With football now being talked about on television and online in the past tense (unless you’re a fan of the Belarusian Premier League), supporters old and new have been whiling away their time in lockdown with some sweet slices of nostalgia (or history lessons for the youngsters) on the post-1992 origins of the sport.
Last weekend viewers were treated to the spectacle of Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle United, not only in full from Sky Sports, but also in highlights package form thanks to Match of Their Day. Often cited as the greatest game of the Premier League era, it’s generally considered the moment that the 1995/96 title slipped from the hands of Kevin Keegan and his Entertainers, and into the claws of Manchester United.
There is, of course, a little more to it than that, but if Liverpool had laid Newcastle’s title hopes in the coffin, it was Blackburn Rovers that began hammering in the nails a few days later.
Today’s guest is no stranger to these pages, having penned an ode to the often under-appreciated Championship Manager 3 for us last season. Dave Black is a retro football enthusiast with a blog and two books published about Championship Manager. The blog was started in 2015 as an attempt to breakthrough into the world of football writing but it remains just a hobby, juggled alongside working full time in finance and being a Dad to a newborn baby. As a Newcastle fan, there is always something to write about whether past or present but it is rarely pleasant. Today, he looks back on the night a pair of Geordies played their part in bringing and end to the hopes of the Premier League trophy heading to St James’ Park.
Blackburn Rovers 2-1 Newcastle United
FA Carling Premiership
8th April 1996
I often wonder what it would be like to be a Newcastle fan born in the late 1990’s. Too young to see and appreciate Sir Bobby’s team, all too aware of Pardew’s Newcastle and barely being able to recount a time where Mike Ashley wasn’t a shadow over the city. They would never have known Newcastle as a top club and that saddens me a little bit.
On a similar note, I appreciate I was born at the right time for a Newcastle fan. The late 80s weren’t a great time for Newcastle but by the time I was starting to appreciate the beautiful game, the Keegan era was in full swing and Newcastle were the entertainers. The cliché back then was “everybody’s second team” which I was daft enough to believe. Sure, there was a rough time when Andy Cole left, I had to stop singing the Andy Cole song (Cole rhymes with goal which is incredibly handy) but by the time the 1995/96 season came around, new players has been signed and optimism was high.
I was 7 when the season kicked off, which immediately makes people turn their nose up. “You’re too young to remember what it was like.” My memory for football is incredible. Ask me what I had for tea yesterday and I’ll struggle but when it comes to football it’s all there, filed away in my brain. You can give me any Newcastle game since 2001/02 and I’ll tell you the score, what happened, where I was…a totally useless talent but when you live and breathe something for so many years it just lodges itself in your memory.
I lived in a town called Chester-le-Street, about 12 miles from Newcastle and as such wasn’t attending games at this time. My parents weren’t massive football fans, my Dad would watch it if it was on but wouldn’t go out of his way to do so and my Mam couldn’t have cared less about any sport. Thankfully, my Grandad was a Newcastle fan and as we had some sort of Sky package, he’d pop round to watch the Newcastle games with us. By the second half of the 1995/96 season, this was a fairly frequent occurrence.
Keegan’s Newcastle were a joy to watch. Defending was so far down the agenda it just seemed like everybody wanted to score. We’d lost once by December and only three times by the middle of February. Newcastle had a lead at the top that reached 12 points at one stage and people were starting to get excited. With no league title since 1927 and no domestic trophy since 1955 it was long overdue and they were going to do it in style. Les Ferdinand had proven a brilliant replacement for Andy Cole, David Ginola had arrived to wow everybody with his quick feet and dashing looks. Peter Beardsley still had magic in his boots and Rob Lee was making a claim to be the best midfielder in the country. David Batty and Tino Asprilla had been signed in early 1996 to try and freshen up a squad that was showing signs of fatigue, not helped by a resurgent Manchester United coming up on the inside…
A home defeat to Ferguson’s men in early March had kept the title race alive and a defeat to Arsenal followed by the crushing 4-3 loss to Liverpool had blown it wide open. Monday 8th April 1996 was actually Easter Monday and the afternoon saw Manchester United defeat Coventry to go 6 points clear. Newcastle had two games in hand though, the first of which would be the Monday Night Football and a trip to Ewood Park.
Blackburn Rovers were the reigning Premier League champions but were languishing down in 9th, soon to be dethroned. They had a formidable striker in the shape of future Newcastle legend Alan Shearer, Geordie born and raised and about to finish as Premier League top scorer again. The fixture looked like Newcastle’s toughest remaining game, especially given their recent indifferent form.
Gran and Grandad arrived pre-game, it was only a short drive from their house but they arrived not long before kick-off. I’d been out playing in the street with some other kids in the street and all we talked about was the game. Mindless optimism about how Ginola was going to tear them apart and trying to imitate Asprilla’s cartwheel celebration. I can only assume local news had made a big deal about Batty going back to play against his former club as my Gran mentioned it pre-game. She isn’t a football fan by any means but took an interest as just about everybody did in those days. If my Grandad was interested, so was she, which I think is a lovely thing.
The game itself was quite a cagey affair with a few half chances for both teams in the first half. Asprilla had arrived in February and played up front with Ferdinand, which was bad news for Keith Gillespie who found himself as the odd man out. The signing of Asprilla had really split opinion, he was loved for his tricks and general flair but his arrival had meant a reshuffle in midfield. Peter Beardsley had been shifted out onto the wing to accommodate Batty and Lee playing centrally but for this game, Lee was moved to the right with Beardsley joining Batty in the centre of the park. It was all a bit disjointed and whilst some would call it fluid, we were scoring fewer goals. Asprilla missed the best of Newcastle’s first half chances before being replaced by Gillespie during the second half.
The game was goalless at the break but it became more open as Newcastle began to commit more men forward. Tim Sherwood struck the bar from distance whilst our entertainers struggled to create a clear opening. With 15 minutes left, we struck gold from an unlikely source. David Batty was played the ball 25 yards out and after a couple of strides forward, he struck the sweetest of left foot strikes into the bottom corner. “He’s done it!” shouted my Gran, who hadn’t been in the room but had popped her head in just in time to briefly channel Barry Davies. The title race was back on!
The clock was ticking down and King Kev was still encouraging the lads to push forward. It’s about this time that things start to get extremely cruel. Blackburn had brought on a young forward by the name of Graham Fenton, born in Whitley Bay and a childhood Newcastle fan. Here he was partnering fellow Geordie Alan Shearer and the pair were about to combine to ruin Newcastle’s best chance of a league title. You couldn’t make it up.
With 5 minutes to go, Fenton turned in a deflected Shearer strike to put the first nail in the coffin. The game became frantic and no sooner had Tim Flowers beaten away a Gillespie effort, the ball was cleared to Shearer who played in Fenton amidst defensive chaos. The youngster showed composure that belied his years to chip the advancing Shaka Hislop and seal a last minute victory. The away end stood with hands on head and for the first time, a living room lost belief. Would football always be this cruel?
The three of us said nothing. My Mam offered her usual consoling words. “It’s only a game.” If only it was, Mam. It meant Newcastle were 6 points behind albeit with a game in hand and because football never knows when to stop, some hope was offered when Manchester United fell to a defeat at Southampton the following weekend in the infamous grey shirts game. It was to be Manchester United’s only defeat since New Year’s Day and although it offered brief hope, a draw at Nottingham Forest followed the “I’d love it” outburst effectively ended the challenge with a game to spare.
That remains as close as Newcastle have come to winning the Premier League, whilst Manchester United went from strength to strength under Alex Ferguson until his retirement in 2013. That summer, I fell in love with the national team during Euro 96 only to lose on penalties in the semi-final. It’s no wonder I’m cynical!
I could have picked any number of the defeats from March 1996 onwards for this piece but this game really stands out. It’s like a list of things that could only happen to Newcastle United all combined into one 90 minute horror show.
I started this article wondering what it would be like to have not witnessed these good times. I’ve concluded that this is why so many of the younger generation don’t protest about the way the club is currently ran – they haven’t witnessed how good this club can be and in all likelihood they never will.
Newcastle had two seasons under Sir Bobby Robson where they looked like title contenders and I regard those two seasons as my favourite as a supporter but at no time were we odds on to win the league as were in 1996. I’m not sure if you can use this phrase for an era in football but I will anyway. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. Glorious failure is better than not trying. I just hope I live to see the day we win something.