“I am 10 years old and I support the best football team in the world. I’m Ginola when I run, I’m Les when I shoot, I’m Pavel when I have to go in goal. But mainly, I’m Peter Beardsley, because he’s the best player in England and he’s from the North East, like me. I support the Toon and we’re going to win the league. Kevin Keegan is going to win us the Premiership this year.”
- The Author, 1996
Everyone remembers it as the one when Vinnie Jones had to go in goal for Wimbledon, but that was just one moment in an astonishing game that told you everything you needed to know about “The Entertainers”, the greatest team that never won the Premier League.
Joe Kinnear’s “Crazy Gang” were the hardest outfit in England. “They’d try and intimidate you,” remembers John Beresford, Newcastle’s left-back at the time. "We'd struggled against them in the past."
At St James’ Park, their home ground, the Toon were in fine form and out for revenge. It was game 10 in a season that had already surprised and gripped the nation. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle — who just three seasons ago had narrowly escaped relegation to the old Third Division — were sitting proudly at the top of the table with a four-point lead, having won eight games and lost just one. They were the 1996 equivalent of this year’s title-chasing Leicester City, except that Newcastle, unlike organised, sensible Leicester, were going to do it the hard way: without bothering to defend.
“I remember it was a beautiful day,” says Steve Howey, the team’s big centre-back. “Everyone in the crowd had their strip on. It was black and white all over.”
It is Howey, of all people, who rises at the far post on the half-hour mark to make it 1–0. Four minutes later, David Ginola whips a ball in from the left for Les Ferdinand’s forehead, with the precision of a guided missile — goal. It remains 2–0 for only six minutes, as Ferdinand finds himself on the scoresheet again — it’s almost an exact replica of his first goal, only this time the assist is from a Keith Gillespie cross on the right.
“The supply line was unbelievable,” remembers Ferdinand of that stage in the season. “They always seemed to find me.”
Four-four-two: Ginola on the left; Gillespie on the right; Ferdinand up front with Beardsley tucked in just behind. Pace on the wings, crosses into the box, players under order to attack, attack, attack. Keegan’s blueprint had always been simple — buy good players and score more than the opposition — and today it was working better than ever. Ten minutes into the second-half and Wimbledon’s keeper Paul Heald is booked for the second time. That’s when Vinnie Jones pulls on the goalkeeper’s jersey and everything gets a bit surreal. The no-nonsense midfielder pulls off a couple of saves, pounds his gloved hands together and screams from the adrenaline.
The resistance lasts just three further minutes. Lee Clark collects the ball on the edge of the penalty area and hits a shot that looks like it would rise forever if it wasn’t stopped by the roof of the goal. Jones simply stands and watches it go in, as much a spectator as those in the stands.
At 4–0, Marcus Gayle pulls one back, but three minutes later Ferdinand scores a tap-in and gets his hat-trick.
“I just looked around and thought: we’ve got a good team here,” says Rob Lee, the team’s dynamic midfielder. In the stands, upwards of 36,000 Geordies were singing in rare winter sunshine and starting to think exactly the same thing.
There is just time left for Philippe Albert, the towering Belgian centre-back, to do one of his regular centre-forward impressions. He plays a one-two with Lee, ventures into the Wimbledon box and uses the outside of his left boot to curl the ball past Jones and into the top corner. 6–1. “It was one of those games where if we’d got double figures, no one would have grumbled,” says Gillespie.
It’s the biggest win of the season so far, the sixth game in 10 that we’ve scored three or more. But it doesn’t feel a big deal. It’s just what happens to Newcastle United on a Saturday: we score, we win.
On 6 July, 1995, six weeks before the start of the season, David Ginola sat down for his first press conference as a Newcastle United player. The winger had signed from Paris Saint-German where he’d enjoyed a glittering, trophy-laden career. Ginola recounts, “The journalists said to me, ‘David Ginola, can you tell us who you are’. Tell us who you are! I was player of the year in France, do you know what I mean? I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, where am I?’”
The winger was the toast of European football and had attracted serious interest from Spanish heavyweights FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. But somehow, he had ended up agreeing to play for a team in the North East of England.
“I arrived at Durham for my first training session and we were sharing the dressing room with the local university team,” Ginola remembers. “The pitch was next to a cricket ground. It was like going back to being an amateur.” Again the Frenchman asked himself: what the hell am I doing here?
The answer was Kevin Keegan. Every player from that period has a version of the same story: they met him and within minutes they knew that they were going to sign. Part of it was who he was as a player: England captain, Liverpool hero, twice European Footballer of the Year, the man whose picture many had pinned to their walls growing up. But mostly it was the boldness of what Keegan wanted to do: win the league, yes. Replace Manchester United as the dominant force in English football, why not? But more than that, he was going to do it in style.
“Kevin told me the way he wanted to play,” remembers Ferdinand, who signed the same summer as Ginola and was a replacement for Andy Cole, who had departed during the previous transfer window, signing for Manchester United.
“He said he was building a team to fight for the title, and he wanted to make sure I knew what wearing the number nine shirt meant to the people. I didn’t really know what he was on about until I scored at St James’ Park. The euphoria around the stadium was something else.”
Ginola felt the same thing. “Keegan said to me, ‘David, I’ll give you the freedom to do what you want, to create the game,’” he says. “I decided then to sign and to give him everything I could. People in France said I had made a mistake, but I wanted to prove them wrong.”
Joining Ginola and Ferdinand in pre-season was Shaka Hislop, the goalkeeper, and Warren Barton, who at £4m was then the most expensive defender in English football. After finishing third and then sixth in an erratic first two seasons in the Premiership, Keegan now had the squad he needed to play what, in his mind, was the only football worth playing.
“I remember Kevin saying all the time: football is entertainment,” says Rob Lee. “Go out and entertain the crowd. They’ve worked hard all week and paid a lot of money to be here. So attack relentlessly for the first 20 minutes and give them something to cheer about. Usually, we were one or two-nil up in that time and it was game over. He hated it when we played crap football. Hated it.”
“Kev’s team talks were brief,” remembers John Beresford. “He’d get the team sheet off the ref, walk in to the dressing room, look at it for a bit and go, ‘Jesus, if we’re not 2–0 up after five minutes against this lot, there’s something wrong.’ Then he’d screw it up and throw it in the bin.”
Keegan had built a side with real quality, but he was giving them something even more important: belief.
“I remember the feeling in the city that summer,” says George Caulkin, North East football correspondent for The Times and a lifelong fan of the club. “There was this extraordinary electricity and positivity in the air,” he says. “Football in the North East has always mirrored the rhythm of the city, there’s always been this explosion at the end of a working week. And at the time, this joyous thing was happening in front of you.”
By Christmas 1995, Newcastle were 10 points clear and looking untouchable. Keegan’s infectious love for the game and the area had created a powerful bond between the players and the fans, and now the rest of the country was starting to sense it, too. The league title going to Tyneside was becoming increasingly likely with every game.
There was just one man, 151 miles south-west in Manchester, with an enigmatic Frenchman and a team full of English kids still finding their feet, who tended to disagree.
It is a freezing cold Wednesday night, two days after Christmas. The Old Trafford pitch is covered in a layer of frost, and in the stands steam lingers on everyone’s breath as they watch the top two sides in England warm up. Below them, Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson walk together down the pitch towards the dugout. Keegan is wearing an over-sized training top with a big Newcastle United badge on it. He is smiling and chatting and staring wide-eyed around the stadium, drinking in the atmosphere. Ferguson, in a black overcoat with the collar up, nods and stares straight ahead.
Manchester United haven’t won in five league games. Newcastle have won two in a row after defeating Everton and Nottingham Forest, and if they win tonight, they’ll move a staggering 13 points clear.
The Red Devils start strongly: Roy Keane tests Pavel Srníček from range. The Newcastle players seem sluggish but the away end isn’t worried yet. Then it happens, what will become perhaps the most familiar sight in English football over the next 10 years: a Manchester United counter-attack.
Ryan Giggs collects the ball on the edge of his own box, runs the length of pitch and plays a defence-splitting pass that picks out Andy Cole in open space down the right. His first-time shot is fired straight into the bottom corner. Cole, the reluctant Tyneside hero sold by Kevin Keegan only 11 months earlier, has scored with less than six minutes gone. The United fans begin singing the Andy Cole song — our Andy Cole song: “He gets the ball and scores a goal, Andy, Andy Cole!” Watching, I experience a sensation I will recognise a little later in life the first time I see an ex-girlfriend snogging someone else.
It’s end-to-end stuff, but seven minutes into the second-half Manchester United score again. Phil Neville pings it to the far post and Roy Keane calmly takes a touch and slots it in. There will be no big response from the Newcastle players.
“We didn’t really show up that day,” remembers Gillespie, who was returning to his former club for the first time but was stretchered off after 15 minutes with an injury that would have devastating repercussions for Newcastle in the coming months. “United deserved the victory.”
The final whistle blows and Ferguson — all smiles now — takes out his chewing gum and finds Keegan for a brief handshake. It is the last time in this campaign the two men will be friendly towards each other. A 10-point lead has been reduced to seven. But it’s OK. You can’t win them all. We win the next five anyway, restoring the lead to 12 points by the end of January. No team has ever been this far in front so late in the season. No team has ever lost from here. All we have to do is keep going.
Six weeks after that defeat, Kevin Keegan makes the most controversial signing of his career. Despite being implored by the board to sign a defender, Keegan instead bought a maverick Colombian centre-forward called Faustino Asprilla from Italian side Parma for a fee of £6.7m. Keegan’s solution to dropping points was not to shore things up at the back, but to load even more firepower into his attack.
Firepower is the right word. “Tino” arrived with a reputation for two things: staggering, if mercurial, talent as a footballer, and a hedonistic streak that extended beyond women and booze to a suspended prison sentence for discharging an unlicensed firearm.
As the 26-year-old’s first act in England was to be photographed walking out of Newcastle airport in the middle of a snowstorm wearing a giant fur coat, he became a cult hero immediately. Tino made his debut for the club away at Middlesbrough and for the fans it was love at first sight. For his bizarre dribbling style, he was nicknamed “The Octopus”. When facing defenders, he seemed constantly on the verge of falling over. He scared opposition defences not so much in the manner of a hard man who might hurt them, but a crazy man who might hurt himself. Everyone in the squad warmed to Asprilla, who was as mischievous and eccentric off the pitch as he was on it.
“I was very close to Tino,” remembers Ginola. “He lived about 200 yards from my house. Once in a while, around midnight, the phone would ring and it would be him saying, ‘David, David, can you come, can you come?’ So, I’d head over in my pyjamas and he’d say, ‘Can you get all of these people out of my house, please?’ These were people he’d met in the pubs when he was drinking, but Tino didn’t speak English well enough to ask them to leave, so I’d have to do it.”
Tino’s arrival was explosive, but it disrupted what until that point had been a finely balanced team. Beardsley was shifted to the right to let the Colombian slot in behind Ferdinand, but for all his class, the 35-year-old Beardsley was no winger. Newcastle’s number eight naturally drifted in and played narrow, keeping the recovered Gillespie out of the team for the rest of the season and cutting off the supply line to Newcastle’s greatest weapon: Les Ferdinand’s head. It was a tactical gamble that would pay off in some matches but have the opposite effect in others, dependant upon which Tino decided to turn up on the day.
“He was different,” remembers Beresford. “You’re going for the title and you’ve got all this pressure on and you’ve got someone who can fall over the ball one minute, then be the best player in the world and get you a goal the next. I could see why Keegan liked him, the unpredictability of it. But I think he put him in the side too quickly.”
A deafening war cry erupts from the stands as the players run out onto the pitch. It is the biggest crowd of the season so far (36,584), and St James’ Park is a furnace. “We were looking forward to that game so much,” Steve Howey says. “We knew we’d have too much for them — and we did.”
“We were outstanding. We battered them,” says Rob Lee.
“We totally outplayed them,” insists Les Ferdinand.
“We blitzed them,” says John Beresford.
Football is the beautiful game, and it is the cruellest. Domination counts for nothing. Superiority is irrelevant. And ultimately, eight shots on target becomes just a footnote. You have to score.
Newcastle have Ferguson’s men by the throat from the first minute until halftime. It isn’t just the directness of the attacks carving Manchester United apart, it’s full-throttled tackles flying in from everywhere. Every touch, every run, every pass is a loaded gun.
In the dressing room, an unusually intense Keegan had told his team, “Go out there and prove you’re better than them.” One man, however, won’t let them — Peter Schmeichel, the goalkeeper for the away side, who somehow keeps his head when all about are losing theirs.
Ferdinand has a couple of one-on-one chances but every time the great Dane is quicker and bigger than before, diving at his feet, smothering shots, catching rebounds. He denies Beardsley at full stretch when the midfielder curls a shot from the edge of the box. Philippe Albert smashes a free kick off the woodwork from 25 yards. Tino blasts a shot from the edge of the area and Ferdinand has two further chances. Schmeichel keeps everything out. The whistle blows for halftime and somehow it is still nil–nil.
“I remember Les Ferdinand coming in at halftime and apologising to the lads,” says Beresford. “But it wasn’t as though he missed the chances. Schmeichel just saved them. It was just freaky what he was doing.”
Some of the worst blows you take in life are the ones you don’t see coming. Six minutes into the second half, Phil Neville chips a cross to Eric Cantona at the far post. Beresford scrambles to block it but it’s too late: the Frenchman volleys the ball into ground where it bounces past Pavel Srníček and into the bottom corner. It is his first meaningful touch of the match.
Keegan — never much of a poker player — is now sitting with his arms and legs crossed, his crumpled face saying what we are all thinking: how? How on Earth did this happen? Deflated, bewildered, Newcastle begin to wilt.
The whistle blows on our first home league defeat of the season. Having been 12 points in front just four games ago, Newcastle’s lead has now been reduced to one.
The Entertainers didn’t just belong to us. They were everyone else’s second team. As with the previous unifying moment in English football — the afterglow of World Cup 1990’s Gazzamania — a joyous, child-like approach to the game had filtered down from the North East and softened the partisan nature of the sport. In Keegan and his team, the country found the embodiment of all that was infectious about football.
“As a confirmed Southerner, I can tell you how true that was,” says Nick Collins, Sky Sports News chief football reporter, who followed the 1995–’96 season closely. “I tended to watch the Monday night games in London, and no matter who Newcastle were playing, the pub wanted Newcastle and Keegan to win. They were an extraordinarily popular team. There was an aura about the side, a real identity. The nation took a stake in Newcastle that year.”
Ferdinand remembers the feeling clearly, “I used to come back to London and people would say to me, ‘I don’t support Newcastle but any time they’re on the box I get home to watch it’. And they did that because they knew they were going to see a game of football that would entertain them. And it’s not as though we were financial underdogs punching above our weight. We were one of the biggest spending clubs of the era.”
“The difference to today,” says Times man Caulkin, “is that although we did spend big, it wasn’t like the money had come from the outside, like Chelsea or Manchester City today. There were no sugar daddies. The money we spent, through [chairmen] Freddy Shepherd and Sir John Hall, was generated by a massive stadium filled with passionate fans. They were speculating to accumulate.”
If Newcastle’s early stampede up the table that year won the respect of rival fans, one game in particular was about to write The Entertainers into the affections of almost everyone who followed English football. It would go on to be voted the greatest game in the history of the Premier League, though for Geordies, the memory would remain bittersweet.
Kevin Keegan sits in the dugout wearing a red blazer and tie, pensively looking over the Anfield pitch. His team has been knocked off the top of the Premiership table for the first time this season and are now three points behind Manchester United, albeit with two games in hand. Publicly, he has said he refuses to change his philosophy and curb Newcastle’s attacking game. Privately, there is acknowledgement that after the defeats at home to Manchester United and in the last game away at Arsenal, the team needs to shore up things at the back. Newcastle’s priority here is simple: avoid a defeat.
“That was the plan,” Ferdinand remembers. “The one thing we said before the game was let’s keep it tight. We’re at Anfield. Let’s get the crowd against them. That went out the window within the first five minutes.”
Instead what follows, after Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler heads the ball past Pavel Srníček on the two-minute mark, is a game that will set the title race on fire.
“It was like we were playing at 110mph,” Howey recalls. “There wasn’t a moment’s breather. They’d have an attack and it would break down, then we’d have an attack and it would break down. Neither team really kept the ball for long.”
Less than 10 minutes after Fowler scores, Ferdinand levels with a shot from six yards. Four minutes later, he finds Ginola just inside the Liverpool half: the winger goes around
McAteer, storms into the box and rifles past David James in just four sublime touches. There is still only 15 minutes on the clock.
Ten minutes into the second half, Fowler makes it 2–2. By now, the league’s two most romantic sets of supporters are in full voice, aware they’re witnessing something special. Two minutes later, Tino scores from 20 yards out, putting Newcastle back in the lead. The Colombian celebrates with one of his trademark forward flips.
There have been many attempts to pinpoint the exact moment when the wheels came off Newcastle United’s title bid in the 1995–’96 season, but none are quite as compelling — or dramatic — as minute 57 at Anfield that day.
John Beresford remembers it well. “We’re 3–2 up, and I’ve got McManaman running down my throat and McAteer on the overlap. Any other manager in history would have said: fall back, protect the result. But Kevin was like: go for 4–2, or 4–3! We were ridiculously open.”
In minute 68, McAteer whips a dangerous cross into the box that finds Stan Collymore who makes it 3–3. Still, Keegan urges his team to attack.
“The game has come to symbolise the collapse of Newcastle,” Nick Collins says. “At 3–2, they should have finished it off. Even at 3–3 you’re thinking: this result would be fine, guys!”
For Kevin Keegan, though, the thought of drawing 3–3 with Liverpool at Anfield and not trying to find the winner simply didn’t compute. Drawing with Liverpool at Anfield and then swapping an attacking player for the defender to protect the point is not what football is about. So with 10 minutes to go, Keegan brings on Darren Peacock for Howey (a central defender for a central defender) and orders his team to find a winner.
Stoppage time begins. Veteran centre-forward Ian Rush, a Liverpool legend, on as a sub, combines with John Barnes just inside the Newcastle box. Four exhausted Newcastle bodies try to stop them, but no one notices Collymore racing in from the left. Somehow, Barnes angles a left-footed pass out of the mêlée to an unmarked Collymore who smashes past an onrushing Pavel.
It’s 4–3. The camera pans to a shot of Keegan that will embed itself in Premier League folklore. The Newcastle manager is slumped over the advertising board in abject despair. His head is down and he is alone. For the first time this year, the Geordie fans are silent.
As a child, I developed a deep hatred of Manchester United — Alex Ferguson in particular — that lasted worryingly long into adulthood. I would savour the rare defeats they suffered like they were the cup final victories I’d never experienced. Automatically, I’d dismiss anyone I met who claimed to support them as second-class citizens.
The genesis of this hatred — which would be augmented over the years by more routine defeats than I care to count and one, sorry FA Cup final in 1999 — was the Keegan rant. Everyone remembers it, as it was voted the Premier League’s most memorable moment. With three games to go in their season, Newcastle edged past Leeds with a 1–0 win. Manchester United, with one game left to play at this stage, were relentless. Their league record since Christmas read: played 18, won 14, drawn two, lost two as they prepared to face Middlesbrough away — where a win would secure them the title. But that didn’t stop the wily Ferguson winding up his less experienced and emotionally volatile rival in the media by implying teams weren’t trying as hard against Keegan’s side as they were against his. It was this allegation that finally caused the Newcastle manager to snap.
Talking to the Sky studio team from Elland Road after the Leeds match, and wearing a comically large pair of headphones, Keegan started in his usual amiable manner then suddenly became irate. “I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that,” he told an astonished Andy Gray, referring to Ferguson’s comments, which he felt suggested that Nottingham Forest, Newcastle’s next opponents, would give them an easy ride. His voice was quivering.
Keegan then addressed Ferguson directly, with the line that would become his epitaph. “And you can tell him if you’re watching it — we’re still fighting for this title[….] and I tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!”
The rant gave birth to English football’s cherished concept of managerial “mind games” and, crucially, the idea Fergie was the master of them. And while the wider world laughed, I was witnessing the sight of a man I love losing his shit — and his dignity. Even today, watching it puts a lump in my throat.
“It was extraordinary,” says Nick Collins. “That sort of thing just didn’t happen. You couldn’t help but get the sense that this was the end of Kevin Keegan.”
It is the day before my 11th birthday and I still believe we can do it, even if unbeknownst to me, the players have quietly given up.
“We wanted to go out and give our best and hope for a miracle. But to a man, we felt that was probably it,” Les Ferdinand admits.
And Rob Lee agrees: “We knew in our hearts it was gone.”
It’s the last game of the season, and Newcastle are two points off Manchester United at the top of the table, playing Spurs at home. To claim the title that seemed an inevitability just a few months ago, we have to win and pray that Manchester United — away at Middlesborough — will somehow lose.
In the stands there is still hope. It’s a sunny day, and it has been a season of miracles. Why not hold out for another one? The match kicks off and is even, if a little flat. Everyone is only half-watching anyway: it is what’s happening in the game 42 miles away at the Riverside Stadium that really matters.
With 15 minutes gone, news filters through from the portable radios smuggled into the stands: David May has scored for Manchester United. Hope siphons out of the stadium like air from a punctured ball. We watch as Newcastle labour to a 1–1 draw, listening to installments of Manchester United doing what fucking Manchester United always do: win. It ends 3–0, ex-Magpie Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs scoring in a second half that turns into a victory parade for Ferguson’s men.
“It’s one of those lost innocence things, isn’t it?” says Nick Collins. “No one has been that far ahead and not won the title. Nobody had come out and tried to do it the Keegan way before, with such style. We all bought into it.
“As a story it had everything. You just wish it had a happy ending. I remember doing the interviews in the dressing room at ’Boro afterwards,” he continues, “with Giggs and everyone, and I couldn’t help wishing I wasn’t there, that I was talking to the Newcastle players instead. You can only imagine what it would have been like on Tyneside if they’d won.”
Kevin Keegan resigned after a boardroom dispute just a few months into the following season. Newcastle have never come as close to the Premier League title again. Over the next 20 years, barring the odd period of resurgence, we would go from the nation’s favourite team to its favourite punchline: the mad Geordie fans with their unrealistic expectations and their club lurching from one melodrama to the next.
This is why The Entertainers are still important in the North East. We haven’t won a major trophy since 1969 or the top division since 1927, and in truth, we’ve never deserved to except in 1996. But as Keith Gillespie says, “Very few people can remember who came second two or three years ago, but if you ask you came second in 1996, they always remember that Newcastle side.”
Does that count for anything?
One Saturday afternoon more than a decade later, after yet another humiliating Newcastle defeat that left me slumped and fuming in the corner of a pub, my then-girlfriend looked at me with genuine curiosity and asked a question that still haunts me from time to time: why do you keep watching this thing that just makes you miserable every weekend?
I looked at her for a moment, and saw for the first time the utter ludicrousness of it. How pathetic and pitiful it is to surrender your happiness to the whims of a bunch of millionaires playing a stupid game.
But then I began to tell her about Ginola, Les, Pavel, Beardsley. About a man called Kevin Keegan and a year that taught me so much, so quickly, about life. And about the time when we were great.