It’s one of the great accepted truths in Premier League history that Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side of the mid-1990s were fearsome attackers, but could not defend to save their lives.
That, however, isn’t quite right, as the panel discussed on this Monday’s edition of the Totally Football Show.
“It should be said that they only conceded 37 league goals that season,” said Daniel Storey, noting that Newcastle’s goals against tally was only two greater than the team that pipped them to the title, Manchester United, something that Keegan was keen to point out in his autobiography too.
“It wasn’t a disaster in defence: their biggest problem was anyone other than Les Ferdinand scoring goals. He got 25 and nobody else got more than eight.”
Indeed, you could just as convincingly argue that it was their performances at the other end of the pitch that cost them the title, rather than at the back.
“They didn’t score that many goals,” said Michael Cox. “They scored fewer goals than every Premier League champion. So there’s a slight myth in terms of why they didn’t win the league.”
They weren’t even the second top-scorers in the Premier League that season: they managed 66, United got 73 and third-placed Liverpool scored 70.
That was the reason Newcastle signed Faustino Asprilla midway through the season, the signing that is often credited with throwing their campaign out of whack and costing them the title. But Michael Cox argued that it wasn’t Asprilla’s fault per se, more the structure – or lack thereof – around him.
“Asprilla was often Newcastle’s best player, the problem was he was so unpredictable and Keegan didn’t really have any idea – or communicate any idea – of how they were meant to play with him. What they created in the first-half of the season fell down and they were depending on what this complete foreigner – foreign in terms of to the team, as well as to the country – who didn’t really speak English so they couldn’t communicate with him. So it was all down to his individual magic, rather than the relatively structured attacking they’d done in the first-half of the season.”
A lack of organisation was a problem throughout the team, and indeed it’s actually a surprise that they kept things as tight at the back as they did.
“Keegan didn’t put any emphasis on defensive training,” said Michael Cox, “he didn’t look at the opposition at all – he just read the team sheet out in the dressing room before the game and didn’t give any instructions at all.
“The interesting thing isn’t that they didn’t win it with that approach, but that they came close to winning it with that approach.
“When you read reports of their training sessions, there just wasn’t any real structure to them. I believe they did a defensive session once all season, which was before a 1-0 defeat to Southampton. So Keegan said “that’s not working, we’re not going to do that again”. So they didn’t talk about defending for the rest of the campaign.
“Pretty much all the centre-backs they used were midfielders converted into defenders: Steve Howey is the obvious example, Philippe Albert was very much a rampaging, roaming centre-back, the full-backs – Warren Barton and John Beresford – were very solid, but by the end of the campaign they had been replaced by Steve Watson and Robbie Elliott, who were wingers in the youth system. Lee Clark had been a No.10 in the youth system and was converted into a defensive midfielder.
“Keegan almost had this vision of a goalkeeper and ten attack-minded players. While their goal-scoring record wasn’t spectacular, they were good to watch. There was a real excitement, and even though they fell short…if any of those players go back to Newcastle, there’s still a real affection for them and a real pride in the way they conducted themselves throughout the season.”
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