This feature is part of Virtuoso
For a time in the mid-1990s, Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling Newcastle United – backed by the millions of miner’s son turned property developer Sir John Hall – were so endearing to the football neutral that they were dubbed “The Entertainers.” The Hall-Keegan axis was formed in February 1992, the duo taking the club from the brink of relegation to the third tier to within touching distance of Premier League glory in the space of a whirlwind five-year spell.
By 20 January 1996, the Magpies, looking for their first top-flight title since 1927, had opened up an astonishing 12-point gap over Manchester United, the Premier League trophy looking destined for the northeast. However, when Manchester United visited St James’ Park on 4 March, Alex Ferguson’s relentless juggernaut had cranked up the pressure, cutting the lead to just four points in a little over six weeks.
The clash, therefore, took on huge importance in the title race. Viewed in isolation, football matches are just about the three points or progress in a cup competition. But often, when two supreme forces come together at just the right time, the outcome of a match can force the pendulum to swing one way or another, changing the course of destiny in the process. More than three points were on the table this cold night; the future of Keegan and the history of Newcastle was also at stake.
If Newcastle’s faltering title challenge had them appearing like a boxer on the ropes, they didn’t show it in the early exchanges, peppering Manchester United’s goal in the first half. The first 45 minutes would come to be defined by a duel between the Toon Army’s prolific striker, Les Ferdinand, and Manchester United’s goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel.
The giant Dane, who won the European Championship with his home country in 1992, was arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the time, his hulking frame renowned for dominating his 18-yard-box and striking fear into opposition strikers. Penalty takers have often described how the goal seems to shrink before their very eyes as they approach their 12-yard spot-kick. Approaching Schmeichel’s goal in a one-on-one scenario elicited similar feelings, something which Ferdinand found out on more than one occasion.
The first clash occurred after a long ball was flicked on by Faustino Asprilla, the Colombian who memorably first appeared on a snowy Tyneside two months earlier in a fur coat. Ferdinand controlled the ball on his thigh, accelerating away from Steve Bruce with apparent ease, although it took him wider than he would’ve liked, and far too close to Schmeichel’s domain. The blonde Dane, smelling blood, sprang from his line at the sight of Ferdinand’s poor touch, beating him to the punch and foiling his tame effort.
The outstanding Asprilla, who was later applauded off the pitch by the Geordie faithful, was involved once again, picking up the ball on the right-hand side and sucking in four red shirts before sliding in Ferdinand who once again had the beating of Bruce. This time the touch, with his right foot, was much defter and, with the ball closer to his body, Ferdinand unleashed a powerful shot from less than 12 yards. Schmeichel, already off his line in anticipation of the shot, blocked the ball with his granite left wrist before catching the ball as it fell through the air.
Schmeichel went on to save smartly from Peter Beardsley, Asprilla and Rob Lee. As with all goalkeepers, his clean sheet was aided by the woodwork, when he was beaten all ends up by a Philippe Albert free-kick, as well as further profligacy from Ferdinand. Schmeichel made many more spectacular saves throughout his Manchester United career, yet few were as important as those he made that night at St James’ Park.
Eric Cantona’s winning strike, and Manchester United’s subsequent three points that night, broke Newcastle’s hearts and, from then on in, there was only one winner in the title race. The Red Devils wrapped up the campaign and finished four points ahead of the Magpies, who once again finished runner-up in 1996/97, this time by a wider seven-point-margin.
Keegan’s Newcastle almost reached the top of the Premier League mountain, but the club has yet to scale those heights since. Critics of Keegan will point to a soft underbelly, likening his sides to a flashy boxer possessing a glass jaw, but that is unfair. Games such as this, and imperiously dominant performances from players at the top of their game like Schmeichel, show the razor-thin margins which not only settle football matches but can also influence the future path of title races, careers and the unfurling history of clubs.
Peter Schmeichel remained at Manchester United for three more seasons, departing Old Trafford on a high after winning the club’s first European Cup since 1968. Long before parking the bus became part of modern football lexicon, Schmeichel was the brick wall in the Manchester United goal, the volatile, impassable, yelling, brick wall who laid the foundations upon which the success of Alex Ferguson’s teams were built.
By Dan Williamson
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp