Newcastle host Manchester United this weekend, both teams in assorted states of shambles. But in 1996, Kevin Keegan’s nearly glory boys produced their last great performance…
You can understand any Newcastle fan for feeling pretty giddy after watching their team trounced Manchester United 5-0 in October 1996. And Sir John Hall, the man who along with his bank account and Kevin Keegan had turned the club from second tier also-rans into title contenders, was giddier than most.
Hall strode into the post-match press conference that rainy Sunday and proudly told the assembled media: “Gentlemen, you’ve seen the next champions of England.”
Another participant that day agreed that something special appeared to be happening at St James’s Park. ‘I always remember standing at the top of the steps as they left the ground,’ wrote Kevin Keegan in his autobiography. ‘One by one, they filed past, ashen-faced: Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and all the rest. The last one out stopped to look me in the eye, and I learned in those moments that Eric Cantona spoke better English than I had realised. ‘F**king good team you have here,’ he said.’
It didn’t feel quite that way before the game, though. United had of course beaten Newcastle to the title in the previous season, and despite being pipped to the signing of Alan Shearer in the summer, they opened that campaign by giving Keegan’s men a good hiding in the Charity Shield.
Which, naturally, Keegan used as a motivational tool in the build-up to this one. “All he said in his team talk at the time was ‘You owe these people’, talking about the supporters,” Les Ferdinand tells the Totally Football Show.
“We we were beaten to the title by them the year before and then and humiliated in the Charity Shield, but our supporters still stayed behind and clapped us off the pitch. I think every single person in the changing room realised that we owed them a performance. And a result – not just a performance but a result more than anything.”
The Newcastle players were certainly up for it. “Man United won [the Charity Shield] 4–0 and at the end some of their players were taking the piss out of us,” Philippe Albert told Martin Hardy for his book ‘Tunnel of Love: Newcastle United After The Entertainers’, “so we wanted our revenge.” “We remembered what had happened the season before,” David Ginola told the Daily Telegraph a few years ago. “If we went out and played the way we knew we could, we were better than Manchester United.”
Not everyone was quite so tubthumping. “The Manchester United game is one we want to win,” roared Peter Beardsley in the days leading up to the game, “but I wouldn’t say that it is more important than beating Coventry or West Ham.”
We remembered what had happened the season before
With that motivational pep talk ringing in their ears, it was no surprise that Newcastle started like a train. In the 12th minute Ginola skimmed over a corner from the left, Shearer nodded back towards the danger zone where Darren Peacock, ponytail resplendent, cushioned a header in the direction of the goal. A bullet it was not – maybe more of a Nerf dart – but Albert moved his feet out of the way, perhaps distracting Schmeichel, and it squirted towards Irwin, the man on the line.
Irwin hoofed clear, but after a brief pause as the broiling St James’s Park pleaded with the officials, the linesman gave the goal, confident it had crossed the line which, despite the protests of the most vexed United players, it certainly had. United also thought they should have been given a penalty for a foul on Karel Poborsky just before that, about which Alex Ferguson complained afterwards calling it “the decisive part of the match.” For what it’s worth, David Lacey in the Guardian suggested that Poborsky ‘merited a Bafta’ for his tumble over Pavel Srnicek. The goal stood, and it very much served as the crucial shake of the ketchup bottle, allowing the rest to spill forth.
“We knew if we scored early,” says Ferdinand, “then it meant that we would we would carry that momentum and inevitably we would score a few goals. Darren got that early goal, then David Ginola turned up…”
He certainly did. Ginola’s goal on the half-hour mark was an absolute masterclass in skill and, perhaps surprisingly, physicality. When John Beresford collected the ball on the left and started looking for a pass, Ginola was tightly marked by Neville, but by the time he had knocked it down the line, the Frenchman had perfectly deployed a subtle but firm shove to put just a bit of distance between him and his marker. He complemented that with his first touch, not killing the thing dead but pushing it back and into a little space outside the area, further expanding the scope to break free of the Neville shackles.
‘The minute a player of that quality does you on the turn like that your heart sinks because there’s the feeling he’s going to pull off something special,’ wrote Neville in his autobiography. That something special was indeed pulled off, Ginola spinning and thrashing a perfect shot right into the top corner, past the despairing dive of Schmeichel. The big Dane ruefully dried his hands on a towel, safe in the knowledge he could have done little to stop that one.
Then David Ginola turned up...
Shearer thumped an effort against the post before half-time, but the break came with the score at 2-0. A comfortable advantage, but Newcastle had after all let slip a 12-point lead to United the previous season. By comparison, a mere two goals were hardly secure.
But this time Newcastle applied the boot to the throat. Ferdinand added a third just after the hour mark, looping a header home from a David Beckham-esque cross from Shearer out on the right. Goals that go in off the bar, as this one did, are always an aesthetic joy, but this had something added to it. That kiss off the woodwork briefly gave Schmeichel the impression that he had a chance of saving it, meaning he briefly moved as if to make the save, but just as quickly realised all hope was gone as the ball crossed the line.
“Alan was a really good crosser of the ball,” says Ferdinand. “Everyone’s used to seeing him get on the end of those, but I think one of the things that came to light when we played together was it allowed both of us to explore other parts of the pitch. That meant going out wide, going down the channels, because we always knew what one or t’other would be in the penalty box.”
Shearer himself made it four, slamming home after Schmeichel made a brilliant save from a Ferdinand header. That was the point where things became really absurd, and of course prefaced the crowning moment when, with seven minutes remaining, Albert strode into some inexplicably vacated space outside the United area.
‘On a day when Newcastle would have taken one,’ began Martin Tyler, commentating for Sky, ‘here they are looking for number five…with Philippe Albeeeeeeeeeeert…OH! ABSOLUTELY GLORIOUS!’
“The game before he used to come very quick off his line to reduce the angle,” Albert told Hardy. “He was very good at it. I knew if I was in that situation he would come straight away. I had only one idea, I didn’t want to kick the ball as hard as I can. My only idea was, ‘I am going to chip him.’ I didn’t see him coming off his line but I knew he was there.”
“Every goal seemed to mean something to us,” Peacock told the Set Pieces in 2017. “David, Les, Alan, they all had their own reasons to celebrate their goals. But Philippe’s meant something to all of us, not just because it was such a beautiful goal. It meant we went past four, the four they had scored at Wembley. We knew they were gone, we knew we would keep going forward.”
As many have noted, a team’s centre-back running through the centre of the pitch to chip the goalkeeper was the perfect summary of Keegan’s Newcastle: relentlessly positive, often objectively irresponsible but usually absolutely glorious to watch. Albert peeled away with the incredulous grin of a man whose day job is defending, but had just made a monkey of the best goalkeeper in the world.
Behind Albert as he slid joyfully to the turf is a fan in the Gallowgate End, simply standing on his seat arms outspread like Christ the Redeemer. Here was a man basking in the glory of what he was watching, and the sort of celebration you do after five goals because a) you can’t believe what you’re seeing and b) have run out of other types of celebrations.
‘As soon as the game finished, all over the city, the celebration started,’ wrote Hardy. ‘There is a pub for every occasion in Newcastle. They were all full on that Sunday evening. Nothing could spoil a sublime day. That moment you walked into the Hotspur, opposite the bus station, along the street from the Ladbrokes where a 50p bet on John Cornwell to score Newcastle’s first goal against Charlton in 1987 had won you twenty quid, dripping with joy, and hugged your friends, smiling and laughing, will never go.
‘No need for words. No pontificating or procrastinating. Just joy, pure joy; the disbelief of the delighted. You drank and you smiled and then you talked and you sang. The glory of a supporter. The endless miles of pain for a brief, as it would turn out, snapshot of another land. Stuffing Man United, on telly.’
Every goal seemed to mean something to us
Ferguson tried to sound magnanimous after the game. Tried to. “You’ve simply got to sit there, take your medicine and then head for home,” he said, with the air of a man who’d just had a bath bomb dropped in his pint. “When you lose 5-0 there’s not much room for questioning things, and you’ve got to give Newcastle credit.
“We were punished for every mistake. Peter Schmeichel only had one save to make in the whole match as far as I can remember, and we could easily have scored five ourselves. It was a false outcome in many ways but we will pick ourselves up. This was just another day in the history of Manchester United and we won’t let it get us down. We have to look to the next one.” The next one, as an aside, was that 6-3 defeat at Southampton, but like Alan Partridge they had the last laugh, ultimately winning the title by seven points.
In the Guardian, Lacey called it an exorcism for Newcastle, the ghosts of the previous season cast out for a day. For Keegan, this felt like a form of validation. He said after the game: “We opened up today, we played our way, we proved that the league can be won by attacking football, as we should have done last season. We really looked like a team on a mission.”
Was it a truly dominant performance, or just one of those days where everything went in? Ferdinand doesn’t really believe it was much more one-sided than the corresponding game the previous season – the Cantona game. “We were quite dominant in that game and they nicked a goal in the second half and won the game. Schmeichel made umpteen sites from me. This time around, everything we seemed to hit went in the back of the net.”
This should really have been the start of something glorious for Newcastle. The win put them three points clear at the top of the table, five ahead of United, having won eight of their first ten games. But ultimately something wasn’t right, so much so that Ferdinand is shocked to be told how good their league position was.
“We lost our first game against Everton,” he says. “I remember that clearly, and I was thinking ‘this isn’t in the script.’ There was a different feeling in the changing room, I must admit. And you just surprised me by telling me that we went five points clear. As far as I was concerned in that second year, we were nowhere near the top.”
Ferguson would later speculate that the win was actually terrible for Newcastle in the long-run, because it raised expectations and heaped more pressure on Keegan’s side. Ferdinand suggests that was simply Fergie being Fergie, but it’s undeniable this game was the last great blast of glory for that side. They lost the next game to Leicester 2-0, only won one of the next nine and amid disagreements with the board, Keegan was gone before the turn of the year.
One pet theory is that Newcastle perhaps focused too strongly on Manchester United, that revenge against their rivals almost became more important than wider success and they expended too much emotional energy on that one game. Ferdinand doesn’t entirely buy that either, but it might be at least part of the explanation for their subsequent collapse.
Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the glory of annihilating United that was enough. Maybe this was the most appropriate way for Keegan to go out. Or maybe it was simply a glimpse of what might have been, a morsel of glory when they should’ve had the full meal.
Sir John Hall was right though: that day we did see the champions of England. It’s just it wasn’t Newcastle.
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