24 hours in Milan (and four in Oslo) watching Newcastle United in the Champions League again after 20 years

FourFourTwo Deputy Editor Matt Ketchell at the San Siro in 2003 and 2023
FourFourTwo Deputy Editor Matt Ketchell at the San Siro in 2003 and 2023 (Image credit: Matt Ketchell)

Direct flights from Newcastle to Milan are rare, and pricey, so a Toon supporter needs to be creative when booking European adventures. Budgets must be protected as hopefully there will be more trips of these nature to come.

But that's what I thought 20 years ago, aged 17, when I travelled to Milan to watch Newcastle play Inter Milan in the latter stages of the 2002/03 tournament (there were two group stages back then). "This is just the beginning, we'll be back next year, we'll go one further". The naivety of youth.

I'm writing this article in Oslo airport midway through the return leg of my trip to Milan. Other creative itineraries have seen fans travel to Milan via Majorca and Barcelona. I'm zig zagging home past Newcastle to Scandinavia and will end the night in London before returning to the North East at some point this week. Totally worth it of course.

On our 2003 trip to Milan I took with me a 0.8 megapixel camera that we got free with a Windows computer our family purchased from PC World. So while that trip was documented, it was in extremely low resolution.

My memories of it are even lower res. That was the last time Newcastle played away in the Champions League proper. In the two proceeding decades Newcastle have felt so far from the Champions League. That dark March night in Milan 20 years ago seems hazy and surreal, fading like a Marty McFly polaroid. 

Newcastle fans Milan

Newcastle United fans in Navigli before their first game in the Champions League for 20 years (Image credit: Matt Ketchell)

Did I really see my team take the lead twice in the San Siro? It's a question I've asked myself on a few occasions since, usually while traveling home from disappointing cup exits to lower league opposition.

Last week I lost a bet with a colleague (who wasn't even at the original game) about the end Alan Shearer scored his two goals at during the 2-2 draw vs Inter Milan. I was utterly convinced both came at the OPPOSITE end to which 12,000 Newcastle fans were crammed in.

Anyway, here we are back in Milan. And like a weathered old pro in the embers of his career, I'm advising younger supporters to "take it all in".

That's exactly what I'm attempting to do as we exit the metro stop adjacent to the stadium an hour before kick off. We look up and are immediately slapped in the face by the sheer dominance of the venue. It's just so aggressive. Pure arrogance, angles, steal, cement and stone - those walls have some stories to tell.

The San Siro fan experience is as brutal as its architecture. Police grunt and gesture at you like you're lost cattle, which to be fair we must have looked like at times, black and white blobs roaming north west Milan. It's like I'm taking part in a Tough Mudder, motivating myself as I sweat my way through check point after check point. Stage One is a ground level portaloo where I'm pissing for England knowing that when we finally reach the top tier of the Curva Nord there will be just 12 toilets between 4,200 of us.

General shot outside the San Siro during the early evening

The San Siro fan experience can be as brutal as its architecture (Image credit: Matt Ketchell)

Our passports are checked with all the charm of US immigration and closely checked off against names written in biro on our away tickets. Next we're filing up one of the San Siro's iconic sloping spiral walkways wondering if this was the one Inter fans famously pushed a moped all the way up in 2001

Industrial chicken wire obstructs the view somewhat, but we can just about make out the AC Milan fan shouting "hey f**k you!" from the home section concourse as we sweat our way past them on our way up to the clouds.

I'm aware of the irony writing this as a Newcastle United fan, but Milan's away end is extremely high and steep. If St. James' Park is nose bleed, the San Siro is ear-bleed. So damn high. At least being in the sky prevented the urban hail of lighters, batteries, coins and miscellaneous liquid that fell upon us 20 years ago.

But up there the view is breath-taking. Famously, the stadium's east side is only two tiered meaning there is a massive gap between the roof and the second tier. Is this a wonderful, deliberate architectural feature? The views of the city are stunning and I find my gaze wandering left frequently during the game, drinking in miles and miles of surburban Milan while the evening sun sets. Refocusing my low res 2003 memories of the place. 

Newcastle are back.

AC Milan fans in the San Siro Curva Sud during their Champions League match vs Newcastle United

AC Milan fans in the Curva Sud before kick off (Image credit: Matt Ketchell)

For all the visual bombardment, it's the SOUND of the San Siro that two-foots you in the chest. The place booms, blasts, echos, whistles and crackles. I don't think I've heard anything like it. Quarter of a mile in the distance Milan's Curve Sud are packed like a choir of screaming sardines. Their choreographed chanting is led by a Capo on a tinny megaphone. Mesmerising.

The Toon Army are not a shrinking violet fan base, but they were given a masterclass by AC Milan's Ultras here. It's not that we didn't sing, but when we did it didn't feel like we were generating any sound waves. Noise that was omitted from the away end was seemingly sucked up by the frothing volcano at the other end of the stadium and blown away like a dandelion.

The San Siro hasn't changed much in the 20 years since I was last inside it, and that's part of a long term problem faced by both clubs in Milan. It's a dead weight on the backs of both that they would be keen to shed.

In 2003 when we arrived inside the ground we began, as you do, looking for your row and seat numbers, an exercise that made a mockery of the needle in a haystack cliche. Somethings never changes, and like last time, stewards simply shrugged and advised us to stand "anywhere" over the din. We convened on the concourse next to four Italian paramedics who spent more time WhatsApp'ing than attending emergencies.

Newcastle United FC team line up during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Group Stage - Group F football match between AC Milan and Newcastle United FC at San Siro Stadium. Final score; AC Milan 0:0 Newcastle United FC.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While this isn't a match report (Newcastle would've lost the game comfortably on points were it a boxing bout) to talk about the football, I wonder if Eddie Howe's men will earn a harder point all season? The sights, sounds and context of the occasion will have been emotionally draining on the players. The club's weather delayed flight, the warm early evening kick off and the energy sapping pitch will have hurt physically. The players did brilliantly under the circumstances.

The positives from the night for Eddie Howe were significant. A second clean sheet in a row from the brick wall that was Nick Pope, these have been sparse in recent matches. The wide-eyed, beaming grin of Jacob Murphy as the Champions League theme played (4,200 others were pulling exactly the same face high up to his right in the away end). Homegrown talent Sean Longstaff being the standout midfielder in a three that also consisted of two established internationals who cost a combined £95 million.

Newcastle United issued supporters with 'Important Information' a week before the fixture, within which was advice that "street crime, including pickpocketing, can take place in Milan". When Elliot Anderson played a square ball to Longstaff (Whitley Bay and North Shields combining) in the final minute of added-on time we wondered if we were witnessing an incredible heist. 

Sean Longstaff of Newcastle United FC shoots the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group F match between AC Milan and Newcastle United FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on September 19, 2023 in Milan, Italy.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Only a wonderful tip over the bar by Milan substitute keeper, Marco Sportiello, prevented away end limbs that might've forced the Italian paramedics into action.

As is often routine in the San Siro, and on the continent, the away fans were held back after the game for 30 minutes. It allowed fans to debrief and take in what they had witnessed, Geordies sprawled on the stairways like they've just completed the Great North Run.

Eventually, we spiralled out and down the San Siro's outer slopes and into the night only to be told at the Metro stop "No more trains. No more trains".

With energy levels now low, and early stage hangovers kicking in, we faced a lengthy walk back to the Navigli area where most Newcastle fans had set up base camp for the last 48 hours.

By the end of the night my feet and head are throbbing, I'm sweating pure Aperol Spritz and my watch reads over 20,000 steps.

Unlike 20 years ago, there is much more milage in Newcastle United's Champions League adventure. I intend to savour every step and bead of sweat.

More Newcastle United stories

"Eddie Howe has a ruthless edge" – Ian Harte reveals his old manager's tough side ahead of Newcastle's trip to Milan

Why Newcastle United were in trouble with UEFA ahead of Champions League game against AC Milan – after breaking rules

Newcastle United's long-serving physio on the 'volcano' that was the takeover and Eddie Howe's Keegan-like arrival

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