Monday 31 December 2018

The Queens of the South are alive and kicking

Arriving in Scotland whilst the Old Firm derby is taking place you could be forgiven for thinking there are only two football clubs that matter to anyone in these lands, and when I arrive in the town of Dumfries on a fairly mild winters day all the pubs are rammed full of fans watching Rangers versus Celtic. There is however as we all well know, more to Scottish football than just those two Glaswegian giants, and I am in town to visit the home of one of the many other teams who ply their trade in the Scottish leagues, the interestingly named Queen of the South.

That interesting name is I guess a good place from which to start our gaze into this fascinating football club based in the heart of south west Scotland, so here goes... When local poet David Dunbar stood for parliament in the 1857 general election he referred to the town as 'The Queen of the South' in one of his speeches, the name stuck and became a popular nickname for the place, and when in 1919 a football club was formed in the town they took the name for themselves.

Now we have that mesmerising piece of information out of the way we can properly begin our story of this  grand old football team based in a beautiful market town . Like many of my football stories, this one begins at a train station. I depart my train a little later than I would have liked but there's still over an hour until kick-off so no harm done. I decide to walk immediately towards to the stadium. It's about a twenty minute walk not including stoppages and I pass some wonderful looking stone churches and old castle like buildings along the way, stopping only at a few pubs to keep myself updated on the Old Firm score. The first of these pubs looks like it could be a Glasgow Rangers supporters club with plenty of men in blue ranting and raving at the telly, whilst another pub much nearer the ground has a Celtic supporter in green and white stood outside but inside it is populated with many visiting Aye United supporters having a pre match pint before today's game against Queen of the South.

I soon arrive outside Palmerston Park which has been the home of Queen of the South Football Club since they were formed in 1919. In 1923 they were accepted into the new third division of the Scottish football league and by the 1930s were in the top division but have spent most of their post war history in the second and third tiers. Cup success had been limited with just the odd semi final appearance but that all changed just before the turn of the century when the introduction of the Challenge Cup for teams in the three divisions outside the top tier saw four final appearances for Queens and the club twice bring the trophy home. Then there was the Scottish Cup final in 2008.
A fantastic cup run saw Queens eventually find themselves at Hampden Park for a semi final tie with Premiership side Aberdeen. Despite being massive underdogs against a Dons side who had beaten Celtic in the previous round, it was the second tier club who came out on top in a 4-3 thriller to set up a return to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final where they would face the might of Glasgow Rangers

Scores of fans from Dumfries travelled to Scotland's national stadium to witness a cracking final and although Queens found themselves 2-0 down at half-time two quick fire goals early in the second half saw them level. Despite the heroic fightback from the underdogs it was odds on favourites Rangers who won the game however, retaking the lead 20 minutes before the end and holding on for a 3-2 victory. They may not have won the match but the Queen's of the South certainly did themselves proud against a Rangers side they were never given any chance whatsoever of winning by those in the world of Scottish football.

The 2008 cup final defeat saw Queens given their first foray into European football with a UEFA Cup place. Queen of the South's European adventure did not last long however, they entered the competition at the second qualifying round stage and failed to progress any further losing 4-2 on aggregate to Danish side Nordsjælland.

Back to today and there is large building next to the stadium, it has a decent sized car park and at first glance looks like a supermarket, but it is actually in fact the Queen of the South Arena. The complex as I soon discover hosts a ticket office, club shop, cafe, indoor football pitch, and even a hair salon!

With various signs outside the stadium saying 'no cash turnstiles, tickets purchased from ticket hatch', I have to work out where to get a ticket from, and that is when I discover the aforementioned 'Arena' and it's many delights. The queue to buy a ticket is only what I would call moderately long but the queue to get inside the ground is longer, and I enter the Palmerston Park about a minute after kick-off.

The home end with the most vociferous support is a large covered terrace, and with no turnstiles at the back of it you have enter through one of the turnstiles to the side where what seems to be an old main stand sits in the centre covering about half of the pitch. The uncovered terracing at the other end is empty whilst the away fans sit towards that end of ground in a more modern all seater stand that covers the full length of pitch on the opposite side from the older stand I mentioned. The ground of course comes with the obligatory large floodlight pylons, one in each corner. At my end however the pylons are covered in ugly scaffholding which does ruin the setting slightly.
I am stood behind the goal where the home support are rather vocal and are accompanied by a set of drummers making it a fairly noisy affair. In the centre of the terracing directly behind the posts many are congregated, whilst the crowd thins out towards the corners. At the back of the stand there is a hatch serving hot food. There is a healthy crowd amongst the seated stands today also and a more than decent away following who have travelled almost sixty miles from the coastal town of Ayr to be here. 2,349 I later find out is the official attendance.

As for the game itself, well it ends in a 1-1 draw with both goals coming in the first half. The home side take the lead 29 minutes in when Josh Todd opens the scoring to bag his sixth goal of the season as he finds the net from 10yds out after an Andrew Stirling cross. The equaliser comes 12 minutes later thanks to a Michael Moffat header. The visitors have most of the possession and more of the chances, but as the game progresses in the second half neither team really looks like finding a winner. At full time the Queen of the South supporters are able head home pleased to have gained a point against an Ayr side second in the table having lost only twice so far this season, the last of those coming over two months ago.

It's a walk back to the station for me after another enjoyable day out visiting an 'old skool' football ground with plenty of character and charm that you don't always find with new build modern stadia. Of course yes, the Old Firm may be the main attraction across the country, but outside of Scotland's big two football is definitely alive and well with loyal fans generating a very enthusiastic atmosphere on thriving terraces and in packed grandstands. At least this is certainly the case at Palmerston Park, Dumfries!

Thursday 20 December 2018

Tales from the Bundesliga

It's hard to believe that the Western half of Germany did not have a national professional football league until 55 years ago. Before a new national division called the Bundesliga was created in 1963 football in West Germany was regionalised with a series of play-off matches at the end of the season to determine who would be national champions.

Recently I found myself reading The Fussball Book by Dave Wangerin, a 50p find in the Whitley Bay FC Club shop of all places. It detailed the formation of the Bundesliga before going through each season up until the early nineties with a written summary followed by detailed final league tables and lists of cup results amongst other statistics. The book also covered the East German Oberliga and not just its West German counterpart. Interestingly the East Germans set up a national league some fourteen years before they did over the border in the west. 

But of the various interesting stories that stood out in the book, most came from the Bundesliga, particularly the league's early years. There are many fascinating tales, from a team winning the championship one season only to be relegated the next, to a now worldwide superclub being overshadowed by city rivals who these days sit in the lower divisions, and at a club I saw live earlier this year, the story of a brief one season sojourn in the Bundesliga for a team that currently plays in the sixth tier of German football having spent the majority of their history since in complete obscurity.

Our trip into the annals of Bundesliga history starts in Berlin in 1965 where the city's top side Hertha Berlin were found guilty of making illegal extra payments to their players and forcibly relegated. For a fledgling league having just finished only it's second season, not to have a team from a city as large as Berlin included wasn't considered ideal and so one was found for the following season. The club in question being Tasmania 1900 Berlin who had narrowly missed out to Hertha in the original selection process for joining the new Bundesliga. However the previous season it was actually Tennis Borussia Berlin who had finished top of the Berlin section in the second tier Regionalliga, and they were naturally unhappy at being overlooked.

Tasmania it was though who were promoted for the 1965/66 campaign, but their stay in the Bundesliga was rather short lived. Two wins, four draws, and twenty eight defeats, saw them finish rock bottom and some eighteen points from safety. Tasmania never came anywhere near the Bundesliga again and because of financial difficulties the club Tasmania 1900 Berlin actually folded in the mid seventies. A new club called simply Tasmania Berlin was founded as a successor to the original club and currently play in the sixth tier Berlin-Liga. Their current plight is a far cry from playing in the Bundesliga, although the history section on the current clubs website refers to the 1965/66 team as the 'worst Bundesliga club ever' so maybe it's not a period they really want to remember. 

One other thing to mention is that in neither the website's history page or the excellent book I've been reading does it mention where the name interesting name (for a German football club at least) of Tasmania actually comes from. I had myself wondered if it had anything to with that island off Australia by the same name, and according to wikipdia which may not always be the most reliable of sources this is actually the case. Apparently the original founders of the club had been intending to emigrate to Tasmania and used that name when creating the team.

Tasmania were of course the team I mentioned seeing in action earlier this year. As part of a trip to Berlin I saw them away at Füchse Berlin who's ground would struggle to meet the standards of many stadiums in the lower echelons of English non league football. There were about 200 people in attendance and a very late goal saw the home side come out on top 3-2. Füchse's story isn't one covered in the book but the league tables do show that the club based in the Berlin suburb of Reinickendorf (the club's name is sometimes written as Reinickendorfer Füchse) were actually members of the then second tier Regionalliga for a few seasons at the beginning of the Bundesliga era but very quickly disappeared from view well out of sight of the higher echelons of German football.

Füchse v Tasmania in 2018
Tasmania's lone Bundesliga campaign is interestingly where we can begin our next story, that of TSV 1860 Munich. Whilst Tasmania were suffering what some might call the worst season in Bundesliga history, 1860 Munich found themselves at the other end of the table for most of that campaign and would eventually end up champions at the end of it losing only four games in the process. Near neighbours FC Bayern Munich finished the season in third place, an impressive feat considering it was their first ever Bundesliga campaign having been promoted the previous season. Curious that since 1860's 1966 title win the now world famous FC Bayern have went on to win 27 Bundesliga titles, 5 European Cup/Champions League trophies, and 17 German Cups, whilst 1860 who last season were promoted from the fourth tier Regionalliga Bayern have failed to win a single major trophy since. How the tables have turned!

Next we must turn to a team called 1. FC Nuremberg who hold the honour of winning the league championship one season, only to finish second bottom and get relegated in the following one. Known as Der Club, Nuremberg were in all conquering side in the 1920's winning 5 national titles over the course of the decade, and although they had been less successful in the years since they were once again champions in the 1967/1968 season finishing three points ahead of second placed Werder Bremen. 

Nuremberg having won the title invested their finances not in strengthening the team to try and stay on top, but on a new sports complex. The cost of this took its toll and the club found themselves in a financial mess that meant several star players being asked to take a pay cut. Naturally a few key players left and the following season they couldn't maintain the previous campaign's form. That may not have been too surprising, but the extent of their loss of form certainly was, with the team finishing second bottom after a truly disastrous season and thus meaning relegation to the second tier.

The first seven Bundesliga titles were won by seven different clubs and it wasn't until 1970/71 that someone managed to retain the title. Borussia Mönchengladbach have this honour pipping FC Bayern to the title two seasons running. Bayern would then dominate by winning three titles in a row before Mönchengladbach then found themselves back on top again in 1975.

Other notable events in the early days of the Bundesliga include a match fixing scandal that saw numerous players from varying clubs banned from football and culminated in 1972 with Arminia Bielefeld being forcibly relegated for their part in the whole affair. 

Germany in particular the western half may have been a rather late developer in terms of having a proper national football league, but as we have seen once they finally got one going it certainly did not disappoint! Compared to the current situation where FC Bayern have managed to find themselves champions for each of the previous six seasons it was in those early years definitely a lot more competitive too.

Sunday 16 December 2018

UEFA's last two legged final and the heroes from Gelsenkirchen

In the news recently has been the very heated Copa Libertadores final between Buenos Aires rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate. The Copa Libertadores is basically the Champions League of South America but unlike UEFA's version the South Americans have always played their final over two legs as opposed to a one off match at a neutral venue (although as of next season that will change to single game like it's European equivalent). However whilst in Europe the finals of the Champions League and European Cup as it was previously known have always been standalone one off matches, until just over twenty years ago European football's second competition then known as the UEFA Cup did actually play it's final over two legs. With all the drama of the recent two legged Copa Libertadores final reaching fans all over the world, I thought I'd look back at that last time a European final was played over two legs. 

In 1998 Paris St Germain's Parc des Princes stadium hosted the first even single match final of the UEFA Cup, but a year earlier when FC Schalke 04 faced Internazionale it was still a two legged affair, the last of it's kind for a European final.

In the city of Gelsenkirchen fans of local side Schalke hadn't expected their team to reach the UEFA Cup final, and when they got their they saw as most people did their Italian opposition Internazionale from Milan to be definite favourites. Schalke hadn't had any real success for years and their loyal support never expected much else. As for Inter they had already won the competition twice that decade, and their two European Cup wins in the 1960's showed they were no strangers to big European finals. 

Schalke's route to the final included aggregate victories against Club Brugge and Valencia whilst Inter had a 7-1 aggregate win against Portuguese side Boavista as well as victories against Anderlecht and Monaco as part of the five rounds they navigated before reaching the final.

The first leg took place at Schalke's old Parksatdion home. The hosts dominated much of the game with the Italians having only one meaningful chance during the match, and Schalke ended up winning the game 1-0 thanks to a brilliant Mark Wilmots shot from just over 30yds out that beat Gianluca Pagliuca who was between the posts for Inter.

For the second leg roughly 30,000 fans travelled to Milan from Gelsenkirchen many without tickets.  Mike Büskens and Jiří Němec combined early on to set up Wilmots only for him to see his shot saved, whilst minutes later Pagliuca in the Inter goal was in action again saving from a left footed Büskens free-kick. Schalke were showing their intent.

Eventually though Inter began to find their way back into the contest, Youri Djorkaeff sent a header wide in the second half before Inter levelled up the tie late on. Chilean striker Iván Zamorano toe poked past a Jens Lehmann after Paul Ince flicked the ball onto him.

Was the dream dying for Schalke? Time would tell. There were 30 minutes of extra time still to be played and if needed penalties after that. Schalke became nervous and Inter had more chances, but no one could find the net and the match would have to be settled by the dreaded penalty shoot-out.
Ingo Anderbrügge had already missed two penalties in the Bundesliga that season but when he took the first penalty of the shoot-out he had no trouble finding the net. This was followed by Lehmann saving an effort from Zamorano meaning it was advantage Schalke.

Schalke captain Olaf Thon then scored as did Djorkaeff for Inter. 1-2. Martin Max made it 1-3 and then it was Dutchman Aron Winter who stepped up for the home side. Winter fired his shot wide and Schalke were one successful spot-kick from victory.

For what could be the decisive kick it was Wilmots who stepped up. Could he go down in Schalke folklore? Yes he could! Pagliuca dived to the right, Wilmots hit the ball to the left, the ball found the back of the net, and Schalke 04 had won the UEFA Cup!

Schalke had done their research for the shoot-out, Dutch coach Huub Stevens had details of which side the Inter players preferred to strike the ball to from the spot, left or right. Lehmann had even studied previous penalties on a laptop. Basically when it mattered most Schalke had an advantage, they were the team in the know, they were team who came out on top and won the UEFA Cup.

Seven days later Schalke's arch rivals Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League so their UEFA Cup success was soon overshadowed. For Schalke however success had become a rare occurrence and this victory would definitely be cherished. 

In the two decades that followed there would be domestic cup success and several runners up finishes in the Bundesliga as Schalke built upon their UEFA Cup success, whilst for Inter they would actually go on to win the UEFA Cup the following season with various domestic league cup titles following in the years to come as well as a Champions League trophy in 2010.

1997 however was the year that Schalke won the last ever two legged European final, one of the most fondly remembered cup final wins in their history.

Final 1st leg: May 7, 1997, Parkstadion, Gelsenkirchen

FC Schalke 04  1–0 Inter Milan 1-0 (0-0)

FC Schalke 04: Lehmann – Thon – Linke, de Kock – Nemec, Müller, Eigenrauch, Büskens (67 Max), Anderbrügge – Latal, Wilmots

Internazionale: Pagliuca – Bergomi, Galante, Paganin, Pistone – Sforza, Zanetti, Winter, Fresi (62  Berti) – Ganz, Zamorano

Goal: Marc Wilmots (70)
Referee: Marc Batta (France)
Attendance: 56.824

Final 2nd leg: May 21, 1997, San Siro, Milan

Internazionale 1–0 FC Schalke 04 (1-1), AET Schalke won 4-1 on penalties

Inter Milan: Pagliuca – Bergomi (70 Angloma), Paganin, Fresi, Angloma – Zanetti (120 Berti), Sforza (82. Winter), Ince – Djkorkaeff – Zamorano, Ganz

FC Schalke 04: Lehmann – Thon – De Kock, Linke – Latal (111 Held), Nemec, Eigenrauch, Müller (98 Anderbrügge), Büskens – Wilmots, Max

Goal: Iván Zamorano (84)
Penalties: 0-1 Anderbrügge, 0-2 Thon, 1-2 Djkorkaeff, 1-3 Max, 1-4 Wilmots
Referee: Jose Garcia-Aranda (Spain)
Attendance: 83.434

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Glory in Rome: Remembering the two Scudetti that briefly saw Italy's capital rule the roost

It all came down to the final day of the season at the Stadio Olympico, just as it had done the previous year, and with the same anticipation in the air. But this time it was not Lazio but city rivals Roma who were on the verge of glory. There was a full house of 80,000 spectators and club officials said they could have sold out the stadium several times over.

For two seasons during which we crossed the into millennium the city Rome dominated Italian football. The end of the 2000/01 season saw Roma become Serie A champions winning the scudetto (championship) exactly one year after city rivals Lazio had taken the crown. Not for over 15 years had the scudetto landed in Rome and that had itself been only the third time the trophy had resided in the country's capital. Rome rarely ruled Italian football, but for one brief period at the turn of the century the country's capital city was also the country's capital of football.

2001 was in fact actually the third season in a row that the Stadio Olympico was involved in a title race that went down to the final round of fixtures. Our story starts on the last day of 1998/99 season when a Lazio side who had just won the the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup lost out on the title by a single point. A Marcelo Salas double saw Lazio defeat Parma, but unfortunately winning the title was out of their hands and they needed title challengers AC Milan to slip up. Instead Milan won at Perugia.

Lazio were managed by a Swedish coach named Sven-Goran Eriksson who had joined from Sampdoria in 1997, and having missed out on what would have been the second scudetto in the clubs history, some 25 years after their previous success, he was more determined than ever for his side to win the championship when the 1999/00 season began. Despite losing star striker Christian Vieri, Eriksson did not panic, and promptly brought in Fabrizio Ravanelli a man of many years experience, and the highly rated Argentinian Juan Sebastián Verón.

Lazio started the new season beating Manchester United in the UEFA Super Cup, whilst also winning the first three of their opening four league games, and drew 4-4 with last season's title rivals Milan in the game number five.

The Biancocelesti (white and sky blues) as they are nicknamed were actually undefeated in their first nine games but then they faced arch rivals Roma in capital city derby and promptly suffered a rude awakening with a 4-1 defeat.

Lazio had 8 wins out of their next 16 matches culminating with the club nine points behind league leaders Juventus after a shock defeat against Verona in late March. Lazio's fortunes however then began to improve, Juventus went and lost to Milan whilst the following day Lazio made up for the earlier defeat against city rivals Roma with a massively important 2-1 win against their arch nemesis. Vincenzo Montella put Roma ahead early on but a Pavel Nedved equaliser on 25 minutes was shortly followed by a stunning free-kick from Veron which was to settle the match well before half-time.
With Juventus' lead cut to six points, Lazio had the chance to cut it even further when the sides met a week later at the Stadio Delle Alpi. The likes Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero could not break the Lazio defence and the game was separated a Diego Simeone header for the visitors. It looked like we were going to be in for another fascinating title race, but could Lazio avenge last season's final day despair?

Two weeks after that famous win in Turin a last gasp Gabriel Batistuta free-kick saw Lazio drop two points at Fiorentina, but three straight victories on the bounce combined a stunning 2-0 defeat at Verona for Juventus kept Lazio well in the race. There was then outrage when a last gasp equaliser was ruled out for Parma in Juventus' penultimate game of the season, and non more so than from Lazio owner Sergio Cragnotti who exclaimed "no one is able to explain why that goal wasn’t allowed". Head of  the Cirio food conglomerate, Cragnotti had invested heavily in Lazio and was devastated by what he saw as another title cruelly lost. With Lazio two points behind 'The Old Lady' as Juve are known, the chances of Lazio winning a the scudetto looked rather slim.

When Lazio lost out on the title a year earlier, it was Milan's win over Perugia that condemned Lazio to second place and year Perugia would again play a huge part in the title race with Juve travelling their on the final day hoping to pip Lazio to the title.

With Lazio overcoming Reggina 3-0 at the Stadio Olympico, all eyes turned to Perugia and a game delayed by 80 minutes because of heavy rain. Perugia took the lead early in the second-half with 33-year-old centre-back Alessandro Calori volleying into the bottom left hand corner. Try as the might Juve couldn't find an equaliser and in the most improbable of circumstances Lazio were champions. One year on from that final day despair and fans ran onto the Stadio Olympico pitch in celebration. The championship was back in the Rome for the first time in over 15 years, and back in the hands of Lazio for the first time in over a quarter of a century.

Four days later a 0-0 draw away at Internazionale saw a 2-1 aggregate win for Lazio and a Coppa Italia success that meant they had completed a historic double. Rome really was king.

After that famous double things went downhill for Lazio, within a year Eriksson had left for England, important defender Alessandro Nesta departed for Milan, Veron ended up a Manchester United, and although Lazio have not came anywhere near the title since, the following season still managed to see the scudetto stay in Rome, in fact did not even leave the Stadio Olympico.

Lazio share their stadium with city rivals AS Roma and Roma ended the 1999/00 season looking enviously across at their flatmates Lazio. If anything that must have spurred them on as a Roma side led by captain and boyhood supporter Fracesco Totti won their first three games of the following season scoring 9 goals in the process.

Despite losing their fourth game away at Internazionale, the Giallorossi (yellow-reds) went unbtean for 10 league games including 7 wins, one of which was a 1-0 win over those city rivals Lazio that was followed by a 0-0 draw with Juventus 5 days later on 22 December. Roma were by this point comfortably clear at the top of the league with Juventus some way behind in second.

A 3-2 defeat away at Milan almost a month later was followed by seven straight wins and Roma were flying. After the Roma draw Juventus were still just about keeping up the pace however with 8 wins in 10, although they then lost 4-1 away at Lazio in the middle of March.

Roma lost 3-1 away at Fiorentina in April, whilst Juventus mostly kept on winning and Roma drew 5 out of their next 8 to surprisingly go into the final game of the season just 2 points ahead of Juve. They had exepcted to have the title wrapped well before this. Things could have been worse however as an injury time Vincenzo Montella equaliser had salvaged a draw at Juventus on May 6, a game which had they lost would have gave Juventus an advantage in the title race.

Roma faced Parma knowing victory would secure them the scudetto and the 80,000 inside the Stadio Olympico breathed a huge sigh of relief when on 19 minutes Francesco Totti gave the home side the lead. Just before half time they found themselves 2-0 up through Vincenzo Montella whilst a brilliant individual effort from Gabriel Batistuta on 78 minutes made it 3. Parma pulled on back soon afterwards but at 3-1 the outcome was never in doubt and Parma's goal was shortly followed was a pitch invasion with euphoric scenes stopping the match for 20 minutes. Eventually the game was completed and Roma were as Corriere dello Sport exclaimed the following day 'Champions of Italy'.

"It was the hardest scudetto, the championship never ended. It took a record to win it " claimed then Roma manager Fabio Capello, so hard that Roma have not managed to win it since.

Like Lazio, Roma have spent most of the years since that title as also rans, with only a few second placed finishes the closest they've came to any real success since. When it comes to football Italy's capital city may not have seen much success over the years, but for one shorts spell at the beginning of noughties it definitely ruled the roost in Italian soccer.

Monday 10 December 2018

Football on Christmas Day

Football on boxing day is a British tradition that dates back till before most of us were born, but many people may not realise, particularly the younger generation, is that once upon football on Christmas Day was also just as common, and teams would often play matches two days running.

The first Christmas Day League match took place on December 25th 1889 when Aston Villa beat Preston North End. Christmas Day fixtures soon became well a regular fixture, and in England and Scotland were played up and down the country each year on 25th December. In England this continued the end of 1950's when a lack a transport and many people preferring to spend Christmas Day with their families saw teams increasingly reluctant to play matches on that day. In Scotland many teams continued to play matches on Christmas Day well into the 1970's but ultimately the Christmas Day fixture list north of border suffered the same fate as it had done in England.

In 1983 Brentford tried to revive the Christmas Day tradition by scheduling their Third Division match at home to Wimbledon for 25th December, but supporter protests ultimately saw the match moved to Christmas Eve and the experiment has not been tried since.

Finally when mentioning Christmas Day football one must not forget Christmas Day of 1914 during World War 1 when a truce between British and German solders occurred along the western front and which near Armentieres in France saw many soldiers on both sides leave their trenches to play football together. Sadly after Christmas the football stopped and the war continued.

Sunday 9 December 2018

The story of Newcastle's entertainers and the 1995/96 season

It was a day that rocked football, if not the world, at least that's how I remember it as a Newcastle United mad ten year old. On 7 January 1996 Kevin Keegan resigned as manager of my beloved club and ended what had been the most beautiful of love affairs. When the dinner ladies on the school playground told us Keegan had left we refused to believe it, when it finally sank in we did not know how to react. That night I remember sitting with my dad watching the channel 4 news, and where normally my dad would be watching Jon Snow talking about some boring political story or some sort of foreign affairs news (basically things that did not interest the mind of a young child like me) this time he was talking about Newcastle United. Keegan had replaced all the normal news, Keegan's resignation was suddenly the only story in town.

Keegan's departure from St James' Park was a tragic ending to story that began in 1992 when King Kev as he became known took charge of Newcastle United. Already fondly remembered for spending the twilight of his playing career helping get the Magpies promoted to the old First Division, he had left by helicopter as hero in 1984 and returned some six years later brought in by new chairman John Hall to help a United side struggling at the wrong end of the old Second Division. Avoiding relegation on the final day of the season was followed by promotion the following year, and the Magpies joined the newly formed Premier in only it's second season with Keegan having been at the helm less than a year and a half. Third and sixth placed finishes followed before what was one of most memorable seasons in the history of the club, and one of the most iconic seasons in Premier League history. Sadly for Newcastle it was a season that ultimately ended in heartbreak for Tyneside's heroes in black and white.

When Keegan's Newcastle side beat Leeds United at Elland Road in the third from last game of the 1995/96 season the Magpies were second in the Premier League table and had already lost their advantage over now first placed Manchester United. Even with a game in hand, Newcastle still needed the Red Devils managed by Alex Ferguson to slip up in their final league game. Keegan was no doubt on edge. Unhappy with some of Ferguson's recent remarks about other clubs not trying so hard against his Newcastle team, Keegan had a few words to say to the Sky Sports cameras after the match. Keegan's interview ended with him saying about the title race with Man Utd "I will love it if we beat them, love it!". 'Love it' ended up a phrase that would follow Keegan throughout the rest of his managerial career and into retirement. I walked past Keegan's smiling face on the side of the bus stop the other day, and underneath it it said he will 'love it' if I buy his new autobiography. For fans up and down the country Keegan's post match rant at Leeds is the one thing they remember most about that seasons title race, and it showed the passion of man who was desperate to bring glory to a success starved club.

It wasn't supposed to have panned out that way, at Christmas Newcastle were 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League and looked destined to be crowned champions come what May. Striker Les Ferdinand scored 17 goals for the Magpies between August and Christmas, including a hat-trick in a 6-1 win over Wimbledon in October, as the Magpies roared to the top of table with 14 victories and only 2 defeats in their opening 19 games. Newcastle were playing attacking entertaining football and delighting crowds up and down the country. They had the silky skills of Frenchman David Ginola down the wing, whilst the likes of Rob Lee and Peter Beardsley surging forward from midfield also played a vital role in what was turning into a mesmerising season for the Geordies.

Defeat at Manchester United the day after Boxing did little to make anyone think the Magpies wouldn't still win the title, but if there was any slight doubt then the five wins on the bounce that followed surely removed it. Things however then began to go pear shaped...

A trip to West Ham saw a 2-0 defeat for Newcastle which was followed by an entertaining 3-3 draw at Manchester City where the Magpies three times came from behind with two goals from Belgian defender Philippe Albert and one from new signing Faustino Asprilla. Some have said over the years that the signing of Asprilla upset the balance of the team and cost the club the title, but most in the city of Newcastle scorn at such an idea. The City game epitomised the Newcastle United side of this particular era, they were formidable going forward scoring bags of goals in the process but had a tendency to concede too many the other end. Another example of this was an unbelievable match at Anfield at the beginning of April.

Before Liverpool there was Man Utd, West Ham, and Arsenal. Manchester United visited St James' Park on March 4 and Newcastle dominated the first half having chance after chance but were unable to find the net. Keegan's men ended up losing the match thanks to a second half Eric Cantona goal. This was Man Utd's sixth straight win and the gap between them and the Magpies was closing. The Magpies then beat West Ham 3-0 at home, but this light relief did not last as Newcastle then went and lost at Arsenal. Now it was time for Liverpool at Anfield...

Regarded by many to be the greatest Premier League match of all time, a thrilling game saw the visitors 2-1 up after 14 minutes when a second minute Robbie Fowler goal was followed by efforts from Ferdinand and Ginola. The real drama was in the second half however where it took 10 minutes for Fowler to find an equaliser only for Asprilla to put the Magpies back in front 2 minutes later. It was end to end stuff and Liverpool found themselves level thanks to Stan Collymore on 68 minutes. It looked as the game might end in a 3-3 draw but in injury time there was another twist in the tale...

"Barnes, Rush, Barnes" Liverpool broke forward, "Still John Barnes... Collymore closing in!!!"

"Liverpool lead in stoppage time!!!! Kevin Keegan hangs his head, he's devastated!"

Sky Sports' Martin Tyler was on commentary duty as Liverpool won the game in the dying seconds. Newcastle had twice took the lead, and for the third time that season had scored three goals away from home yet failed to win. They found themselves four points behind Manchester United who were now league leaders, and although the Magpies had a game in hand it was the Red Devils who very much had the advantage.

If that night at Anfield felt like a key moment in the title race then the Monday night trip to Ewood Park five nights later definitely was. A win at home QPR was sandwiched in between the two games and the Magpies knew another win was sorely needed. David Batty put Newcastle ahead on 76 minutes, but it was the last five minutes in which the match was decided. Tyneside born and bred Graham Fenton was playing in the blue and white of Rovers that night and scored two late goals to puncture Geordie hearts and give even more advantage to Manchester United. It was the night when the whole of Newcastle realised that it genuinely might not be their season.

Three wins followed, the last of those being that infamous night at Elland Road, and although Man Utd lost at Southampton they were still in driving seat as the Magpies went into their two final games.

A Thursday night trip  Nottingham Forest's City Ground followed the Elland Road affair and a 1-1 draw with Forest meant that even victory for the Magpies in their final game would only secure the title if Man Utd lost at Middlesbrough. Having gone 1-0 down at home to Tottenham Hotspur on that final day, when Newcastle drew level through Ferdinand on 71 minutes Man Utd were already 2-0 up and the dream was over, Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United would not be Premier League champions. A team who had captured the hearts of nation, not just a city, and who had played the most exciting brand of football many had seen in years were ultimately runners up. Like Johan Cruyff and the Dutch World Cup team of 1974 and the Hungary side featuring Ferenc Puskás 20 years earlier, Keegan's Newcastle had been the star attraction seemingly destined to win but who yet somehow failed at the final hurdle.

After coming so close Keegan started to plan for another shot at the title the following season. Star England centre forward Alan Shearer turned down Man Utd to join his beloved Newcastle the club he'd supported as a boy for what was a then a world record fee of £15m. In October of that following season Newcastle beat Man Utd 5-0 at home in what was a massive statement of intent and a result that shook the world of football. Sadly for Newcastle however the joy did not last too long. In the following January Keegan had had enough, and his departure saw Kenny Dalglish take charge. Newcastle would not win the title that year but Dalglish did manage to steer Newcastle to another second placed finish. Unfortunately it was all downhill from there and the following seasons 13th placed finish was more in tune with what would follow in the years to come than the prospect of another title race.