Nine things I discovered while following Newcastle United’s Champions League journey

Pictures from Newcastle's games

(Image credit: @Ketchell)

1. Drums

They love a bit of percussion on the continent. Each club Newcastle faced brought a designated sticksman with them to Newcastle who led a march through the city and up to the stadium before the thigh-burn of the St. James’ Park away end.

An incessant rumble and beat soundtracked every game home and away. I found it weirdly hypnotic and it gave the games a proper European feel, which was brilliant. Dortmund’s drums genuinely took a bit of the edge off the home support during their visit. Like a constant reminder to their players that they’re were there, up in the gods.

Some English clubs have tried to introduce drums at their home games, but it jars with me and feels somehow inauthentic over here. So this isn’t a plea for Newcastle to introduce ‘Wor Drums’. Wor Flags will suffice.

2. Get a good travel agent

A detailed view of the draw card of Newcastle United FC ahead of the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Group Stage Draw at Grimaldi Forum on August 31, 2023 in Monaco, Monaco.

(Image credit: Valerio Pennicino – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

I haven’t stepped foot inside a travel agent since about 2002, so I used ‘the internet’ to book my Champions League travel and accommodation. Easy enough, you’d think. What I didn’t appreciate was the proximity of the draw (1st September) to the opening gameweek (19th September).

Cue a mad scramble for planes, trains and automobiles when fixtures became official at 8am on Saturday 2 September. This wasn’t made any easier by the fact it was my 1st wedding anniversary. A romantic weekend getaway was interrupted by an entire morning on WhatsApp, Expedia and Booking.com.

Adding ‘three days in Milan’ on the joint calendar with two weeks notice went down well.

3. It helps to think (and travel) outside the box

Kieran Trippier leaves the Newcastle private terminal to board the plane to Milan for the UEFA Champions League Match on September 18, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Watching your team in Europe can be pricey, so creativity is key when it comes to travel. I flew home from Milan via Oslo to keep a lid on expenditure and it’s one of the nicest airports I’ve ever passed through. I know other fans who travelled via exotic locations such as Majorca and Birmingham. Travel broadens the mind.

Lots of things can go wrong of course. Even Newcastle’s team plane was delayed by the weather in Milan. Some fans I know spent 24 hours on the move travelling to Milan via Scotland, Germany and Switzerland. Not great for the carbon footprint, but where there’s a will there’s a way.

4. The Group of Death eventually killed them but Newcastle were never scared

Sean Longstaff of Newcastle United FC shoots the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group F match between AC Milan and Newcastle United FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on September 19, 2023 in Milan, Italy.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I was delighted with the group draw: AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, PSG. It might’ve surprised non-Newcastle fans how competitive Eddie Howe’s side were in all the games, particularly vs PSG who you would consider one of the favourites for the competition.

They almost robbed three points at the end of their game in Milan, while some Dortmund fans told me that their best two performances of the season came against us. Meanwhile, PSG were lucky to extract a single point from Newcastle.

Add in the volume of injuries Newcastle were forced to deal with and it underlines how good the standard of the Premier League is.

5. It’s easier to win the Champions League than qualify for it from England

Dan Burn of Newcastle United applauds the supporters at full-time following the UEFA Champions League match between Newcastle United FC and AC Milan at St. James Park on December 13, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Someone said the above to me the day after Newcastle crashed out. Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but when I think about the levels and effort required to reach fourth place in the Premier League table last season, there’s an element of truth.

Newcastle were 30 minutes from the knockout stages. Had they got there I would fancy Eddie Howe’s team vs any club in Europe at home, especially with more bodies and a new signing or two by February. Away legs would obviously be more difficult, but the disciplined performances in Milan (last year’s semi finalists) and Paris showed Newcastle are capable.

6. BEST. LIMBS. EVER.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 04: A general view during the UEFA Champions League match between Newcastle United FC and Paris Saint-Germain at St. James Park on October 04, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Celebrating after watching your team score inside your home stadium feels different than when you watch your team score from the away end. But in 30 years watching Newcastle United, I’ve never experienced home goal limbs quite like vs PSG.

At one point, after Sean Longstaff made it 3-0 to Newcastle vs PSG, I found myself stood with my back to the pitch with each leg caught between the fold of two seats. I have no idea how I got there. Delirium, if not slightly dangerous.

7. The Germans know how to do football

Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund Germany

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Signal Iduna Park, Dortmund. A stadium I have dreamed of visiting, and they charged Newcastle fans €18.50 for a ticket in the away end. Brilliant.

8. The refereeing standard is markedly better than in the Premier League*

Referee, Danny Makkelie of Netherlands in discussion with Callum Wilson of Newcastle United during the UEFA Champions League match between Newcastle United FC and AC Milan at St. James Park on December 13, 2023 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Special mention to Dutch referee Danny Makkelie, who took charge vs AC Milan at St. James’ Park and played some excellent advantages and made it very clear each time this was happening with a raised arm.

Also Szyom Marciniak from Poland who took charge of Newcastle game in Paris (and refereed the World Cup Final in Qatar last year). He was brilliant in Paris, took no rubbish from the PSG players and ignored pressure from home fans, but had his good work undone by VAR Tomasz Kwiatkowski in the 98th minute.

Had he stayed with his original on field decision it would have been pretty close to a perfect refereeing performance.

*VAR is still abysmal (obviously)

9. We’re gonna need a bigger squad

Newcastle United FC team line up during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Group Stage - Group F football match between AC Milan and Newcastle United FC at San Siro Stadium. Final score; AC Milan 0:0 Newcastle United FC.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

You need a deep squad to handle Champions League football and there were question marks over Newcastle’s way back in September, before the avalanche of injuries and suspension left them with a bench full of sixth formers and goalkeepers in Paris.

Perhaps Newcastle would have benefited from a spell in the Europa League this season, rather than plunging into the deep end of the UCL. But I wouldn’t have swapped these six Champions League games for anything.

Dusting the passport off has whetted the appetite for more. Newcastle pushed three bona fide Champions League clubs to the final minute of the group stages, with a starting XI stretched the the absolute limit, and a non-existent bench. Two years ago the club lost 4-0 away at Leicester City and were second bottom of the league.

Before the final group game, fans held up a TIFO in the Gallowgate End of Sir Bobby Robson and his quote about ‘wild dreams’. Fan site NUFC.com dug one out for their Milan match report, a Robson quote that he said immediately after Newcastle’s Champions League exit in 2003: “We’ve enjoyed the ride, we’ve paid the money, got the ride, got off the tramcar – let’s go again. We can do better.”

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