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By the Naviglio Grande in Milan, where the canal felt as much like the River Tyne with black and white flags decorating its bridges and 3,000 tenors chorusing about Sandro Tonali, you will find ‘the world’s smallest bar’ tucked amid the stone walls.
There are just four seats at Backdoor 43. In the cobbled streets outside, meanwhile, that mass of would-be punters. The juxtaposition served as illustration of the excitement around Newcastle’s return to the Champions League after 20 years away – for the scramble for match tickets has been as frenzied as the fight for one of those barstools.
Just as sparse here are taxis. A rail strike coupled with an electric storm and the bedlam of fashion week means that foot has often been the sole mode of transport. The Toon Army, though, will gladly march the five miles from the city centre to the San Siro should the travel chaos pervade today.
It was an iconic night in the club’s history and stories from then were being retold in the bars flanking the canal on Monday night. Once, that is, they had stopped sliding bare bellied across flooded pavements.
Newcastle fans are in a joyous mood as they party in Milan ahead of Champions League return
The Toon Army soaked up the atmosphere in the streets as they prepare to face AC Milan
‘There was an alcohol ban that day, so we all gathered in a square near the station, where some ‘local entrepreneurs’ were chucking crates of beer from the back of a van,’ recalled Chris Johnson, 38. ‘We were kicking footballs about and it was great fun, no trouble at all.
‘That was different when we got inside the San Siro. I had a terrible view so moved to some free seats behind the goal, wondering why they were spare. We soon realised. Within a few minutes, coins, bottles, flares, p***, it was all raining down on us. The Milan fans were above us, it was outrageous.
‘Not that we cared when Shearer scored at our end to make it 2-1. The whole place erupted. We thought we were going through to the quarter-finals. Inter equalised and that killed us, we went out in the next game. Never did I think then that it would be 20 years before another Champions League away trip. If felt like the start of something, not the end.’
Yet here Newcastle are, just. The storms above northern Italy delayed their arrival in Milan by nearly three hours. Their decision to train at home in a bid to avoid spying eyes at the San Siro backfired, disrupting preparation on the eve of such a landmark game. Eddie Howe was two hours late for his press conference and sources say the club are likely to be hit with a UEFA warning before a ball has even been kicked.
Howe should have been talking about his first ever attendance at a Champions League fixture when he finally arrived at his San Siro media briefing at 9pm last night.
‘I believe there was a weather problem,’ he said. ‘We sat on the runway for quite some time. It can happen. It has been a long day, an early start and late finish. It’s a slightly later arrival time than we would have liked for the players, but it’s no big deal.’
Milan’s build-up was also not without its problems. Manager Stefano Pioli was feeling the glare of the cameras when a power cut left him in darkness at the club’s training ground. Perhaps for him it was a welcome reprieve, given the questions surrounding Milan’s 5-1 loss against Inter on Saturday.
The pink pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport spoke of ‘Milan in crisis’ on Monday. ‘The derby risks having a devastating psychological effect,’ they noted. ‘Their speed and physicality suddenly disappeared against Inter.’
Newcastle’s decision to train at home and avoid spying eyes at the San Siro backfired as they were delayed into Milan by nearly three hours
Eddie Howe and his players were delayed due to a storm in a blow to their preparations
Howe should have been talking about his first ever Champions League game and the club could be punished after he arrived two hour late for his press conference
But nor were Newcastle spared. ‘They are less scary than on the day of the draw,’ went the editorial. ‘They are also suffering. They have lost to Manchester City, Liverpool and Brighton, proving they are not worthy of the first pot.’
They were at least complimentary about the returning Tonali, who left Milan for £52million this summer. The newspaper earmarked him as Newcastle’s dangerman.
In the cult Geordie TV show Auf Wierdersehen Pet, the character Oz, played by Jimmy Nail, is miffed to learn that his estranged wife has a new Italian boyfriend from Milan.
‘Who’s this Sandro gadgie?’ he says, in a clip that has done the rounds on social media this week. Forty years on and it is the men of Tyneside who are now swooning over Sandro from Milan, as their song of choice by the canal testified.
Tonali, though, arrived with Howe for the San Siro press call and revealed that the transition has not been easy.
Newcastle’s new signing Sandro Tonali has discussed his struggles adapting to life on Tyneside
‘This summer has been hard,’ he said. ‘It was not easy to find my place at Newcastle. At the beginning I was kind of lost, but I received so much help from everyone.’
Not so helpful was the advice of his new team-mates to take his family to a Wetherspoons for tea, and that was a lighter moment here after talk of his early struggle.
‘After the game versus Aston Villa (won 5-1 on opening day), I asked about places for a night out with my family,’ revealed Tonali. ‘I did not receive the answer I was expecting. You don’t usually go to a pub with your family, but it was fun.’
As those by the banks of the canal discovered on Monday night, pubs certainly are fun. But seeing their team play in the Champions League after two decades away is the real reason for merriment.
The Group of Death alongside PSG and Dortmund it may be, but for followers of Newcastle, they suddenly feel alive again.
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