NEWCASTLE United’s last campaign in the Champions League lives long in the memory on Tyneside.
Recollections as vivid as they are unforgettable.
Who at St James’s Park on a cold October night almost 10 years ago can forget the goal from Andy Griffin that saw off Juventus?
Not Griffin, certainly. And not the 48,370 crowd.
Written off after three straight defeats, Sir Bobby Robson’s side looked to be heading out of the competition until Griffin burst into the box in the 62nd minute and took a shot at goal, the ball cannoning into the net off Gianluigi Buffon’s out-stretched hand.
Game over for Juventus that night. Game on for Newcastle in the competition.
United went on to do what no team had done before and qualify after losing their first three group games.
A decade later, Griffin has just won promotion to the Premier League with Reading, the club where Newcastle manager Alan Pardew started his managerial career.
Ironically, Pardew recruited current Royals boss Brian McDermott to the staff during his time at the club.
Then as now, Pardew’s judgement has proved astute.
On Saturday, a 3-0 win over another of Griffin’s former clubs, Stoke City, saw United climb into the top four of the Premier League, and the club is tantalisingly close to another Champions League campaign.
And Griffin – who faced Newcastle in the Championship two seasons ago – is full of admiration for the job Pardew has done since succeeding Chris Hughton in controversial circumstances in December 2010, and hopeful the likes of Juventus will again visit St James’s Park.
“Having been up there for six and a half years, I’m a bit of a Newcastle fan,” Griffin told the Gazette.
“They’ve come an exceptionally long way in a short space of time.
“For Newcastle to be where they are now says a lot about Alan Pardew as manager.
“He went there under a lot of pressure. He wasn’t the fans’ first choice, but you win fans over by getting results.
“He’s done a fantastic job, and will up there for manager of the season, and rightly so. If they finish fourth, it’ll be like winning a trophy.
“Maybe, because of the financial implications, the Champions League has become bigger, like getting promotion is now bigger.
“There’s more pressure on teams to stay in the Premier League, and to get fourth spot for many clubs is like winning a trophy.
“I played for Reading against Newcastle in the Championship a couple of years ago, and for them to be where they are now is phenomenal, especially with the financial power that Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have.
“Two years ago Newcastle fans wouldn’t have thought that would be possible.
“There are a lot of expectations at Newcastle. The fans are passionate, and you don’t get long to be successful at a big club.
“And to be where they are is a credit to him, the staff and certainly the players.
“The manager’s bought the right players, and when you start winning, you grow in confidence. They beat Stoke 3-0, and they’re a tough team to beat.”
Griffin’s memories of the Champions League are still clear, snapshots of a remarkable journey under Sir Bobby Robson, who steered his beloved club away from relegation and into the competition in a remarkably short space of time.
Shirts from legends Fabio Cannavaro, Marc Overmars and Michael Reiziger are mementos of a remarkable campaign, epitomised by the famous 3-2 win over Feyenoord at De Kuip, a result which long ago went into Geordie folklore.
“The pinnacle of club football is the Champions League,” added right-back Griffin, signed from Stoke by Kenny Dalglish in 1998.
“I was fortunate enough to play in the Champions League with Newcastle. Personally, I managed to stay away from injuries, and it was a very memorable season.
“I loved playing for Newcastle with those players – it was an honour and a privilege. They were amazing times.”
Griffin’s modest about his own part in the story of that season.
“We lost our first three games, and no team had done that and gone on to qualify,” added Griffin, 33.
“We played Juventus, and beat them 1-0. My goal wasn’t Shearer-esque, and I had a lot of help from Buffon. We got three points – it wasn’t about who scored. Then we played Dynamo Kiev, and Speedo (Gary Speed) scored in that game. We won 2-1. We had to win in Feyenoord, and hope Juventus got something at Kiev.
“We were 2-0 up, and then it was 2-2. We thought we’d thrown it away as they had the momentum.
“Kieron Dyer had a shot saved by the keeper, but Craig Bellamy put it in the back of the net.
“The news of the other game filtered through, and it was a fantastic achievement for us as a group of players.”
United went on to face Barcelona in the now-defunct second group stage, though a 2-2 draw at the San Siro – where Robson’s players were backed by 14,000 travelling fans – is the standout out memory for Griffin.
“We then got to go to places like Barcelona – it couldn’t get any better,” Griffin went on.
“We took 14,000 fans to Inter Milan, and to play in front of those fans there was fantastic.
“It just says everything about the club. We were maybe unlucky not to win the game. Alan (Shearer) scored those two goals, and we were a little bit disappointed not to win it.
“It was the kind of game you had to absorb – they don’t come around too often for players like myself.
“I remember the game (against Barcelona) got put back 24 hours because of the rain. It’s a big pitch, which suits the way Barcelona play.
“I was given the run around by Marc Overmars. I heard Gary Neville saying his most difficult opponent was Overmars.
“That night was a learning curve. When people ask me my most difficult opponent, I say Marc Overmars that night.”
The class of 2012 could be in for the same learning curve, though there’s a lot of football still to be played in the final four games of the season.
However, Pardew’s squad will have watched Chelsea hold Barcelona at the Nou Camp last night to reach the Champions League final. If any extra motivation were needed for the next few weeks, surely that was it.