The Entertainers vs the Spiceboys: Liverpool, Newcastle and the legendary seven-goal thrillers

The Entertainers vs the Spiceboys: Liverpool, Newcastle and the legendary seven-goal thrillers

When the great American Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou famously proclaimed “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”, it is unlikely that she intended the quote to be attributed to a pair of football matches featuring such literary icons as Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock and Peter Beardsley.

While a comment of this magnitude was likely intended as an accompaniment for subjects far more consequential than that of the beautiful game, there’s no denying the aptness with which it describes the Liverpool and Newcastle teams of the mid-1990s, and the two pulsating encounters they produced.

Although Manchester United – spoiled by the endless brilliance of Schmeichel, Cantona and the Class of ’92 – enjoyed a near-monopoly when it came to domestic silverware, even they have no single moment quite as revered as the seven-goal thriller between Liverpool and Newcastle in April 1996. The fact that both teams managed to bottle lightning and produce a match of almost parallel quality a year later simply defies belief. 

In many ways, the club’s managers were kindred spirits. Having both come of age at Liverpool under the tutelage of Bill Shankly, Kevin Keegan and Roy Evans were both footballing romantics who prioritised attractive, front-foot football over defensive dogma. Similarly, both ascribed to the notion that players perform better when given freedom both on and off the pitch; disciplinarians they were not. While these characteristics were the biggest, most recognisable strengths of the teams, it was arguably these very traits that impeded them on their quest for ultimate glory.

The 1995/96 season saw Newcastle at the apex of their meteoric, half-decade rise under the leadership of Keegan – a legendary ex-player for both Newcastle and Liverpool. Backed by the considerable financial clout of local business heavyweight Sir John Hall, Keegan had taken the club from the bottom reaches of the second tier to the top of the Premiership whilst playing some of the most attractive, gung-ho football ever seen on these shores. 

By January, Keegan’s team, built around the guile of the ageless Peter Beardsley the otherworldly flair of David Ginola and the constant goal threat of Les Ferdinand, had steamrolled its way to a 12-point lead at the top of the Premiership. Despite looking certain to claim their first title in nearly 70 years, a combination of defensive frailties, an uncharacteristic goal drought and the brilliant form of United had resulted in their lead evaporating by April.

Liverpool, on the other hand, were in their second season under Evans’ stewardship and were thought be making significant inroads in their quest to return to the summit of English football. After an unprecedented period of domestic and European dominance in the 1980s, Evans inherited a team in transition following three dismal years under Graeme Souness.

A former Liverpool player – albeit making only nine league appearances – Evans was persuaded to retire early and join the coaching ranks by then-manager Bob Paisley. By the time Evans finally got his chance at the top job, he had served under four managers over two decades as part of the clubs legendary Boot Room; a coaching hub and nurturing ground for future Liverpool managers.

Read  |  Kevin Keegan: the Messiah of Newcastle

Despite cutting a slightly more pragmatic figure than Keegan, who is perhaps English football’s ultimate idealist, Evans had quickly built a talented young side that played with an exhilarating, possession-based style that had a more continental flavour than anything else seen in Premier League during this period. 

With a team that was centred around academy products such as Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman, there were obvious comparisons to be made to Manchester United, who were also going through an exciting period of youthful transition. It speaks volumes of the esteem Evans’ side were held in that many considered his youngsters to be of equal or even superior quality to the now immortal homegrown stars of their oldest rivals.

Liverpool’s thrilling but inconsistent season had seen them on the fringes of the title race for most of the campaign, but they hosted Newcastle on 3 April knowing that a win would take them within four points of United at the top of the table. Despite the decline in consistency, the title was still Newcastle’s to lose; their two games in hand over United would’ve taken them three points clear at the top if maximum points were acquired. 

The stage was set for the two most exciting teams in the league to face off in a game where the stakes could not be higher. Although fans were now well accustomed to the weekly Sky Sports hype train, this felt like a match worthy of its billing. To say it didn’t disappoint would be an understatement of epic proportions.

The atmosphere created by the near 40,000 fans under the lights of Anfield was buoyant as captain John Barnes led his side out of the tunnel. It would reach fever pitch a mere 90 seconds after the opening whistle as mercurial £8.5m signing Stan Collymore crossed beautifully for local hero Fowler to head home from close range. The move was yet another example of the chemistry that the free-scoring Fowler and his new strike partner had honed throughout a season which would see them finish with a combined total of 42 league goals. At this point, it would’ve been reasonable to expect the duo to be terrifying defences in unison for years to come.

Never to be outdone for enigmatic, attacking flair, Newcastle had turned both the atmosphere and the scoreline on its head by the quarter-hour mark thanks to the attacking trident of Ferdinand, Ginola and Faustino Asprilla. Perhaps the ultimate free-spirit in Keegan’s band of mavericks, Aprillia, a mid-season signing from Parma, was described by some critics as a misjudged signing who unsettled the balance of Newcastle’s team.

Despite his unpredictable nature, the flamboyant Columbian had more than enough performances like this to remain a cult hero on Tyneside, his skilful, rubber-legged footwork bedazzling Liverpool hardman Ruddock before playing through Ferdinand for the equaliser. Minutes later, Ferdinand turned provider, his incisive pass finished by Ginola to complete the turnaround.

Although Ginola’s effort would be the final goal in the first half, the game continued to be played at a breakneck tempo, with McManaman beginning to run amok in his now-familiar free role and causing the visitors all kinds of problems. While most teams in Newcastle’s position would have been happy to slow the game down and hope to grind out a victory, Keegan had long preached attack as the best form of defence and this set the stage for arguably the most iconic 45 minutes in Premier League history. 

Read  |  Steve McManaman: the man no English export can touch

Newcastle would lose and regain their one-goal advantage in a heart-stopping two-minute period early in the second half. Liverpool’s equaliser had come via Fowler who finished exquisitely inside the box after yet another purposeful run from McManaman. This was followed almost immediately by another moment of Asprilla brilliance as he curled outrageously past David James with the outside of his boot after a perfect through ball from Rob Lee.

Barely ten minutes had passed when Liverpool full-back Jason McAteer’s inviting low cross found Collymore who slotted past Pavel Srníček leaving many spectators to conclude that this surely must be the end of the madness. 

It wasn’t. The last 20 minutes saw both teams play as though the notion of a draw was an alien concept. The more chances they traded, the more they began to resemble a pair of prize-fighters desperate to avoid the scorecards and achieve the certainty of a knockout victory. The critical blow finally landed in the 92nd minute when Barnes stroked a ball to the left side of the box and an incoming Collymore slotted home to sound of commentator Martyn Tyler’s now immortal line “Collymore closing in!”, followed by the infamous sight of a crestfallen Keegan slumped over the advertising board.

Having overseen a match that crammed an entire seasons worth of raw emotion into 90 minutes, the managers had contrasting feelings about the game. Interestingly, the victorious Evans was more cynical, describing the tie as “kamikaze football” and claiming the match was “great for the fans but realistically no team will win the championship defending every week like these teams did tonight.”

The Newcastle boss, on the other hand, offered a defiant defence of the spectacle, saying: “As long as football matches end up like this, people will come and watch and you won’t get empty seats at stadiums because it was a real classic. We carry on playing this way – or I go.” This interview, combined with his infamous “I will love it” speech later in the season goes some way to capturing the true essence of Keegan as a man and a manager with his passion, principles and sincerity there for all to see, along with a touch of naivety that would ultimately prove to be his undoing on more than one occasion.

Although the match wasn’t necessarily decisive – mathematically, at least – in terms of the title outcome, the general feel was that Newcastle would struggle majorly to recover from such a sickening blow and so it came to pass. Manchester United, courtesy of their machine-like consistency and some managerial mind games from Ferguson, took home the title with a final-day victory at Middlesbrough. Liverpool, having hauled themselves back into the title race, were again undone by their hallmark brand of maddening inconsistency, limping to a 1-0 away defeat against Coventry in the very next game.

On 11 March 1997, almost a year to the date of the original, the two sides would take to Anfield once more, creating a worthy sequel to their blockbuster first offering. With the bar raised so high from the previous season, the game would need copious amounts of drama to live up to its billing. Fans wanted Kamikaze Football 2 – and that’s exactly what they got.

Dark horses at best in the previous season, Liverpool looked like a more genuine threat to United’s dominance in the 1996/97 season. The signing of Czech international Patrik Berger had further bolstered their already stacked attack and Evans side had begun 1997 with a five-point lead at the top of the table. Although the lead was gone by March, the Merseysiders still held serious title aspirations going into the Newcastle game. Despite clear improvements, the goodwill previously afforded to the team by fans and critics alike was slowly being replaced by a cynical, more negative outlook.

Read  |  The beauty and the brawn of Patrick Berger, a footballer perfect for his era

A combination of press grabbing off-field antics and a comparably barren trophy haul compared to their Manchester rivals had sown the seeds of a toxic image that would later see them christened the ‘Spiceboys’. The negativity was compounded in the previous seasons FA Cup final, where their 1-0 defeat to United, a prospect unbearable enough, was overshadowed by the garish, white Armani suits the team wore on the pitch before the game. Desperate for some major honours to silence the naysayers, this made the fixture even more important for the hosts.

After a mixed first half of the season – albeit one that included the era-defining 5-0 victory over United – Keegan broke Geordie hearts by leaving his post in January. In a nod to the past, Kenny Dalglish, another Liverpool legend and the player the club signed to replace Keegan in their playing days, was brought in as his successor in the hope Newcastle’s fading title challenge could be rescued.

Although it was hoped Dalglish would add some defensive steel, the team he brought into this fixture was still very much a Keegan side. In fact, the former manager’s shadow couldn’t have loomed any larger if there’d been a giant perm erected over the Anfield skyline.

With Alan Shearer – their world-record signing – out injured, Dalglish started both Ferdinand and Ginola on the bench, with Asprilla relied on as the main source of attacking inspiration. Collymore, the main protagonist of the last match, was also benched in place of Berger. While no side was prepared to give the other more than an inch of advantage in the first game, Liverpool began this one by taking a mile.

After dominating for most of the first half, Liverpool opened the scoring as McManaman curled a delightful strike past Shaka Hislop following McAteer’s low cross. Less than a minute had past when the hosts doubled their lead, McManaman dispossessing midfield general David Batty and finding Fowler whose post-bound shot was finished by Berger on the rebound.

Desperate for half-time to arrive, the visitors were given a real mountain to climb when Fowler was played through by Redknapp for his second goal, which seemingly killed off the game. Rather than the back and forth classic neutrals had hoped for, they had instead witnessed total dominance from the hosts, who were both clinical and elegant.

Anyone who saw the first half, or indeed the first 25 minutes of the second, would have been considered brave, or more likely stupid, to have predicted drama on anywhere near the scale of the previous year’s match, but an outrageous final quarter would ensure that even the healthiest of hearts were in need of a pacemaker come full-time.

Although the first game is undoubtedly the more celebrated of the two, the final 20 minutes of this match are arguably the most dramatic period of football produced over the two games. Outplayed for the first 70 minutes, Newcastle were given a lifeline when Keith Gillespie’s mid-range strike found a way past a disappointed James.

Read  |  The magic and the madness of Faustino Asprilla

Visibly rattled, Liverpool’s previously supreme confidence evaporated and suddenly they were under a barrage of pressure from a rejuvenated Newcastle. With three minutes of normal time remaining, Asprilla was played through by Ginola and produced a wonderful lobbed finish that was at least equal to his goal in the previous game. Almost straight from kick-off, Newcastle regained possession and Warren Barton took advantage of a Liverpool defence in disarray to bundle home an improbable equaliser and send the away fans into ecstasy.

With barely enough time to process the astounding comeback their team had just produced, Newcastle fans had the joy ripped away from them as Fowler headed home a stoppage-time winner from a Stig Inge Bjørnebye cross that all but ended their title hopes. Once again, however, Evans side couldn’t capitalise on the momentum created by such a spectacle and they’d have to endure another season of United glory.

These two games at Anfield acted as a microcosm for both the brilliant and the frustrating characteristics of both teams during this period. Everything from the abundant flair, the clinical finishing and the defensive frailties were on show for all to see, and this is what made for such compelling viewing. 

In football, the public perception of certain teams is often greatly affected by the past success of the club they are representing. Take for example the Newcastle team of the 1990s era; a supremely entertaining team remembered for their frantic, cavalier football, their free-scoring matches and a lack of discipline that saw them fall just short of achieving true glory. This exact same description could apply to Liverpool, yet while Newcastle’s swashbuckling side will forever be etched into Premier League folklore as the ‘Entertainers’, their Merseyside counterparts are the maligned, white suit-toting underachievers eternally dammed as the Spiceboys.

Newcastle, although backed by a gargantuan local following, were not regarded as a historic trophy-winning outfit in the way Liverpool were by the 1990s. Having failed to lift a league title since 1927, and experiencing some genuine wilderness years prior to Keegan, this group of players are remembered for instilling local pride amongst fans that have not been taken to such glorious heights since. Fans were looking for hope and excitement, and Keegan provided it in spades.

Following their unbelievable success in the 70s and 80s, Liverpool fans had come to expect regular glory, and anything less was going to viewed as a decline. The fact that it was United who had usurped them as the nation’s premier club made it an even tougher pill to swallow. Although the team didn’t help themselves with certain off-field incidents, it is tempting to wonder how those antics would’ve been viewed had the side gone on to achieve domestic or European success.

While neither managed to claim the major trophy their entertaining football deserved, it goes without saying that fans will never forget the way they made them feel. Like Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward in the sport of boxing, some teams are celebrated for the battles they were involved in rather than the titles they won. While it might seem fanciful to attribute a comment as significant as Maya Angelou’s to a set of Premiership fixtures, Liverpool icon Shankly put it best when he said, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you, it’s much, much more important than that.”

By James Sweeney @james_sweeney92

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