Howay the entertainers: Reliving Newcastle's 1995/96 title challenge, by the players
Leeds United 0-1 Newcastle United
Elland Road, April 29, 1996
Even though they won the game and kept their title hopes alive, it was the night that many still associate with the end of Newcastle’s championship challenge
Newcastle did what they had to do at Elland Road, grabbing the kind of 1-0 win associated with their rivals Manchester United that season. But even though they won the game and kept their title hopes alive, it was the night that many still associate with the end of Newcastle’s championship challenge – the night Kevin Keegan lost and Alex Ferguson won.
A Monday night trip to Leeds brought the first of three matches in the final seven days of the season for Newcastle, who had two games in hand over the Red Devils but now trailed Ferguson’s men by six points and a goal difference margin of seven.
Manchester United had scraped past a 10-man Leeds a fortnight earlier, triumphing 1-0 at Old Trafford. Ferguson had suggested Leeds had raised their game just because they were facing Manchester United – the insinuation being that they wouldn’t do the same against Newcastle. Leeds gave them a scare, though, twice hitting the woodwork before Keith Gillespie headed in the only goal.
“We played Leeds away on the Monday, Nottingham Forest on the Thursday and then Tottenham in the last game of the season on the Sunday,” midfielder Lee Clark tells FFT. “We knew we probably had to get nine points. It was a tall order, but we won the game against Leeds, so we did the first part.”
Then came the rant that defined a season – maybe even a man. Keegan had been irked by Ferguson’s comments about Leeds, but also by reports that the Scot was unhappy Newcastle would face Forest in a crucial league match only a week before returning to the City Ground as opponents for Stuart Pearce’s testimonial. The apparent insinuation was, again, that Pearce and Forest might take it easy.
We’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I tell you, I will love it if we beat them – love it
“That sort of stuff – we’re bigger than that,” raved Keegan, becoming ever more irate. “When you do that with footballers, like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce… I’ve kept really quiet, but he went down in my estimation when he said that.
“We have not resorted to that, but you can tell him now, if he’s watching, we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I tell you, I will love it if we beat them – love it.”
The players were oblivious to that rant until Keegan climbed onto the team coach, ready for the drive back to Newcastle.
“We hadn’t really paid much attention to Ferguson’s comments; it hadn’t been spoken about before the game,” Clark says. “After the game, the manager came onto the coach and said he’d had a little bit of a pop at somebody in the media. When we saw it on TV, we were gobsmacked.
“The lads had a bit of fun with him before the Forest game. We were well aware that’s what he was about. He was very, very passionate. If he felt something wasn’t right, he’d tell people, be they his players or people from outside the club.
“It wasn’t that stress had got the better of him. He would have done that in the first game of the season if someone had questioned an opponent he had respect for.”
In the end, Newcastle drew 1-1 at Forest to go into the final day two points behind.
“We just hoped Middlesbrough could do something at home to Manchester United, but unfortunately it wasn’t the case,” Clark says, sadly. “We were very popular all around the country – we were everyone’s second-favourite team. It’s just a shame we didn’t get the silverware to top it all off.”
The team didn’t feel, however, as if this was the end – especially when Alan Shearer was taken from under Manchester United’s noses and brought to his hometown club for a world-record £15m fee, before the new term brought emphatic wins over their previous season’s conquerors (5-0) and Spurs (7-1).
But in January 1997 Keegan quit, saying he’d taken Newcastle – then fourth – as far as he could. Kenny Dalglish led them to second, but the Magpies never truly challenged. John Hall stepped down as chairman that year, and one by one, players left and the Great Entertainers were gone – but not forgotten.
Words: Louis Massarella, Richard Edwards, Carl Worswick, Chris Flanagan
This feature first appeared in the April 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!