by Kristan Heneage

“When they’ve worked all week, the match for them is like the people down South going to the theatre, they’re going to be entertained.” – Kevin Keegan January 2008.

You could always guarantee entertainment at St James’ Park under Kevin Keegan. The goals may not have always been at the away team’s end, but it made for an engaging afternoon nonetheless. The drama, the joy, the heartache; it was all condensed into ninety minutes every week, and it made Newcastle one of the most appealing aspects of English football in the 1990’s.

Standing on the steps of St James’ Park in January 1995, Keegan told the fans why he’d just sold their top scorer to Manchester United for £7 million plus Keith Gillespie. Newcastle had surprised everyone by finishing third the previous season, with Andy Cole – who was signed for just over a million pounds from Bristol City – a major part of that success. However forty-goal Andy Cole was gone and the team needed to move on.

The July of 1995 saw the expected new faces join the club. Les Ferdinand would be Cole’s replacement, and a more than adequate one at that. Having gained Keith Gillespie in the deal that saw Cole move to Old Trafford, Keegan brought in the mercurial Frenchman David Ginola to balance the side and add Gallic flair to the left wing.

His third purchase of the summer saw Warren Barton join from Wimbledon, making him England’s most expensive defender in the process. With Shaka Hislop also moving from Reading, the club’s Chairman Sir John Hall had opened his cheque book for the enthusiastic Keegan and now was the time to push on.

By Christmas 1995 the gamble looked to be paying off. With Peter Beardsley still jinking past defenders well into his thirties and playing off the target man Ferdinand, Newcastle were ten points ahead of their nearest rivals. Despite playing an attractive and dynamic brand of football – long before Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal drew similar plaudits – Newcastle still lacked the defensive toughness that Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ would come to possess.

Rightly or wrongly, the infamous twelve point lead The Magpies built up in January is one of the lasting legacies of Keegan’s time at Newcastle. As Manchester United began to gain momentum, Newcastle’s players began to lose it. Defeats away to West Ham United and at home to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men cut the lead dramatically.

February had seen the arrival of Columbian forward Faustino Asprilla for £6.7m. Arriving amidst blizzard-like conditions in the North East, the rubber-legged striker was  unpredictable and exciting, the epitome of Keegan’s tactical mantra. ‘Tino’, who often delighted with his quick feet, is fondly remembered by most on Tyneside despite some attributing his arrival to the downturn in form post-Christmas – something his teammates have vehemently denied.

With the tide turning in Manchester United’s favour, the cracks began to show. The trip to Anfield on 3rd April 1996 is cited as the day the walls finally crumbled. Despite leading with twenty minutes to go, Newcastle gave up two late goals in a game that is fondly remembered by neutrals as one of the most entertaining in the league’s history. While most teams would have sat back, Newcastle pressed for more goals and left themselves open to the counter attack. The 4-3 defeat all but handed Manchester United the title and has since become one of the defining moments in the Premier League’s history.

Just as the first half of the season had displayed the right kind of excitement for Newcastle fans, the second half bore a cascade of nerves and anguish. Keegan’s slumped, forlorn posture at Anfield as Stan Collymore hit the ninetieth minute winner clearly denoted the campaign was taking its toll on him. His passion began to spill over as he became ruled by his emotions.

Despite a narrow win for Newcastle at Elland Road, Ferguson’s ‘gamesmanship’ in the press had begun to rile Keegan. His tongue – for so long bitten into silence – wriggled loose for but a moment as he questioned the ethics of his rival live on Sky, finishing his passion-fuelled rant with the infamous line; “I would love it, LOVE IT if we beat them.”

Sadly for him they never did, Manchester United taking the league title as Newcastle’s campaign fizzled out with a home draw against Spurs. The party was over and Andy Cole was celebrating with his new friends. There was a bitter taste on Tyneside, but they had come so far in such a short time; the positives were still there. Keegan, however, wasn’t done yet, and what he had planned next, few could have predicted.

He might have been “Just a sheet metal worker’s son” but Alan Shearer was also one of England’s most exciting striking talents. Costing £15m, he was unveiled like a Roman Emperor to twenty thousand delirious fans in July 1996.

Keegan’s puzzle was now complete. His strikers had an aerial dominance that complimented the tricky wingers he had secured in the eighteen months prior. With the cultured Philippe Albert leading the defence, and Shearer’s former Blackburn team-mate David Batty forming an industrious and combative partnership with Rob Lee in the centre of midfield, many fans felt this was their time, but it didn’t start well.

The daemons – or should I say Red Devils – of the previous year had returned to haunt them in the Charity Shield. A 4-0 drubbing did little for the squad’s confidence, with many questioning whether Newcastle could ever match Sir Alex Ferguson’s dominant side. They would receive an emphatic retort to that question two months later. On a wet Sunday in October, Newcastle welcomed Manchester United to St James’ Park “Looking for revenge” (the words of Shearer) after the embarrassment of the Charity Shield.

Newcastle gained their redress that day, running out 5-0 winners. The game was arguably the high-water mark of Keegan’s reign. Each goal was bettered by the one which followed as the ball was stroked around the pitch as if it were a snooker table. Fittingly, the climactic point of the game came from a player Keegan first scouted at USA ’94.

Receiving the ball from Rob Lee, Albert raced towards the weary Manchester United defence. As all around him cried ‘shoot’ few expected what came next, including Peter Schmeichel. Albert delicately lifted the ball over all in front of him, including the helpless Dane who could only watch as it glided over his head and into the gaping net. Delirium overtook both those in the stands as well as the commentary box, with Sky’s Martin Tyler letting out an and elongated ‘Oh yes’.

This was Keegan’s moment. From the edge of relegation in 1992 to that point it had been an emotional ride for all involved. The financial backer through it all, Sir John Hall, professed that; “Today the country had seen the English Champions.” Ironically he was right, as Manchester United would once again lift the title, but Newcastle had won the hearts of many with their attacking brand of footballing entertainment.

Keegan’s departure from Newcastle but a few months later was abrupt. With Shearer leading the scoring charts, the announcement came on January 7th that the manager had resigned. The shock and disappointment resonated around Tyneside. His reason for departing was unclear. Some believed Keegan’s unwillingness to make the sacrifices associated with the club becoming a PLC is where the friction began. Sir John Hall had intimated that the club would have to sell before it could buy. With Keegan determined to continue spending until he finally caught up with Manchester United, in retrospect a split seemed inevitable.

It didn’t seem fitting for a man who had made such an extravagant entrance to exit to so meekly. His style of football had caught many Premier League sides unaware, and has earned him a place in the hearts of numerous Newcastle fans to this day. It’s a shame both Keegan and his side may be more remembered for their faltering title challenges instead of the meteoric rise that came before it, but if one thing can be guaranteed it’s that ‘Keegan’s Entertainers’ always lived up to their billing.

Read more from Kristan on his Tumblr and follow him on Twitter.