Miles Starforth's diary in Spain: A European night to remember – and a decade to forget?

Rafa Benitez
Rafa Benitez

It’s a little reminder of what we’ve been missing over the past decade.

I won’t forget the first time I saw Newcastle United take on Royal Antwerp.

Nor will a few thousand others who were at the Bosuilstadion the best part of 24 years ago.

The two clubs meet again in Spain tomorrow in an unusual mid-season friendly, and the fixture, arranged to fill a 21-day hole in the club’s Premier League fixture list, has brought back a few memories.

I was stood on a crumbling away end, along with several thousand others, to see Kevin Keegan’s buccaneering Newcastle, tipped to fail on their long-awaited return to European competition, beat Antwerp 5-0.

Robert Lee, memorably, scored a hat-trick of headers in the game. United were back.

“We showed that you can go into Europe, play exciting, attacking football and not travel in fear,” said Keegan after the game.

It was my first European away game, and it will have been the same for many others.

I went on a coach trip and spent the night in Amsterdam. Dehydrated and dishevelled, we all headed back to England the next day, having witnessed, and celebrated, a historic night for the club.

European football then became the norm for the club. It was more unusual for United not to be in Europe for the next decade or so.

Newcastle went on to play at the Nou Camp, the San Siro and many other stadiums across the continent.

That all changed, of course, when Mike Ashley bought the club.

Newcastle have only had one European campaign under Ashley’s ownership – the club was knocked out of the Europa League at the quarter-final stage by Benfica in 2013 – and that just isn’t right.

A generation has all but missed out on European football, but Rafa Benitez, with the right backing, can take the club back into Europe.