Our Last Trip In Europe

Last updated : 07 August 2019 By Footy Mad - Editor

With just a few games of the 2011/12 campaign remaining, there was talk of a Champions League finish amongst fans, but not within the dressing room at St James' Park - says former Toon defender James Perch.

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"The top four? It never really got a mention! It kind of went under the radar that we even finished - there wasn't really big a deal made about it, or I can't remember that anyway!

"You say that now, United to finish fifth, it would be amazing because of the top six and the fact no-one is going to break into it. Although there wasn't really a top six back then, it was still very competitive - we finished above Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton - to do that wasn't easy but at the time, you didn't even think about it, you just got on with it.

"I still look at it now, and think, 'wow, we finished fifth in the Premier League' - it was brilliant.

"It was massive to have leaders - we had Colo who was captain, Jonas - they were very close, he was brilliant, and I still speak to him now.

"We had Joey for a short while until he left - we just had a hard working squad and we knew what were were - we weren't world beaters, we had a couple, but most of us weren't, but we were grafters and that is what we did out on the pitch."

The summer that followed United's fifth place finish saw Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton - the sides that finished below them - collectively spend more than £120m on players; United spent just £6.7m on Vurnon Anita.

Within the United camp, there was an air of frustration that the club didn't kick-on and establish themselves within the top five.

"It was frustrating at the time but it's more frustrating now when I look back - if only we had a bit more investment we could have held onto that 5th place or who knows gone on a little more, or not fallen as far down as we did.

"Mike Ashley probably thought we got to 5th with that squad, we can do it again but it's such a competitive league that you can't stand still. You have to keep improving and we didn't do that."

The Magpies couldn't find the balance between playing two games in a week, with the Europa League games on a Thursday quickly impacting on their league form.

As the European campaign got into full fold, United lost 10 games out of 13 from November, with fans starting to turn on Pardew.

The faithful however enjoy their trips to the continent - with takeovers of town squares in Bruges, Bordeaux and Benfica particularly highlights.

Perch admits that he had seen nothing like it.

"I loved it. It was my first time traveling to play European games - it was great.

"We were playing on a Thursday night, so we would go on the Tuesday, train on the Wednesday, play the Thursday and come back that night.

"It was just a great time going away to all these nice cities - we went to Russia, to Bordeaux, played Brugge - it was just nice going to these places and different places.

"We would go for a walk around the city bump into all the fans you would see them when you were walking around.

"It was fantastic of them to travel all that way. As a fan, it must be amazing to go and watch your team do well abroad."

United finished second in their group before heading to Ukraine and then Russia to reach the quarter finals against Benfica.

The Magpies lost 3-1 in the Stadium of Light but the Cisse's away goal was enough to send the away end into celebration, and as the return leg at St James' Park neared there was a belief amongst fans that the wait for a trophy was over.

Yet in the dressing room, the focus on just taking each game as it came.

"It never got mentioned about winning it. It was tough to get out of the group at first but when we got going we really did well.

"The game against Benfica, I played in the away leg, and it was an unbelievable experience because we played against some great players - they were a world class team.

"It was just great to be out there. Then we drew at home - it was tough to take, but we had such a good journey, no one-fancied us to go that far."

United drew 1-1 in the return leg, and the hopes of trophy win were over - but the fight for safety wasn't. Not until the penultimate game of the season was United's Premier League status confirmed - thanks to a 2-1 win over QPR.

But finishing just five points above the drop zone was a reminder of the delicate nature of the top flight.

"We lost a few players - Demba went in January, all that unrest with him.

"A few not getting on with the manager, we had lost a few players and it was tough playing Thursday and then playing Sunday - we didn't have a massive squad.

"It was tough for those who did. I know teams do it now but they've got 25-30 men squads."

Perch's memories of the Europa League adventure were to be his last experienced in the black and white shirt as he moved to Wigan in July 2013 - an exit he admits he didn't want.

"In that last year that I was there, I was promised a new contract from Pardew, and he said 'Oh we can sign it in the January', so I said okay fair enough then January came.

"I think we signed Moussa Sissoko and others - so I went from going to sign a new contract to being pulled in by the gaffer when the new players signed and him telling me 'Mike isn't going to offer you a new contract now.'

"So I played the rest of that season knowing that and then when Wigan came in - I thought well Newcastle obviously don't want me there, so I will move on.

"I wish I had stayed and fought for my place but I couldn't risk staying and Mike not wanting me to be there and me not playing for a year."

Yet Perch left United with fond memories - although with only one goal to his name, a strike against Manchester United, something Perch admits he continues to tell people about today, and is his personal favourite memory in a United shirt.

"It was a game that we went into, talking about how they were going to play.

"I remember John Carver saying if Demba [Ba] gets it then shoot across goal and De Gea will parry it out - and that's actually how I got my goal!

"We probably scored too early - they got frustrated, it wound them-up slightly, and they came out and did well.

"It was heartbreak in the last minute.

"It's horrible, there is no worse way to get beat than in the last minute - people will probably say 'it was against Man U, you should have got beat anyway' but that night we put in a great shift and deserved more.

"It's when you deserve more and get beat then get lucky and get beat, and I think definitely we deserved more from that game."

Looking back at his time with Newcastle, Perch is keen to each moment, and admits he wants to return to St James' Park to watch United when he hangs up his boots - if only to prove to his children that he played in such a stadium!

"It was surreal really - when you're in it, you just get on with it. You don't think much of it as a professional because you've got a job to do but now looking back it was unbelievable - I can't believe I did it to be honest.

"I just can't wait to go back up there and watch games with my kids - and show them I used to play there because they probably won't believe me now!"