In 1968, I didn’t expect us to win the Fairs Cup.
We had quite a strong team filled with experienced ‘old style’ footballers. We had big Wyn Davies, who could roll above anyone to head it in the net, with Pop Robson working off him. That was a good strike partnership; different to Shearer and Ferdinand but similarly effective. We had strong midfielders: Dave Elliott, who’d sweep-up in front of the back four; Ollie Burton, who was good on the ball; Geoff Allen, who was only knee-high to a grasshopper, but tricky and could dart up the line. Frank Clark, David Craig, Bob Moncur: strong, talented defenders, who you wouldn’t pick a fight with. We’d won the youth cup in 1963 too, which meant that – in addition to those experienced heads – we also had the likes of Alan Foggon and Alan Suddick coming through.
We were good. We were a club that tried. But we didn’t expect to win the Fairs Cup.
I was 15 when Newcastle qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, along with Liverpool, Leeds and Chelsea, by virtue of the ‘one city one club’ rule. We’d only returned to Division 1 in 1965, after four years in the second tier, so we certainly weren’t anticipating silverware any time soon. There had been a couple of seasons spent consolidating our place in the top division, so only after that were you thinking to yourself: “I reckon we can get top half, a bit of entertainment… maybe a cup run.” And, of course, the 1968-69 season brought us exactly that.
We played six matches at St James’ Park en route to winning our most recent piece of silverware, and I went to every game. I didn’t miss any home game; if Newcastle were playing, I would be in attendance. League games? Of course. Reserve games? Yes, those too. European games? I was there. Someone’s testimonial at Whitley Bay? Just try and stop me, but don’t ask me whose testimonial it was.
My whole family were big Newcastle supporters, so my parents would make sure I was decked-up in all of the appropriate regalia. A scarf, wrapped six times around my neck, a woolly hat and – curiously – a Manchester City scarf on my wrist. Strange behaviour now, but in those days it was common to wear an item representing your ‘second team’. Some of my mates had Gateshead or another local team, but I liked the title-winning Man City side from 1967-68. A glory-supporting Newcastle fan; who’d have thought?
Match-days were exciting. Honours weren’t on the cards for Newcastle at the time (or so we thought), so you were attending purely for the enjoyment of doing so. You woke up on a Saturday morning, excited to get there early to soak-up the atmosphere as it escalated and simmered. My place was in the Leazes End: one of the two stands responsible for building-up the atmosphere in those days, the other being the uncovered Gallowgate.
Some of the pre-game chanting featured another curious nod to ‘other teams,’ and this would take an ironic relevance in the latter stages of the Fairs Cup. As a means of stoking the noise and anticipation, the Leazes End would bellow “Rangers! Rangers!” before the Gallowgate followed – competitively – with “Celtic! Celtic!” Don’t ask me why, but this peculiar battle chant would reverberate around the ground until it was replaced by a mighty crescendo of Blaydon Races.
The crowds – 40,000, 50,000-strong – were incredible in those days; all standing, of course, other than youngsters, whose dads would plonk them on top of the concrete barriers for a view above the flat-caps and pompom hats. The old ground was tatty and no one took a blind bit of notice if you peed on the floor (or in the pocket of the fella in front, if you didn’t like him). The ground stunk, but it all contributed to the unique spirit of the place.
But it was the noise which gave it its edge. Constant, intense noise – staggering at times, and some teams crumbled when they visited St James’ Park. Especially some of the European ones…
Qualifying for Europe was so exciting.
In the 1960s, though the media coverage was nothing to what it is today, these big continental teams were becoming increasingly familiar. Obviously, you had Match of the Day on a Saturday, which would give you half an hour of English football, but you’d get something in midweek which showed the European stuff. I can remember watching Forest, Man Utd and Celtic on those programmes and thinking “That’s fantastic, I wish we could be involved.”
However, it was the 1966 World Cup which brought a different level of coverage; you got to see all these amazing international players for the first time. So, when Newcastle qualified for the Fairs Cup, I can remember my mates and I saying to each other: “Bloody hell, we might see Eusebio!” We just loved the thought of Newcastle being in Europe and though we didn’t expect to get very far, there was an incredible thrill about being in the competition.
In the mid-1960s the big name coming out of Holland was Ajax (or Ay-jax, as we pronounced it, incorrectly, typically), but the Dutch league was essentially being shared between them and Feyenoord at the time. PSV Eindhoven were around too, of course, but their glory days would come much later.
Undoubtedly, with four Eredivisies to their name in the Sixties, our First Round opponents were a big deal. You just thought: “Wow, we’ve got the second best team in Holland coming to town; this is going to be amazing!” Newcastle, at the time, were very direct: get it out to the wings, lots of crosses in to Big Wyn, lots of headers; so to be facing opponents with an entirely different philosophy sounded really good. The excitement was incredible; we were all really, really looking forward to the ties.
Whilst Ajax had a superstar emerging in the form of Cruijff, Feyenoord’s players were less familiar to us; maybe that had something to do with Holland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup (they were pipped in the early rounds by Switzerland). Nevertheless, they had some tremendous players who would lead them to another league title during the season we faced them, followed by a European Cup in 1970. I assume that Newcastle’s conquering of them in the early stages of the Fairs Cup enabled them to concentrate on the league!
Rinus Israel, the sharp-shooting defender, the prolific Henk Wery and William van Hanegem – who’d later be considered one of Holland’s best ever players – all featured against Newcastle. Despite not being household names on these shores, they arrived with serious pedigree, and you’d have expected them to be formidable opponents.
On the night of the Feyenoord game – our first one ever in European competition – I got the number 65 bus from Benton Road, which dropped me off outside the ground at about half past five. I found my place in the Leazes End, and that’s when the “Rangers! Celtic!” chants and the Blaydon Races got going; well before kick-off. I must have sang “gannin along the Scotswood Road” about eleven times before any player had kicked a ball that night.
In those days, you would only see the players a few minutes before kick-off, unlike now, when they’re out on the pitch well beforehand. With the light from the giant floodlights beginning to swell, and as the noise was reaching that an incredible, ferocious pre-game peak – I can remember watching the Feyenoord players, clad in their funny-looking ‘halves’ kit, coming out for a quick warm-up. With the noise now deafening, their kick-about was going badly. Misplacing passes, booting it over the crossbar – they looked all over the place.
I turned to my mate and said “these look nervous.”
And when – in the sixth minute – Geoff Allen beat his marker with ease and whipped the ball in from the left hand side, for Jimmy Scott to bundle home the opener, my observations had been proved correct. Inevitably, St James’ Park erupted – Newcastle United had arrived in Europe.
Allen would go on to have a fantastic match; his wing-play comparable to Keith Gillespie in that famous ‘Tino’ game from the 1990s when we walloped Barcelona. He tore his marker apart time and again, playing a role in all three first-half goals. For all our excitement at seeing a brand new team with a new philosophy, Feyenoord couldn’t cope with our tried-and-tested wing-play with lots of crosses.
Feyenoord were never in the game. From the sixth minute, when that first goal went in, you could see their heads drop. With the crowd baying noise at them, you could see them looking at each other and wondering “what the hell’s this?” The atmosphere, for ninety minutes, was unstoppable, constant, and you had the feeling that the Dutch players couldn’t cope with it.
Despite us roaring into a comfortable lead by half-time, the moment of the game arrived shortly after the break as my hero – that man, Wyn Davies – crashed a typical header into the net for 4-0. Though the noise was immense before the game and during the first half, I genuinely believe that it was that moment which sparked the biggest cheer of the night.
It was an amazing night and naturally we assumed that the 4-0 scoreline would be enough to see us progress. I wasn’t old enough to travel abroad and there was no coverage whatsoever for the second leg, so finding out whether or not we made it to Round 2 was reliant upon me picking-up a Journal on my way to school, a week later. We lost 2-0, and I can recall an interview with Bob Moncur in which he stated that we got battered for ninety minutes. But, obviously, that incredible night at St James’ was enough to see us progress despite the loss.
“Christ. If this is what European football is all about; roll it on, we want more of it.”
More would come, of course, and the 1968-69 season would go on to be one of the most memorable in my 67 years of supporting the Toon.
Above all, though, it was about the joy of playing in European competition. We didn’t demand success in those times, just as we don’t demand success now. But it was joyful and exciting to support Newcastle United in 1968, and things would only get better.