This feature originally appeared on the Set Pieces…
Like gladiators being led to the Colosseum, the Newcastle United team coach snaked its way through the vociferous crowds towards the San Siro.
Flares were lit, smoke plumed from the side of the road and contorted faces met the bus’s every move as the Magpies’ contingent edged closer towards one of the most intimidating stadiums in Europe.
On a battleground where the likes of Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Giacinto Facchetti have won many wars, the Toon Army was preparing to meet Internazionale in the second knockout round of the 2002/03 Champions League.
Despite completing a comprehensive double over 2002 finalists Bayer Leverkusen, home defeat against the Nerazzurri and another of world football’s superpowers, Barcelona, left Sir Bobby Robson’s side needing a win in Italy’s second city to avoid elimination.
The former England manager had put together a vibrant side with the youthful exuberance of Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas and Craig Bellamy blending with the steely experience offered by Alan Shearer and Gary Speed.
Young French full back Olivier Bernard had broken into the United first-team squad during the previous season and became a more permanent figure in Robson’s thinking as his side prepared to take on European football’s elite. Bernard, now 40 and still living in the north-east, admits memories of the approach to the San Siro still remain vivid 17 years on.
“It was nerve-racking and it was a quiet bus on the way into the stadium,” he recalls. “It was one of the first times when I remember being intimidated on the way to the stadium from the hotel. We knew we were in for a difficult night.
“All of the way to the stadium, there was chanting and there were flares, so it was intimidating. The warm-up was sensational because the tifo was out and you could feel it was a special night. When you’re a player, you want to play in that type of stadium and it was a night I won’t ever forget.”
As the match wore on, a few other items would cascade from the upper tiers. Flares and glass bottles filled with urine caused a number of injuries as they landed among the visiting supporters.
But their enthusiasm and vocal backing was unwavering as they attempted to make themselves heard above the din being created by the Inter faithful. Somehow, they managed to do so and it left a big impact on Bernard.
“That was the night I understood exactly what Newcastle United means to them [the supporters],” he explains. “We had so much support and we could hear them over the Italians. It was the best night I had in terms of support. I don’t know how many Newcastle fans were there, but all you could hear was them. They made us want to perform, they made us want to give them something back. We knew we had to get something for them.”
Despite Newcastle’s surprise fourth-place finish in the previous season’s Premier League being built on a new-found energy provided by the pacy Bellamy and Laurent Robert, it was the know-how of Robson and the brawn of Shearer and Speed that benefited the Magpies in such a testing environment. It was the latter of the trio that Bernard believes had the greatest impact on him and his young teammates.
“Every time I talk about Gary Speed, I say he was my mentor,” Bernard says. “He gave me freedom to go and support Laurent Robert higher up the pitch because he said he would sit and look out for me.
“Alan [Shearer] was very professional in the dressing room. We all looked up to him and he encouraged us, but the leader in there was Gary Speed. Tactically and technically, he was powerful for us and he was powerful on that night. Everyone respected him.”
In an Inter side containing established internationals including Iván Córdoba, Javier Zanetti and Christian Vieri, it was Portuguese star Sérgio Conceição who would provide the severest test for Bernard.
The contest between the duo was one of the highlights of the night and they tussled in every corner of the pitch in a battle Bernard revealed he tried to make ‘personal’.
“Bobby had made a video on their two wingers and he made me aware just how difficult the night would be,” Bernard says. “But he gave me belief that I was ready. I made it personal against him [Conceição], that was my main focus. He was the main outlet for them, every attack went through him and he was running it. It was always going to be a tough test – so for me, the pressure was on.
“It was almost perfect for me. He started going down very easily. I’m not saying I didn’t foul him at times, but he was going down quickly.”
— AwayDaysBible (@Awaydaysbible_) January 25, 2018
Bernard’s dogged and determined performance was replicated by his teammates as they battled against the odds with an Inter side that would finish the season as runners-up to Juventus in Serie A. The Magpies took a surprise lead just moments before half-time when the lively Bellamy danced past a desperate challenge from Andrés Guglielminpietro before delivering an inch-perfect cross for Shearer to slide into the net from close range.
The goal provoked a furious reaction from the Interisti as the United players made their way to take in some wise words from Robson.
“There was a big amount of booing at half-time because Alan had put us ahead,” Bernard continues. “They hadn’t enjoyed the first half and I believe we were in control throughout the game. We scored and that quietened down the stadium, until half-time when they were aggressive towards their own players.
“Bobby said we were in the game and that we had done well so far. He asked us to be sharp, very sharp for 15 minutes after half-time. He said ‘trust me, if we get that 15 minutes, we won’t lose that game’. The belief was there because of Bobby.”
But the advice was not heeded as Inter got back on level terms within two minutes of the restart when Italian international Vieri sublimely guided a header beyond Shay Given. To the surprise of many, including themselves, Newcastle got back in front less than two minutes later when Shearer pounced to fire home after Francesco Toldo had spilled a cross from Robert.
“We felt like we were the better side, even when they equalised,” admits Bernard. “After we got back in front, we got a bit scared and we dropped further and further back. It was like we said, ‘oh we have scored – s**t!’. We almost scored too soon after their equaliser. We didn’t think about trying to get a third goal.”
A third goal never arrived, despite the best efforts of the mercurial Nolberto Solano and Shearer, who was chasing a hat-trick. Inter upped the pressure and deservedly grabbed an equaliser on the hour when Córdoba belied his relatively small stature to rise above Speed and power a header into the far corner of Given’s net. An explosion of noise reverberated around the San Siro and flares and bottles rained down once more on the travelling faithful in the Curva Sud.
Both sides had chances to sneak what would have been an undeserved win, no matter who had grabbed the decisive goal. That couldn’t stop the pride beaming out of a visibly delighted Robson as he addressed his players in the San Siro’s away dressing room.
“Bobby was very pleased,” Bernard adds. “He said we’d done well, but we should have done better. He said he was delighted with our desire and that he was excited for the future because we were a young team.
“We came away disappointed; we were proud to have taken a point, but we sat in the dressing room and we felt we had f****d it up. We could have been further ahead, but we put it down to experience. Coming home, we settled down and thought we had matched one of the best teams in Europe and it was a fantastic feeling.”
Newcastle’s youngsters would see their Champions League adventure come to an end with a 2-0 home defeat against Barcelona eight days later. It would be the last time the club appeared in Europe’s elite competition. But while the yawning 17-year wait for another Magpies side to grace that stage shows no sign of ending, no Toon fan will ever forget the night they laid siege on Milan’s famous amphitheatre.
For more features like this and to follow the new, rebooted Football Manager project, visit The Set Pieces…