This is what happened when Newcastle United fans had an unwelcome lock-in in Belgrade

Writer Miles Starforth has reported on Newcastle United for 20 years. This is the second in a series of recollections and anecdotes from his time covering the club.

Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 11:45 am

While clearing a few things out my office drawer ahead of working from home, I found a pile of business cards.

At the top of the pile was one from Charles Crawford, the British Ambassador to Serbia in August 2003 when Newcastle United played Partizan Belgrade in a Champions League qualifier.

Many will remember the Ferrero Rocher ambassador’s reception TV advertisment from the 1990s. A platter piled high with the chocolate treat was brought into the room – and the ambassador was told he was “really spoiling” his guests.

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Well, there was a very different ambassador’s reception in the grounds of Crawford’s residence in a leafy part of Belgrade ahead of the first leg.

There wasn’t any Ferrero Rochers, but the travelling United fans were spoiled by the ambassador ahead of that night’s game at the Partizan Stadium.

However, it had been a very different story at a city centre hotel a few hours earlier, where "Tarts As You Wish" and "Vol au Vent with Brains" were on a badly-translated English language menu.

It was a lock-in, and not a good one.

Miles' Memories.

Early that morning, 108 Newcastle fans had flown to the city on a Toon Travel charter flight. They’d been met at the airport by riot police, and had been bussed into the city under escort. I was among them, having been sent to Serbia to write a fans-eye piece.

After a long wait to exchange vouchers for match tickets at another hotel, we were stopped from leaving our hotel by heavily-armed police. For around three hours.

Outside, temperatures were soaring. It was a beautiful day. However, in the small restaurant and bar area, things were reaching boiling point. Fans had imagined a leisurely day exploring the city – and it’s bars and cafes – after making the long journey from Tyneside, but they hadn’t reckoned with a police commander locking them in a hotel “for their own safety”.

It was explained by a flustered tourist guide that 10,000 Partizan fans were massed nearby, and the lock-in was to avoid any clashes. Partizan, it was claimed, were fearful of being fined by UEFA, or even being thrown out of the competition, if there was any trouble following previous incidents.

Newcastle United fans a the British Ambassador's residence in Belgrade in 2003.

However, a handful of fans who managed to get out before the lock-in told a different story. There was no trouble.

Some supporters tried to find a fire escape, but, worryingly, there wasn’t one. Another fan tried to set off a fire alarm to get the hotel evacuated, but, more worryingly, it didn’t work. Thankfully, there wasn’t a real fire.

So fans were left to drink, and sweat, in the hotel bar area, which wasn’t air conditioned.

Calls were made to the Foreign Office as I filed a story for a later edition of my newspaper, and things, slowly, started happening. The British Embassy became involved, and Crawford – who had been enjoying a day off ahead of the match – was given permission to host the plane-load of fans at his residence after some high-level diplomacy.

Sir Bobby Robson and Partian Belgrade manager Lothar Matthaus in Belgrade.

They were greeted by Crawford and his family, just as then-Newcastle manager Sir Bobby Robson and then-chairman Freddy Shepherd had been the day before. The police stayed off what was technically British soil and waited outside the compound.

Ice-cold beers and drinks were waiting for them on a sunny terrace, and some fans had an impromptu game of football in the garden.

After a pleasant couple of hours, Crawford waved us on our way to the match, which was won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Nolberto Solano. Shay Given and Jonathan Woodgate had been outstanding for Robson’s side in front of a 32,500 crowd.

And those feared Partizan fans? They massed, in their own team’s black and white shirts, behind riot police at the stadium when Newcastle’s supporters arrived – and applauded them. No trouble.

“Geordies, at the embassy” was sung in the away end at the stadium by fans, who got to explore the city, which still showed visible signs of the NATO bombing of 1999, the following day.

That pre-match drink – and that goal – was as good as it got for United in the Champions League that season. Robson’s team were beaten by the same scoreline in the home leg – and lost on penalties.

Newcastle United players look dejected after Aaron Hughes misses his penalty during the Champions League defeat to Partizan Belgrade at St James's Park.

“Everyone’s quite distraught to be honest,” said the late, great Sir Bobby after the game. "But we've got to soldier on, pick ourselves up. We're in the UEFA Cup, and we just hope that we can give our supporters something to be thrilled about and shout about.

"I know how they feel, but nobody out there feels worse than we do. But we are in the UEFA Cup and we'll have a go at that.”

Robson’s team did just that. There were two jaunts to Holland, and trips to Switzerland, Norway, Spain and France, in the UEFA Cup that season. The club’s long run in the competition was finally ended at the semi-final stage in May by two goals from Olympique Marseille’s Didier Drogba at the stunning Stade Velodrome.

It was a memorable campaign in Europe, though the end was painful given how close the club seemingly was to silverware.

Newcastle fans really were spoilt in those days.

Read the first instalment of Miles’ Memories here