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CONSIDERING the changes made in the 1998-99 season, the season ended with reasonable satisfaction. Reaching Wembley and Europe was a huge bonus.

Ruud Gullit's rebuilding process was well under way with more new signings scheduled to be on Tyneside for the start of the Millennium season. But to Newcastle United supporters, four runners-up positions in four successive seasons - two in the Premier League and two in the FA Cup - was hard to take.

Newcastle's manager though had the confidence of the vast majority of Magpies supporters. And with new international players like Spain's Marcelino, Alain Goma of France as well as the young talent of Kieron Dyer, already in the England full squad, Tyneside was full of expectancy again as the new 1999-2000 season began.

However, as the new campaign began it was clear that Gullit was in difficulty. And by the time the meeting with newly promoted rivals Sunderland took place, United's camp was in turmoil.

Results had been poor and the Magpies were at the wrong end of the Premier League table. Dressing-room unrest was evident and Gullit had both Shearer and Ferguson on the bench against the Wearsiders and Rob Lee in the stand.

The controversial defeat by Sunderland proved to be the Dutchman's last act. He quickly departed and Newcastle turned to locally raised Bobby Robson's vast experience around Europe to guide the club from the mire.

After a tremendous 8-0 debut at St. James' Park against Sheffield Wednesday, Robson installed spirit and belief into the Magpies. He saw that United climbed away from the relegation zone and quite remarkably the Black'n'Whites ended the season back at Wembley Stadium - this time for a FA Cup semi-final meeting with Chelsea.

Although United once more lost - by 2-1 - the club regained much of their lost pride after outplaying the expensive Chelsea stars for much of the contest. Robson continued on a plan to rebuild the Magpies after a three year disruptive period following the departure of Kevin Keegan.

Despite the roller-coaster ride, Newcastle United has been transformed from a sleeping giant at the start of the Nineties decade into one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

 

After losing the opening-day fixture of the 2000-2001 season at Old Trafford to eventual Champions Manchester United, the Magpies returned home to Tyneside to take on Derby County in the newly-increased capacity St. James' Park.

Gallowgate's highest crowd since February 1976, 51,327, saw United edge out the Rams 3 - 2, Carl Cort and Daniel Cordone both scoring on their home league debuts. Two wins later and United were on top of the pile but it was downhill after that.

The inspirational Alan Shearer had bagged 30 goals the previous season but this time around his tally was limited to seven due to injury keeping him out of most of the second half of the campaign. In the league Carl Cort was the Magpies' top scorer with a paltry six in a season when United only found the back of their opponents net 44 times.

United achieved a notable double over Leeds United, who went on to finish fourth in the table, and also recorded an excellent victory over title-chasing Liverpool. On the downside local rivals Sunderland and Middlesbrough both won at St. James' Park, horrendous times for the Geordie faithful.

That said, Bobby Robson was only in his first full season in charge and the supporters appreciated he was rebuilding and needed time to turn things around.

The Cup competitions were no kinder to United. Aston Villa dumped the Magpies out of the FA Cup at the Third Round stage after a replay, United having failed to see off the Villans at St. James' Park. Leyton Orient and Bradford City succumbed to the Magpies in the early rounds of the League Cup but Birmingham City ended United's dreams in a hugely disappointing night at St Andrews.

Remarkably, during the season, five South American born-players pulled on the Black and White shirt, Clarence Acuna, Christian Bassedas, Daniel Cordone, Diego Gavilan and Nobby Solano, the most in United's history at any one time.

At the end of March United had slipped to 14th but one defeat in the last seven games lifted the Magpies up to 11th, confirmed by an excellent last day 3 - 0 victory over Aston Villa.

 

The 2001-2002 season started as early as 14 July in Belgium, the earliest on record in the Magpies' history and following four seasons of mediocrity, this was to be the start of a United renaissance.

United competed in the UEFA Intertoto Cup for the first time, a competition which offered a lifeline into the UEFA Cup for those teams who didn't qualify automatically.

After disposing of Sporting Lokeren and 1860 Munich in the first two rounds, sides possessing a European pedigree, it was the unknowns of Troyes in France who eliminated United from the competition on away goals in the 'Final'

The old saying of 'being able to concentrate on the league' may never have been truer for United as they started the Premiership campaign with a good draw at Chelsea and followed it up with decisive derby victories over Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the latter being thumped 4 - 1 on their own ground with new signing Laurent Robert playing a blinder.

Craig Bellamy had also joined in the close season, his partnership with Alan Shearer terrorising defences up and down the land, and when the signing of Jermaine Jenas was completed in the New Year, the Magpies were well-equipped to challenge the best.

December may have seen United at their peak, when successive wins over Blackburn, Arsenal and Leeds United shot the Magpies to the summit of the Premiership and the Christmas Number One position was consolidated with the Boxing Day blitz of Middlesbrough.

Those heady days dipped somewhat in the New Year and although there were a number of memorable games, notably the 6 - 2 pummelling of Everton, United slipped to fourth in the table, though still their highest finish since the 1996/97 season - and earned the right for a crack at the Champions League again via the qualifiers.

In the domestic cup competitions, not for the first time, and indeed not the last, London foes Chelsea ended United's interest in the League Cup, that after a run to the Quarter-Finals, and it was the same fate in the FA Cup too, but this time Arsenal put paid to the Magpies' cup dreams for another season with a Quarter-Final replay success at Highbury.

 

THE 2001-2002 season had promised much and now it was time to build on that. The fourth place finish propelled United into the Champions League Qualifying Round where Bosnian side FK Zeljeznicar awaited. Confidently, the Magpies cruised through the tie 5 - 0 on aggregate to join the table where the big boys of European football were waiting.

Early league form was disappointing, indeed the Magpies slipped as low as 19th after five games but one loss in the next six saw United shoot up the table. That good run continued in the run-up to Christmas and the Magpies saw out the old year sitting respectably in fourth place.

In the meantime the European fun had started, but it was hardly that or as the brochure had read, as United found themselves pointless after three games and seemingly completely out of the frame in terms of qualification for the next group stages.

Then Juventus were defeated by a solitary goal on a heady night at St. James' Park to get the ball rolling and when Dynamo Kiev were then despatched 2 - 1in the next game, perhaps there was hope after all.

No club had ever lost their first three games in the group phase and gone on to finish in the top two but United turned that statistic on its head. On a memorable evening in Rotterdam, Craig Bellamy's last gasp winning goal which defeated Feyenoord, at the same time as Juventus were winning in Kiev, saw a jubilant United go marching on. It was the stuff of dreams.

Europe was put on the back burner until February whilst United consolidated and indeed improved their league standing. There were stand-out victories such as the ones at Elland Road and at home to Chelsea whilst in the middle of that, lower league Wolves knocked United out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle, as Everton had done similarly in the League Cup before Christmas. Never mind, there was still plenty to play for.

The highlight of the second round of the Champions League was undoubtedly the 2 - 2 draw in Milan against Internazionale and although Bayer Leverkusen were beaten home and away, it was the Italians and Barcelona who booked quarter-final places.

That signalled the end for United in a season that was hugely entertaining. Manchester United put the other United firmly in their place at St. James' Park with an outstanding 6 - 2 victory but the Black and Whites commendably ended the season in third place.

 

Newcastle United's 2003-2004 season began in Belgrade in mid-August when the Black-and-Whites beat their Partizan hosts in the first leg of a Champions League Qualifying tie, Nobby Solano hitting the winner.

One point from the Premiership games against the Uniteds of Leeds and Manchester didn't appear to be a disastrous prelude to the return leg against the Serbians with the lucrative and prestigious Group Stages of the competition seemingly a mere 90 minutes away.

With only Lee Bowyer added to the squad in the close season United were relying on the team that finished a very good third the previous season but maybe that was their downfall. Against an ordinary Belgrade side, United lost 1 - 0 on the night in the home leg and 4 - 3 on penalties - four United players having to hang their heads in shame for missing crucial spot-kicks.

To make matters worse, a shell-shocked United lost 2- 1 at home to Birmingham three days later while Partizan were looking forward to dream fixtures against Real Madrid and AC Milan. If only.

The 'prize' for losing in the Champions League Qualifiers was to drop down into the UEFA Cup and United made good progress in the early stages of that competition whilst picking up points regularly on the league front.

Highlights were the 4 - 0 hammering of Tottenham at St James' Park, where Laurent Robert hit two stunning goals, and a 3 - 0 Gallowgate win over Manchester City. On the down side United plumbed the depths in the League Cup, losing at home to West Bromwich Albion in October at the first hurdle.

United motored into the New Year in sixth position and then won in fine style, 3 - 0, at Southampton in Round Three of the FA Cup. The Liverpool juggernaut at Anfield ended any Cup dreams though in the next round.

Notable Dutch side PSV Eindhoven were beaten in the UEFA Cup Quarter-Finals which set up a mouth-watering tie with Marseille in the Semi-Finals. The Magpies couldn't break down the French resistance in the goalless first leg on Tyneside and Ivory Coast star striker, Didier Drogba hit United with a double in France to end any hope of a 1969-style European glory season.

Defeated, but not down and out, United fought hard in the remaining three games of the season to gain the necessary points which would ensure a 5th place finish and with it, more European football the following season. A 1 - 1 draw at Liverpool on the final day sealed that objective.

Copyright: P. Joannou, Newcastle United Club Historian