New­cas­tle’s great en­ter­tain­ers of ’95-96

FourFourTwo - - EDITOR’S LETTER - Words Louis Mas­sarella, Richard Ed­wards, Carl Wor­swick, Chris Flana­gan

FFT re­mem­bers Kevin Kee­gan’s dar­ing but doomed ti­tle-chasers and the games that mat­tered, with a lit­tle help from Sir Les, Tino and their team-mates

It's 20 years since one of the Premier League's most ex­cit­ing teams fal­tered af­ter lead­ing by 12 points. the play­ers pick out the key games of a thrilling seaso,. You'll love it...

New­cas­tle United’s 1995-96 sea­son, as the cliché goes, had ev­ery­thing. It had great mo­ments (“I will love it if we beat them”), great games (that 4-3 de­feat at An­field), great stats (12 points clear in early Fe­bru­ary) and great myths. Our mem­o­ries tell us that Kevin Kee­gan’s side scored for fun that sea­son, and con­ceded just as eas­ily. In fact, they found the net just 66 times, one fewer than in the pre­vi­ous cam­paign, and con­ceded 37, only two more than even­tual cham­pi­ons Manch­ester United. But why let the truth get in the way of a great story? And what a story it was. “The trou­ble is,” says left-back John Beresford, “we were hav­ing such a good time that it flew by, and we didn’t get a chance to take it all in.”

New­cas­tle had re­turned to the top flight with a bang in 1993-94, scor­ing 82 goals as they fin­ished third in their first sea­son back. Nearly half of those goals had come from Andy Cole, though, who was sold to Manch­ester United in Jan­uary 1995. Af­ter fin­ish­ing sixth, and backed by Sir John Hall’s mil­lions, the Toon re­grouped that sum­mer, sign­ing Les Fer­di­nand from QPR and David Gi­nola from PSG, as well as goal­keeper Shaka His­lop and Eng­land right-back War­ren Bar­ton (Tino Asprilla and David Batty would join them in Fe­bru­ary).

In­spired by Kee­gan – “We would have jumped off the Tyne Bridge for him,” says Beresford – New­cas­tle be­lieved they could mount a se­ri­ous ti­tle chal­lenge. They were great to watch, play­ing in an at­tack­ing 4-4-2 for­ma­tion with two out-and-out wingers.

“I watch the Premier League now and I get bored,” Rob Lee, their star mid­fielder that sea­son, tells Fourfourtwo. “I’ve never seen so many 0-0s. We didn’t play in any that sea­son. And Kee­gan never told us to take the ball into the cor­ner if we were 2-1 up. We were told to try to get a third goal, then a fourth.”

That gung-ho ap­proach,š al­lied with a lack of ti­tle-win­ning ex­pe­ri­ence within the squad, ul­ti­mately proved to be their down­fall. Un­like their ti­tle ri­vals, Manch­ester United, who by then were ap­proach­ing the height of their un­pop­u­lar­ity un­der Alex Fer­gu­son, New­cas­tle found it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to grind out re­sults on the road. Just one of the Mag­pies’ eight de­feats that sea­son came at a rap­tur­ous St James’ Park.

“But I wouldn’t change a thing,” in­sists Beresford. “And I know peo­ple will say it’s sour grapes, but I think it would have been great for foot­ball if we’d won the league. That’s why neu­trals want Le­ices­ter to win it this sea­son –šev­ery­body loves a team who go for it, who en­ter­tain. And we en­ter­tained. How many other teams are still re­mem­bered for fin­ish­ing se­cond?”

NEWCASTLEUNITED 3-0 COVEN­TRY CITY

St James’ Park, Au­gust 19, 1995

It didn’t take long for Rob Lee to re­alise that New­cas­tle’s class of 1995-96 were on the verge of some­thing spe­cial. “It was the open­ing game of the sea­son,” the for­mer Eng­land mid­fielder tells FFT. “The sun was shin­ing, the at­mos­phere at St James’ Park was elec­tric and we were 2-0 up – al­though it could have been quite a few more. I re­mem­ber think­ing: ‘We’ve got a very good team here’. We had a nu­cleus of play­ers who were on the fringes of the Eng­land team, which meant they were hun­gry, and we had a great team spirit, which made it easy for new play­ers to set­tle in quickly.

“We were a lit­tle bit weak phys­i­cally the sea­son be­fore, so we made some ‘strong’ sign­ings, and be­cause the man­ager was un­der pres­sure af­ter sell­ing Andy Cole to Manch­ester United in Jan­uary, he made all his sum­mer sign­ings pretty much as soon as the sea­son had fin­ished, which took the pres­sure off. I’d been try­ing for ages to per­suade Les [Fer­di­nand] to join New­cas­tle, while War­ren Bar­ton and Shaka His­lop were solid per­form­ers. Gi­nola was the bonus.”

Gi­nola? Bonus? “We hadn’t re­ally heard of him. We had Scott Sel­lars al­ready on the left, who was do­ing

a very good job. We thought: ‘Is Gi­nola go­ing to be bet­ter than Scott?... Oh!’”

So with an im­proved squad, hav­ing fin­ished sixth in the Premier League the pre­vi­ous sea­son, what was the aim be­fore the big kick-off? A UEFA Cup place? “We were try­ing to win the ti­tle,” in­sists Lee. “Be­lieve it or not, that’s gen­uine. Kee­gan’s mind­set was al­ways ‘if we are in a com­pe­ti­tion, let’s have a go’.”

And de­spite hav­ing to “pick and choose” when to get for­ward from cen­tral mid­field now he had all this other at­tack­ing tal­ent around him, it was Lee who opened New­cas­tle’s ac­count in the sev­enth minute. He re­calls: “The ball went wide to Keith Gille­spie, who was the quick­est player I’d ever seen. I had a quick look around to make sure Lee Clark was be­hind me and then I ghosted into the box. The ball came in and I man­aged to loop a good header be­yond John Fi­lan in the Coven­try goal. It was one of my trade­mark goals, re­ally.”

Peter Beard­s­ley dou­bled New­cas­tle’s lead with a penalty eight min­utes from time, be­fore Lee briefly broke from his epiphany to put Fer­di­nand through for a de­but goal. The striker re­mem­bers: “It was only af­ter watch­ing the re­play and see­ing the re­ac­tion from ev­ery­body – not just the New­cas­tle sup­port­ers but the play­ers and the coach­ing staff as well – that I knew how im­por­tant that goal was.”

With Gi­nola, Fer­di­nand and, in­deed, Lee on fire, Kee­gan’s men flew out of the traps, pro­duc­ing some of the most scin­til­lat­ing foot­ball in Premier League his­tory. “That’s just the way we played foot­ball, and I loved it,” says Lee. “The fact that ev­ery­body re­mem­bers that team, even though we fin­ished se­cond, makes me very proud. I be­lieve foot­ball should be en­ter­tain­ment, and we en­ter­tained. I wouldn’t change any­thing, not even a Premier League ti­tle, for play­ing in a team like that.”

Lee echoes Beresford’s state­ment, adding: “That’s why ev­ery­one’s root­ing for Le­ices­ter this sea­son. They have a go at teams, like we did, and not many peo­ple do that any­more.”

NEW­CAS­TLE UNITED 6-1 WIM­BLE­DON

St James’ Park, Oc­to­ber 21, 1995

If one game rep­re­sented New­cas­tle’s ’95-96 sea­son, this was it: all-out at­tack, the odd de­fen­sive lapse, the St James’ Park crowd in rap­tures... but the hero that day be­lieves one par­tic­u­lar mo­ment was the team in mi­cro­cosm. “It was my hat-trick goal – the team’s fifth,” Les Fer­di­nand tells FFT. “I re­mem­ber the ball be­ing crossed in and Rob Lee could eas­ily have headed at goal, but he didn’t be­cause he felt it was more im­por­tant for me to get a hat-trick than for him to get on the score­sheet. That summed up the spirit we had.”

A late bloomer, ‘Sir Les’ had joined New­cas­tle that sum­mer for £6 mil­lion, aged 28, hav­ing scored 24 Premier League goals for QPR the pre­vi­ous sea­son. With fel­low sign­ings Gi­nola and Gille­spie – who’d joined in Jan­uary as part of the con­tro­ver­sial deal that took Andy Cole to Manch­ester United – pro­vid­ing the kind of ser­vice that he thrived on, Fer­di­nand made a fly­ing start, scor­ing 10 goals in his first nine league games in the North East.

“Peo­ple talk about the at­tack­ing po­ten­tial we had; they for­get we didn’t leak many goals”

“No mat­ter what we did, Manch­ester United would just keep win­ning their games 1-0”

By the time Wim­ble­don came to Toon in Oc­to­ber, the Eng­land striker was on the verge of equalling a post-war club record of scor­ing in seven straight league games. “They make you aware of that sort of thing up in New­cas­tle,” he re­calls. “There had been a bit of talk about it, but my form and the way the team was play­ing meant it didn’t mat­ter what was at stake – I felt I was go­ing to score in ev­ery game.”

In fact, New­cas­tle huffed and puffed for half an hour be­fore the big, bad wolf – in the un­likely form of de­fender Steve Howey – fi­nally blew the Dons’ house down. The next two goals, within the space of six first-half min­utes, were vin­tage Fer­di­nand. He says: “All the lo­cal press had been go­ing on about how they’d had great goalscor­ers down the years but never re­ally some­one who could head the ball, par­tic­u­larly in the Premier League era, which was one of my great strengths. I scored a header in my se­cond game, against Bolton, and one of the jour­nal­ists told me that the pre­vi­ous sea­son it had taken New­cas­tle un­til Novem­ber or De­cem­ber to score a header.”

Against Wim­ble­don, the lat­est wearer of the fa­mous No.9 shirt rose ma­jes­ti­cally to meet Gi­nola’s left-wing cross af­ter 35 min­utes, and he made it 3-0 soon af­ter­wards when he hurled him­self at Gille­spie’s near-post cen­tre from the op­po­site flank.

The game took a com­i­cal turn in the se­cond half when away keeper Paul Heald came fly­ing out of his area to take down Fer­di­nand and was sent off for a se­cond book­able of­fence, the first hav­ing been for time-wast­ing at 1-0 down. With in­jury hav­ing forced Joe Kin­n­ear to make his three sub­sti­tu­tions (and no fit keeper on the bench any­way), Vin­nie Jones ended up in goal. “He made some great saves,” says Fer­di­nand. “When the Gal­low­gate End started cheer­ing him on, he turned into Sylvester Stal­lone in Es­cape to Vic­tory.”

But the hard­man-turned-glove­man was pow­er­less to pre­vent stun­ning goals from two more un­likely scor­ers, de­fen­sive mid­fielder Lee Clark and cen­tre-back Philippe Al­bert, in be­tween which Mar­cus Gayle ap­peared in the area un­marked to head a con­so­la­tion and Fer­di­nand bun­dled in his third. “I’ve still got the match ball some­where,” he says. “But it wasn’t about per­sonal glory – it was about the team, as that goal demon­strated more than any other I scored for New­cas­tle.”

And de­spite the team fall­ing ag­o­nis­ingly short, it was a sea­son of per­sonal tri­umph for Fer­di­nand, who scored on the fi­nal day to beat his tally of 24 goals in the pre­vi­ous cam­paign and win PFA Player of the Year. Arise, Sir Les.

NEWCASTLEUNITED2-1BOLTON WAN­DER­ERS

St James’ Park, Jan­uary 20, 1996

For a club en­joy­ing a healthy lead at the top of the ta­ble, it had been a bad week. Days be­fore the league visit of cel­lar-dwellers Bolton, Kevin Kee­gan’s side were dumped out of the FA Cup by Glenn Hod­dle’s Chelsea in a St James’ Park re­play. Bel­gian de­fender Philippe Al­bert scored the opener in that match but was pow­er­less to pre­vent his side from tum­bling out of the tour­na­ment on penal­ties fol­low­ing a late Ruud Gul­lit equaliser, con­vert­ing his own spot-kick only af­ter Steve Wat­son and Peter Beard­s­ley had al­ready missed.

Now they faced Bolton, a side with just one point from 11 away matches and

des­per­ately de­void of con­fi­dence. They were the per­fect op­po­si­tion as New­cas­tle looked to stretch their lead over the chas­ing duo of Manch­ester United and Liverpool.

The Red Devils wouldn’t play un­til the Mon­day night, when they trav­elled to East Lon­don to take on West Ham, but Al­bert tells FFT that their ti­tle ri­val’s form wasn’t on the New­cas­tle play­ers’ minds as they at­tempted to ex­tend the gap at the top to 12 points.

“It was just like any other game,” says Al­bert. “Who­ever we played, the man­ager would al­ways say one thing be­fore we ran out: ‘Just go out and make you score one more than them’. At home that was never a prob­lem. Play­ing in front of that crowd at that time was an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence – it would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. We had just beaten Arse­nal 2-0 at home and no­body fan­cied go­ing up there and try­ing to take the game to us.

“Peo­ple talk about the at­tack­ing po­ten­tial of that side but they for­get we didn’t re­ally leak many goals ei­ther. We de­fend­ers were en­cour­aged to get for­ward, yes, but we knew not to leave any gaps.”

De­spite miss­ing Les Fer­di­nand, ab­sent with a rib in­jury, New­cas­tle took an early lead through his deputy, Paul Kit­son. Then Bolton, who were marooned at the bot­tom of the ta­ble with just 13 points from 24 matches, scored a shock equaliser. A War­ren Bar­ton foul on Sasa Cur­cic led to Scott Sel­lars – sold by New­cas­tle only a month pre­vi­ously – pro­vid­ing a free-kick that was headed in off the far post by the on­rush­ing Gudni Bergs­son.

“Maybe that gave us the kick up the back­side we needed,” muses Al­bert. “We hadn’t re­ally suf­fered too many set­backs up to that point, but a point at home against the bot­tom side would have felt like two dropped.

“It’s a mea­sure of the way we played and the con­fi­dence we had, though, that we struck back pretty quickly. I think Peter Beard­s­ley scored our se­cond.” He’s right. The Eng­land man, who’d just cel­e­brated his 35th birth­day, pounced with his fifth goal of the cam­paign to put the Ge­ordies 2-1 up at half-time. “I don’t think Kevin said too much at the break,” says Al­bert. “It was re­ally just a case of us car­ry­ing on play­ing the way we al­ways did. To be hon­est, we didn’t think too much about the po­ten­tial points dif­fer­ence over Manch­ester United if the score stayed as it did. It’s a cliché, but we re­ally were tak­ing it a sin­gle game at a time.”

The se­cond half was a non-event, with New­cas­tle con­tin­u­ing to press as Bolton hung on grimly, know­ing that de­feat and in all like­li­hood rel­e­ga­tion were near-cer­tain­ties.

“It was funny that we won that game by a sin­gle goal be­cause that was all Manch­ester United did for the rest of the sea­son,” Al­bert adds. “No mat­ter what we did, they would just keep on win­ning 1-0.”

NEW­CAS­TLE UNITED0-1MANCHESTER UNITED

St James’ Park, March 4, 1996

Time can do funny things to the mem­ory. Pop­u­lar myth has it that be­gin­ning with their de­feat to clos­est ri­vals Manch­ester United in March, Kee­gan’s team ca­pit­u­lated; their naïve foot­ball and lack of tro­phy-win­ning nous fi­nally catch­ing up with them. In fact, a loss and a draw go­ing into the top-two clash had seen a lead that was once 12 points cut to only four, but the Premier League ti­tle was still very much in New­cas­tle’s hands. “I knew that if we played our best, we could beat any­one,” says de­fender John Beresford. “It’s a great feel­ing to have, go­ing into a game. And for the first 45 min­utes we ab­so­lutely bat­tered them.”

In­deed they did. Twice Fer­di­nand was foiled by Peter Sch­me­ichel, while Al­bert’s free-kick rat­tled the cross­bar and Faustino Asprilla fired over from the re­bound with the goal at his mercy. The vis­i­tors didn’t land a mean­ing­ful

blow. As Kee­gan said af­ter­wards: “If ever a team has been ham­mered 0-0 at half-time, that was it”. At the in­ter­val he’d en­cour­aged his team to “just do the same again”.

But early in the se­cond half, New­cas­tle were hit with a sucker punch. “I re­mem­ber get­ting dragged in­field, and when they dinked the ball to the back post, I thought: ‘Oh s**t’,” re­calls Beresford. “And when the ball came to [Eric] Can­tona I threw ev­ery­thing in the way. If he had caught the ball prop­erly, it would have smashed straight into me and prob­a­bly re­bounded out for a throw-in or a cor­ner, but he scuffed it into the ground and it went un­der me and into the far cor­ner of the net. There are cer­tain mo­ments in ev­ery player’s ca­reer that you re­play in your head, and that’s one of mine, but it’s one of those things –ŒI’m not still hav­ing ther­apy or any­thing!

“What I re­mem­ber just as clearly, though, is a chance I had in the first half, but I over­ran the ball and Sch­me­ichel gath­ered it. I re­mem­ber David Batty turned to me and said: ‘You had a chance to nail him there’, and he was right. I should’ve just left my foot in on Sch­me­ichel and taken a book­ing. I know it sounds cyn­i­cal but he was ridicu­lously good that sea­son – even bet­ter than Can­tona – and in that game es­pe­cially. There are cer­tain play­ers you need to stop from hav­ing in­flu­ence any way you can. He’s a lot big­ger than me, mind, so I’d have had to get in there quick and then piss off!”

Shell-shocked from Can­tona’s goal, the Toon were a shadow of their first-half selves and Fer­gu­son’s side ran out com­fort­able win­ners (al­beit by a sin­gle goal). Just one point now sep­a­rated the two teams. “There was an eerie si­lence in the chang­ing room af­ter­wards,” says Beresford. “Kee­gan said: ‘Look, we’ve played well – don’t get down about it. Let’s go again.’”

And go again they did, win­ning their next game 3-0 against West Ham. Beresford con­tin­ues: “It’s a mis­con­cep­tion that it all fell apart af­ter that game, and I still find that frus­trat­ing now. Two sea­sons later, Manch­ester United were miles ahead of Arse­nal [lead­ing by 11 points in March] but no­body ac­cused them of throw­ing it away. But be­cause of the way we played, no­body gave Manch­ester United credit for play­ing bet­ter in the se­cond half of the sea­son. I don’t look back on that game and think: ‘That was when we lost the league’ – al­though it cer­tainly didn’t help.”

LIVERPOOL4-3NEWCASTLE UNITED

An­field, April 3, 1996

When Faustino Asprilla rolled up on Ge­ordie shores in a lav­ish fur coat at the start of 1996, the Colom­bian striker was tasked with one mis­sion: to help New­cas­tle United se­cure their first league ti­tle in 69 years.

His only visit to Eng­land had been on a balmy Au­gust day for a friendly be­tween Eng­land and Colom­bia at Wem­b­ley the year be­fore. New­cas­tle in the depths of an un­for­giv­ing win­ter would pro­vide stark con­trast to Tino’s first taste of English life.

“I saw on the map that New­cas­tle was by the sea and, well, what was I sup­posed to think other than beaches and some­where hot?” Asprilla asks FFT. “I was imag­in­ing yachts in the har­bour and some­where with sun!”

And while the sun did come out on the day Tino ar­rived at St James’ Park, he was left far from im­pressed. “One minute it was rain­ing, the next minute there was sun, and then two min­utes later it started snow­ing,” he re­calls. “I thought: ‘Where the hell am I?’”

De­spite the chal­lenges posed by the cli­mate, Asprilla quickly set­tled into life on the Tyne. Even as New­cas­tle’s fal­ter­ing form be­gan to bite into their lead at the top, the Colom­bian was an in­stant hit – no more so than when the cham­pi­onship race ex­ploded into life on a Wed­nes­day night in April at An­field, less than two months af­ter his New­cas­tle de­but.

“We were se­cond be­hind Man United but had two games in hand on them and a win would draw us level,” Asprilla re­mem­bers.

“It wasn’t that stress had got to Kee­gan. He’d have given that in­ter­view in the rst game”

“It was also a chance to ex­tend our lead over Liverpool. It was a huge match, but no­body could have ex­pected what would un­fold that night – it was so strange.”

Rob­bie Fowler had put Liverpool ahead with just two min­utes on the clock, alert at the back post to nod home a Stan Col­ly­more cross.

“I re­mem­ber Fowler scored early, but we hit back straight­away and went 2-1 up,” Asprilla ex­plains. It was the Colom­bian who ex­pertly wrig­gled through the Liverpool de­fence to tee up strike part­ner Fer­di­nand for the equaliser. Gi­nola gave the vis­i­tors the lead min­utes later.

“We were win­ning and I could hear 7,000 New­cas­tle fans singing at the tops of their voices while the rest of the sta­dium was silent,” Asprilla con­tin­ues. “You could just hear ‘New­cas­tle, New­cas­tle, New­cas­tle’ ring­ing around the sta­dium. Imag­ine that in a place like An­field!”

Ten min­utes into the se­cond half Fowler drew the game level with his se­cond of the night, but par­ity lasted only two min­utes. “Robert Lee saw me and I set off sprint­ing so he sent me through,” Asprilla re­calls. “I could see their keeper [David James] rush­ing to­wards me and I hit it hard first time. I knocked it past him. It was a re­ally nice goal.

But still the ding-dong clash was far from over. Mid­way through the se­cond pe­riod, Col­ly­more snatched a goal back by con­nect­ing with Ja­son Mca­teer’s teas­ing ball. 3-3.

“It gave Liverpool the mo­men­tum,” Asprilla ad­mits. “With a few min­utes left we were wait­ing for the fi­nal whis­tle, so when Col­ly­more scored in the last se­cond it was like some­body throw­ing a bucket of cold wa­ter over the en­tire team. Hon­estly, if they’d scored five min­utes be­fore, we’d have chased the draw and got it, but there just wasn’t time.”

For Asprilla, though, New­cas­tle didn’t lose their grasp on the cham­pi­onship tro­phy with that 4-3 de­feat: “Ti­tles aren’t lost with one game. We lost the league be­cause of the way we ap­proached other games.”

Kee­gan’s de­spon­dent face may have said oth­er­wise as he lay slumped over the ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ing upon the fi­nal whis­tle, head crum­pled into his arms. Says Asprilla: “I don’t re­mem­ber what Kevin said af­ter the game – I just re­mem­ber his face. And that im­age speaks louder than a thou­sand words.”

LEEDS UNITED0-1NEWCASTLE UNITED

El­land Road, April 29, 1996

New­cas­tle did what they had to do at El­land Road, grab­bing the kind of 1-0 win as­so­ci­ated with their ri­vals Manch­ester United that sea­son. But even though they won the game and kept their ti­tle hopes alive, it was the night that many still as­so­ciate with the end of New­cas­tle’s cham­pi­onship chal­lenge – the night Kevin Kee­gan lost and Alex Fer­gu­son won.

A Mon­day night trip to Leeds brought the first of three matches in the fi­nal seven days of the sea­son for New­cas­tle, who had two games in hand over the Red Devils but now trailed Fer­gu­son’s men by six points and a goal dif­fer­ence mar­gin of seven.

Manch­ester United had scraped past a 10-man Leeds a fort­night ear­lier, tri­umph­ing 1-0 at Old Traf­ford. Fer­gu­son had sug­gested Leeds had raised their game just be­cause they were fac­ing Manch­ester United – the

“We had Leeds on Mon­day, For­est Thurs­day and Spurs Sun­day: we had to get nine points”

in­sin­u­a­tion be­ing that they wouldn’t do the same against New­cas­tle. Leeds gave them a scare, though, twice hit­ting the wood­work be­fore Keith Gille­spie headed in the only goal.

“We played Leeds away on the Mon­day, Not­ting­ham For­est on the Thurs­day and then Tot­ten­ham in the last game of the sea­son on the Sun­day,” mid­fielder Lee Clark tells FFT. “We knew we prob­a­bly had to get nine points. It was a tall or­der, but we won the game against Leeds, so we did the first part.”

Then came the rant that de­fined a sea­son – maybe even a man. Kee­gan had been irked by Fer­gu­son’s com­ments about Leeds, but also by re­ports that the Scot was un­happy New­cas­tle would face For­est in a cru­cial league match only a week be­fore re­turn­ing to the City Ground as op­po­nents for Stu­art Pearce’s tes­ti­mo­nial. The ap­par­ent in­sin­u­a­tion was, again, that Pearce and For­est might take it easy.

“That sort of stuff – we’re big­ger than that,” raved Kee­gan, be­com­ing ever more irate. “When you do that with foot­ballers, like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stu­art Pearce… I’ve kept re­ally quiet, but he went down in my es­ti­ma­tion when he said that.

“We have not re­sorted to that, but you can tell him now, if he’s watch­ing, we’re still fight­ing for this ti­tle, and he’s got to go to Mid­dles­brough and get some­thing. And I tell you, I will love it if we beat them – love it.”

The play­ers were obliv­i­ous to that rant un­til Kee­gan climbed onto the team coach, ready for the drive back to New­cas­tle.

“We hadn’t re­ally paid much at­ten­tion to Fer­gu­son’s com­ments; it hadn’t been spo­ken about be­fore the game,” Clark says. “Af­ter the game, the man­ager came onto the coach and said he’d had a lit­tle bit of a pop at some­body in the me­dia. When we saw it on TV, we were gob­s­macked.

“The lads had a bit of fun with him be­fore the For­est game. We were well aware that’s what he was about. He was very, very pas­sion­ate. If he felt some­thing wasn’t right, he’d tell peo­ple, be they his play­ers or peo­ple from out­side the club.

“It wasn’t that stress had got the bet­ter of him. He would have done that in the first game of the sea­son if some­one had ques­tioned an op­po­nent he had re­spect for.”

In the end, New­cas­tle drew 1-1 at For­est to go into the fi­nal day two points be­hind.

“We just hoped Mid­dles­brough could do some­thing at home to Manch­ester United, but un­for­tu­nately it wasn’t the case,” Clark says, sadly. “We were very pop­u­lar all around the coun­try – we were ev­ery­one’s se­cond-favourite team. It’s just a shame we didn’t get the sil­ver­ware to top it all off.”

The team didn’t feel, how­ever, as if this was the end – es­pe­cially when Alan Shearer was taken from un­der Manch­ester United’s noses and brought to his home­town club for a world-record £15m fee, be­fore the new term brought em­phatic wins over their pre­vi­ous sea­son’s con­querors (5-0) and Spurs (7-1).

But in Jan­uary 1997 Kee­gan quit, say­ing he’d taken New­cas­tle – then fourth – as far as he could. Kenny Dal­glish led them to se­cond, but the Mag­pies never truly chal­lenged. John Hall stepped down as chair­man that year, and one by one, play­ers left and the Great En­ter­tain­ers

were gone – but not for­got­ten.

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