The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. Supporters on Tyneside had seen their side slip into something of a lean spell following the sacking of Sir Bobby Robson in 2004. The arrival of a new owner in Mike Ashley ahead of the 2007/08 season was supposed to rejuvenate the club, but just over a year later the soap opera at Newcastle United reached whole new levels of farce, with the sweariest press conference of all time.
Hindsight is 20/20. When Sir Bobby Robson was asked to clear his desk at St James’ Park following a poor start to the 2004/05 season, there were sections of the Newcastle support that agreed it was for the best. The club had fallen out of the top four the previous season, having enjoyed fourth and third placed finishes in ’02 and ’03, and there was more than a suspicion that Robson had started to struggle with some of the bigger egos in the dressing room. It later emerged that former chairman Sir John Hall had advised his successor Freddie Shepherd to relive Robson of his duties after an injury-hit Newcastle crashed out of the UEFA Cup semi-final to Marseille, but it only took a further six months for Shepherd to pull the trigger. Whilst some supporters recoiled in shock, others believed that, with the right appointment, Newcastle took return to their place at the top table. Then Graeme Souness was announced. Brought in to inject some discipline into the dressing room, Souness fell out with two of the side’s better players in Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert and, despite reaching the FA Cup semi-final, Newcastle finished the season in 14th. After being dragged into a relegation scrap the following season, and with big money buys in Jean-Alain Boumsong, Albert Luque and Michael Owen all failing to live up to their hype, Souness was dismissed. Glenn Roeder was promoted from his position of youth team coach, and managed to turn the Toon’s fortunes around. Seven wins in their last eight games of the season saw them rise up to seventh and secure a place in the UEFA Cup. By the end of the following season, Roeder was gone, having finished 13th. Sam Allardyce was quickly appointed in his stead, and gave the side a £30m makeover, bringing in the likes of Alan Smith, Joey Barton, Jose Enrique and Habib Beye. By the time he took his new side to face former club Bolton Wanderers on the opening day, Allardyce had a new boss to answer to. Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley had increased his stake in the club to 93.2%, and replaced Freddie Shepherd in the boardroom with Chris Mort. He was soon to be seen in the stands watching the club, wearing a replica shirt and downing pints of lager, and it didn’t take him long to realise Allardyce was not the manager for him. After some dismal results Ashley canned the future England manager, and pulled off a PR masterstroke as Kevin Keegan arrived for his second spell in charge of Newcastle United, having resigned 11 years earlier. An unbeaten run of seven games in March and April saw the Magpies safe, and the St James’ Park faithful were understandably excited about the season ahead.
There was just one catch. A week after Keegan’s return, Ashley had doled out jobs to Dennis Wise (Director of Football), Tony Jimenez (VP of Player Recruitment) and Jeff Vetere (Technical Co-ordinator). Derek Llambias replaced Christ Mort as chairman. As Keegan headed into his first full transfer window since returning, he was keen to add some serious quality to an ailing squad. Moves for David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luka Modric were all mooted, but none arrived. The Argentinians Jonas Gutierrez, a winger from Real Mallorca, and Fabricio Coloccini, a defender from Deportivo La Coruna, did arrive, along with Danny Guthrie and Sebastian Bassong, but the manager still felt Newcastle were lacking creativity. Fortunately Keegan was able to call upon James Milner, one of the most promising midfielders in the country, and a player quickly establishing himself as the fulcrum of Newcastle’s side. An opening day draw at Manchester United was followed by a narrow win over Bolton Wanderers, and despite being taken to extra-time, League Cup progression was secured at Coventry City. In the post-match interview, Keegan was questioned about transfer rumours surrounding Milner, and the manager claimed his star player wasn’t going anywhere. Behind the scenes, however, it transpired that the manager had been told to raise funds if he wanted to pursue a deal for Schweinsteiger. The difficult decision to sell Milner was made, with Aston Villa completing a £12m deal three days before the closure of the transfer window. Keegan waited for confirmation of Schweinstieger’s signing, but it was not forthcoming. He was eventually told, by Wise and Jiminez, that the German midfielder wouldn’t be joining Newcastle, though they had lined up some alternatives. Keegan’s final game was a 3-0 defeat away at Arsenal, a game which highlighted Newcastle’s desperate need for quality, and three days later he was presented with the signing of Xisco, a 21 year old striker from Deportivo, and the loan signing of Uruguayan winger Nacho Gonzalez. Having seen none of his transfer targets acquired, and had players thrust upon him on the strength of YouTube videos, Keegan decided he’d had enough. He resigned three days later, and eventually was successful in suing the club for constructive dismissal to the tune of £2m.
Nine days later Newcastle returned to Premier League action at home to Hull City with Chris Hughton taking his place in the dugout as caretaker manager. The atmosphere at St James’ Park was toxic. Supporters had held demonstrations opposing the club’s hierarchy before, during and after the match, with the unfurling of the now infamous ‘Cockney Mafia Out’ banner taking place in the Leazes end. Newcastle United were a club scorned, and a 2-1 defeat against a newly promoted team didn’t help matters either. Hughton oversaw the next two games, a dismal defeat at West Ham and a home defeat to Blackburn Rovers, before Llambias secured the services of a new manager. If the appointment of Kevin Keegan had been a PR masterstroke, giving the job to Joe Kinnear was suicide. The former Wimbledon manager arrived to take his first post since an uninspiring spell at Nottingham Forest in 2004, initially on a short-term deal. Possessing none of the charm, experience, ability or connection with the area that Keegan had, there was more than a shade of jobs for the boys about the appointment, but it was his first press conference that really raised the eyebrows. His first, official words as Newcastle United manager were “Which one of you is Simon Bird?”, when the Daily Mirror reporter made himself known, Kinnear responded “You’re a cunt”. Bird, and fellow reporter Niall Hickman had attracted the ire of Kinnear after reporting that the Newcastle squad had been given the day off for Kinnear’s first day in charge. Throughout the incredible exchange, Kinnear managed to squeeze in two cunts, seven fucks, eighteen fuckings, one fucked, two pisses, and three bollocks. The situation at Newcastle had lurched from melodrama to comical farce in a matter of weeks.
When Kinnear finally took charge of Newcastle for the first time, they were 19th in the table, two points off bottom and had lost four in a row. They headed to Goodison Park hoping to kick-start their season under their new, foul-mouthed manager, but found themselves 2-0 after 35 minutes. A goal from Steven Taylor on the stroke of half-time, and a second from Damien Duff early in the second half salvaged a point, and a team spirit not evident for the previous few weeks began to appear. In their next match, despite having Habib Beye sent off in the 12th minute, the Magpies were four minutes away from beating Manchester City, until Stephen Ireland popped up with a late equaliser. A first Wear-Tyne derby defeat for eight years followed, but back to back wins against West Brom and Aston Villa showed there was plenty of life left in this team. A run of one defeat in seven followed, and by Christmas Newcastle had dragged themselves to mid-table. Six games without a win brought in the new year, and ahead of their trip to fellow battlers West Brom, Kinnear was taken ill. He would eventually have to undergo a triple-heart bypass, and once again Chris Hughton stepped into the breach. A 3-2 victory took Newcastle four points clear of the relegation zone, and it looked as though they may have enough to stay up. Hughton oversaw five more games – two draws and three defeats – before the story of Newcastle’s season received another bizarre twist.
On 1st April, no less, Newcastle United’s all-time top goalscorer Alan Shearer was appointed as manager for the final eight games of the season. Despite having no formal managerial experience, Mike Ashley had clearly seen an opportunity to win the fans over once again, and hopefully provide the club with a boost to take into the last weeks of a traumatic season. Outclassed by Chelsea in his first game in charge, a late Andy Carroll header at Stoke City earned Shearer his first point, but defeat at Tottenham and a desperate goalless draw at home to Portsmouth left Newcastle three points clear of safety. The following week they were roundly thrashed at Liverpool, and the sending off of Joey Barton sparked angry scenes in the away dressing room. Barton was suspended by the club, and Shearer would have to make do without one of his more creative players for the final four games. Victory finally arrived against an ailing Middlesbrough side, as goals from Steven Taylor, Obafemi Martins and Peter Lovenkrands secured a 3-1 win and took Shearer’s side out of the relegation zone on goal difference. All they had to do was match Hull City’s results and they were safe. The following Saturday, Hull nicked a point away at Bolton, while Newcastle were beaten at home by Fulham. It would go down to the final day. Darron Gibson’s 24th minute strike for Manchester United at the KC Stadium meant that, if results stayed the same and Newcastle were able to hold Aston Villa to a draw, they would survive. Seven minutes before half-time, Villa struck the hammer blow. Gareth Barry’s long range effort deflected wickedly off of Damien Duff’s outstretched leg and left Steve Harper in the Newcastle goal bamboozled. Having seen a handful of chances wasted in the first half, Shearer knew his side had to go for it in the second, and will have encouraged his side to push forwards. They took little notice of that instruction, offering up one of the tamest halves of football they’d produced all season. The scores stayed the same, and Newcastle United’s sixteen year spell in the Premier League was over.
Shearer, whose contract had expired following that final day defeat, regularly stated his interest in taking the job full-time during the summer, but never received a response from Ashley. Chris Hughton was once again thrust into the breach, and after some much needed soul-searching following a 6-1 defeat at Leyton Orient pre-season, Hughton steered the Magpies to the Championship title at the first time of asking. He lasted just three months of the following season before he was sacked. Eight years, one fifth placed finish, one relegation, one promotion, two law-suits, millions of pounds worth of transfer revenue, the brief return of Joe Kinnear as Director of Football, and four managers later, Mike Ashley remains the owner of Newcastle United, but put the club up for sale for the third time during his tenure in November this season. His is an era that Newcastle’s supporters are desperate to see end.
Whilst Newcastle joined Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion in demotion to the second tier, Manchester United were securing their third consecutive Premier League title, finishing four points ahead of Liverpool. Chelsea and Arsenal took the remaining Champions League places. That win took Sir Alex Ferguson’s top flight haul to eleven, living proof that supporting a manager and installing stability at a club can pay great dividends in the long term. Perhaps someone should have pointed that out to Mike fucking Ashley.