PL25: When Liverpool and Newcastle astounded us all over again

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a mirror image of an out-and-out classic.

One of the joys of doing this series is highlighting some incredible games in the Premier League’s firmament that perhaps have been forgotten with the passing of time. The following is one such example, but here – uniquely – it is not time that has diminished its status but by it being overshadowed into near insignificance by a predecessor.

The game in question pits Liverpool against Newcastle at Anfield in the late 90s. After a pulsating ding-dong affair the home side triumph 4-3 courtesy of a Robbie Fowler double and a highly dramatic last minute winner, a death-blow that sends a former Liverpool legend to his knees in utter despair in the away dug-out.

If that all sounds extremely familiar that’s hardly surprising: after all, the goal-fest of 1996 – complete with the iconic image of Kevin Keegan slumped onto an advertising hoarding unable to comprehend what he was witnessing – is often voted the greatest game in the modern era. Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp title decider against QPR may beat it hands down for momentary drama but over the course of its 90 minutes the 1996 thriller was a constant assault on the senses that had everything and more. For twists and turns alone it remains unparalleled.

Only here’s the thing: a year later both teams did it all again, and arguably the sequel was even better.

Every element of the first classic was repeated, to the point where it stretched plausibility. Once again Newcastle arrived with the scent of a title in their nostrils with Liverpool – just like the previous April – in the hunt too but significantly further back. Once again kamikaze defending from both sides produced chances in abundance and seven goals that shook the TV camera on the gantry – and once again that included a highly charged late decider for the Reds. Now though it was Kenny Dalglish looking on gob-smacked having taken over the reins in the north-east that January from a spent and drained Keegan.

Even with 20 years distance it is still difficult to accept that this all happened; that lightning struck twice; that a fixture could unleash such mayhem and frolics and PlayStation insanity and then ten months later produce almost an exact carbon copy of it. Yet it did and perhaps it did so because around that period whenever Liverpool encountered Newcastle they brought out the best and worst in each other. For those involved it must have been traumatic. For neutrals it bordered on the magical.

So why, you may ask, is the second instalment of crazy superior to the original? Simply put because the scoring order is better even if that analysis is crueller on the Magpies.

Liverpool's Patrik Berger celebrates scored against Newcastle

In April 1996 free-scoring Newcastle traded blows with Roy Evans’ Spice Boys and alternated leads. The following March Liverpool got their noses in front and then extended their advantage to three goals to the good at the break. It was, under normal circumstances, game over with McManaman, Berger and Fowler chipping away at the visitors title credentials and looking to put their own hopes back in contention into the bargain.

Except Newcastle came back, and they did so because David James chose this night of all nights to be at his most calamitous. In the 71st minute he spilled a routine tester from Keith Gillespie to make the game a contest again and then late on, as the contest threatened to die away to normality he charged from his area into no man’s land. There he encountered Faustino Asprilla whose lunge for the ball knocked it sailing past the hapless keeper into an unguarded net.

If anything defined that magnificently flawed Newcastle side it was their steadfast belief in miracles but with minutes becoming seconds surely here it was a sensational proposition too far? Not so; not in this fixture; not when two of the most entertaining but brittle sides collided with not a handbrake to be seen.

In the final moments of a high-octane, rip-roaring encounter the ball popped free in the Liverpool box and Warren Barton poked it home. It took a replay to determine how and considering James’ nightmare second half it should surprise precisely no-one to learn that it squeezed between his legs.

And that was that, everyone agreed so, because another 4-3 would just be plain weird; the fates revealing that they’re not actually in charge of anything at all. Yet here it came with a flat-low cross perfectly pitched for Robbie Fowler to nod powerfully past Shaka Hislop. The unbridled carnage that ensued contained more than a whiff of disbelief about it.

At the very least the amazing events that took place at Anfield on March 10th 1997 deserve to be viewed as a companion piece to what went before it. It was inferior in no way other than it occurred second. It should forever be scorched into our memories.

What happened next?

For a consecutive season Newcastle finished second to Manchester United, a position gauged as a disappointment at the time yet they would not reach this peak again.

Liverpool’s propensity to drop points against lesser fare cost them dearly and they ended the campaign level on points with Newcastle and Arsenal but behind on goal difference. According to their defender Mark Wright, “That was the season we should have won it and we all know that”.