“You have just seen the Premier League champions today!” So said Sir John Hall, purring with pleasure, speaking to a Sky Sports interviewer. It was 20th October 1996, and his Newcastle United team, under the charismatic guidance of Kevin Keegan, had just delivered the sort of spanking to Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United the like of which the irascible Scot’s team were far more used to handing out rather than enduring. Geordie joy was fulsome, and they feasted on it. Sad to say though, for that passionate band of fans, it wasn’t the herald of a new dawn, it was the last flaring from the embers of a dying dream.
The previous season, Keegan’s Magpies had thrilled the domestic football scene and to many appeared bound for a league title that St James Park hadn’t seen hide nor hair of since 1927. But it was more than that. The team Keegan assembled played with a vim and vigour that spoke of a joy for the game. The had flags flying. They had bugles sounding. And they charged down that hill.
Naïve? Yes. Occasionally exposed weaknesses? Often, to be honest. There was however hardly a dull game when the Newcastle United team of that era was involved. This was the club that so many fans not involved in the title shakedown – unless they travelled along those ‘United Roads’ – wanted to see win the title. It sounds trite to say it, but it would have been for the best. Not terribly unlike fans wanting Leicester City to achieve the feat when Ranieri’s Fearless Foxes did the impossible in 2016. To some, all that may sound like some kind of rose-tinted memory, but to give perspective to the narrative, I’m no Newcastle fan. My club allegiances lie elsewhere. I am, however, a football fan.
That 1995-96 season had seen the Magpies establish a 12-point lead, before watching it insidiously whittled away by the remorseless trophy-machine that Ferguson had created at Old Trafford. Towards the end of the season, when the pressure was being ramped up, many thought the wily Scot played the younger Keegan like a puppet, pulling the strings of his perhaps over eager enthusiasm and passion. The denouement being the famous outburst of “I’d love it if we beat ‘em. Love it!” United had already gone to St James Park and won through a single Cantona strike when a home win may have put the title to bed. The Magpies fell away, and the trophy resided at Old Trafford once more.
Driven on by passion though, Keegan then pulled on some strings of his own. He managed to loosen the ones securing Hall’s purse after playing on the ones of Alan Shearer’s heart, persuading the striker to sign for his home town club in a world record transfer. Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the deal for the Geordies – aside from landing the player of course – was that Shearer had apparently turned down guaranteed glory and medals at Old Trafford to don the black and white stripes and Newcastle’s iconic number nine shirt. Newcastle United would come again in the new season.
Things didn’t start out as planned when a comprehensive 4-0 defeat to Manchester United in the Community Shield game suggested that Ferguson still had Newcastle’s number. There were enough encouraging signs from Shearer though that better times lay ahead. Sure enough, as the season began in earnest, a front line of David Ginola, Peter Beardsley, Les Ferdinand and Shearer began to deliver, as they were surely bound to do, and Newcastle were prominent in the early months of the league. How good were they? Well, Colombian star striker, Faustino Asprilla had trouble getting off the bench. The date in October, when Manchester United were to travel to the north-east, always looked like a key test of the mettle of Keegan and Newcastle. The Geordie fans wanted to acclaim a new dawn. Tell you what, they’d love it if they beat ‘em!
The teams selected for the game could be said to reflect their managers’ approach. Keegan’s Ace cards were all in his front line, with the four forwards in place. The defence was earnest in construction; Srnicek in goal and the likes of Watson, Peacock and Beresford being solid and proficient, but in amongst the mix was the Belgian, Phillipe Albert, who had more than a touch of the Maverick about him as he would prove with the most delicate of coup de grace as the game reached its climax.
In midfield, Batty was the terrier and Rob Lee the terror, coming from deep to score big goals. Alan Shearer would later describe the less than subtle philosophy of the manager. “Kevin Keegan went for broke with an attacking team. He loved to see all-out attack, often to his downfall, but when it came off it was spectacular to watch.” Unfurl those flags and prepare those bugles.
On the other hand, United’s team was structured much as the one that had travelled up north and returned with the spoils the previous season. Ferguson had the redoubtable Peter Schmeichel in goal, with the experienced back line of Gary Neville, David May, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin. The midfield had a dogged determination about it with erstwhile centre back Ronny Johnssn working alongside Nicky Butt in the engine room, plus Poborsky and Solksjaer flanking Cantona, as the lone front man.
On their previous visit, United had stifled Newcastle’s early endeavour and thrusting enterprise, settled into the game and ended up as probably worthy winners. Repeat the performance, and Ferguson could metaphorically return Keegan to his back pocket, knowing that Newcastle’s threat for the title was under control. This game though would be as much unlike that of the previous season as Ferguson’s demeanour was to Keegan’s.
In August, at Wembley, some 30,000 Geordies had travelled to Wembley for the traditional curtain-raiser to the season. They had wanted to give a bit of payback to the Red Devils for snaffling away the title they thought was heading their way and puncturing tens of thousands of dreams. With Shearer in their ranks, they could give as good as they got against United, but it wasn’t to be. Now the debt was even bigger. It had poured with rain as Newcastle went down to a heavy defeat at Wembley. On this late October day, back in the north-east though, it would rain down goals in a game the Newcastle fans were to christen, ‘Howay 50.’
It took just 12 minutes for the home team to take the lead when, following a scramble, a Darren Peacock header was deemed to have crossed the line by the officials – it clearly had – as was confirmed by Sky’s cameras, and the packed stadium sensed that perhaps something special was on the cards.
On the half-hour mark, such inclinations were confirmed. John Beresford played a ball in to Ginola out on the left. With his back to goal, the French wide man appeared to offer little danger, but a swift feint and turn opened up the angle and he fired a fierce shot across Schmeichel and into the far corner of the net. If the opening goal had been scrappy, this strike was the sort to light the blue touch paper. The second half would have the fireworks.
Despite having what had turned out to be a fairly comfortable 2-0 lead over the club many home fans would consider their major rivals for the title, there was little chance that Keegan would opt for any kind of lock-down policy after the break. For any who had even briefly considered an option so foreign to the manager’s philosophy, such thoughts were dispelled fifteen minutes after the restart.
A run down the flank by Shearer led to the sort of cross that only a centre forward could appreciate. Ferdinand met it with a thunderous header that seemed to dance around the woodwork before finding the net as the ball skidded around in almost surreal movements. Schmeichel gave it up, reacted, and then consigned himself to picking it out of the net. The game was now secure. It was party time.
A dozen minutes later Shearer got onto the scoresheet himself. Following a run down the left flank, the England striker clipped a cross field ball to Beardsley. The England striker’s shot was saved by Schmeichel. The ball ran loose to Ferdinand, and again the outstanding Danish goalkeeper kept the score down to three. Finally, the ball found its way to Shearer who delightedly drove home the fourth goal. The massed ranks of Manchester United fans who had given Shearer plenty of grief throughout the game began to head for the exits. Those United Roads were going to be full earlier than expected.
Four goals without reply was just the sort of scoreline the home fans had craved, but the pressure kept on coming. Inside the last ten minutes, Lee and Batty combined on the left, before the former found Phillipe Albert advancing in support. Four goals clear, the last thing you’re looking to see is your centre-back joining in the attack, but this was Keegan’s team and Albert was cultured footballer as well as a solid defender.
Collecting the pass, he feigned a drive on goal, causing Schmeichel to advance slightly, then clipped the ball majestically over the goalkeeper’s blond head and into the net for the most audacious of ‘cherry on the icing of the cake’ sort of goals. Not only was it the fifth goal, it was a strike of elegance and skill redolent of the sort of football Keegan preached. It resulted in one Geordie fan rushing to the dugout in front of Keegan in worship. King Kev had been promoted to a much higher rank. 36,000-odd Geordies would hardly have demurred.
Much later, the now beatified home manager recalled an incident that left a mark on him. “I always remember standing at the top of the steps as the Manchester United players left the ground,” Keegan remembered. “The last one out was Eric Cantona and he shook my hand and said, ‘You’ve got a ——- good team’. His English was perfect. You’ve got to enjoy those moments.” Indeed you have. What heights of joy. From such a summit though often follows a fall. Inside three months later, Keegan was gone.
On 8th January 1997, a statement released by the club confirmed rumours circulating around the city.
‘Newcastle United Football Club today announce the resignation of manager Kevin Keegan. Kevin informed the board of his wish to resign at the end of the season, having decided he no longer wishes to continue in football management at this stage in his life. Following lengthy discussions of which the board attempted to persuade Kevin to change his mind, both parties eventually agreed that the best route forward was for the club to, reluctantly, accept his resignation with immediate effect.’
Ever the honourable man, Keegan’a statement sounded like the lament of an exhausted man. All that charging downhill can be a wearying process, and rather than waving flags and blowing bugles, Keegan was waving goodbye and blowing kisses.
‘It was my decision and my decision alone to resign. I feel I have taken the club as far as I can, and that it would be in the best interests of all concerned if I resigned now. I wish the club and everyone concerned with it all the best for the future.’
Keegan would be replaced by Kenny Dalglish, as he had been as a Liverpool player a couple of decades earlier. The new man couldn’t work the Oracle though, and Newcastle again finished as runners-up behind Manchester United. You see, Hall’s statement had been correct, even if he hadn’t meant it in that context.
The following season they were outside of the top ten and wouldn’t revisit such exalted heights until under the management of Sir Bobby Robson, when they finished in fourth place. Keegan did return briefly, but the magic had gone. That day in October had been the summit. From there, everything was downhill. No bugles. No Flags. Just downhill.