Howay the entertainers: Reliving Newcastle's 1995/96 title challenge, by the players
Newcastle United’s 1995/96 season, as the cliché goes, had everything. It had great moments (“I will love it if we beat them”), great games (that 4-3 defeat at Anfield), great stats (12 points clear in early February) and great myths.
Our memories tell us that Kevin Keegan’s side scored for fun that season, and conceded just as easily. In fact, they found the net just 66 times, one fewer than in the previous campaign, and conceded 37, only two more than eventual champions Manchester United. But why let the truth get in the way of a great story? And what a story it was. “The trouble is,” says left-back John Beresford, “we were having such a good time that it flew by, and we didn’t get a chance to take it all in.”
Setting the scene
After finishing sixth, and backed by Sir John Hall’s millions, the Toon regrouped that summer, signing Les Ferdinand from QPR and David Ginola from PSG
Newcastle had returned to the top flight with a bang in 1993/94, scoring 82 goals as they finished third in their first season back. Nearly half of those goals had come from Andy Cole, though, who was sold to Manchester United in January 1995.
After finishing sixth, and backed by Sir John Hall’s millions, the Toon regrouped that summer, signing Les Ferdinand from QPR and David Ginola from PSG, as well as goalkeeper Shaka Hislop and England right-back Warren Barton (Tino Asprilla and David Batty would join them in February).
Inspired by Keegan – “We would have jumped off the Tyne Bridge for him,” says Beresford – Newcastle believed they could mount a serious title challenge. They were great to watch, playing in an attacking 4-4-2 formation with two out-and-out wingers.
“I watch the Premier League now and I get bored,” Rob Lee, their star midfielder that season, tells FourFourTwo. “I’ve never seen so many 0-0s. We didn’t play in any that season. And Keegan never told us to take the ball into the corner if we were 2-1 up. We were told to try to get a third goal, then a fourth.”
That gung-ho approach, allied with a lack of title-winning experience within the squad, ultimately proved to be their downfall. Unlike their title rivals Manchester United, who by then were approaching the height of their unpopularity under Alex Ferguson, Newcastle found it increasingly difficult to grind out results on the road. Just one of the Magpies’ eight defeats that season came at a rapturous St James’ Park.
“But I wouldn’t change a thing,” insists Beresford. “And I know people will say it’s sour grapes, but I think it would have been great for football if we’d won the league. That’s why neutrals want Leicester to win it this season – everybody loves a team who go for it, who entertain. And we entertained. How many other teams are still remembered for finishing second?”
Newcastle United 3-0 Coventry City
St James’ Park, August 19, 1995
We had a nucleus of players who were on the fringes of the England team, which meant they were hungry, and we had a great team spirit
It didn’t take long for Rob Lee to realise that Newcastle’s class of 1995/96 were on the verge of something special. “It was the opening game of the season,” the former England midfielder tells FFT. “The sun was shining, the atmosphere at St James’ Park was electric and we were 2-0 up – although it could have been quite a few more. I remember thinking: ‘We’ve got a very good team here’. We had a nucleus of players who were on the fringes of the England team, which meant they were hungry, and we had a great team spirit, which made it easy for new players to settle in quickly.
“We were a little bit weak physically the season before, so we made some ‘strong’ signings, and because the manager was under pressure after selling Andy Cole to Manchester United in January, he made all his summer signings pretty much as soon as the season had finished, which took the pressure off. I’d been trying for ages to persuade Les [Ferdinand] to join Newcastle, while Warren Barton and Shaka Hislop were solid performers. Ginola was the bonus.”
Ginola? Bonus? “We hadn’t really heard of him. We had Scott Sellars already on the left, who was doing a very good job. We thought: ‘Is Ginola going to be better than Scott?... Oh!’”
So with an improved squad, having finished sixth in the Premier League the previous season, what was the aim before the big kick-off? A UEFA Cup place? “We were trying to win the title,” insists Lee. “Believe it or not, that’s genuine. Keegan’s mindset was always ‘if we are in a competition, let’s have a go’.”
We thought: ‘Is Ginola going to be better than Scott?... Oh!
And despite having to “pick and choose” when to get forward from central midfield now he had all this other attacking talent around him, it was Lee who opened Newcastle’s account in the seventh minute. He recalls: “The ball went wide to Keith Gillespie, who was the quickest player I’d ever seen. I had a quick look around to make sure Lee Clark was behind me and then I ghosted into the box. The ball came in and I managed to loop a good header beyond John Filan in the Coventry goal. It was one of my trademark goals, really.”
Peter Beardsley doubled Newcastle’s lead with a penalty eight minutes from time, before Lee briefly broke from his epiphany to put Ferdinand through for a debut goal. The striker remembers: “It was only after watching the replay and seeing the reaction from everybody – not just the Newcastle supporters but the players and the coaching staff as well – that I knew how important that goal was.”
With Ginola, Ferdinand and, indeed, Lee on fire, Keegan’s men flew out of the traps, producing some of the most scintillating football in Premier League history. “That’s just the way we played football, and I loved it,” says Lee. “The fact that everybody remembers that team, even though we finished second, makes me very proud. I believe football should be entertainment, and we entertained. I wouldn’t change anything, not even a Premier League title, for playing in a team like that.”
Lee echoes Beresford’s statement, adding: “That’s why everyone’s rooting for Leicester this season. They have a go at teams, like we did, and not many people do that anymore.”