It’s a knockout

Newcastle don't have happy memories from their last European campaign. Ian Cusack explains why

The last trophy Newcastle United won was the 1968-69 Fairs Cup, now the UEFA Cup. Defending the trophy the next season, The Toon went out on away goals to Anderlecht in the quarter-finals. Most people probably imagine that was the extent of Newcastle’s European experience until 1994’s comedy defending allowed Athletic Bilbao to come back from the dead to win on away goals.

Not true. The mid 70s were something of a semi precious age on Tyneside. Newcastle were runners up in the ’74 Cup Final, under Joe Harvey, and the ’76 League Cup Final, under the reviled Gordon Lee, who is still barred from every pub from Birhey to Blyth for selling Supermac to Arsenal, and finished in 5th place in the 1976-1977 season, which was good enough for a UEFA place. Six months after the MacDonald deal Lee jumped ship to join Everton, his last match being a 2-0 victory over Sunderland. Sorry, just had to mention it.

Before the board began to look for a suitably cheap and unproven successor, the players solved their problem for them. Attired in garish lime green flares and unspeakable brown polo necks, Alan Gowling, Irving Nattrass, Mickey Burns and the rest called a press Conference and stood at the entrance of St James’ demanding Lee’s assistant Richard Dinnis be given the job, otherwise they would go on strike. God, remember when people did that?

Dinnis was an ex-PE teacher who’d palled up with Lee at Ewood Park and was popular with the players in the same way that student French teachers are with 14-year-olds. Namely, they let you get away with murder. His appointment was quickly ratified in the boardroom, the usual conditions of service applying: no money to spend on players, no say in the renegotiation of existing contracts and a pittance of a wage.

Dinnis steered the team to fifth, although the season finished with four defeats in five games hinting at travails to come. 1977-1978 was a momentous season for Newcastle. An opening day win over Leeds was followed by 10 straight defeats, allowing Basil Brush to make the crack about the difference between a triangle and Newcastle on national television.

At least there was Europe to look forward to. Bohemians were the first-round opposition and a 0-0 draw in Dublin was the sort of spineless performance the team was regularly producing. The game was most notable for insensitive Geordie fans unfurling Union Jacks, singing pro UVF songs and burning tricolours.

After a 4-0 wn in the return against Bohemians Newcastle were paired in the next round with Bastia from Corsica, with the first leg away. The 100 Toon fans who made the trip flew on the club plane, stayed in the same hotel as the players and enjoyed the same culturally improving visits to local monasteries and art galleries as the directors, while the players trained. Perhaps the demotic farce of Dublin was being put right, or perhaps the board just didn’t want a few dozen pissed blokes belting out The Blaydon Races in the hotel pool at four in the morning.

Newcastle lost 2-1 to a last minute goal. The return game saw the first recorded phenomenon of middle-aged Geordies sitting on buses in the week leading up to the match discussing knowledgeably the importance of the away goal. Local wisdom had it that Paul Cannell’s first leg strike would be decisive. Which just goes to show what a load of bollocks people talk on buses. Bastia went 2-0 up inside ten minutes, completely silencing the crowd. The second of these goals, both by Dutch World Cup star Johnny Rep, was a 30-yard strike at the Leazes End that is still talked of with hushed reverence by all who saw it.

Just before half time, home spirits were only partially revived by an Alan Gowling goal. Ultimately though, a third Bastia goal at the start of the second half sealed Newcastle’s fate. A defeat at Wolves the following Saturday did for Dinnis. He returned to teaching, until Barrow coaxed him back into the game for a singularly inglorious reign a few years back. The directors passed the poisoned chalice on to Bill McGarry. It almost goes without saying that Newcastle were relegated in bottom place at the end of that season.

From WSC 128 October 1997. What was happening this month