With Newcastle United the subject of a £300m takeover bid, the prospect of investment and improved fortunes on the pitch lies ahead for Magpies fans. Here, we look back to the club’s golden period in the Premier League, when Tyneside legend Kevin Keegan came agonisingly close to transforming his team into title winners.
As Kevin Keegan climbed back on to the Newcastle United team bus having completed his media obligations following a 1-0 win over Leeds at Elland Road on 29 April 1996, he leaned towards his assistant manager Terry McDermott and, smiling, said: “You need to watch my interview.”
It was the rant ridiculed around the world. In tight focus, Keegan faced the Sky Sports cameras with the sleeves of his black and white club sweatshirt rolled up, his face framed by oversized white headphones as he angrily jabbed the air with his finger.
“I’ll tell you, honestly,” he raged, “I will love it if we beat them, love it!”
Newcastle were set to play Nottingham Forest in three days’ time, where a win would take them level with Manchester United at the top of the Premier League table heading into the final day of the season. When questioned after the Leeds win about United manager Alex Ferguson’s suggestion that, with the two sides set to meet post-season for Stuart Pearce’s testimonial, Forest would be less than fully committed in their league meeting, Keegan bristled.
His hot-headed reaction to Ferguson’s comments is widely viewed as Keegan’s having cracked under the pressure of the tightest of title races, of the wily United boss recording a crucial “mind games” victory which led to Newcastle’s late-season slump and runners-up finish. But Keegan and his players didn’t see it that way.
Laughing about the incident almost immediately afterwards, Keegan insisted the players watch his outburst on the coach ride home, and there was plenty of light-hearted “Love it!” mimicking at training the next day.
“It sort of galvanised us,” former Newcastle full-back Robbie Elliott tells BBC Sport. “It was something that everyone was feeling.”
“That was Kevin; that was what he did,” says Rob Lee of his former manager. “Everyone else was saying Fergie had got in his head. That made a good story. But he did that with us a lot – if he saw something that wasn’t right, he’d have a rant. That’s what made him who he was.”
It was who Keegan was that enabled him to build this Newcastle team in his image.
A Ballon d’Or and European Cup winner during a playing career as a skilful and dynamic forward with Liverpool, Hamburg and England, Keegan spent his final two seasons before retirement with Newcastle. Showing his scoring touch hadn’t deserted him in his twilight years, his 49 goals in 85 games helped the Magpies earn promotion to the top flight by the end of his St James’ Park swansong in 1984.
Returning to the club as manager in February 1992, Keegan found Newcastle back in the second tier, battling relegation. A quick turnaround – including wins of 5-1, 4-0, 6-0 and 7-1 – saw them finish two places above the drop zone, and promotion to the Premier League was clinched emphatically the following season.
Through Keegan’s astute recruitment, encouragement of an emerging generation of local talents and uncompromising commitment to attacking football, Newcastle became a Premier League force, later labelled ‘The Entertainers’ for their cavalier style. “I used to come back to London and people would say, ‘I don’t support Newcastle, but whenever I know they’re on TV I make sure I watch’,” remembers striker Les Ferdinand.
Keegan spent heavily but wisely to assemble and continually upgrade a talent-rich squad. “He was putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” explains midfielder Lee Clark, “and he just seemed to find the right pieces every single time.”
Keegan’s allure was key to Newcastle’s ability to punch above their weight in the transfer market. He was a natural salesman, earnest and enthusiastic. And to many of the players he was targeting, he had been a hero.
“The main reason I went to Newcastle was Kevin Keegan,” says Lee, who joined from Charlton in 1992. “He was my idol. I was a West Ham fan as a kid but Keegan was the first superstar I had pictures on my wall of.
“He’s got such charisma. If you meet him, I guarantee within 30 minutes he’ll have persuaded you this is the place to be.”
When Andrew Cole was controversially sold to Manchester United in 1995, Keegan knew he wanted Ferdinand to replace the outgoing striker. He also knew that Newcastle were one of a handful of clubs to have met QPR’s £6m asking price.
Ferdinand was preparing for talks with Aston Villa when he received a call from Keegan. “Before you make a decision,” the Newcastle manager pleaded, “can you do me the privilege of speaking to us?”
Keegan drove to Birmingham the next day, sitting down with Ferdinand at his hotel as soon as his meeting with Villa had ended. “Just his enthusiasm and his vision for where he wanted to take the club,” Ferdinand recalls, “he had me sold after a couple of minutes.”
After finishing third and sixth in their first two seasons back in the top flight, Newcastle were ready for an assault on the title going into the 1995-96 season. The Cole sale was soon forgotten when Ferdinand, David Ginola, Warren Barton and Shaka Hislop were brought in for a £16m outlay.
Newcastle began the season in relentless form, winning nine of their first 10 league games and were beaten only twice before Christmas, at which stage they were 10 points clear at the top of the table.
Blackburn Rovers may have been the reigning champions but it was Manchester United’s Premier League supremacy Newcastle were challenging. Their first game post-Christmas took Keegan’s side to Old Trafford, where they were dealt, according to Barton, a metaphorical “punch on the nose” in a 2-0 defeat.
“I had a conversation with Peter [Beardsley] and Les [Ferdinand] around Christmas time about what we needed to do,” Barton remembers. “Peter was like, ‘We’re just going to go out and play. There are no tactics. We’re not going to shut up shop or change our identity.'”
That identity was straightforward. “[Keegan] wanted to keep clean sheets if he could,” Clark explains, “but if that wasn’t possible, just go and score more than the opponents.”
Keegan never sought to complicate what he saw as a simple game. When one player asked about his approach, the manager summed up his methodology in one sentence: “I buy good players and let them play.”
“He was the best man-manager I ever came across,” Elliott says. “He made players feel invincible, and that was as much of a talent as the technical side.”
Newcastle recovered quickly from the Old Trafford loss, at one point stretching their lead to 12 points. In February, as the final months of the season loomed, Keegan made two further signings to boost Newcastle’s title chances. “Who are the best two midfielders at sitting in?” he asked Lee one morning in training. “David Batty and Paul Ince,” came Lee’s reply. Batty was signed shortly after.
Keegan would often canvass his players’ opinions of transfer targets, but his other mid-season purchase was someone unfamiliar to most within the squad. Enigmatic Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla arrived at St James’ Park during a snowstorm, bedecked in a fur coat as he completed the formalities of his £6.7m signing from Italian side Parma.
“In training, some days he was dreadful, some days we were like, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anyone do that’. It was the same in games,” Lee says of Asprilla, who inspired a 2-1 comeback win over Middlesbrough as a second-half substitute on his debut.
But victory against Middlesbrough was followed by a streak of wretched form in which Newcastle won only twice in eight fixtures. When they welcomed Manchester United to St James’ Park in March, their lead at the top of the table had been cut to just four points.
Although goalless at half-time, Newcastle had dominated. “Just go out there again and show them that we’re the better team,” Keegan told his players at the break. But Peter Schmeichel was in inspired form in the United goal, and Eric Cantona’s 51st-minute strike proved decisive.
A month later, in a 4-3 loss to Liverpool at Anfield – a game regarded as one of the greatest in Premier League history – Newcastle twice led before being sunk by a stoppage-time Stan Collymore winner. Keegan, deflated by the killer late goal, slumped over an advertising board in front of the away dugout, his title hopes all but slain by his former club.
In the midst of the fray, Les Ferdinand found a brief moment for still contemplation during a break in play. “I remember picking up a drink and listening to the atmosphere. I said to myself, ‘Whoever’s watching this tonight is watching one hell of a game of football’.”
The quality of the entertainment was little consolation to Newcastle, though. Sat shirtless in the away dressing room after the final whistle, Ginola lit a cigarette. “We can’t come to a place like here, score three goals and lose 4-3,” he lamented. “We can’t do that.”
When Newcastle travelled to the City Ground for the penultimate fixture of the season, their lead having been extinguished, Ferguson got his wish. Nottingham Forest, of course, offered no preferential treatment, earning a 1-1 draw which meant United would be champions if they could avoid defeat against Middlesbrough on the final day. Ferguson’s side, whose relentless pursuit had seen them drop only four points since late January, won 3-0 as Newcastle could only draw with Tottenham.
“You owe these people out there today,” Keegan told his players. “These people that have turned up to watch you – you owe them.” Then he turned and walked out of the dressing room.
Manchester United were back at St James’ Park on 20 October, 1996. Victory over the champions would put Newcastle top of the Premier League again. Keegan believed his team owed their fans a performance and, this time, a result. They owed the fans for the way they had lost the title the year before, for the two defeats by United that season, and for their humiliating 4-0 loss in the Charity Shield in August.
There was hope things would be different this time – in the game, in the season. Newcastle had signed Alan Shearer from Blackburn for £15m, beating United to snare arguably the world’s best number nine. The players were boarding a plane when the deal was confirmed, travelling between destinations on a pre-season tour of the Far East. Keegan climbed aboard and addressed his squad. “If you didn’t realise you were playing for one of the biggest clubs in the business,” he said, “we’ve just smashed the world transfer record and brought Alan Shearer home.”
Ever the sensitive man-manager, there was one player Keegan had already clued in about the Shearer deal. The day before, he’d pulled Ferdinand to one side. “I think I’m going to sign Alan Shearer tomorrow,” Keegan confided. “I want you to know I’m not signing him to get rid of you. I believe you two can play together. You’re very much part of my plans going forward.”
And Keegan was right to believe the two centre-forwards could work in harmony. Both scored as Newcastle destroyed United 5-0. Keegan got the performance he desired and a result he couldn’t have dreamed of. But that was to be the zenith of The Entertainers.
On the morning of 6 January, 1997, a meeting was called at Newcastle’s training ground. The players had heard the rumours, but they didn’t want to believe them. Terry McDermott and coach Arthur Cox gathered the squad and informed them Keegan had resigned.
Newcastle had lost form after the high of the United game, with just one win from the following nine matches. But results weren’t a factor in Keegan’s decision – they had, after all, rediscovered their scintillating best, with 7-1 and 3-0 wins in their two previous league outings. But, still affected by the previous season’s collapse, Keegan had become further disenchanted by the competing priorities of the club, recently floated on the stock market, during its emergence as a public limited company.
“Kevin was Newcastle – he was the captain of the club,” Lee says. “He pushed the club forward and everyone was following. It was a major, major blow.”
Kenny Dalglish was drafted in to replace Keegan, and Newcastle finished runners-up once more in 1996-97. But they would finish 13th in each of the next two seasons, slipping far from title contention. The ride was over.
The enduring question of The Entertainers’ era is whether there is any regret in prizing style so highly above substance, whether it would have been worth adding a splash of pragmatism to Keegan’s approach if it meant a title could have been won.
“There’s no doubt I would have sacrificed a 4-3 at Anfield or a 7-1 against Spurs for a gritty 1-0 against United and sit here with a Premier League championship,” Barton asserts. “Anyone who tells you different would be lying.”
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t think about us not winning the league when we were so far ahead,” Elliott says. “I’d give up anything for the title.”
But the spirit and style of Keegan’s Newcastle resonated deeply, with fans inside St James’ Park and beyond. Theirs is a legacy richer than many teams more successful than they were, a legacy founded on the thrill, for better or worse, they guaranteed.
“I wouldn’t change the philosophy of the manager,” Clark says, “because it was four or five years of pure excitement.”
“I genuinely wouldn’t change a thing,” maintains Lee. “People always say you can never win anything like that, and we didn’t win anything. But I still think it would have changed football if we’d have won it.”