It was the last glory days of the UEFA Cup, a two-legged knock-out tournament comprised of the runners-up of Europe's top leagues. A proper competition that included no silly group stages, no Champions League teams “parachuting” in and some quality clubs taking part.
Newcastle qualified thanks to throwing away a 12 point lead and finishing 2nd in the Premiership to Manchester United the previous season. The broken hearts on Tyneside had been patched up by the summer signing of local hero Alan Shearer, the top scorer at Euro 96. But Big Al was missing that night, ruled out with an injury. Nevertheless, the attacking line-up would still strike fear into the hearts of any defence.
The previous season's top scorer Les Ferdinand was partnered up with rubber legged lunatic Faustino Asprilla. The supply line was the geordie genius of Peter Beardsley, the tricky wing-play of Keith Gillespie, and the silky skills of David Ginola. But it was the Frenchman that would steal the show.
The evening had started in anti-climax when Beardsley put a penalty wide after grazing the post to the keepers left. Newcastle then took the lead through the crazy Colombian Asprilla, who then went on to hit a second just after the break. The tie was pretty much out of the reach for the team from Budapest.
Ginola had been causing the Hungarian defence problems all night with his strong running, two footed trickery and powerful shooting. In the first half he curled a right footed shot just over the bar. He then smacked a half volley, teed up with a neat flick of his boot, into the bottom corner from thirty-five yards, only to be pushed wide by the keeper. Early In the second half he'd smashed a left footed shot off the underside of the crossbar which bounced agonisingly close the line.
But the moment of true genius came in the 64th minute. Gillespie took an out-swinging corner from the right at the Gallowgate end, the goalkeeper, Szeiler, flapped the ball out of the penalty area to the lurking Ginola. He bounced the ball with his right knee, then allowed it to drop and flicked it over an oncoming tackle with his right foot. His third touch was a fierce left-footed half volley that dipped into the top corner.
The ball hadn't touched the floor once since leaving the right boot of Gillespie at the corner flag. A moment of mastery by a gifted player, more deft and cultured with both feet than most footballers ever dream of.
The stadium erupted. Dad, Tommy and I leaped up, fists in the air cheering. What a goal. A minute later, Grandad Clifford caught up, somehow activated his creaky old knees and was on his feet too. Just in time for the rest of the stadium to sit back down again.
Les Ferdinand finished the scoring to make it 4-0 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate. A typical Keegan era scoreline. Bags of goals and plenty of chances for both sides. Proper entertainment.
The Magpies made it through the next round against FC Metz. But were torn apart in the quarter-final by Jean Tigana's Monaco. A team featuring Fabien Barthez, Emmanuel Petit and a lightening quick 18 year-old winger by the name of Thierry Henry.
By the end of the season, Newcastle again came runners up to Manchester United, and it was all change on Tyneside. Kevin Keegan had gone and Ginola would soon follow, as Kenny Dalglish strove to dismantle King Kev's legacy.
The next European game we saw at St. James’ was a Champions League group game against PSV Eindhoven. Jon Dahl Tomasson and an aged John Barnes led an embarrassing forward line as Newcastle deservedly lost 0-2. The away fans sang a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to us. An era had most definitely come to an end.