence really was as misplaced as those around me believed.
As usual at The Hawthorns, Toon fans were housed in the Smethwick End and took approximately five thousand fans intent on cheering their heroes to victory. The match started at an incredibly high tempo and West Brom had an early chance to take the lead before Demba Ba forced a fine save after just four minutes.
Before either side could draw breath, another chance brought a goal with the game barely six minutes old. The excellent Ben Arfa was really finding his form after a superb solo goal against Blackburn in the FA Cup and today he was on fire! Cutting in from the left hand side, he played the ball across the face of goal which provided an offside-looking Papiss Cisse the chance to side foot home the first goal of the game in front of the ecstatic away fans (thankfully before the introduction of VAR!).
If we thought the early lead would mean we’d have it all our own way, we’d be mistaken as straight away West Brom looked to retaliate and forced us on the back foot with another good chance of their own. United’s defence was growing in stature throughout the early stages of this match and a Coloccini header after just twelve minutes would not only clear some danger but also begin a passage of superb end-to-end play that would result in the Toon doubling their lead.
Ben Arfa, having one of his best games of the season, picked the ball up inside his own half and began sprinting upfield. He was able to ride a sliding tackle before passing the ball to Cisse who was terrorising the Baggies defence. With Cabaye making a run down the left and Ben Arfa doing the same down the right, West Brom were completely stretched at the back and the ball was threaded back through to Ben Arfa who showed fancy footwork to turn a defender inside out before curling a wonderful effort into the bottom corner to send five thousand Toon fans completely wild.
Even to an eternal optimist like myself, two goals to the good inside twelve minutes was entirely beyond any pre-match expectations. Newcastle’s fans and players were now absolutely rampant and baying for the further goals that would put the match completely beyond our opponents before it had even had time to settle.
Every time the Toon got forward, we were looking likely to score. Ben Arfa was switching wings at will whilst Cabaye was also pulling the strings from midfield, Cisse looked hungry for further goals and Ba was dragging defenders all over the place, creating space for his strike partner.
It seemed certain that the rest of the half would see further goals for the black and whites and once again Ben Arfa marauded down the left wing and played the ball into the area. Demba Ba went down as he shaped to shoot and whilst Toon fans appealed for a penalty, the ball fell perfectly for Cisse to whack home his second of the match to unbelievably put the Toon 3-0 up after just thirty four minutes.
If going 2-0 up in the first half was beyond our wildest dreams then racing into a three goal lead sent the travelling Toon Army into raptures. We were absolutely hammering West Brom at this point and had a number of attacking players capable of scoring further goals.
This was Cisse’s fifth in our colours and he became joint-quickest NUFC player to reach this milestone alongside true legend Sir Les Ferdinand.
When halftime came, we danced down the steps towards the concourse and joined a party that was already in full swing. One of our lot had managed to get hold of a giant Senegal flag and this was being worshipped with songs of praise for our new number nine.
By the time the second half kicked off, the United fans were in fine voice and ready to continue the celebration. West Brom, in a desperate attempt to gain a toe-hold in the game, brought on two attacking substitutes and it soon became clear that neither side felt the game was over.
The Toon tried to start this half in the same way we’d ended the first and in the opening exchanges Cisse was played through one-on-one but was denied by a great save. Unfortunately however we were soon given a taste of our own medicine when an attack broke down and all of a sudden it was West Brom playing on the break and bearing down on our goal. A defensive mix-up between defender Williamson and ‘keeper Krul gave Shane Long an easy chance to tap the ball into an unguarded net and reduce the arrears to just two goals.
With only seven minutes of the second half gone, there were more than a few nervous glances amongst the Toon contingent in the stands. We knew how easy it was for momentum to shift between halves and regular travellers were very used to United’s irritating ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of a seemingly certain victory.
West Brom had now given themselves a real chance to make a game of it. At this point, the Baggies were firmly in the ascendency and safe in the knowledge that a second goal for them would massively unsettle NUFC especially as they came from 3-0 down to snatch a draw against us the previous season.
Tim Krul made a great save before a Mike Williamson block as the back and whites just about held firm in the face of some intense pressure. United were not averse to creating chances of their own too and almost put the game beyond doubt when a fine solo run from Ben Arfa brought about another good save from the opposition ‘keeper.
The Baggies had the better of this half but struggled to find either the rhythm or killer touch required to realistically stake a claim for any share of the points and it’s hard to remember many moments of genuine concern for Tim Krul and his defence throughout the last twenty five minutes.
With West Brom having made all their substitutions, an injury reduced them to ten men for the last ten minutes and the game thankfully petered out, losing all intensity. This allowed United nerves to calm as the match drifted towards it’s inevitable conclusion.
When the final whistle went, both Toon players and fans could finally enjoy a superb 3-1 away victory. These three points put us level with Chelsea in fifth place and moved us eight points clear of the mighty Liverpool, our next opponents.
Our only concern in the closing stages came when new hero Cisse was carried off with a leg injury. We needn’t have worried, he’d be back the next weekend to humiliate the red half of Merseyside with a further two goals in another fantastic victory.
Newcastle would end the season with seven wins from the last ten matches, achieving a fifth placed finish that ensured qualification for the UEFA Cup.
This season was easily the most enjoyable of Mike Ashely’s horrific reign, unfortunately (and typically) it wasn’t built upon. The summer of 2012 saw us ‘strengthen’ the team with just one free transfer and the additional strain of a European competition coupled with injuries to key players saw NUFC scrapping it out at the wrong end of the table for much of the following campaign.
On this day at the Hawthorns however, Newcastle really felt ‘united’ in every sense of the word, riding the crest of a wave towards European qualification.
Picture Credit: BBC Sport