The sizeable Newcastle United bar bill signed off by Derek Llambias which kicked off a memorable European campaign
Writer Miles Starforth has reported on Newcastle United for 20 years. This is the latest in a series of recollections and anecdotes from his time covering the club.
The view was extraordinary. In the distance was the Acropolis, which was lit up on a balmy August evening in Athens, the Greek capital.
The following night Newcastle United were to take on Atromitos in the Europa League.
Alan Pardew, the club’s manager at the time, had invited the travelling journalists for drinks at the team’s hotel, which had a rooftop bar.
Pardew stayed for a while, then left us all to it. The bar tab, however, stayed open until late – and a club official had to explain the sizeable bill to then-managing director Derek Llambias the following day.
Newcastle got what would turn out to be a memorable European campaign up and running with a 1-1 draw at a stifling Peristeri Stadium.
Newcastle – who went to France, Portugal, Ukraine and Russia that season – were narrowly beaten at the quarter-final stage by Benfica, a team Pardew had suggested would be mid-table in the Premier League.
That comment provoked a backlash in the Portuguese press before the game, with one newspaper labelling Pardew as “burnt steak”.
Pardew had his critics during his time at United, but he did something that no other manager under Ashley has done, which is to take the club into Europe. Sadly, Newcastle, the 1969 Fairs Cup winners, haven’t been close to qualifying since then.
European football had been a private aim of Pardew early on at United. He invited a handful of journalists to the training ground in his first season on Tyneside, and, in an off-the-record chat, mapped out a possible route to Europe.
Newcastle didn’t make it, though qualification did come a year later. The 2011/12 campaign didn’t have the best of starts – everything that could go wrong seemingly went wrong during a pre-season tour of the USA – but the season had a strong finish, and United ended the campaign in fifth place, narrowly missing out on Champions League football.
Steve Bruce, the club’s head coach, hasn’t spoken too much about Europe since taking charge last year, but he did pledge to attack the domestic cups soon after succeeding Rafa Benitez at St James’s Park.
TV pundit Mark Lawrenson last week angered Newcastle fans with a flippant comment about them only being happy with a Champions League-winning team. That, of course, is nonsense.
However, Europa League football should be the minimum aim for a club which has played 134 ties against European opposition. Tellingly, only 14 of those ties have come under Ashley’s ownership.
Bruce, 16 months into his time at Newcastle, still has to win over many fans, despite guiding the team to a 13th-placed finish – and the quarter-finals of the FA Cup – last season.
My view is that European football should be the aim as much as the domestic cups, and many supporters believe that Bruce has a squad, improved with the summer arrivals of Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis, capable of challenging higher up the Premier League.
United have had many unforgettable European ties over the past two decades, and I’ve been fortunate to have reported on many of them, though my first experience of a game on the continent didn’t come from a press box.
I was one of 5,000 fans on a crumbling away terrace at Royal Antwerp’s Bosuilstadion Stadium in 1994. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle famously won 5-0 thanks to a hat-trick of headers from Rob Lee
There have been a few nights to match that one, notably a 3-2 win over Feyenoord at De Kuip 18 years ago yesterday which saw the club, brilliantly led by the late, great Sir Bobby Robson, qualify for the second group stage of the Champions League.
I had been sent to Holland to write a piece from the away end, which was filled by fans, many of whom had been drinking and smoking in Amsterdam that day. I wonder if some of them can remember a much about one of the club’s most memorable European nights.
Craig Bellamy – who scored a dramatic 90th-minute winner at De Kuip – was sent off in the club’s next Champions League game, a home fixture against Inter Milan. I interviewed him in the mixed zone after a disappointing 4-1 defeat.
Bellamy was always an engaging, and honest, interviewee, and he was typically blunt after angrily reacting to provocation from Marco Materazzi.
“I've let my team-mates down, I've let the manager down, I've let the fans down, but most of all, I've let myself down, and I'm feeling really low,” said the striker.
There were more highs that season. Around 12,000 Newcastle fans were inside the San Siro for the away game against Inter, who were held to a 2-2 draw.
The trips, of course, aren’t just about the games. Fans have travelled all over the continent since that trip to Antwerp, and they’ve seen, and experienced, a lot.
The rained-off Champions game away to Barcelona stands out – Shola Ameobi scored at the Nou Camp 24 hours later after the fixture was put back – as does the ambassador’s reception in Belgrade. There was a UEFA Cup semi-final defeat to Olymique Marseille, and a similarly devastating quarter-final defeat to Sporting Lisbon a year later.
More recently, thousands descended on Bruges for a Europa League tie against Club Brugge – and hundreds, some bare chested, braved freezing temperatures in Moscow and Kharkiv.
Fans have missed out on a lot in the Ashley era, and the sooner the club is back in Europe, the better.