Twenty years ago, Newcastle topped the Premier League table; now they’re a team struggling to avoid the drop. Derek Bilton looks at the rise and fall of the game’s once-Great Entertainers.
On January 21 1996, 20 years ago this very week, Newcastle United were top of the Premier League. The Magpies sat proudly, some 12 points clear of nearest rivals Liverpool and Manchester United, and looked racing certainties to win their first league title since 1927.
Kevin Keegan was in charge, and it was the era of ‘The Entertainers’. A team that played with a smile on their face and a swagger in their step.
Keegan had dragged the club kicking and screaming from the brink of the old Third Division to the precipice of the Premier League title. It was a crazy time. Newcastle would regularly attract crowds of over four thousand just to watch them train.
And this was a team of rare talent. Of David Ginola, Tino Asprilla and the incomparable Peter Beardsley.
They were the pride of Gallowgate, so exciting that they became the second team of many fans up and down the land, as neutrals tuned into Sky in their droves to watch their breathless brand of attacking football. Alas there was to be no crowning glory for ‘Geordie Messiah’ Keegan. Manchester United began eating away at that 12-point lead and when Eric Cantona scored a in a 1-0 smash-and-grab win on Tyneside in March to reduce the gap to just a point, the writing was on the wall. Newcastle eventually had to settle for second, and while their Manchester rivals pushed on to dominate the domestic scene for years to come, their Tyneside counterparts began to stagnate.
Fast forward two decades and Newcastle are a club bang in trouble. They are back in the relegation zone, and a club devoid of genuine superstars. Indeed between last month and this they went well over six hours without scoring, succumbing to four consecutive 1-0 defeats, a sequence of results that would have been thought impossible under Keegan.
Steve McClaren is now the man in charge on Tyneside, the one-time ‘Wally with the Brolly’ who is finding life as Newcastle boss to be almost as tough as he found the England gig a few years ago.
The fans still turn out in their thousands, but it seems that the quality just isn’t there in this side and while St James’ Park can seem like a a cauldron for opposition players, too often this season key men playing in black and white have struggled to please the Geordie masses, resulting in them feeling the full wrath of the fans. Fans frustrated that beady-eyed number crunchers have now taken over their club. The new top flight TV deal kicks in next season meaning that it is absolutely imperative that clubs like Newcastle are still at the top table come August. On current form, it’s going to be a hell of a close run thing.
The stakes are so high now financially in the Premier League that the fear of failure takes precedent over everything else. The fans still dare to dream like ‘King Kev’ once did. But for the suits upstairs it’s all about balancing the books and profit maximisation. And that’s the great tragedy of Newcastle United, ‘The Entertainers’ who fell to earth.