I don’t know about you, but I still can’t quite believe it. Little Old Cambridge. Newcastle United. St James Park. Joe Ironside. VAR. It’s still not sunk in.
5000 United fans descended on Newcastle on Saturday, for many U’s it was their first visit to the City, our last coming back in 1993. St James Park sits on a hill above the city centre, and is one of the greatest football stadiums in the country, modern enough to have a great view from every seat and brilliant facilities, but old enough to not be a soul-less bowl stadium like so many of the newer grounds. The best thing about St James Park though? Over a hundred pubs within walking distance of the turnstiles, all of which were packed with Newcastle and Cambridge fans making the most of the Geordie hospitality.
That famous Bobby Robson quote about climbing the steps, seeing the pitch and falling in love was definitely written about St James Park, as U’s fans had to climb 150 of the bloody things to reach our seats, in the top tier of the Leazes stand. The whole pitch was in view ahead of us, as was most of the city, unfolding behind the East Stand. Ahead of us, the Gallowgate End put on a great display of flags, although this was shown up by the flags and shower of yellow pages bought by U’s fans at the other end.
Mark Bonner was missing a few first-team players including Kai McKenzie-Lyle and Jensen Weir on top of the already injured Shilow Tracey, Lloyd Jones and Greg Taylor, so the bench consisted of four academy graduates, with another – Ben Worman – making the starting eleven. No surprises in the XI for Bonner, with Knibbs replacing the suspended Sam Smith out wide, and Adam May in the forward midfield position with Digby and Worman protecting the back four behind him. Up front, it was only going to be Joe Ironside, who was hoping to put his knowledge of visiting St James Park once as an eight-year-old to good use. Our opponents fielded new signing Kieran Trippier (£20 million, 35 England Caps), as well as Jonjo Shelvey (£12 million, 6 England caps), Alain Saint-Maximin (£16 million) Jacob Murphy (£6 million) and Joelinton (£40 million), so to say we were up against it is downplaying it somewhat.
Despite Newcastle’s starting lineup costing more than probably every United first team player for the last hundred years combined the gulf in class wasn’t especially apparent. Newcastle started the stronger of the sides, but United had chances too. Trippier looked fired up, and Saint-Maximin was always dangerous when he got the ball, but the U’s were up for the challenge and Bonner had set up us to neutralise the threat.
Just after the half hour mark came United’s best chance of the half, and was also our introduction to the horrors of VAR – Harvey Knibbs going down in the box from a clumsy challenge – a clear as day penalty to us in the away end, as well as to the pundits on Radio 5 and Soccer Saturday, but after a review the ref didn’t give it. How much was this going to cost us? Time would tell.
Minutes later Newcastle put the ball in the net, Fabian Schar scoring past Mitov from an offside position. Thankfully this weeks linesman understood the rules and rightly flagged, and the U’s could breathe once more.
Getting to half time 0-0 was something most U’s fans seemed happy with, but little did we know what awaited us in the second half…
Newcastle again started the half brighter, with Mitov again making important saves from Newcastle’s expensive forwards. Once again they had the ball in the net, Jacob Murphy receiving the ball in a clearly offside position, again correctly ruled out.
Five minutes later it was our turn to have the ball in the goal, great work from Adam May springing the offside trap, his shot from close range was spilled by Dubravka where an alert Harvey Knibbs nicked the ball from him, his shot headed away but only as far as Joe Ironside… well, we all know what happened next don’t we?
As Ironside turned and shot into the net the away end exploded in a sea of limbs and noise. Ironside stood before us, arms outstretched to receive our praise. The rest of the team joined him as Dubravka received treatment on the floor. Once again our friend VAR reared its head, after an agonising wait whilst they checked for a possible offside the goal was given and once again the away end celebrated.
At this point it’s worth noting that Newcastle, a team that has only won once all season had all lined up again for the kick-off, as if they were resigned to their fate. The goal had a noticeable effect on the Magpies, as heads dropped and from this point on they were a lot worse than they had been previously. That said, they continued to take chances, but Mitov was playing out of his skin, stopping everything that came his way. It seemed for every dangerous shot Newcastle took, there’d be two misplaced passes or balls that went out of play or shots well wide or over the bar. Could it be our day? Really?
It was our time to be on the receiving end of the linesmans flag as the clock ticked down, substitute Jack Lankester putting the ball beyond Dubravka this time, but the linesman determined it was going to be a nervy last few minutes for the U’s, who at this point were just starting to believe they could pull off a famous upset.
As the final whistle went, most Newcastle players rushed down the tunnel for a dressing-room date with their new Saudi owners, much to the annoyance of Trippier, one of the few players who stayed out applaud the Newcastle fans – I’m not sure if it’s just because we were so high, or so noisy ourselves, but the Magpies were pretty quiet throughout the game, only really making noise to show their displeasure at Dimi’s shithouse time-wasting antics late in the game.
Yes you can say Newcastle were missing players, and didn’t have a recognised striker on the pitch, but it’s worth remembering we played a left-back and a 21 year old with less than 25 league games under his belt in the centre of our defence. We had our talismanic midfielder on the bench, struggling for fitness and a 20 year old with only six league appearances to his name starting in midfield. We’d lost our 30 goal a season striker in the summer, and unlike Newcastle we can’t dip into a limitless pool of bloodstained oil money to replace them.
The U’s players and management headed down to the away fans where for forty minutes they stayed on the pitch soaking in the atmosphere, celebrating and saluting the U’s faithful, not quite believing themselves what they’d just done. The richest club in the world. Little Old Cambridge. Bloody hell.
Man of the Match: You could give it to anyone without many complaints, but we’ve got to choose and Dimi Mitov was sensational between the sticks, making so many important saves. Special mentions have to go to Paul Digby, organising everything from the middle, Ben Worman who didn’t looked fazed on the big stage, Jubril Okedina, who has had his struggles against experienced opposition in the past but looked ten years older than his age against highly experienced opposition and Joe Ironside for just being Sir Joe Ironside really. Also, every single United fan there deserves a massive pat on the back, for out-singing 47,000 Newcastle fans all game long. We might not have a massive ground, or tonnes of cash in the bank, but we have passion from players to management to fans and that counts for a huge amount in today’s game.
Soundtrack of the Match: Slade – Cum on Feel The Noize