Kevin Keegan slumped over a Carlsberg advertising hoarding at Anfield in reaction to Stan Collymore’s crushing injury-time winner has perhaps developed into the defining image of his reign as Newcastle manager. The supporters who lived and breathed the Keegan era, however, are able to conjure memories of happier occasions. Six months on from that agonising 4-3 defeat to Liverpool, Newcastle hosted Manchester United, in October 1996, and produced a performance that electrified St James’ Park.
Following that heartbreaking moment on Merseyside the previous season, Newcastle would go on to see their once seemingly unassailable 12-point advantage at the top disappear completely as Manchester United stormed back to claim their tenth title. The surrender of that lead, and subsequent second-place finish, devastated Keegan, leading him to spend the following summer pondering as to whether he had taken the club as far as he possibly could.
“There was an emptiness about finishing second,” Keegan recalled in his autobiography. “It took an awful lot out of me. A part of me wondered whether it was time to leave Newcastle. My mind was in a whirl, and I told the board that maybe it was better if I stood aside”. After further soul-searching, however, the former Liverpool legend summoned the motivation for another war with Alex Ferguson and made his title aspirations clear with a transfer that would astonish the football world.
Alan Shearer had scored over 30 goals in each of the three preceding seasons at Blackburn before thrilling the nation on his way to claiming the Golden Boot at Euro 96, but the club had endured a disappointing defence of their title and it was apparent that Shearer’s talents belonged at the higher echelons of the game.
At the peak of his powers, Shearer was a phenomenal goalscorer, alongside the likes of Ronaldo and Gabriel Batistuta, regarded as one of the world’s most fearsome strikers. The addition of Shearer would have improved any team on the planet at the time, leading Keegan and Ferguson to embark on another battle, with the victor claiming the precious signature of Shearer.
Following his goalscoring exploits in the European Championship, Ferguson had identified Shearer as the perfect partner to play alongside Eric Cantona in attack and contacted the striker, hoping to persuade him into joining the all-conquering league champions and FA Cup holders. United chairman Martin Edwards later claimed that a contract with the striker had been agreed, only for Blackburn supremo Jack Walker to scupper the deal by demanding an extra £5m.
Shearer clarified those claims recently, admitting that he was 90 per cent certain he would be joining Manchester United following meetings with both Keegan and Ferguson. Keegan knew that he needed to add an extra dimension to his squad if they were to overhaul United, though, and following further phone calls in which he pleaded successfully with the Gosforth native to return home, a deal to take the England striker to Newcastle was finalised. Shearer would move to St James’ Park for a world-record fee of £15m – a figure that seemed astronomical at the time.
Shearer had the opportunity to make an instant impression at his new club, with an encounter against United on the horizon. The clubs would meet in the season’s curtain-raiser at Wembley to contest the Charity Shield.
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It represented an opportunity for United to reinforce what was becoming their dominance over the English game, while for Newcastle, it offered a chance to show that, despite the previous season’s disappointment, they were well-equipped for their quest to be crowned league victors for the first time since 1927. Anticipation was high ahead of the club’s first Wembley trip since 1976 as 40,000 fans made the journey south to the capital.
While Ferguson had missed out on his primary target in Shearer, the Scot instead sought to strengthen his squad by looking further afield, bringing in the likes of Karel Poborský, Jordi Cruyff and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Following the spectacular integration of the Class of ’92 the previous season, Ferguson had constructed a squad in which established internationals could now be called upon from the bench, as the English game began to awaken to the importance of squad rotation.
Squad depth had perhaps been a problem for Newcastle the preceding season. One of the criticisms Keegan was often confronted with was his perceived lack of tactical nous and being unable to adjust when the swashbuckling style his team were renowned for failed to pay off. The squad was certainly strong in attack but it was debatable as to whether they possessed players of sufficient quality to call upon from the bench.
Newcastle, including Shearer, would endure a torrid afternoon under the twin towers and faced a long, miserable trip back home after crashing to a 4-0 defeat by a rampant United. By the time they were 2-0 ahead, United were already toying with a deflated Newcastle. Their superiority was summed up by David Beckham breaking a high defensive line before producing a simple lob over a stranded Pavel Srníček. It was all too easy for United: Ferguson’s side had served up a reminder of the herculean effort that would be required to prevent a successive league crown heading to Old Trafford.
Keegan evidently had work on his hands, but he was confident that any defensive deficiencies would be outweighed by the vast array of attacking talent at his disposal. Not only did he have Shearer leading the line, he also had the services of reigning PFA Player of the Year Les Ferdinand, forming a partnership that promised to strike fear into opposing defenders. The supply line to the front pair would be provided by the mercurial talents of Faustino Asprilla, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola.
Newcastle’s league season kicked off with a trip to Everton, where their travelling supporters were eager to witness a strong start to the campaign, but the Toon Army would leave Goodison Park disappointed, with the 2-1 loss marking the first of two defeats in their opening three games.
Shearer, though, had gotten off the mark on his home debut against Wimbledon, and after suffering a further setback at home to Sheffield Wednesday, the Magpies would embark on a six-game winning streak in which Ferdinand and Shearer would strike nine times between them. Their partnership was flourishing and with the talents of Asprilla and Beardsley linking the play, Keegan’s Newcastle were finding momentum.
Manchester United, meanwhile, failed to bulldoze their way through the opposition in the manner that their Charity Shield demolition suggested they might, stumbling to four draws in their first nine games. New signings Cruyff, Poborský and Solskjaer, in particular, had adapted well to English football, but the champions were proving to be vulnerable at the back. Ferguson seemingly had trouble settling on his best team, changing formation and personnel as he strived to bring some rhythm to their season.
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Steve Bruce had departed in the summer and Ronny Johnson and David May weren’t quite at the level of centre-back partners that Gary Pallister had grown accustomed to, and the absence of Roy Keane further hindered their progress. Despite these early problems, however, they had offered glimpses of the form that was to come, emerging victorious after a clash with league leaders Liverpool, and arrived at St James’ Park confident of shattering Keegan’s dreams once again.
Autumn had settled in and Newcastle lay third in the table, behind only frontrunners Arsenal and second-placed Wimbledon on goal difference. The champions, meanwhile, had moved ahead of Liverpool up to fourth following victory over their great rivals two weeks previously. Three points for either team would see them reach the Premier League summit.
Any speculation as to whether Keegan would take a more cautious approach to the fixture was quickly put to bed. David Batty offered ballast, but the rest of the midfield was organised to attack United from the start. Rob Lee was a hard-working presence on the right side of midfield with Beardsley lining up alongside Batty in the centre, while Ginola offered unpredictable craft from the left.
Ferguson, meanwhile, was missing the driving force of Keane and opted for Johnsen to play in the centre of midfield alongside Nicky Butt. Former Newcastle hero Andy Cole had suffered a broken leg in a reserve match but the little-known Solskjaer had enjoyed a storming start to the season and would play alongside the talisman Cantona in attack.
The atmosphere at a drizzly St James’ Park was electrifying as an excited and expectant crowd of 36,000 roared encouragement as the game kicked off. The tempo was fast from the outset as Newcastle’s intensity caused early problems for United. The Geordie faithful were in full voice and serenaded their guests from Manchester with chants that boasted of their possession of Shearer.
United struggled with the pace of the game early on and couldn’t seem to string meaningful passes together, while Newcastle harassed and harried their opposition, forcing corners and producing speculative efforts in the opening ten minutes. It wouldn’t take long for the home side’s early dominance to be rewarded.
In the 12th minute, Ginola floated in a corner to find Shearer who rose high to provide for centre-back Darren Peacock, who connected with the forward’s inviting header to nod home from six yards. There was some debate as to whether the ball had crossed the line but Newcastle were ahead and the crowd were now even more vocal as Keegan applauded from the sidelines.
Going behind seemed to shake United into life and, while not creating anything of note, the threats posed by Poborský and Beckham were a danger from the wings.
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Any new-found optimism, however, was shattered at the half-hour stage as Ginola curled in a wonderful strike from the edge of the box that flew past the despairing Peter Schmeichel into the top corner to send Keegan leaping from the bench in jubilation.
Ginola had arrived on England’s shores from Paris St Germain in the summer of 1995 and the Frenchman with the flowing locks was an immediate favourite on Tyneside. While he offered little protection for his full-back, John Beresford, going forward he was a winger of elegance, capable of producing moments of genius that would leave the stadium awestruck.
Amidst the frenetic pace of the game, the man who had dominated the headlines preceding the encounter had been kept relatively quiet. Shearer suddenly came alive, though, and served Ferguson a reminder of why the Scot was so keen to sign him, producing a blistering long-range effort at Schmeichel that rebounded off the foot of the post.
The fierce competitiveness of Butt and Batty boiled over, with Butt responding to a late Batty challenge that resulted in the England midfield pair gripping one another by their throats, shortly before the half-time whistle blew with the home side two goals to up. The hairdryer treatment surely awaited United players after a miserable first-half performance in which the pressure and energy of Newcastle had overwhelmed them.
Any discussion held in United’s dressing room at the interval seemingly had Ferguson’s desired effect as Poborský forced Srníček into an early second-half save. The rebound fell to Cantona whose effort was cleared desperately off the line by a lunging Steve Watson. It was the first meaningful contribution Cantona had made to proceedings, and Newcastle fans had reason to be wary of the Frenchman.
It was Cantona’s strike that had defeated the Magpies the previous season in a moment that was deemed to have turned the tide United’s direction in that title race. Another goal for him here would see United’s belief soar and could potentially cause any self-doubt that undermined their championship dreams rise to the surface.
While Shearer had found chances to get on the scoresheet difficult to find, Ferdinand had been presented with even less opportunity to add to his impressive early-season tally. Schmeichel had been Ferdinand’s nemesis in the demoralising defeat the previous season but the England striker sent a reminder to the Dane of the potent threat he presented. Beardsley sent a cross in that found Ferdinand, who sent wide a diving header that would surely have put the game out of United’s reach.
Just two minutes later, however, Shearer demonstrated his immense talent for crossing as he sprinted to the byline before producing an exquisite ball into the area that met the towering head of Ferdinand. The England man soared high over May as his header thumped past Schmeichel against the underside of the bar and over the line. Keegan celebrated with the air of a man who knew that victory was assured.
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The temperature remained high and United’s frustration met with Newcastle’s sheer desire to gain revenge for the Charity Shield mauling meant that the tension always threatened to spill over. Tempers flared when Cantona went in late on Beardsley and was fortunate not to be sent off for a second yellow card. Shearer reacted furiously to the Frenchman’s overenthusiasm as both players were forced to be separated by their teammates.
Every Newcastle tackle was now greeted with a roar from the crowd, while United’s limp efforts at goal were met with ironic cheers from the home fans. The ghosts of the year’s earlier encounters had been well and truly laid to rest. Only a Shearer goal could improve the Geordie’s mood even further, and the England striker’s anger turned to jubilation as he added Newcastle’s fourth.
Beardsley’s fizzing drive was stopped in acrobatic fashion by Schmeichel, before the Dane demonstrated spectacular reflexes to stop Ferdinand’s immediate effort from the rebound. Schmeichel’s heroics could only delay the inevitable, however, as the predatory Shearer smashed in the follow-up.
Keegan again jumped off his seat in delight, with the Sky Sports split-screen illustrating the different emotions he and his Manchester United counterpart were experiencing. All Ferguson could do was remain rooted to his seat, glumly chewing on his gum as the goals continued to pour in on what was becoming a tortuous evening for him. The Scot wasn’t accustomed to being on the receiving end of punishments like this. United were in danger of suffering their highest league defeat since 1984; a record that would soon be achieved, with further pain inflicted through a goal that would define the match.
Lee picked the ball up on the right-hand side, deep into United’s half before looking up to see the rampaging Phillipe Albert demanding the ball. He found the Belgian centre-back with a simple pass. Albert advanced towards the United area before looking up to see Schmeichel standing off his line.
Demonstrating the kind of imagination his colleague Ginola would have been proud of, Albert deftly lifted the most elegant of chips over the head of the despairing Schmeichel. The United ‘keeper could only arch his back, peering miserably over his head to follow the agonising moment the ball looped into the net. Their humiliation was complete. “If the rest was the cake, there is the icing,” roared Andy Gray.
As the incredible match reached its conclusion, joyous Newcastle fans revelled in reminding their Manchester counterparts of the 5-0 hammering their team had inflicted upon them. Newcastle’s heroes warmly applauded the rapturous stadium while the dejected United players trudged off the pitch to face Ferguson’s wrath. With the stadium chanting his name, Shearer surely felt like he had made the correct choice to return to the city he called home, knowing that winning like this with his hometown club would always feel that bit more special than with anybody else.
The triumph saw Keegan’s men move three points clear at the top of the table and created the feeling for those on Tyneside, if only for a few days at least, that this could be their season. They had gained revenge for the Charity Shield debacle and had given reason for Ferguson to be afraid that this Newcastle team would have a decisive say in the destination of the Premiership trophy. The devastation experienced at Anfield had given way to elation at St James’ Park. They had humbled the champions.
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But the ecstasy was short-lived. Further glory would evade them and the result would represent the pinnacle of the Keegan era at the club. Newcastle would follow up the victory with a humbling defeat at Leicester, a result which sparked an inconsistent run that had seen them slip to fourth in the table by January.
Then, Keegan stunned the football world by resigning from the club following disagreements with the board. For some Newcastle fans, Keegan leaving felt like a tragedy that had been thrust upon them. The Chronicle Live reported of fans crying in the street, with some referring to the day he left as ‘Black Wednesday’. Perhaps the devastation many felt at his departure wasn’t surprising given this was the man responsible for taking the club from the depths of the old Second Division to the verge of capturing the Premiership title in his five years at the club.
Kenny Dalglish replaced the man Newcastle fans had christened “Messiah”, and for a successive season would end up behind United as distant runners-up. Following Keegan’s departure from the club, several key players that had accompanied him on that exhilarating journey would leave the north-east too.
Ferdinand reluctantly departed to play for Tottenham with Ginola joining him in the move to White Hart Lane. Beardsley also left for Bolton, while Asprilla would depart in January 1998 to play in Serie A with Parma. The team had suddenly taken on a very different appearance and it felt as if a lot of the magic had died.
Dalglish’s replacements failed to generate the same excitement and atmosphere around the club of those that had been before, and the Scottish legend failed to replicate the successes he had achieved at Blackburn and Liverpool. Shearer would remain on Tyneside and go on to become the club’s all-time record goalscorer, but the club he retired from in 2006 was a far cry from the one that he joined a decade earlier when Newcastle were expected to challenge the likes of United, Arsenal and Liverpool for years to come.
Sometimes, it can be easy to get lost in a haze of nostalgia and to believe that Keegan’s Newcastle produced stellar football and thrilled spectators every time they graced the field. This wasn’t the case. They were not outstanding in every match they played and neither did they produce dazzling spectacles every time they took to the pitch. But this Newcastle side made people feel that something special was brewing, filling the fans with excitement and adrenaline.
Keegan’s romantic approach to the game is often derided, but he provided the city with a magnificent team that created memories which will never be forgotten. Newcastle fans have endured a turbulent time in the years that have followed, but 24 years on, they are still able to escape back to those sensational 90 minutes of football and relive a wondrous autumn evening. A night when anything felt possible.
By Aaron Attwood @ajattwood