15 years ago – and where has the time gone? – the 2002/2003 Premiership season blew our minds.
It gave us peak Fergie vs Wenger and possibly the best Manchester United vs Arsenal title race in history, a rivalry that sparked David Beckham boot-gate (with a nod to the FA Cup), that last minute Wayne Rooney goal for Everton against the Gunners and the now-famous Peter Enckelman throw-in own goal.
Exactly 1000 league goals were scored as newly promoted Manchester City managed an impressive top-half finish in 9th, while Sunderland were bottom and relegated after losing their last 15 games to end on 19 points – at the time, a top flight record low.
Perhaps even more impressive, though, was Newcastle United’s run to third in the final table. It proved to be the domestic peak of Sir Bobby Robson’s five-season reign, with many of his squad in their prime and sustaining a commendable domestic and European challenge.
While Manchester United were ultimately triumphant in securing an eighth Premiership title by 13 points – despite being eight points off Arsenal’s lead in the first week of March – their encounters with the Magpies were their biggest tests, producing the two highest-scoring and most memorable matches of the whole campaign.
The first came in late November at Old Trafford, where Robson’s men succumbed 5-3 in a tense affair, but gave an excellent account of themselves. Helped by some suspect Fabien Barthez goalkeeping (he was lobbed by a wayward Olivier Bernard cross) and an Alan Shearer 30-yard thunderbolt, Newcastle kept their Manchester counterparts honest throughout. They pulled goals back with regularity before a Ruud van Nistelrooy hat-trick ultimately proved the difference.
The return fixture at St James’ Park also ended in defeat thanks to another hat-trick, this time from Paul Scholes, but the 6-2 scoreline gave further proof that the Toon Army’s side could mix it with the very best, score plenty of goals and were not afraid of going down fighting. Indeed, Newcastle took the lead in both matches against the champions-elect, which was testament to their own fast-starting nature and ability to play good football on merit.
It was this positive and proactive streak which stood Robson’s men in good stead all season. Their approach translated into some excellent results; a double over Tottenham Hotspur and wins against Chelsea and Liverpool at home being notable standouts. The Magpies were unbeaten in the league from the end of December until the start of March, and only undone in the end by painful and avoidable defeats to Everton and Fulham either side of that 6-2 reverse against Manchester United.
Further proof of their genuine quality came in the Champions League. Newcastle made it to the second group stage of the competition for the first time in their history and claimed the scalps of Feyenoord, Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen (twice) along the way, eventually succumbing to two costly defeats against a Barcelona side who won eleven of their twelve group games that season – not bad going.
But what made Newcastle’s run to third in the Premiership even more impressive was their record in league matches following all their Champions League ties – often the domestic undoing of a modern squad, now with much greater focus on conditioning and air miles: played 14, won 12, drawn 2. Such consistency was testament to a manager who knew how to rotate his options and use the tools at his disposal properly, alongside a disciplined and motivated group of players who did as they were told and played as a unit.
One of the best early-2000s Premiership squads?
With Shay Given in his prime between the sticks and playing every league game, having also been nominated in the previous season’s PFA Team of the Year, the Geordie faithful had the league’s most sought after goalkeeper and he made countless saves on his way to 14 clean sheets as the foundation of Newcastle’s success. The core of the side was bolstered further by Aaron Hughes, nearly ever-present at centre-back, alongside central midfielder Nolberto Solano and winger Laurent Robert who both had an eye for the long range spectacular – while the Frenchman’s dead ball expertise was becoming a trademark.
Sir Bobby Robson’s well-balanced outfit was completed by 17-goal Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy up front, who formed one of the league’s most feared striking partnerships. With pace, strong finishing and the ability to be direct, they were lethal when in tandem. As it happens, the season as a whole was renowned for the quality of its finishers, with van Nistelrooy ending up as top scorer on 25, followed by Thierry Henry (who also managed a head-scratching high of 20 assists) and James Beattie, plus the likes of Michael Owen and Mark Viduka – a real golden age of strikers.
But as the Premiership reached its 10-year anniversary, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who had the last laugh, and he was awarded the title of Manager of the Decade before holding aloft the Premier League trophy for the eighth time. It was a fitting and emotional end to a season containing many such moments; whether it was Blackburn Rovers sentimentally reuniting the incisive late-nineties partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, the retirement of Chelsea great Gianfranco Zola or Manchester City leaving Maine Road after 80 years.
Newcastle, meanwhile, have been unable to better their third-placed top flight finish since this campaign, but a Premier League return for Rafael Benitez’s Championship winners beckons in August. It will be good to have them back – but boy do they have a lot to live up to.