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.

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