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It's been 20 years since Newcastle's last Champions League odyssey

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It's been 20 years since Newcastle's last Champions League odyssey

Sold-out stadiums and tickets like gold dust. A combination of youthful exuberance and wily old heads drive the team up the table. A manager who made the fans fall in love with their club. Tyneside has seen this before.

Eddie Howe and his squad are threatening to deliver the next great season for Newcastle United. Victories against Wolves and Nottingham Forest left them in a strong position to strike in the race for Champions League football. Supporters dare to dream again.

It’s been 20 years since anyone in a Black and White jersey kicked the ball in anger in Europe’s top competition, a memorable campaign with more twists and turns than an Allan Saint-Maximin dribble in front of East Stand. For those of a certain age, the parallels are hard to ignore. There is excitement for what is to come. To what could be again.

In 2003, it was Sir Bobby Robson’s side that captured the hearts and minds of the Toon faithful. Victory over Zeljeznicar in the qualifying stages opened the doors to the Continent’s top table as Newcastle threatened to cement their place among England’s elite. Lomana LuaLua was among the scorers as a 4-0 rout at St James’ Park sealed a 5-0 aggregate win and a place in the group stages.

‘I have nothing but great memories from that place,’ said the striker, known for his acrobatic celebrations. Sportsmail. ‘Sir Bobby Robson is committed to young people, he wants to do something similar to Manchester United. He wanted to build a young team, mixed with older players. So that we can also learn from them, know each other’s game.

Newcastle United are in a strong position to challenge for a top four spot under Eddie Howe

Newcastle United are in a strong position to challenge for a top four spot under Eddie Howe

It's been 20 years since Newcastle last experienced Champions League football

It’s been 20 years since Newcastle last experienced Champions League football

Lomana LuaLua (left) was part of Sir Bobby Robson's squad that went deep into the competition

Lomana LuaLua (left) was part of Sir Bobby Robson’s squad that went deep into the competition

‘I was bought as a future player. There were such as [Jermaine] Jenas, Kieron Dyer, Titus Bramble, [Shola] Ameobi, [Craig] Bellamy.

‘We’ve got great experienced players, with the likes of Alan [Shearer]. He’s good with young players. Gary Speed ​​also had a lot of input with us.

‘All the ambition and drive comes from Sir Bobby. He really wanted to reach something and he passed it on to us. We really believed in ourselves. We wanted to give something back to the fans. They always see what you have to offer, and we really enjoy it. We knew we had a chance for the Champions League and we took it.’

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As far as the supporters are concerned, the feeling of excitement is mutual. Marc Corby, a regular contributor to True Faith Fanzine, is a season ticket holder who started attending St James’ Park in 1988.

‘We just felt we had real ambition at that point under Sir Bobby Robson,’ he said. Sportsmail.

‘For me, even though we beat Barcelona 3-2 in that memorable game in 1997, I always felt that the Champions League campaign was a bit tarnished. It is clear that this is the end of a glorious chapter.

‘We had a very fast, dynamic team. Bellamy, Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas. You have Nobby Solano, Gary Speed ​​​​– the engine in the middle – players like that are an absolute joy to watch.

‘There is a real belief that Bobby Robson is taking us to bigger and better things.’

LuaLua celebrates her goal in the qualifying round against Zeljeznicar

LuaLua celebrates her goal in the qualifying round against Zeljeznicar

Of course, there was an inauspicious beginning. Three consecutive defeats have relegated them to Group E – ‘As good as out’.

But then came the sprinkling of Sir Bobby’s stardust. A 1-0 victory over Serie A champions Juventus, and a second victory at home, 2-1, against Dynamo Kyiv.

Both led to a memorable night in Rotterdam and a thrilling 3-2 win over Feyenoord to progress to the second group stage – and a bit of history. They became the first team to emerge from the group having lost all of there first three matches.

‘The first three games, I think that was due to lack of experience,’ said LuaLua. ‘After that, we have nothing to lose.

‘Sir Bobby would tell us to go out and give the fans everything we have. They will see that and they will be behind you.

‘I don’t think people notice. St James’ Park, even if you’re playing in the cup against a lesser team the fans are always there. It’s always packed. And it shows you what it means to them.

The fans are one of the things that pushed us. Noisy. We just became stronger, believed in ourselves more. People looked at us differently. It’s amazing.’

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And what about that night at De Kuip? ‘I’m shaking. Everything is incredible. Sometimes you feel like before a game “this is our day”.’

Craig Bellamy celebrates his late winner that sealed their historic victory over Feyenoord

Craig Bellamy celebrates his late winner that sealed their historic victory over Feyenoord

That night in the Netherlands paved the way for an extended European Odyssey – a second group stage where Barcelona, ​​Inter and last season’s beaten finalist Bayer Leverkusen await.

LuaLua scored his first goal in the competition against the Bundesliga side in Germany. ‘Alan and Bellamy weren’t there so Sir Bobby and Shola Ameobi gave me a chance to show what we could do,’ he recalls.

‘Shola is one of my very good friends, is like a brother to me. We never thought we would have a chance to start in the Champions League. But it shows how much Bobby believes in his youth. He wasn’t afraid to dump us.

‘You don’t realize you scored in the Champions League until the next day, until you get a call from your friends – “oh my god you scored in the Champions League!”. Then it starts to sink in.’

There’s also the incredible sight of 12,000 Geordies in Milan. Marc was among the many who made the pilgrimage. Before he was at university, he poured a month’s worth of wages into the trip.

Around 12,000 Newcastle fans packed the away end at the San Siro when they faced Inter

Around 12,000 Newcastle fans packed the away end at the San Siro when they faced Inter

Alan Shearer scored one of his two goals against the Serie A side in a 2-2 draw in March 2003

Alan Shearer scored one of his two goals against the Serie A side in a 2-2 draw in March 2003

‘At the end of the day, my life is Newcastle United,’ he said. And this is the trip of a lifetime.

From stories of Mark Hughes shopping for an Armani suit in a crowd of Toon supporters, to Ant and Dec sending fellow fans into the wrong piazza, Milan 03′ is a treasure trove of quirky and brilliant stories for Marc and thousands of others. The match was also quite memorable.

‘I remember walking in and it was a sea of ​​black and white,’ he said. ‘Everyone remembers Alan Shearer scoring two goals which was absolutely brilliant. One of the greatest experiences of being part of a festival – it’s up there with Robert Lee’s goal at Wembley for me.

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‘The atmosphere is very good. I think most people don’t believe Newcastle are up against a team like Inter Milan at the San Siro.’

The memories are just as strong for those on the pitch. ‘Even before, you read the papers, you hear about how many fans travel,’ LuaLua said.

Sir Bobby Robson lifted the club from relegation concerns into European football during his tenure

Sir Bobby Robson lifted the club from relegation concerns into European football during his tenure

‘We are not playing a regular team. It’s Inter Milan. The team is buzzing, the stadium is amazing. As a footballer, you always want history to live. As a player you want to test yourself against the best, and Inter is one of the best.

‘I remember I had a little bust up [Christian] Vieri. But it’s amazing to play our little part in the club’s history. I hope we can come back.’

A week after the trip, on March 19, when a 2-0 defeat by Barcelona sent Newcastle to third place in the group and an early exit. They haven’t been admitted since, with a disappointing qualifying-round exit at Partizan Belgrade signaling the beginning of the end for Sir Bobby’s reign the following August.

They have never been better prepared to return than now. With less than a third of the season remaining, they are just two points off the top four, with two games in hand on Spurs above them.

LuaLua was involved in a minor bust-up with Christian Vieri in the closing stages at San Siro

LuaLua was involved in a minor bust-up with Christian Vieri in the closing stages at San Siro

‘It’s going to be incredible, sooner than anyone expected,’ said Marc. ‘It will be one of the greatest achievements ever by a Newcastle manager in my opinion.’

Howe certainly has his admirers. ‘I played a bit with Eddie Howe at Portsmouth and followed him to Bournemouth,’ said LuaLua.

‘When we first got him I was happy because I knew the type of football he wanted to play. I thought Newcastle fans would appreciate it. Eddie was a great choice and he was really good. The fans love it and they are getting stronger and stronger.

‘There is light at the end of the tunnel and I think he will bring back the glory days.’

If he can bring back Champions League football, they will be pushing all the way across the Tyne Bridge.

News/Image Sources: Daily Mail