When the Premier League broke away from the rest of the Football League in 1992 it changed the face of English football forever. And yet not every club felt the change.
Newcastle United, one of the biggest clubs in the country, with a stadium, fanbase and place in their city that few teams can match weren’t even in the top flight when the breakaway league ceased to be just an idea and took a physical form. The first Premier League year was played out away from St James’ Park as Newcastle found themselves in the second tier. The worst part was, they weren’t even just passing through.
Relegated in 1989, the Magpies were languishing below the surface. Their first season after relegation saw the club narrowly miss out on promotion at the first attempt, but then things started to go wrong. Ossie Ardiles was appointed as manager, but his first full season in charge, but boardroom upheaval – the club had three different chairmen in the 1991/92 season – started to filter its way onto the pitch and results took a hit. Newcastle were threatened with relegation to their third tier for the first time in their history, and as the Premier League was about to get into full swing, they may well have missed the boat completely.
In the end, Sir John Hall took over as chairman and steadied the ship allowing a revival on the pitch, but it was his appointment of a caretaker manager to replace Ardiles – rather than any other sort of leadership – which undoubtedly saved the club in the short term: he appointed Kevin Keegan.
For the fans, the club and the city, ‘saved’ was the word. Although relegation was only avoided by four points, there was an air of optimism around the club, and sense that the new manager and former player was the saviour of a club in peril. A Keegan-led Newcastle would have to spend the inaugural Premier League season in the First Division, away from the limelight and the money, but it was a club beginning to bubble under the surface.
If the 1992/93 season was a watershed moment for football because of the arrival of the Premier League, it was also a seminal year for Newcastle United, too. Keegan’s first season in charge brought champagne football to St James’ Park, winning the league by eight points and gaining promotion to the Premier League the season after it had begun its existence.
All in all, an exciting young team had started off magnificently by winning their first 11 games before suffering a blip in January. They keep their cool, though, winning seven of the last eight to clinch promotion in style, beating Leicester City 7-1 at home on the final day to round off a wonderful season. Indeed, Keegan’s Newcastle won 16 league games by a margin of two goals or more.
It was a sign of what was to come.
It’s fitting, though, that Newcastle United, a club which hadn’t won a major trophy since 1955, would lift the First Division trophy in the very first season it stopped being given to the best team in the entire land. It was the same trophy held aloft by Leeds United the season previously, but it had lost all of its lustre.
That has certain resonances with today’s Newcastle side. After appointing Rafael Benitez and lifting the mood around the club significantly, the Magpies still had to endure a watershed season away from the top division. This season will be the first time Newcastle get their hands on the extra money from the TV broadcast deal which most Premier League clubs made use of last year. Once again, they are arriving late to the party.
But two decades ago, Keegan took an exciting young team with the likes of Pavel Srnicek, Andy Cole and Lee Clark into the top flight, he was also able to splash some cash.
Finishes of third, sixth and second followed, though the latter perhaps showed that even though Newcastle were one of the best and most exciting teams in the league, this was still a side who had enjoyed a meteoric rise. Keegan’s famous rant was seen as something of a breakdown, and his side were painted as nearly-men. They simply weren’t hard-nosed champions like eventual victors Manchester United.
They certainly weren’t also-rans, though. Footballing history is littered with clubs who have one shot at success only to miss and fade away as if nothing had ever happened. And two defeats in Newcastle’s first three games of the following 1996/97 season did little to dispel that theory. But just like the First Division team a few years previously, they turned it around. Seven victories in a row followed in September and October. The last of which might have showed that Newcastle were going nowhere without a fight, and yet the sheer manner of victory proved so much more than that.
The nemesis, though, was Manchester United. They had pipped Newcastle to the title, overhauling a 12-point gap to come back at Keegan’s side. The Red Devils then went and beat Newcastle in the Charity Shield, too. That ended 4-0. United, with their hoodoo hold over the arrived at St James’ Park unbeaten in the league all season.
United had suffered a few draws and were sitting only in fourth, but they hadn’t conceded a goal in five games, and received wisdom would have told you that United always start slow. But that night, after a run of six straight victories had taken the Magpies to the top of the table after their false start, Newcastle were in a mood to start quickly. Darren Peacock opened the scoring after just 12 minutes and by half-time David Ginola had made it two.
The second half saw Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer both find the net, and if beating Manchester United 4-0 was a surprise, watching those two strikers bag goals certainly wasn’t: this game was just the 10th of the season, but already Ferdinand and Shearer had netted 18 times between them.
More importantly, though, Newcastle had somehow managed to overcome their mental block as the champions became flustered and lost control of their rhythm. Keegan’s men were laying down a marker.
And with five minutes still to play, whatever marker they’d already placed was about to be pushed even further away from the champions. Newcastle weren’t in the mood to just beat United, they were about to humiliate them.
Philippe Albert is what we would today call a ball-playing centre back. But in the mid-1990s perhaps English football wasn’t totally ready for that concept. Under Keegan, Newcastle were known for their attacking prowess, but they were also the butt of the joke when it came to their defending. The narrative of a stunning attack and a comical defence lends itself perfectly to ideas about what a centre-back should be like. And Albert’s ball-playing style was at odds of an English vision of Terry Butcher bleeding through his bandages, graphically staining a white kit.
But Albert’s skill was undoubted when he was on the ball. And, in true 90s fashion, like the end of a round of Mortal Kombat, it was Albert who finished Manchester United.
A nice move ended in an overhit cross which was retrieved on the right hand side and worked back to Albert, providing an outlet for his teammates in the opposition half. There is usually no better way to assert your dominance over the opposition than to pass it to your centre back when he’s in the attacking third of the pitch, but Albert found a better way.
Spotting Peter Schmeichel off his line, Albert flicked the ball into the space in front of him before curling his foot underneath the ball and scooping it over the Danish goalkeeper and lobbing it into the net.
It wasn’t just a lovely finish, nor was it just a win. It was a humiliation. United were the champions, they hadn’t suffered defeat all season, and here they were, 5-0 down to a team over whom they had a mental chokehold. And it was sealed with a lob from their centre-back.
To matters even worse, it was Manchester United’s heaviest defeat since March 1980 when they lost 6-0 to Ipswich Town, and in his entire 22-year managerial career up until that point, Ferguson had never suffered a defeat as heavy as that.
And yet it counted for very little. The Messiah who had saved Newcastle, brought them to the Premier League, and let them eat from the riches of the new format couldn’t make it count. He had led his side to top half finishes each season, culminating in a bitter second-place the season previously. But after humiliating Manchester United and extending their winning streak to seven in a row, Newcastle then slumped to a run of seven games without a win. Whatever they had gained, they gave back before Christmas, and United won the title again.
It’s almost as if Newcastle aren’t meant to win a league title. The peaks and troughs of one of the biggest teams in the country are laid bare so vividly and in such wildly contrasting fluctuations. From the bottom of the second tier to title challenges in just a few early Premier League seasons, from European football in 2007 to relegation in 2009. From fifth place in 2012 to relegation again just four years later. Once again, if Newcastle are to rise to the top, they’ll have had to come from the depths below.
If the Premier League changed the face of football, you wouldn’t know it by watching Newcastle continue to repeat history.
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