Last week marked the eleventh anniversary of the greatest comeback in Premier League history, but just what was it like to be a fan inside St. James’ Park on that memorable afternoon?
When you think about the best match you ever saw your team play, most will probably hark back to a glorious final with a trophy filled happy ending. Or a thrilling, unexpected, against-all-odds victory against a superior opponent. Not many fans who will say that the best match they ever saw was a draw at home to Arsenal, but mine was. You see, I was one of the lucky ones who was at St James’ Park the day Newcastle came back from the dead. Back from a 4-0 half time deficit, to draw 4-4.
It started off as just another a run-of-the-mill rubbish home game on a bloody freezing February afternoon. Forty-four seconds in and it got even colder as Arsenal set out of the traps like a greyhound. Theo Walcott quickly burned off the Newcastle defence before calmly slotting home with not even a minute on the clock. Two minutes later, an unmarked Johan Djourou powered a header home, 2-0. Three minutes gone, good start lads. Before too long Robin van Persie decided to get stuck into the action too, helping himself to a couple from Newcastle’s all-you-score, open defence.
Four-Nil, half an hour gone, game over. And to make matters worse, it was still bloody freezing.
The usual half time discussion with my pals on the St James’ concourse was something along the lines of “Jesus, just how many could Arsenal end up getting today?”, “Reckon this the worst match we’ve ever been too!?”, and “Isn’t it shit that we have to sit through another 45 minutes of this rubbish before we go back to the pub!”
So, as the Arsenal fans serenaded us a chorus of “You might as well go home”, the second half kicked off with zero expectation, damage limitation was the only real priority. It couldn’t have gotten much worse, but at least the home team came out with a lot more purpose and urgency.
Five minutes into the second half, and after a tangle with the universally loved Joey Barton, Abou Diaby attempted some sort of death grip on the Newcastle man and chucked him to the floor. He followed it up with a shove on Kevin Nolan for good measure and the straight red card soon followed. Oh well, that helps our cause a little, I guess.
About quarter of an hour later, after a clumsy foul by Laurent Koscielny, we were awarded a penalty which Barton coolly converted, 1-4. Even with twenty-five minutes left and Arsenal down to ten men, there was still the general belief that the game was over and the goal no more than a consolation.
A few minutes later, and after some sloppy Arsenal defending and more good work from Barton, Leon Best scored, 2-4. Or so we thought. Linesman’s flag was up, Best wrongly called offside. As it was however, a few minutes later, justice was served and Best did score, 2-4, for real now. Fifteen minutes left and this is more like it, it’s still a tall order but they’re rattled, let’s have a go at them, nothing to lose.
Ten minutes later and things started to get really real. Koscielny was adjudged to have pushed Williamson in the box, it was soft, but by that point the Gallowgate couldn’t give a toss. Again, Barton stepped up, and by this point things were getting really bloody nervy – this goes in and we’re in for a mental last five minutes. Brazenly, he goes for the little dink, Wojciech Szczesny gets his foot to it and I nearly have a heart attack. Thankfully it ends up in the roof of the net, 3-4, game on. Suddenly it’s not so cold anymore.
By this point, the place was rocking, and I mean really f***ing rocking. When St. James’ Park is at its loudest, with 52,000 fans going berserk, it truly is something to behold.
With just a couple minutes remaining, Newcastle were awarded a free kick, Arsenal managed to get it partially cleared, but only as far as the edge of the penalty area.
And then it happened.
I can still remember it clear as day, like it’s in slow motion in my mind. By this point the whole stadium had been on their feet since Barton’s second penalty, screaming, praying for the goal to beat all other goals.
I was in the corner at the goal end. I can remember watching the ball loop up off the defender’s head, high into the dark Newcastle sky. As it began to fall, I can remember thinking ‘just fall to a black and white shirt’, I looked down as saw what I was hoping for. I’d have preferred it to fall to Nolan or Barton, but by that point beggars couldn’t be choosers, Tiote would have to do. ‘If you’re going to hit it, just get it on target’ went through my mind.
Then he hit it. Left foot volley, clean as a whistle, and for a split second 52,000 fell silent. It was like something out if a movie. As it nestled in the bottom corner I don’t think have, or will ever again, experience anything like it – sheer unadulterated pandemonium. The sound was unholy, a complete and utter explosion of ecstasy, strangers jumping on top of strangers, groups in arms falling on the floor, all screaming at the top of the lungs. Pure madness.
It nearly got even better. A minute or so later, Nile Ranger cushioned a long ball down to Nolan to hit a wicked half-volley, skimming the post, going just wide. If that had gone in, I think my head may well have fell off.
When it finally came to an end and the final whistle blew, myself and my two mates just looked at each other, words failed us, all three of us knew we’d seen something special that day. Something special that we’d been through it together. No one would ever be able to take those 45 minutes we’d just witnessed away from us.
What many fans of so called ‘big clubs’ won’t be able to comprehend is that as a 41-year-old Newcastle fan, I have NEVER seen my team win anything. As an England fan, I have NEVER seen my country win anything. Unlike Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool fans, etc., I literally have no idea what it feels like to see my team win something (Christ, even Middlesbrough won a League Cup!). On the 5th February 2011, a ball fell out of the night sky, and with one swing of his left peg, the late, great, Cheick Tiote sent me and the rest of St James Park into complete euphoria, giving us a taste of that much deprived football amber nectar.
For that reason, a draw at home to the Arsenal, is the greatest football match I have ever seen.