Sir Bobby Robson and John Carver headed out of the San Siro tunnel and looked up to their right. What they saw was stunning and awe-inspiring in equal measure. Both men were left speechless.
They were met by a wall of black and white behind the goal. Robson, the Newcastle United manager about to lead his team into battle against Internazionale in the Champions League, turned to his assistant and gawped. All they could do was drink in what they were looking at.
More than 12,000 supporters had followed a team for what was a crucial tie in the second group phase of the competition and the picture felt like it stretched for miles.
After two defeats and two victories in their previous four matches, the Magpies knew the result in Milan was absolutely crucial to their hopes of reaching the knockout stages. But that March evening in 2003 was about much more than adding to what was already a magical journey.
There had been a development in team spirit across the European campaign, but it gave supporters a chance to take their love for the club to the next level. The atmosphere had been steadily building in the city over the day or so before. It may have been a must-win match, but there was no tension in the air. There was a party to be had and that feeling really fed into what would end up being an incredibly memorable match.
Such a cacophony of noise was unique to that stadium, those steep, ageing tiers are soaked in tradition and the sounds hit different to almost anywhere else. It was hostile and it was magical, just being there was a marker for where Robson had taken Newcastle.
Earlier in the campaign, the Magpies had already beaten Juventus back at St James’s Park and won away at Feyenoord to reach the next round in such a way that scriptwriters could scarcely conjure up. They were hardly going to let this occasion pass them by without taking stock of their surroundings. Newcastle were walking on the turf of legends. They had to stand tall.
It was equally important to show they belonged, though. For obvious reasons, their second group was markedly more difficult than the first. Newcastle were near novices at the elite level — playing there only once before, five years earlier — and many of their younger players, who Robson had entrusted and built around, certainly hadn’t experienced anything like it. His team had to learn on the job, and they did it spectacularly, becoming the first team ever to lose their first three group games, against Dynamo Kyiv, Feyenoord and then Juventus, and still qualify.
But there was no hiding place and no time to catch up this time. Inter had already coasted to victory at St James’s 4-1, before defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou and back-to-back wins over the previous year’s beaten finalists Bayer Leverkusen. Defeat would put Newcastle out. But regardless of the result, there were thousands of travelling supporters desperate to to make the most of the occasion.
On the pitch and in the stands, Newcastle played their part. Carver says they were robbed and, in typical fashion, spent much of the night remonstrating with officials.
Hamstrung without captain and talisman Alan Shearer, as well as Craig Bellamy for much of the second phase after both were banned for run-ins with Inter defenders Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi on Tyneside, Robson was glad to reinstate both together. Shearer had returned to score a hat-trick against Leverkusen and was crucial in Italy, too, twice giving the visitors the lead.
On each occasion, Inter hit back and the roar which met the goals from Christian Vieri and Ivan Cordoba was deafening. But it wasn’t enough to gain control of the game for Hector Cuper’s team, who were constantly chasing and constantly rattled, from the moment Nolberto Solano crashed and effort against the after just four minutes. Unlike their last meeting in the previous November, Newcastle kept their composure and their discipline. They were a different beast: again, they had learned.
The meat on the bones of the match happened within five minutes either side of half time. Bellamy crossed for an outstretched Shearer to give Newcastle the lead at the break, before Vieri levelled on 47 minutes.
Almost instantly, Shearer’s second went in, yards away from an explosion of joy from the euphoric away fans who suddenly made themselves heard louder than ever, even before kick-off. Cordoba’s leveller just past the hour, while almost certainly condemning Newcastle to elimination given the added context of them chasing their final game at home to Barcelona, who ran out comfortable winners, didn’t rain on the parade.
Robson admitted his side should have won at the San Siro. Not even three years earlier, Newcastle were on the brink of combustion before the former England boss arrived, so disappointment was served with a huge helping of perspective. This wasn’t even their peak, more accurately the latest in a line of highlights in a glittering, but criminally under-appreciated period of time.
Newcastle United in their current guise are a circus, lurching from misery to disaster and constantly walking the tightrope over a crisis. Robson’s team was every bit as chaotic, every bit as newsworthy and every bit as captivating, but for the right reasons. They wanted to win and win in style, embodying their manager’s trademark enthusiasm and energy; his years of experience blended perfectly with the youth and exuberance in his squad.
That night will never be forgotten, not just for the result or even the performance, but for the fact that they inspired fans to overflow into Milan and pack out that stand behind the goal. The club belonged on that stage and Robson made it happen. There is no intent or quality left nowadays to inspire a repeat. Those days may never return, but they stand as a reminder of what Newcastle could, and should, be all about.
Black and White Knight: ‘How Sir Bobby Robson made Newcastle United again’ is out with Pitch Publishing on 15 March.