It’s somewhat hard to imagine now, amongst the seemingly infinite thicket of Mike Ashley’s utterly uninspiring reign at the club, but less than two decades ago, Newcastle United were a team challenging for the Premier League title.
In 2000, everyone’s favourite Geordie grandad, Bobby Robson, took over a club in disarray; one used to fighting annual relegation battles under managers Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit for the final years of the millennium. Having come so close to glory throughout the 90s, Newcastle were drifting, but Bobby Robson steered the black and white ship towards security at first, and then prosperity.Embed from Getty Images
After two comfortable 11th place finishes in the 99/00 and 00/01 seasons, Robson guided the Magpies back up to the Premier League summit, securing two seasons of Champions League football with 3rd and 4th place finishes in the 01/02 and 02/03 seasons respectively, and a 5th place and Uefa Cup spot in the 03/04 season.
Considering this was during an era of the rampant Ferguson-lead Man United, near-invincible Arsenal, the always challenging Liverpool, a youthful and vibrant Leeds, and an up-and-coming Chelsea, this record is all the more impressive.
In the 99/00 season, Robson inherited a team of mixed ability. While there was some clear and obvious talent, there was also plenty of deadwood.
A diverse and individualistic group of players was gradually transformed into a more homogeneous and focused unit.Embed from Getty Images
By the start of the 01/02 season, 15 of the 23-man first-team squad were from the home nations, and only three of the eight foreign imports were from outside of Europe.
It’s easy to become a bit PFM (Proper Football Man — think Paul Merson or Tim Sherwood) about the effect of foreign talent on a team, but there’s certainly something to be said for having a core group of players from around the same place – that goes for teams abroad too. The greatest club side of the last decade, Guardiola’s Barcelona, was built on a solid Spanish spine.
And a homegrown base did have an impact at Robson’s Newcastle too.
Starting at the back, a player who could quite justifiably make a top ten Premier League Goalkeeper’s list, as much for his longevity as his talent – Shay Given.
When Petr Cech moved to Arsenal, John Terry said he’d be worth 12–15 points a season. There is a legitimate case to suggest that Shay Given was also worth that to Newcastle at this time.
As imposing in a one-on-one as some of the best, he was just as proficient at pulling off an acrobatic top-corner palm over the bar.Embed from Getty Images
Voted in the team of the season for 01/02 and rightly so.
In some ways, Given’s consistency is made more impressive by the inconsistent defensive line-up in front of him.
Aaron Hughes, Allain Goma, Andy O’Brien, Steven Caldwell, Nikos Dabizas, Jonathan Woodgate, Titus Bramble. That’s a list of just the centre-backs that shared defensive duties from the 01/02 to 03/04 seasons. Each had their qualities, some like Dabizas becoming cult heroes to some extent, but none were exactly world-beaters. Solid is the most you can offer as a description.
The fullback positions weren’t much more inspiring at this time, to be completely honest. French imports Didier Domi and Olivier Bernard brought some continental class to the table, at different points.
It was the midfield where the talent really shone through.
Gary Speed, as at every team he played for, provided the consistency and leadership, and so too did Rob Lee. Kieron Dyer and Laurent Robert brought trickery, flair and pace to the equation, the latter such an unpredictable and aesthetically-pleasing talent, you could spend an hour just watching his long-range goals on repeat.
Jermain Jenas had a youthful exuberance and the ability to boss games. But it was a little Peruvian, by the name of Nolberto Albino Solano Todco – better known as “Nobby” Solano, who brought a whole different dimension to the team.
One of those players who seemed to play the game at a totally different pace to the rest of the side. His pinpoint crossing and deadly set-pieces were simply first-class.
The Star Player
And though Solano was such a fan favourite, and influential player, there is only one man who can be considered the star player of this side – and I’d bet you already know who.Embed from Getty Images
It’s difficult to express just how good a striker Alan Shearer was.
His goalscoring numbers speak for themselves:
In the three seasons from 2001 to 2004, he scored a massive 62 league goals and 80 goals across all competitions, and that wasn’t even close to the best goalscoring form of his career.
His unflappable goalscoring consistency was simply superb, only really comparable to Thierry Henry and now Harry Kane, in the Premier League era, and of course he is still the league’s all-time top scorer.
But Shearer brought so much more to Newcastle than goals.
He was the prodigal Geordie son, an icon in black and white, whose spirit and fight brought out an extra level from his teammates.
Some say that Shearer’s best years were in fact at Blackburn rather than Newcastle, and to compare his goalscoring record at each side offers some support of this view. A serious ankle injury early on in his Newcastle career meant he never quite regained the explosiveness he possessed during Blackburn’s Premier League winning season.
But it didn’t matter. He still scored, a lot. And he gave everything he did have to the cause.Embed from Getty Images
Not many players would have turned down a move to Alex Ferguson’s Man United, Juventus and Barcelona, but that is exactly what Shearer did before joining Newcastle.
Few are so synonymous with a city and club – Gerrard at Liverpool, or Totti at Roma perhaps? But what is certain is that Shearer is Newcastle and Newcastle is him.
There’s a case to be made that Bobby Robson’s managerial career is second only to Brian Clough in terms of English managers in the last 50 years.Embed from Getty Images
Firstly taking a wholly unremarkable Ipswich Town to the upper reaches of the then First Division, and winning an FA Cup and UEFA Cup along the way.
Then taking the England national team to a World Cup semi-final, still the furthest the national side has progressed in an international competition since 1966.
Next, stints at some of Europe’s biggest clubs – PSV Eindhoven (twice), Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona. At the latter, he won the European Manager of the Year award, among plenty of other team honours.
Robson’s influence is still felt to this day – a certain Jose Mourinho owes him his start in football coaching, for example.
In 2000, Robson became Newcastle manager.
Like Shearer, Robson was a Geordie legend through-and-through, and his arrival at the club was roundly welcomed.
It took a few seasons for his style to take hold of the club, but by the 01/02 campaign, this was a team moulded in his image – competitive, brave and forward-looking.Embed from Getty Images
That season, they’d go on to finish 4th, and qualify for the Champions League for only the second time. A year later, a 3rd place finish belied what had in fact been a season in which they had been genuine title contenders.
It shows the great strides that the club made under Robson that a 5th placed finish in 2003/04 was considered a disappointment.
There were plenty. You could pick from a roster of results in the 02/03 Champions League campaign: a phenomenal 3–1 destruction of Bayer Leverkusen, the 1–0 win over Juventus, or the 2–2 draw at the San Siro vs Inter, are all stand-outs.Embed from Getty Images
But for the real emotional impact, and the feeling for fans that Newcastle were once again a club that could compete with the best, the home game vs Man United in 2001 is hard to beat.
In Robson’s 100th game in charge of the club, Newcastle faced a Man United team in their peak – we’re talking Beckham, Giggs, Keane, Cole and Van Nistelrooy – at St.James’ Park.
It started well for the Magpies. A signature thunderbolt freekick from Laurent Robert in the 4th minute gave them the lead.
Half way through the first half though, Van Nistelrooy equalised and it looked like it would be a standard Man United performance from there on out.
But then just five minutes later, Newcastle restored their lead with a goal from Rob Lee, with a big help from a Fabian Barthez howler.
After the break, thing got even better for Newcastle, Nikos Dabizas putting away their third.
And then came the inevitable Man United fight back. This was perhaps one of the most resilient sides in Premier League history, and so when Giggs made it 3–2 and then Juan Sebastian Veron equalised, few in the ground were surprised.
3–3 against Man United is by no means an embarrassment, but there was one player on the pitch that was not going to let that be the final result.Embed from Getty Images
In the 82nd minute, who else but Alan Shearer put the ball in the net for the Magpies to take a 4–3 lead. It would be enough to win the game, which would go down as one of the great 90 minutes in Premier League football history.
Other big games followed, and the continental clashes will always be sweet, but for many Newcastle fans, nothing will compare to the visceral reaction they felt when that 82nd minute strike from their local hero found the net.
Moments like that are why we watch football. They make all the heartbreak and disappointment momentarily worthwhile. St James’s Park has seen much heartbreak and disappointment since, but they’ll always have that Shearer goal and that win vs one of the great English club sides.
Shearer goal and sheer joy for Newcastle; quite simply the perfect footballing moment.
Written by Jackson Rawlings.
Jackson Rawlings is a football and politics writer, and long-suffering Spurs fan. You can follow him on Twitter here – https://twitter.com/jacksonhraw