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After finishing in 11th place at the end of the 2000-01 Premier League season, Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United enjoyed a progressive 2001-02 campaign, finishing fourth, to qualify for the 2002-03 edition of the UEFA Champions League.
Robson, if he was to deliver an improved finish in the league at the end of the season by chasing down Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, he needed new signings to add both quality and depth to his squad, to supplement Alan Shearer’s goal scoring and cope with the demands of European competition.
Chairman Freddy Shepherd delivered: midfielders Hugo Viana and Darren Ambrose were signed from Sporting CP and Ipswich Town and centre-backs Jonathan Woodgate and Titus Bramble joined from Leeds United and the Tractor Boys, for a grand total of £23.5 million.
Bramble joined with particularly rave reviews: an England Under-21 international, he was a regular as George Burley’s Portman Road side finished fifth in the top flight on debut two seasons previous.
Pre-season started well: a tour of the Netherlands was enjoyed with 22 unanswered goals against vv Capelle, De Tubanters, GVVV Veenendaal and UDI ‘19 Beter Bed.
However, a 3-1 loss against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground – despite Viana’s first goal for the club on English soil – was disappointing, particularly because it ended any of Robson’s side’s momentum ahead of the preseason finale, on 7 August 2002: the visit of Barcelona to St. James’ Park.
Louis van Gaal’s Camp Nou outfit were by no means the force that they are today, having finished the 2001-02 La Liga season in fourth, but they promised to provide a stern test of Newcastle’s mettle with a squad boasting talents including Carles Puyol, Gaizka Mendieta, Luis Enrique and Patrick Kluivert, amongst others.
A week before facing Zeljeznicar of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the third round of Champions League qualifying, the last thing Robson’s Magpies needed was a second defeat in the space of a week.
But, a defeat they got, and a resounding, thumping one at that.
A week after his 21st birthday, Bramble, in particular, was singled out for putting in a shocking performance. At best, his display quelled the spiralling, unrealistic expectations of him and the rest of the squad on Tyneside.
Both Bramble and Viana were greeted by the St. James’ faithful in the pouring rain before kick-off, but were both soon given the cold, hard suckerpunch of reality that Newcastle fans have become all too used to when Kluivert and Javier Saviola put the visitors 2-0 ahead after 35 minutes.
On the half hour, the Dutchman, who, of course, went on to play in black and white, held off Bramble after expertly controlling a seemingly innocuous clearance before poking his shot through Shay Given’s legs to put his side 1-0 in front.
Bramble played Saviola onside less than ten minutes later, giving him the chance to convert Mendieta’s delicate chipped pass past Given on the volley to seemingly put the game to an end less than 40 minutes after it had begun.
But the first half did end positively for the hosts, though: after a swift counter-attack, Kieron Dyer saw his effort bundled off the goal line.
The game was, however, put beyond doubt shortly after the restart. Enrique nodded in Mendieta’s cross at the near post, having glided past a static Bramble, to put the visitors three goals ahead.
It was to get worse for the former Ipswich defender: he put a counter-attack to an end by fouling Enrique in the penalty area but Given spared his blushes by saving Kluivert’s spot-kick.
There were no Faustino Asprilla-esque heroics against Barcelona this time, either. Van Gaal’s side travelled back to Catalonia as resounding 3-0 victors.
It is fair to say, then, that Bramble failed to endear himself to the St. James’ Park crowd on his home debut. Robson led Newcastle to an excellent third-placed finish at the end of the 2002-03 season, behind champions Manchester United and Arsenal, but not thanks to Bramble.
He featured only 13 times, but it got worse for him a year later: he was voted as 2003-04’s ‘Worst Premier League Player’ by the readers of The Fiver, a football newsletter compiled by the Guardian.
He ended his time on Tyneside at the end of the 2006-07 season after a brief resurgence and 105 league appearances. He went on to play for both Wigan Athletic and Newcastle’s close neighbours, Sunderland, in the top flight, before dropping into non-league with Stowmarket Town.
Currently, he is a coach of Ipswich’s youth teams and recently helped Ghanaian Premier League outfit Hearts of Oak, whilst enjoying charity work with the Future Stars Charity alongside former Tractor Boys midfielder Simon Milton.
You would hope that he does not draw on his performance against Barcelona for textbook examples of defending when he is coaching.