As part of the Chronicle’s End of the Decade series, we’re marking the turbulent 2010s in black and white.
We’ve run the Team and Players of the decade, Lee Ryder’s view on 10 years of Mike Ashley and we’ll be carrying more articles with insight into a tumultuous period, with interviews, opinion and analysis all lined up.
We’ll also be re-publishing some of our favourite articles on the big moments of the decade. After re-running the inside story of the 4-4 draw with Arsenal, we’re turning our attention to the nearly season in the Europa League.
There are 75 seconds left on the clock. Eight months’ work is in the balance at a febrile St James’ Park as Moussa Sissoko digs the ball from underneath his feet and tees up Yohan Cabaye.
Newcastle’s metronome looks up and plays the sort of crisp, instinctive long-range pass that is his speciality. It gets United back on the front foot and Hatem Ben Arfa – the most mercurial of their forwards – back on the ball. He advances on Benfica’s young Paraguayan midfielder Lorenzo Melgarejo – pushed back to stem the black and white tide – turning him with a wonderful sleight of foot before drawing back his left boot.
Newcastle are one goal away from the semi-finals of the Europa League: it is a Sliding Doors moment in a Sliding Doors season. If the ball dips a few yards under the crossbar, momentum swings one way. Instead the pendulum swings another. Two minutes later, Benfica score.
It is, and will probably remain for the foreseeable future, the closest Newcastle have come to silverware in the Mike Ashley era. But few would have imagined quite how profoundly that season – and that moment – would change the course of the club forever.
If the 2011/12 season was Alan Pardew’s The Stone Roses season, 2012/13 was his Second Coming. Pardew’s first full campaign in charge had been a wonderful, against-the-odds journey to the cusp of the Champions League but the following year was football’s equivalent of the difficult second album. And it began at the very moment the garlands were being handed out to the Newcastle manager for the remarkable feat of delivering a fifth-placed finish for a remodelled team that had spent the summer in turmoil and was tipped by many to struggle.
In the chairman’s suite, as Newcastle shouted lunch for their media staff and journalists as part of their end of season debrief, the mood was punctured by the noises coming from the boardroom. Mike Ashley hadn’t seen it as quite the success others did and having been persuaded to take a £10million punt on Papiss Cisse by Derek Llambias, he was less than impressed with the reward of a Europa League place.
He’d been sold the idea that Cisse would nudge Newcastle – who needed added impetus at Christmas in 2012 – into Champions League contention. But United had shot for the stars and missed. Fifth place meant participation in Europa League: negligible prize money, more games, a proven detrimental impact on Premier League positions. Far from speculating to accumulate, the spend on Cisse had created the need for further investment to cope with the Europa League. Ashley was not happy with Llambias.
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And it showed in the summer that followed. Transfer meetings were strained: the Cisse buy was Newcastle spending the money set aside for the summer. There was to be no substantial fresh investment and Pardew, perhaps bouyed by his success in 2011/12, hatched a plan to utilise Newcastle’s young players in the Cup competitions to manage the burden of playing three times in a week.
United had a crop of players bubbling under the first team who had impressed in flashes – Haris Vuckic, Sammy Ameobi, the troubled Nile Ranger – and Pardew told Ashley that the Europa League could be their testing ground. Investment amounted to signing Vurnon Anita and young Gael Bigirimana. Ashley’s version of backing the club was to resist offers for their star players.
But in the dressing room, there was a sense of a real missed opportunity. Steven Taylor, speaking to the Chronicle from New Zealand, takes up the story: “That was our chance to really kick on and I think we all felt we’d done our part by doing so well the previous season.
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“We were a proper team in the 2011/12 season: strong, powerful and with really good players in it. You look at us going to Chelsea right at the end of that season and they looked at our team and changed the way they played because they were scared of what we could do to them. I couldn’t believe it. Their formation was to try and stop us from playing. That’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge with all the players they had.
“And the best thing was they couldn’t do it because we had too much for them. When was the last time teams were really afraid of a Newcastle side? But we had it that year. It just needed adding to and we could have really gone on.”
Mike Williamson concurs. “It was an incredible season, really, in Europe but it was just a shame the form in the league was so disappointing but it was always going to be that way I think.
“That’s where some of the frustration probably came from with the lack of investment after the 5th-placed season. We’d finished fifth, we knew the next season was going to be difficult and I think we hoped for a bit of investment but nothing really came at that point.
When I spoke to Shola Ameobi about the season, he struggled to recall too many specifics. But he chuckled as he recalled: “Wait, wasn’t that the season where the owner didn’t want us to be in the Europa League?”
Goalkeeper Steve Harper (L) speaks to owner Mike Ashley (M), Alan Pardew (CR) and Managing Director Derek Llambias (R)
Going through the group stages:
Ashley may not have wanted it but for lifelong fan Thomas Concannon, Newcastle’s return to European competition was a chance not to be missed. In his 20s, unsure of how regular United’s presence in Europe would be, he made a pledge when United landed Atromitos in the final qualifying round.
“Obviously it was the first time in Europe for a few years and the first time I could do it properly so I thought to myself ‘I’ve got to do all of these games’,” he said.
Athens was a few hundred pounds: it was boiling hot (“Red hot,” recalls Concannon) and the beer was cold. Pardew pulled a team together from the fringes of the first team and sprinkled one or two of the players who had featured in an opening day defeat of Spurs in. The Peristeri Stadium was roasting and Newcastle toiled to a 1-1 draw.
“I didn’t think, at that point, that we were going to get very far,” Concannon remembers. Anyone who watched the home leg – a laboured 1-0 win, courtesy of a Vuckic goal – might have concurred but the victory was enough to take Newcastle into the group stages, where they pulled three fantastic trips to Bordeaux, Bruges and Maritimo.
Thomas Concannon meets the Greek Toon Army before the Atromitos match
“You couldn’t have asked for much more from a fan’s point of view,” Concannon says. “They were brilliant trips and to be honest, it was just the football sometimes that was a bit of a regret because we were playing reserve teams for the most part in that group and you were paying all this money to see players who couldn’t get a game in the Premier League.”
The irony is, Newcastle’s fringe men were starting to steal the show. For all the struggles in the Premier League, they were sparkling in their flourescent yellow European kit.
“League form was disappointing and I think the lads maybe had that expectation on them from the fifth place season,” Williamson recalls.
“But no-one really expected us to do much in Europe and the pressure was off. I remember we played Bordeaux and everything came together and we won 3-0 under the lights and it was a great game. I thought that was the moment we’d cracked it and the season would come together.”
In October, 7,000 fans headed to Bruges on planes, cars and ferries. They drank the city dry: the home side constructed a fan zone after restricting United to just 1,500 tickets. It felt like an occasion. “We took the city over,” Concannon says.
Newcastle players were starting to enjoy it too. “I’ve always loved those European trips,” Taylor says. “For some reason the fans are louder at those games and it just inspires you. You do your pre-match walks through the European city and you’d spot Newcastle fans everywhere coming up to you and saying hello. It’s a great feeling.” United drew 2-2 with Anita scoring an incredible long-range effort. In the press box, a couple of well refreshed United fans had snuck into the home stands and sat next to the Newcastle press corps sweating out the 15% lager they’d sunk in the city centre. Sammy and Shola Ameobi became the first brothers to start a European game together. It was a thoroughly surreal – and enjoyable – experience. Newcastle’s form was starting to pick up; Pardew was beginning to warm to the European trips.
But the cracks were beginning to show: the Newcastle manager had spoken with typical hubris in Bruges about the return of Kevin Nolan to St James’ Park with his new side West Ham the following weekend, saying that he would be warmly welcomed but that the Magpies had “evolved” from the side he was part of. Nolan had a quiet game but so did Newcastle – they lost 1-0 and suffered four successive Premier League defeats before finishing their group with a desperate defeat at Bordeaux.
It was a great away day but an awful performance. Newcastle’s plane was delayed by 24 hours in a snow storm, which meant they missed the pre-match press conference. Pardew said that some of his young players were now in last chance saloon and handed Ranger a start along with Ameobi junior but the latter lasted 45 minutes before the Newcastle boss had seen enough. Sammy – a bubbly character who never refused an interview – walked through the mixed zone afterwards ashen-faced, his Newcastle career effectively over.
In the post-match press conference, Pardew spoke about the transformative potential of the January transfer window. With Premier League status looking under threat and a disenchanted Demba Ba set to leave in the window, Newcastle’s owner was talked into advancing the summer transfer budget by Llambias and Graham Carr. The cavalry was waiting in the form of Sissoko, Mathieu Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Yoan Gouffran . But Ba – such a strident presence in the dressing room – was ready to trigger a clause written into his contract that allowed him to leave for a sum well below his worth. It was only placed in there because Newcastle had secured favourable terms from him in the first place.
It was a hammer blow for the squad: “Demba Ba was the one,” Taylor recalls now. “We needed to keep him and build a team around him. He was a great player and one of those strikers that has that something different about them.
“We had that disappointment of losing Andy Carroll the year before but we were all looking up and starting to think Newcastle was building something. But then we sold our best player and it was a reminder that we were a selling club. I think some of the lads looked at that and thought ‘This club isn’t interested in competing with the best’. It was probably the moment a few heads got turned.”
Nile Ranger of Newcastle United has a shot on goal during the UEFA Europa League group stage match between Girondins de Bordeaux and Newcastle United FC at the Stade Chaban Delmas
Before Newcastle returned to Europe, their form collapsed to the point where Pardew was under the first serious pressure of his United time. A defeat at home to Reading plunged United – who had also lost 7-3 to Arsenal in a crazy game at the Emirates – into relegation trouble. Llambias and Carr headed to France on a cross-Channel trolley dash, setting up an office in a Parisian hotel to secure five players from Ligue 1. A sixth, Loic Remy, slipped away from them when Newcastle flew him into London and agent Willie McKay hawked him to QPR instead. Carr seethed at the complacency that let the Marseille striker go to Loftus Road – and was apopletic that he went on to impress so much for the struggling Rs.
In Europe, different challenges awaited. After the fan-friendly group stages, Newcastle headed to Ukraine to play Metalist Kharkiv. They drew the first leg 0-0 then in front of 500 at the Metalist Stadium, won 1-0 after Ameobi converted a penalty. In the freezing cold, Ameobi was the coolest man in the stadium as he rolled his effort past Aleksandr Goryainov.
Tim Krul was inspired, Newcastle – bouyed by their new recruits, in particular Sissoko – looked bouyant once more.
“I think that and Moscow were the best trips of the run,” Concannon said. “You had two weeks to get Visas for Moscow and Ukraine. It was a stressful two weeks.” And expensive, too – £800 in total. “I stopped looking at my bank balance around that time,” he laughs.
Newcastle United’s Nigerian forward Shola Ameobi (L) pokes out his tongue as he celebrates his goal against FC Metalist Kharkiv during their UEFA Europa League, Round of 32
It was Moscow in the next round as Newcastle drew big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala. They had spent tens of millions assembling a side that included Samuel Et’o and Willian and Guus Hiddink had overseen a defeat of Liverpool earlier in the competition. United were huge underdogs.
The first leg was played on a plastic pitch. Newcastle had sent Peter Beardsley out to scout the stadium, asking him to note the way the ball would bounce – but it was Newcastle who proved more adept at rolling with the punches as they turned in an excellent battling performance. “I fancy us against anyone at home,” Pardew said. “This is an optimum competition for us.”
St James’ Park was tense for the return leg. There was nothing between the sides over 180 minutes but in the third minute of stoppage time, Sylvain Marveaux swung a cross into the Anzhi penalty area and Cisse nodded home. It was an incredibly accomplished display from a Newcastle side growing into the competition. St James’ Park erupted.
“That was the loudest I’ve ever heard St James’ Park,” Taylor recalls. “I remember in the dressing room afterwards there were lads saying ‘We can win this competition you know, we can win it.’”
Cisse kicked the advertising hoardings, Taylor – who was waiting behind him to head the winner if the cross had been an inch higher – roared himself hoarse behind the striker. It was a moment for the ages.
Papiss Cisse of Newcastle United scores the only goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 second leg match between Newcastle United FC and FC Anji Makhachkala
Of the eight teams left, Newcastle were one of three English sides. They were alongside European royalty in the draw for the quarter-finals: Fenerbahce, Lazio, Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea, Spurs and Benfica were possible opponents. The players crowded into the training ground canteen to watch the draw and there were cheers when they were sent to Lisbon for the first leg. “We didn’t just think we could win it, we expected to win it,” Taylor remembers.
Pardew caused something of a diplomatic incident in the pre-match press conference at the Estadio da Luz, claiming Benfica would be “between eighth and tenth” in the Premier League if they subjected to the rigours of English football week in, week out. “Estas Feito o Bife!” the local Record newspaper screamed – loosely translated as “burned steak”, a local saying which means, more or less, “you’re done”.
In the cacophonous Benfica bowl it looked like they might be. Newcastle made a dream start when Cisse scored on 12 minutes but as the game wore on, they did not have the answers to the smart movement of Oscar Cardozo, Nicolas Gaitan and Rodrigo. They went down 3-1 as the hosts added United to a list of vanquished foes that included champions-elect Manchester United.
At home, Pardew faced a dilemma. Newcastle’s biggest European test since the days of Sir Bobby Robson fell three days before a Tyne-Wear derby with Sunderland: roll the dice and go for it in Europe or protect regional bragging rights? In the end he hedged his bets – and came agonisingly close against Benfica.
Once again, it was Cisse who scored for Newcastle on 70 minutes, heading home after Ameobi’s dogged determination fashioned the chance. The away goal smuggled out of Lisbon meant Newcastle were just a goal from the last four of a major European competition. Anticipation tingled. When Ben Arfa opened up Benfica, it felt like United were about to deliver – but the chance flashed over the bar. After the chance Pardew stood on the sidelines in anguish. He knew what had gone begging.
I asked him if he’d like to share some memories of the run and he declined a full interview. “I can’t seem to ever win with the fans up there – as hard as I tried when in the job,” he said.
But he did provide a quote: “My only comment is regret that Hatem Ben Arfa did not score when he cut in on his brilliant left foot when we were leading. I think he would normally score from that position 8 out of 10 times.
Papiss Cisse races back to the centre circle with the ball after scoring for Newcastle United
“I think if he had scored with our fans’ momentum we could have gone on to make the final for sure and then history could have been very different. The players deserved, over the two legs and our run in that competition, to have had a chance against Chelsea.”
Newcastle’s season was summed up the following weekend when Sunderland beat United 3-0. Pardew made a jibe about the Black Cats’ lack of European pedigree in the post-match press conference while Paolo Di Canio spoke of seeing his dead mother’s spirit in the run-up to the match. It was a unfairly unjust end to a great run.
But not everyone shares such happy memories of it. For Ameobi, it prompts frustration. “I remember that was an exciting run but things weren’t so good in the league, were they? We just didn’t have enough players to be able to cope with both,” he said
“I think for me I remember that as being a frustrating season because obviously you get to the quarter-finals but then didn’t put on our best foot forward in terms of not quite put out our best team in the two matches, if I remember rightly.
“That was really frustrating for me if I’m being honest because when what you’re about as a player it’s all about trying to win a trophy, especially when the club hasn’t done it for so long.
“I do remember the players doing well but it almost felt like we were hamstrung by the powers above that season.”
He sees Newcastle’s Sliding Doors moment in 12/13 as a warning for the future.
“It’s been the cycle at Newcastle in recent seasons. We get to a certain point and then things don’t quite materialise for whatever reason and then it’s almost as if you have to start again. That’s been the frustration for fans as well, there hasn’t been that consistency in terms of signing players and building something; signing the players and that’s why it’s so important that we get a manager here who understands how to build.”
Hatem Ben Arfa drives at the Benfica defence
Newcastle’s derby defeat was not the nadir. They were humbled 6-0 by Liverpool at St James’ Park and dangled on the edge of a serious relegation fight. A draw at West Ham teed up a must-win fixture at QPR, played out against accusations that the French core of the dressing room were causing problems.
Rangers were already relegated but Remy opened the scoring for the home side. Newcastle won 2-1, playing the last nine minutes with just ten men after Rob Elliot was sent off. Pardew, overcome with relief, said that he was thankful they weren’t in Europe again the following year. Fans were not happy at the lack of ambition that comment suggested; the momentum of the previous season was now in danger of curdling into toxicity.
Play-off round: Atromitos (W) 2-1 aggregate
Group stages: Bordeaux (H) 3-0; Maritimo (H) 1-1; Club Brugges (H) 1-0; Bordeaux (A) 0-2; Maritimo (A) 1-1; Club Brugges (A) 2-2.
Round of 32: Metalist (W) 1-0 aggregate
Round of 16: Anzhi (W) 1-0 aggregate
Quarter-finals: Benfica (L) 4-2 aggregate
It is Newcastle’s only participation in the Europa League in its current, bloated format and the last time they played in Europe. They’ve not come close since.
Having looked like a club on the up 12 months previously, Ashley decided to take matters into his own hands. His response to the disappointment of the season was the single most damaging thing he could have done: handing Joe Kinnear a director of football role that he was desperately ill-equipped for. He gathered Llambias and Carr at his local, the Orange Tree pub in Totteridge, to deliver the news. Llambias followed Carr to the toilets after Ashley had told them and asked him whether he could believe it.
Newcastle owner Mike Ashley (l) and Joe Kinnear
One man left, Carr tendered his resignation but was talked out of it. Pardew saw a way to drive a wedge between influential Chief Scout and the owner. It was a mess: top clubs don’t do business over a pint and especially not when the situation needed a sober analysis of what was going wrong.
Arguably, Ashley – who had just about recovered ground ceded over the Kevin Keegan fiasco – was now fatally wounded in the eyes of Newcastle fans. From being the club everyone wanted to emulate in 2011/12, they were a laughing stock 12 months later as Kinnear took to the national airwaves to mispronounce player’s names and make a series of wild claims.
A new chapter in the Ashley era began but the potential to break into the upper echelon of English football – which was tantalisingly close in 2012 – has never returned. They finished above Spurs that year and had an opportunity to build. Newcastle missed it.
The final word goes to Ameobi: “For that to change you have to have stability and you have to have an owner who wants to do it. There’s so many intangibles that have to work but it can be done for a club of Newcastle’s size. It’s a realistic aspiration.”
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