Football: Newcastle step into Hall of fame

Simon Turnbull charts a week when a Tyneside dream turned into reality
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The Independent Online
When Pierluigi Collina blew his whistle for the final time at St James' Park on Wednesday night there was not the slightest trace of emotion on the face of Steve Watson. He stopped in his tracks, shook his head, wandered to the centre circle, summarily surveyed the scenes of celebration, then made for the tunnel, shaking his bowed head every two or three paces. His incredulity was understandable. Watson had, after all, been in the home dressing-room at St James' the afternoon Sir John Hall told the Newcastle United team: "We're going to be challenging the best in Europe. We're going to be up there among the greats." The players could barely suppress their sniggers. They were about to play Bristol Rovers. Newcastle were third from bottom of the Second Division.

It was 28 December 1991, and Sir John, who had been elected chairman the night before, outlined his bold vision to the local press too. It seemed a dream puffed straight from a pipe. The man from the Northern Echo, whose identity ought to be concealed for personal reasons, pointed out that Newcastle's next challenge happened to be at Roots Hall and that "with crippling debts to meet off the pitch, Newcastle's new leader-in- chief would be better advised looking towards such upwardly mobile members of the Football League as Southend United than at the Inter Milans and Barcelonas".

Oh, we of little faith. We were as stunned as Steve Watson as we typed confirmation of the dream come true: Newcastle United 3, Barcelona 2. This was the Newcastle United, remember, that stood on the very brink of collapse in May 1992, the month the mighty Barca won the European Cup at Wembley. Sir John had been in the chair for four months and had hired Kevin Keegan as manager, but his pounds 13m salvage operation was dependent upon the team avoiding the clutches of the old Third Division. "It might spell the end of football at St James' Park," was his stark message. "I don't know where we go if we become a Third Division club." Newcastle, though, went to Leicester on the last day and won not just the match but a future. The seemingly Doomed Army has been the Boom Army ever since.

On Monday afternoon the commander-in-chief announced his retirement. "I feel I've done everything I set out to achieve," Sir John told the assembled audience in the St James' Suite. "My mission statement when I took over was to make this club one of the top three in the UK and one of the top 10 in Europe. I visited Barcelona all those years ago. I looked at their team and I looked at the 100,000 in the Nou Camp and I thought that one day we'd get there. There were a lot of doubters, I know. But we've got there now."

Not quite. The trophy cabinet along the corridor last displayed an item of first-class silverware in 1969. In lieu of a major trophy, though, a major scalp would suffice as evidence of the Magpies' arrival among the high-fliers. And scalps do not come any more prized than Barcelona's.

The Barca boys arrived on Tyneside on Monday night, valued officially at pounds 400m on the strength of their buy-out clauses. Ivan de la Pena alone is worth pounds 64m, the rough equivalent of the money Keegan and Kenny Dalglish, his managerial predecessor, have spent in taking Newcastle from below Bristol Rovers and Southend into the same league as Barcelona. That there might be a chink in theCatalan armour was evident as Louis Van Gaal, the coach hired from Ajax, conducted his eve-of-match press conference after Tuesday morning training at New Ferens Park, home of Durham City.

An autographed photo of Tommy Smith hung behind the clubhouse bar, next to the fixtures for the ladies darts team (who may or may not have been expecting a particularly pointed battle against the Durham Light Infantry B team on Thursday night). Van Gaal could not conceal his contempt for what he perceived to be the prosaic ways of English football. "I get the feeling," the man from the BBC put it to him, "that you are not unduly worried about Newcastle, that this match certainly hasn't kept you awake at night." "I have news for you," the Dutchman replied. "I always sleep well. I always have respect for my opponent and I do have respect for English clubs. But I do want them to be a little more thinking in a tactical way."

He got his wish on Wednesday night. So confused were Van Gaal's side by the incisiveness of Newcastle's cerebrally superior play it would have been little surprise, as Keegan suggested in the ITV studio, if the Barcelona coach had held up a number 11 and brought off his entire team. The Barca backlash might have reduced the margin of success to 3-2 but it was still a resoundingly famous victory for Newcastle United, for Kenny Dalglish, for Sir John Hall, and for Kevin Keegan too.

Seven of the starting eleven were Keegan signings. And Faustino Asprilla would not have been one of them had Keegan taken heed of the barrage of letters and column inches urging him not to saddle Newcastle with the loose-cannon Colombian. "My determination to sign him never wavered," Keegan said after the protracted pounds 7.5m transfer from Parma was finally resolved, in February 1996. "Tino is a one-off, a special player, a big- stage performer. The bigger the stage, the better he responds. It's like an art collector making a decision to buy a painting by an internationally renowned artist. It's easier than buying something done by an unknown because the quality is there."

The Asprilla collection numbered several big-match masterpieces before Wednesday night's hat-trick exhibition. Back in 1993, in his Parma days, there was a virtuoso two-goal show in the Vicente Calderon which knocked out Atletico Madrid in the Cup-Winners' Cup semis. Then there was the stunning free-kick in the San Siro which brought Milan's unbeaten run of Serie A matches to an abrupt halt at 58.

"He's a bit special isn't he?" Steve Watson said, making his way towards the revving coach in the St James' Park car park. The Newcastle players were heading off for a celebration meal at the Gosforth Park Hotel. It was there, in 1982, that the once-mighty Magpies showed the first sign of fluttering back to high-flying life, unveiling Keegan in their black and white stripes. "We've got Kevin and we're in heaven," Russell Cushing, the club secretary, trumpeted. "It's a good job you didn't sign Richie Pitt then," Bob Cass, the veteran North-east football writer, famously retorted. Just five years have passed since Newcastle were stuck deep in the Richie Pitt. It was a memory which made Wednesday night all the more sweet to savour.