Howay the entertainers: Reliving Newcastle's 1995/96 title challenge, by the players
Newcastle United 2-1 Bolton Wanderers
St James’ Park, January 20, 1996
Kevin Keegan’s side were dumped out of the FA Cup by Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea in a St James’ Park replay
For a club enjoying a healthy lead at the top of the table, it had been a bad week. Days before the league visit of cellar-dwellers Bolton, Kevin Keegan’s side were dumped out of the FA Cup by Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea in a St James’ Park replay. Belgian defender Philippe Albert scored the opener in that match but was powerless to prevent his side from tumbling out of the tournament on penalties following a late Ruud Gullit equaliser, converting his own spot-kick only after Steve Watson and Peter Beardsley had already missed.
Now they faced Bolton, a side with just one point from 11 away matches and desperately devoid of confidence. They were the perfect opposition as Newcastle looked to stretch their lead over the chasing duo of Manchester United and Liverpool.
The Red Devils wouldn’t play until the Monday night, when they travelled to east London to take on West Ham, but Albert tells FFT that their title rival’s form wasn’t on the Newcastle players’ minds as they attempted to extend the gap at the top to 12 points.
“It was just like any other game,” says Albert. “Whoever we played, the manager would always say one thing before we ran out: ‘Just go out and make you score one more than them’. At home that was never a problem. Playing in front of that crowd at that time was an incredible experience – it would make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. We had just beaten Arsenal 2-0 at home and nobody fancied going up there and trying to take the game to us.
“People talk about the attacking potential of that side but they forget we didn’t really leak many goals either. We defenders were encouraged to get forward, yes, but we knew not to leave any gaps.”
Whoever we played, the manager would always say one thing before we ran out: ‘Just go out and make you score one more than them’
Despite missing Les Ferdinand, absent with a rib injury, Newcastle took an early lead through his deputy, Paul Kitson. Then Bolton, who were marooned at the bottom of the table with just 13 points from 24 matches, scored a shock equaliser. A Warren Barton foul on Sasa Curcic led to Scott Sellars – sold by Newcastle only a month previously – providing a free-kick that was headed in off the far post by the onrushing Gudni Bergsson.
“Maybe that gave us the kick up the backside we needed,” muses Albert. “We hadn’t really suffered too many setbacks up to that point, but a point at home against the bottom side would have felt like two dropped.
“It’s a measure of the way we played and the confidence we had, though, that we struck back pretty quickly. I think Peter Beardsley scored our second.” He’s right. The England man, who’d just celebrated his 35th birthday, pounced with his fifth goal of the campaign to put the Geordies 2-1 up at half-time.
“I don’t think Kevin said too much at the break,” says Albert. “It was really just a case of us carrying on playing the way we always did. To be honest, we didn’t think too much about the potential points difference over Manchester United if the score stayed as it did. It’s a cliché, but we really were taking it a single game at a time.”
The second half was a non-event, with Newcastle continuing to press as Bolton hung on grimly, knowing that defeat and in all likelihood relegation were near-certainties.
“It was funny that we won that game by a single goal because that was all Manchester United did for the rest of the season,” Albert adds. “No matter what we did, they would just keep on winning 1-0.”