Newcastle United's forgotten meeting with Pep Guardiola and Barcelona

Everyone remembers that Barcelona game – and that hat-trick.

Faustion Asprilla, famously, scored three goals in a 3-2 Champions League win for Newcastle United at a sold-out St James’s Park in the 1997/98 season.

The game went down in Geordie folklore, but the return fixture at the Nou Camp, which followed a home draw against Dynamo Kiev and home and away defeats to PSV Eindhoven, has been all but forgotten.

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The sparse Nou Camp crowd for Newcastle United's Champions League game against Barcelona on November 26, 1997.

It took place 25 years ago today in front of a 20,000 crowd, and ended in a 1-0 defeat for Kenny Dalglish’s side.

Playing at the Nou Camp should have been a career highlight for defender John Beresford, who was in Dalgish’s starting XI for the club’s penultimate Group C fixture.

As it was, the dead-rubber game was a forgettable experience for the players – and Newcastle’s sodden travelling fans on the top tier.

The highest high to the ‘biggest let down’

The Newcastle United team which took on Barcelona at St James's Park in 1997. John Beresford, bottom right, has recalled the away leg.

“As a kid, I remember going on holiday, and flying over the Nou Camp,” said Beresford. “Yohan Cruyff was the star there. You kind of grew up with Barcelona being the iconic team, and place to go.

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“I was just so excited to play there, but I’m not going to lie, it was one of the biggest let-downs of my career, because it was empty. With a 100,000 capacity, the atmosphere wasn’t great.

“It absolutely lashed it down. They’d put all the fans, my family included, right in the rafters. We couldn’t qualify, they couldn’t qualify. It was just a complete and utter let-down.

“You enjoy the experience, you’re playing against a brilliant team, but it just didn’t feel right.”

Former Newcastle United defender John Beresford with his MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2017.
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“That’s the frustrating thing. You literally went from the highest of the highs, to such a low. It was hard to get your head around.

Guardiola up against United

Barcelona had Rivaldo and Pep Guardiola in their starting XI, while Des Hamilton was among the starters for United. Aaron Hughes, aged 18, came off the bench to make his debut.

“I think we had quite a few injuries,” said Beresford. “Des Hamilton played, and Aaron Hughes came on.

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Barcelona midfielder Pep Guardiola in 1997.

“No-one wanted to get injured. It was weird. You were playing against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the Champions League, and it felt like a practice match.”

Beresford scored times in the Champions League that season – two in a qualifier against Croatia Zagreb, and two more away to Group C winners Dynamo Kiev – and his goals-per-game record in the up with the best in the competition’s history.

Beresford said: “My goals per game record is better than Messi’s and Ronaldo’s, and I played seven games!

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Bringing goals to Newcastle

“The Champions League was special, even playing in Kiev, even though it was freezing.

“We got a decent result. I got a lot of press as I’d got a couple of goals. My experience in the Champions League was fantastic, whether it be Croatia Zagreb in a qualifier, or Barcelona at St James’s Park or away in Kiev. I look back with great fondness.”

Beresford still remembers what Dalglish told him before the club’s game away to PSV, which ended in a 1-0 defeat. Newcastle, Beresford felt, were going out with a “whimper”.

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“The biggest frustration was when we played PSV Eindhoven away,” said Beresford.

“I remember Kenny Dalglish saying ‘Bez, I don’t want you going over the halfway line. I’m like looking at him going ‘what?’. He was trying to stress that we were going to keep our shape and try to get a result.

“We went 1-0 down, and I’m thinking ‘surely he’s going to let the brakes off now’, and he was ‘keep the shape, keep the shape’, and I don’t think we even had a shot.

The beginning of the end for Beresford at United

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“It was the weirdest, most frustrating game I’ve played. We were going out with a whimper. I just didn’t get it. I was thinking ‘I don’t think I’m going to fit in here (under Dalglish).”

Beresford left the club later that season. However, the 56-year-old – whose son Beau, also a left-back, is an academy player at Newcastle – is back at St James’s Park for every home game.

It’s 20 years since United were last in the Champions League – Sir Bobby Robson took his team into the second group stage in 2002/03 – but the hope is that club, taken over a year ago, will return to Europe under Eddie Howe.

Howe’s team won five successive Premier League games before the domestic game paused for the World Cup.

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Newcastle, relegation contenders last season, are third in the division ahead of next month’s restart – and seemingly on course to qualify for a European competition.

A new hope under Howe

“If you’d have said to me at the start of the season, I would have said ‘no, we’re not ready yet’, but I think I’ve seen 90% of the Premier League now, and I’ve been to three away games,” said Sheffield-born Beresford, signed by Kevin Keegan from Portsmouth in the summer of 1992.

“I’ve seen Newcastle as a team, and I think they can do it, because they’re a team. Team-wise, they all know what they’re doing. The balance of how they play is perfect.”

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Beresford believes the World Cup game at a bad time for the club given the team’s form.

“The last thing Newcastle wanted was the World Cup,” he said. “They were flying. It’s going to be a bit difficult getting them back into the groove of the way they were.

“But I really can see them getting that fourth spot.”