HAVING been involved in Newcastle United’s last Champions League campaign, Steve Harper and Shola Ameobi admit the memories of that season have got them dreaming of European nights returning to St James’ Park.
Harper and Ameobi were both part of Sir Bobby Robson’s squad that went toe to toe with Europe’s elite in the 2002-03 season.
A statue is set to be unveiled of the former Newcastle boss outside St James’ Park before their final home game of the season against Manchester City on May 6, but the memories of his reign on Tyneside remain.
Ten years have passed since their last foray into Europe’s premier club competition, but a remarkable season under current boss Alan Pardew has Tyneside dreaming of a return to the Champions League.
Harper was in goal the night Newcastle beat Juventus 1-0 at St James’ Park, and having experienced the buzz of Champions League football on Tyneside before, he admits the prospect of it returning is spurring them on in the fight to finish in the top four.
Speaking at a visit to Langley Park School, where Sir Bobby attended as a child, which has raised £1200 for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, Harper said: “We got into the Champions League, which was fantastic. Me and Shola still love it. The lads have recently mentioned it once or twice!
“We made appearances in that, I remember Shola scoring goals away in the Champions League, they’re special nights. For them to come back would be amazing.”
Ameobi also has fond memories of that season having scored against Barcelona in the Nou Camp and he believes a return to the competition will be a huge reward for the fans that endured a season out of England’s top flight in 2009-10.
He said: “It shows how quickly things can change. If you’d asked me a couple of years ago if we’d be fighting for a Champions League spot a couple of years down the line, I’d have laughed at you.
Nobody would have believed it.
“We’ve had a taste of it and that’s where they want to be; why not with the size of the club?
“It’s a great reward for the fans who came to all those places around the country in the Championship. It’s a great reward for them to be on the Internet looking at flights, rather than trains.
“The fans have tasted European football and they believe that there’s no reason why we can’t get back up there.”
A lot has been said about the camaraderie amongst Pardew’s players this season and Shola admits the sprit within the Newcastle dressing room bears similarities to the one under Robson.
He said: “The thing I remember is that as a squad we used to do quite a lot of things together, It wasn’t just about playing on the Saturday, going to training and then going home.
“It was a real togetherness in the squad. We all went out together. it was the sort of atmosphere he wanted to create at the time.
“A lot has been said over the last couple of years about how unified the squad has been since we went down.
“You’ve got to have a dressing- room that’s unified, that’s pulling in the same direction and certainly that wasn’t the case after Sir Bobby left, which culminated, a few years later, in us dropping down a tier.
“Since then, the likes of Chris Hughton taking charge and now Alan Pardew kicking us on, he’s really brought in players he knows will get in what he’s trying to do.”
Pardew’s men take on Wigan Athletic at the DW Stadium tomorrow hoping to maintain fourth place in the table.
However, Chelsea’s semifinal win over Barcelona has cast doubt over Newcastle’s Champions League hopes. If Roberto Di Matteo’s side beat Bayern Munich in the final, the team which finishes fourth could miss out.
“It would be very harsh for us,” Pardew said. “It would be a kick in the teeth for us.
“We don’t want Chelsea to win that Champions League final because we want that spot, along with Tottenham and Arsenal.
“We are already in the Europea League, that is done. We are there so that is a major achievement.
“We now have this opportunity for the Champions’ League.”
Pardew is already looking at a host of summer targets and it is understood the Magpies boss is looking at Burnley full back Kieran Trippier.
He said: “Of course we have to invest in players but we have to get it right.
“The pressure will increase on us.
“Our recruitment record over 18 months has been excellent.
We are focusing on players to take us forward.”