A rainstorm of lethal coins then two decades in the wilderness - Newcastle United’s San Siro return
Newcastle United are putting the finishing touches to their preparations for a first Champions League group stage fixture in two decades.
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The thin layer of smoke lingering in the air may well have given a hint of home but this was something very different for Newcastle United.
Just as the fog on the Tyne famously clings to the river that runs through their city back home, a scintillating display of pyrotechnics left smoke to ominously hover over the San Siro pitch as the Magpies prepared for one of the most famous nights in their recent history.
Over 12,000 supporters stood in the away end at one of world’s football’s most iconic stadiums, loud, proud, and defiant, with throats lubricated by drinks aplenty as some of Milan’s most historic areas were given more than a tinge of black and white.
The travelling faithful were showered from above by the home support with bottles full of what you hoped was alcohol but was almost certainly liquid from a more bodily function. A rainstorm of coins followed, not so much pennies from heaven, more a pounding from hell as several Magpies supporters were struck.
The famous blue and black of Internazionale adorned all but one area of the San Siro with kick-off approaching as the intensity and volume was raised to a level rarely seen in world football. This was not just a moment for the Magpies players or their legendary manager, Sir Bobby Robson. This was a moment for everyone of a black and white persuasion.
“It was one of the first times when I remember being intimidated on the way to the stadium from the hotel,” explained former Newcastle full-back Oliver Bernard.
“We knew we were in for a difficult night. All of the way to the stadium, there was chanting and there were flares, so it was intimidating. The warm-up was sensational because the tifo (the display of large flags and banners) was out and you could feel it was a special night.
“When you’re a player, you want to play in that type of stadium and it was a night I won’t ever forget.”
A Newcastle side energised by the youthful exuberance of Craig Bellamy and Jermaine Jenas, guided by experienced heads like Alan Shearer, Shay Given and the much-missed Gary Speed put on a brave performance against the Serie A giants.
Twice the Magpies took the lead with Shearer goals, twice the shower of bottles and coins rained down on their supporters, twice they were pegged back by equalisers from Christian Vieri and Ivan Cordoba.
The brave draw kept alive slim hopes of further progression in the Champions League - but they were ended by a home defeat against a Barcelona side containing the considerable talents of Xavi, Patrick Kluivert and Juan Roman Riquelme just eight days later.
Little did the Magpies supporters at the San Siro and inside St. James’ Park know this would be their last taste of group stage football in European football’s elite competition for just over two decades.
Since that defeat against Barcelona, the Magpies have experienced two relegations from the Premier League, two promotions back into the top tier, two takeovers, 13 managerial changes, the bizarre appointment of Joe Kinnear, the limited expectations and investment of Mike Ashley, a UEFA Cup semi-final, a Europa League quarter-final, an FA Cup semi-final and a Carabao Cup Final defeat.
Life for the men in black and white has changed beyond recognition since that night in Milan. Club legend Shearer has gone from leading the line to leading the conversation as a pundit on Match of the Day. Rather than working alongside Shearer on the pitch, Craig Bellamy now stands alongside Vincent Kompany as his assistant manager at Burnley. Jenas now applies his exuberance to several roles as a television presenter rather than in the heart of the Magpies midfield. Peruvian star Nolberto Solano is now patrolling the technical area as a manager in Sweden’s second tier rather than showing his class on the other side of the white line.
Their leader, the adored Sir Bobby Robson, sadly passed away in 2009, but his legacy lives on in the form of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, which has raised millions of pounds to fund the early detection and treatment of cancer and clinical trials.
On Tuesday evening, Newcastle will return to the San Siro and return to the Champions League group stages for the first time since that night in March 2003. The opposition will not be the blue and black of Inter, but the red and black of city rivals AC Milan - but the challenges remain the same.
Back in 2003, the Magpies squad contained little Champions League experience, with only Shearer, Shay Given and Laurent Robert possessing previous appearances in the competition. There is, somewhat surprisingly, more experience in the current Magpies squad, but there are a whole host of players and a manager that will be learning on the job as they make their debuts, not just in European competition, but also at the highest level of European club football.
There are qualities the current Magpies players can take from the men that proudly wore black and white two decades ago. They will need to be fearless, they will need bravery in abundance, they must ignore reputation and history, they must be energised by the intensity enveloping them, and most of all, they must not give into the weight of pressure, they must embrace and relish it.
The road back to the Champions League has been long and winding, paved with frustration, celebration and devastation in equal measures. But the last two years have hinted a brighter future lies ahead for United as they have moved on from fighting to avoid potential trips to Championship clubs to preparing to face some of the biggest names in the Champions League.
The club’s progress under the Saudi-led consortium that took control at St James Park in October 2021 is ahead of schedule and that has brought its own problems. But those issues are of a positive nature, rather than the severe blow relegation into the Championship would have made on United’s ambitious plans.
A group stage draw that will see Howe’s side take on AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain delivered a strange concoction of cruelty and excitement - but it also will provide Newcastle with more eyes than ever on their ‘project’ and with it will come more potential investors and sponsors.
Progress has already been made behind the scenes with a big money deal with Adidas already secured in a move that will begin the process of bridging the Financial Fair Play gap and allow off-field income to fuel further on-field progression.
For now, as their supporters head back in Milan, all that matters is what happens on the hallowed turf of the San Siro, as Howe and his players prepare to follow in the footsteps of genuine club legends by taking on the European elite once again.