BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
Disintegration. It’s not a word usually prescribed for football managers, at least not in public anyway. With the Sky cameras rolling, however, something peculiar happened to Kevin Keegan. The year of our Lord 1996, the month April and with the Premiership title reaching scalding point between Alex Ferguson’s relentless Manchester United and Keegan’s Geordie swashbucklers, a throwaway comment from the Scot is about to send Kev over the edge. It may have more to do with the fact that the Manchester club have whittled away what seemed an unassailable 12 point lead, but Fergie’s tongue in cheek comment that the likes of Nottingham Forest and Leeds United are going to try harder against his team of superstars is about to turn Keegan into a cross between Colonel Kurtz and a drunk hairdresser lambasting a bouncer because he won’t let her mate in. By the time he’s finished, a stunned silence will break out in living rooms all over the country. Only a faint Glaswegian belly laugh will be heard over the barricades. That and the sound of a psychological fishing rod being reeled in having hooked its target.
Rewind to January of that season and all had been seemingly rosy at St. James’ Park. With a brand of hugely entertaining football, Newcastle United had finally risen up as a football force their fan base deserved. At their helm was Kevin Keegan – seen as an almost metaphysical force by the Toon Army faithful. Most on the terraces still remembered his time spent playing in the black and white shirt and for those that didn’t, they’d been brought up on the stories. His arrival in 1982 had spurred a return to top flight football after six seasons in the wilderness. They’d felt a kinship with Keegan on the Gallowgate that hadn’t quite dissipated by the time he’d returned as a manager. He in turn knew what they craved – flair, fire, a detachment of the football senses to hold off the drudgery of the upcoming working week. Busily, Keegan had then gone after the targets he wanted to fulfil the prophecy. Crucially, he had an understanding chairman to back him.
With those components in place for the start of the 95-96 season Newcastle had exploded out of the blocks. In a seemingly wide-open Premiership, which had been won in the previous year by Blackburn Rovers, their spate of early wins had them on course to at least qualify for the European places. Theirs was a team of flair and steel. Players that rolled easily over the eye like Peter Beardsley and David Ginola combined with the more combative and solid elements of English football. Physical competitors like Rob Lee and David Batty, who knew a good pass and a bad tackle too. They also had a pretty special one up top as a secret weapon. The enigmatic Les Ferdinand was a striker that had everything. Powerful and athletic one minute, elegant and intelligent the next, he was a constant danger to any defence at that time in the Premiership. Crucially, he could also mix it when he had to. On those unglamorous away trips when centre halves went medieval on star frontmen, big Les could handle the interference. He didn’t go hiding when the studs and the bullets flew.
The fact that Newcastle would roll their imperious form into the New Year would make the rest of the Premiership suddenly sit up and take notice. As a club they had always been viewed as the drunk uncle of the elite division. Full of character and passion but utterly harmless when it came to the business end. Now, both on and off the pitch, the pressure was on. The hysteria that surrounded a potential Newcastle title win in the city itself only added to the mainline. No major city in England had been starved of as much success as Newcastle had. To land there in early 1996 was to experience a mixture of wild excitement and rising nervousness. No one seemed to feel that more than Keegan. A passionate, emotional man, an interview with the Newcastle manager around this time was an exercise in suppression. A smile like a nervous Downing Street politician, casting bombastic rhetoric for the cameras whilst secretly worrying that his house was about to be blown in.
Keegan’s problem was two-fold. Newcastle were due a stutter in form and when it arrived did they have the character to quickly address it. He responded with the marquee signing of Colombian international maverick Tino Asprilla, but it seemed to affect the team’s expressionism rather than enhance it. From February they seemed a team blinded by the headlights. Unfortunately, that lack of momentum also coincided with the brutalist architecture of a Manchester United winning streak; the machination of that great, nineties team picking off the teams in the Premiership, including Newcastle, like the wings of a stricken moth. With every week they crept closer, and with every point dropped the spectre of Ferguson seemed to haunt the Newcastle coach like one of Marley’s cruel faced visitations.
There was to be a huge irony to play out too. Newcastle’s real spiritual demise wouldn’t come at the hands of Ferguson at all but at the ground of their bitter rivals Liverpool. In a game at Anfield that April, the coda of English football would be transformed into some sort of frenzied exhibition. It would also be a death knell for Newcastle. Despite scoring three goals and playing their part in what has since been described as the greatest Premier League game of all time, they would have their flair extinguished and exposed by both pace and clinical finishing. In Fowler and Collymore they found their true executioners – a last minute goal by the latter had King Kev slumped over a hoarding like a grieving parent. In many ways that’s what he was. It was as if he’d had all the optimism and air let out of him.
He wouldn’t give up of course. That wasn’t King Kev’s way, but he must have known it was futile after that, a disappearing dream. All that was left was that infamous Sky cameras rant. That, and the realisation that his cavaliers were the greatest side never to win the premiership title. His Newcastle United miracle had been tantalisingly close to being realised.
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