We need to talk about Partizan Belgrade

Newcastle Partizan Belgrade Champions League

We have a lovely little guest post from Championship Manager 97/98 legend and Newcastle fan David Black for you today…

It has been 20 years since Newcastle United last played a Champions League game but that drought will be ended in September. Whilst it seemed inevitable that at some point after becoming the world’s richest club we would have the opportunity to grace Europe’s elite club competition, few of us expected our assault on the top 4 to come to fruition so soon. To fully appreciate what this means though, we need to revisit one of the darkest hours in the club’s recent history. We need to talk about Partizan Belgrade.

The Champions League looks very different now to how it did on our last adventure. Our last game in the competition proper came on March 19th 2003 but nothing highlights the evolution of the tournament that the fixture was a “second group stage” loss to Barcelona. Many of you reading will be well aware of this lunacy but for younger readers, the Champions League proper had 32 teams (as it does now) but the 16 qualifiers were then placed into four groups of four teams, with the top 2 in each group advancing to the knockout round. The format of the Champions League is due to change again in a couple of seasons so please know the people in charge have always like messing about with a format that seemingly works.

It was also a requirement that 3rd and 4th place in the Premier League would have to play a qualifying round to be afforded their place in the first group stage. It was here that Newcastle suffered probably the biggest “sliding doors” moment of the Bobby Robson era as a punishing penalty shootout defeat to Partizan Belgrade in August 2003 would deny us a seat at Europe’s top table and instead consign us to Thursday night frolics in the UEFA Cup. I should point out that the semi-final run we had in the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) was not without some great moments but the nature of Thursday-Sunday has messed up English teams for many years and certainly played a part in a frustrating campaign where we finished 5th, ultimately hastening the exit of Sir Bobby Robson and gave us a season of Thursday night European action with Graeme Souness at the helm. From there, the decline felt irreversible.

It had been going so well. The lads had gone to Belgrade and won, Nobby Solano getting the vital away goal and the brilliance of Given and Woodgate helping us to a clean sheet. Even without Craig Bellamy for the return leg, our home form had seen us lose only twice in the league the previous campaign and even see off the mighty Juventus under the St James’ Park lights. It seemed a formality that we’d be in the group stages.

Unfortunately, it seemed everybody thought that, from the players on the pitch to the fans in the stands and pubs. A complacent performance coupled with a disciplined Partizan display saw us struggle to score that nerve-settling opening goal and just after halftime, we were made to pay with an aggregate equaliser. We were second best everywhere on the night, borderline shambolic at times and in the end penalties were a mercy. Our first three takers – Shearer, Dyer and Woodgate, all missed, which sums up the evening. The fact we battled back to “match point” in the shootout and still lost is typical Newcastle, they scored to stay in it, Aaron Hughes blazed over and Partizan won it. The sight of Laurent Robert taking his boots off before the shootout infuriated many, but those chickens would come home to roost later in the season.

It didn’t help that this was the year the Champions League became so much more accessible. For years, ITV had carried one live game per week plus a highlights package but the 03/04 season saw Sky pick up the rights to show every game live, signalling an end to the weeks where we weren’t the main game and our matches were scurried away on ITV2 if we were lucky or Granada plus if we were really scraping the barrel. We’d see none of the benefit of that but would of course have the constant reminder that it should have been us.

Thankfully there’s no such banana skin now and English sides are afforded a direct passage to the group stage for reasons I don’t really know but am in support of. The point I’m trying to make though is that the Newcastle side of 2003 were really bloody good and more established than today’s version. In both 01/02 and 02/03, they made legitimate title challenges that ran out of steam in the last quarter of the season. Sir Bobby was a respected figurehead and the side was a tremendous mix of veterans like Alan Shearer, Shay Given and Gary Speed with highly rated youngsters like Craig Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, Hugo Viana and Jermaine Jenas. We should have been set fair for years to come but one bad 90 minutes saw two seasons of good work evaporate. Abramovich came along and made Chelsea a superpower and although they would undoubtedly have engulfed us over time, we gave them a helping hand that night and sped the process along.

There’s no doubt we are better equipped now to keep our place for years to come but if 6 into 4 didn’t go, 7 (at least!) certainly doesn’t. It is unlikely that Chelsea and Liverpool will have as poor seasons this time around. It’s also not impossible that somebody like Aston Villa, who have impressive financial clout themselves and seem to have a good thing going with Unai Emery, could “do a Newcastle” and make a stab at the top four in seasons to come. I don’t want to be a harbinger of doom by any means, but if you’d told 15-year-old me after that Barcelona game how long we’d have to wait for another try, I’d not have believed you. There is very little margin for error and so if you’re a Newcastle fan, I urge you to enjoy every single second of our Champions League campaign next season. You just don’t know when we’ll get another crack at it. I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting Thursday’s draw.

It will though be nice to scratch that 20-year itch and perhaps never think about that night against Partizan Belgrade ever again.

You can catch up with all of Dave’s CM97/98 shenanigans here.