Sunday 20 December 2020

The Minnows Who Captured the Nation's Hearts and Turned Kenny Dalglish Into a Pantomime Villain

Even Jeremy Paxman got in the act by asking on Newsnight: "Is Kenny Dalglish a big girl's blouse?" The former Liverpool legend and at the time Newcastle United manager was seeing himself ridiculed by everybody and his side cast as the pantomime villain. Not even two years earlier, under the stewardship of Kevin Keegan, United had been everyone's 'second team' but suddenly it seemed as if the whole world and his dog were desperate for them to lose. The issue? Dalglish kicking up a fuss about having to play an FA Cup tie away against a group of part-timers from the GM Vauxhall Conference.

When Premier League side Newcastle United were drawn away at Stevenage Borough in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January 1998 it was one of those classic David versus Goliath ties with the two sides separated by 99 league places. Newcastle were a side that included £15m Alan Shearer, signed less than two years earlier for a then world record fee, whilst Stevenage had Giuliano Grazioli a man who manager Paul Fairclough joked had cost the club "Three packets of crisps and a Mars bar." The contrast was stark.

But whilst many would have no doubt been looking for an upset on the pitch they would find even more drama off it. The furore started when details of a phone call between Dalglish and Fairclough were leaked to the press. On the phone to Fairclough, Dalglish had demanded the match be switched from the Hertfordshire based club's small 6,000 capacity Broadhall Way stadium to Newcastle's home ground of St. James' Park stating Stevenage's ground was not fit for purpose. What was seemingly a spectacular PR own goal for Newcastle became even worse when a delegation from the club, including their safety officer, turned up uninvited to inspect the Broadhall Way stadium.  At this point, things really got heated with Stevenage accusing United of "Big brother tactics" whilst Dalglish apparently told Stevenage chairman Victor Green that he was "not running scared" and would happily play the non-league side anywhere "even Hackney Marshes." Dalglish and Newcastle's antics had done their damage, however, and Daglish was by now public enemy number one and being lampooned by the press and indeed much of the nation, Jeremy Paxman included. 

The whole saga over the suitability of the stadium to host such a big game came to an end when an FA committee declared the venue safe to hold the match and Newcastle reluctantly accepted the decision. FA spokesman Steve Double said: “We always rely on the safety authorities and both they and the police are happy for the game to go ahead and therefore so are we."

Newcastle and Dalglish were not the only ones who came in for criticism, however. Stevenage chairman Victor Green was condemned for hiking up ticket prices for the match by 400% which enraged many fans. There would still be a full house, however, even with several thousand temporary seats installed to increase the capacity. As well as making a killing from ticket sales they also received £150,000 from Sky Sports to broadcast of the match across the country on satellite television. It was not just Sky Sports and the British public taking an interest, though. Whilst the tie had captured the imagination of the nation it was also to be screened in 25 different countries and even made the back page of the South China Morning Post, for example.

If Newcastle were hoping to avoid an upset with an easy victory then they got off to the perfect start in the match itself when Shearer, returning from an ankle injury, headed home from a Keith Gillespie cross after just three minutes to give the visitors the lead. The comfortable afternoon they would have been hoping for, against a side lying 17th in the Vauxhall Conference remember, never materialised, however, and the hosts drew level four minutes before the interval. After a Gary Cranshaw corner sent the ball into the box Giuliano Grazioli touched it home from close range in front of the away end to bring jubilant scenes from the other three sides of the ground. The noise was deafening and almost echoed around the whole country. The minnows were suddenly level. An uneventful second-half saw the match finish 1-1 and Stevenage force a replay. Naturally, Dalglish said afterwards: "The conditions suited them more than us," but at least he would now get his wish to face Stevenage at St James' Park...

The antics of Newcastle and Dalglish in the lead up to the match had made the result even sweeter and Stevenage's heroic performance brought comparisons with what had happened in 1972 when non-league Hereford United stunned the nation by defeating Newcastle in a third round replay. But whilst the media and public alike revelled in Newcastle's struggles most realised it would be a very tough ask for Stevenage to go one better and actually defeat their opponents when they were to meet in a replay ten days later.

For the rematch, two goals from Shearer were enough to see Newcastle win the replay despite an unconvincing performance which saw Crawshaw pull a goal back for Stevenage on 74 minutes and bring a nervy finish. It was also claimed by some that Shearer's first goal, acrobatically cleared by Mark Smith, did not actually cross the line. Newcastle would eventually reach the final and lose to Arsenal whilst Stevenage who twice gave them a good run for their money would get their revenge in 2011 when, by then a league club, they defeated Newcastle 3-1 at home in the third round. There were no complaints about the pitch or the stadium on that occasion, however.