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Looking back – Season 2002/03 - 02/06/2003

Looking back – Season 2002/03
   Jonathan Woodgate
   Manchester United

Overall it’s been a very successful year for the club and although another season has gone by without any silverware, it was a massive boost to once again qualify for the Champions League. As we did the season before last, we’ve qualified for the top competition on merit, and improving on our finishing position from fourth to third shows definite progress. There were one or two problems – no team goes through a season lasting nine months without a lean spell – we had a slow start, poor finish, and a disappointing FA defeat, but the negatives don’t compare to the positives. On a personal front it was certainly a year to forget, I was fit and available for selection for 90% of the games yet played in a very few. I’m hoping to return to pre-season training in good shape and I’ll do my best to get back into first team contention.

Looking back, it’s very difficult to explain why we didn’t start the season well. We had a good pre-season and didn't do anything different form the previous year. We then kicked off the league with a 4-0 home win against West Ham. Confidence was high, but we then had a few tricky games, going to Maine Road to face Kevin Keegan’s newly promoted team was always going to be tough. The Leeds defeat was quite incredible – we’ve a great recent record against them and in a season that they’d rather forget, it’s hard to believe that they managed a 2-0 win at St. James. To be fair we had a real go at them but just couldn’t get past Paul Robinson. Chelsea then turned us over 3-0 and although we got a couple of good results, we then went down to Blackburn at Ewood and lost 5-2.

Maybe the Blackburn game was a watershed, we played poorly but were also handicapped as Dabi was sent off very early in the game. Sometimes you can cope when you’re a man down, but rarely when you’re down for virtually the full 90 minutes. We then went on an excellent run which coincided with winning the next three Champions League games. Again it’s difficult to say why we lost the first three games of the competition, perhaps it was simply because we just didn’t know what to expect? We have quality International and experienced players within the squad, but the Champions League was new to the team, once we got to grips with it we suddenly started to pick up the points – which bodes well for next season. We’d earned our place in the competition but initially we just didn’t perform. Winning games is a great habit to have and looking at the players we have, perhaps the boost to their confidence was all important.

The run from late October until April was excellent, if that had been maintained throughout the season we may have won the league – or it would have been very close. Even when we dropped points it was rare for us not to win the following game. The Liverpool victory on New Years Day was very important to us, as was the win over Chelsea in March. Who knows what would have happens if we could have turned the Arsenal draw into a home win? But irrespective, the final phase of the season was a bit of a reality check. Losing at Everton was unfortunate, but the defeat at home to Man Utd taught us that we still have plenty to do. Man Utd were good that day – and we didn’t play well, the result speaks for itself. I can tell you that the players hadn’t got themselves carried away, but there had been talk of us doing something in the media. It hit hard, and then we failed to beat two struggling teams; Fulham and Aston Villa, and suddenly we went from Championship contenders to having to fight tooth and nail for Champions League qualification. However it wasn't only us feeling the pressure, both Chelsea and Liverpool were also dropping points against teams they should have been putting away.

At the end of the day we finished in third spot – and that’s where we deserved to be. We played some great football, and the signing of Jonathan Woodgate made a big difference. He’s a quality player, but also a genuinely good lad to have around the place. In summary, the club is moving forward and supporters can look forward to seeing the strongest Newcastle United squad for a very long time. Twelve months ago it was said that an improvement on fourth place would be very tough, but we did it, and this coming season we’ll be looking for another year of improvement.

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