European football return for Newcastle United - but not as we know it
There was once more to European competition than just the Champions League and Europa League.
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Stood on a crumbling terrace in the biting chill of a drizzly November night watching 90 minutes of violence masquerading as football that was entirely enabled by a lackadaisical and nonsensical referee.
That was my very first experience of European competition - but it was not the Champions League, Europa League or the much-missed (by me anyway) Cup Winners Cup. It wasn’t even the not-so-missed (by anyone) Intertoto Cup.
No, my first experience of ‘European’ football came on a rank Tyneside night as Newcastle United met Serie B side Ascoli in the group stage of the easily forgotten Anglo-Italian Cup - a competition for clubs in the second tier of English and Italian football. The Magpies’ interest in the competition was fleeting at best with then-manager Kevin Keegan opting for what is now called squad rotation as a number of young players were handed an opportunity to face the leading lights of Bari, Cesena and Lucchese.
But it was Ascoli that sticks in the mind as they fought - quite literally - their way to a 1-0 win at St James Park thanks to a goal from striker Oliver Bierhoff, who would go on to win Serie A with AC Milan and score the golden goal in Germany’s Euro 96 Final win over the Czech Republic. There was another familiar face among the visitors’ substitutes that night as future Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough and Bradford City forward Benito Carbone ‘enjoyed’ his first taste of Tyneside after joining Ascoli on loan from Torino.
The game would have been instantly forgettable had it not been for the antagonistic and quite frankly belligerent behaviour of the visitors as they produced an ever-increasing catalogue of ‘tackles’ on the men in black and white. Tempers frayed, patience gradually wore away before Magpies striker David Kelly eventually lashed out with an ‘agricultural’ challenge on Ascoli midfielder Michele Menolascina (yes, I had to Google that), ‘catching’ the Italian with both feet on his thigh - yes it was quite a high challenge!
Kelly was rightly shown a red card but the aftermath saw an Ascoli coach try to lash out at Newcastle’s Alan Thompson before both sets of players and coaching staff were involved in a mass confrontation that surprisingly ended with no further punishments from the referee. These were truly halcyon days - especially for a 10-year-old that was already in love with football and became further engaged by witnessing a different side of the game at first-hand.
In the two decades that followed I sat in roughly the same area in the famous Gallowgate End following its conversion into an all-seater stand and watched some truly memorable nights in European competition. I saw Keegan’s Magpies mark their return to real European competitions by destroying Belgian side Royal Antwerp with a 10-2 aggregate win. There were stunning strikes from David Ginola and Faustino Asprilla as the Magpies saw off Ferencvaros and Metz in the UEFA Cup during the 1996/97 season.
Asprilla was at it again 12 months later when he netted a historic hat-trick as United earned a 3-2 win against Barcelona in their very first Champions League group stage match. There was Andy Griffin scoring the only goal of a 1-0 win against Juventus, Alan Shearer and the much-missed Gary Speed scoring in a UEFA Cup quarter-final win against PSV Eindhoven and Papiss Cisse heading a late winner as Alan Pardew’s United saw off an Anzhi Makhachkala side containing Samuel Eto’o, Lasana Diarra and Yuri Zhirkov.
Ten years have passed since Newcastle hosted a European tie as Benfica ended any thoughts of claiming long-awaited silverware by sending the Magpies out of the Europa League at the quarter-final stage - but next season will see Eddie Howe lead his side back into Europe after his side produced a remarkably consistent performance in the Premier League season.
Depending on results over the next fortnight, that return may well come in the Champions League, or it could be the Europa League if Howe’s men are unable to secure the six points they need to return to European football’s elite. Qualifying for either competition is a sign of major progress for the Magpies.
But no matter what comes to pass, there is nothing likes a European night under the floodlights at St James Park - even when an Italian second tier side with a future Serie A champion and a Premier League cult hero in their midst come to spoil the party.