Football Fork – May 1996 – Keegan’s mind-games spur Newcastle to the title

Was the failure to capture the 1995/6 Premiership having at one stage enjoyed a 12 point lead the beginning of the end for the Newcastle dream and Kevin Keegan’s managerial credibility?

This week we ponder what might have been if the Magpies’ favourite cheerleading manager had won the battle of the mind-games and led the side to their first trophy since the 1955 FA Cup…

May 1996I would love it if we could beat them. Love it. He’s gone down in my estimation. Manchester United haven’t won this yet, I’d love it if we beat them”. Keegan’s frustrations spill over with a game left to play, and an outside chance of the league title. The media suggest that it is a sign that the game is finally up for Keegan and his charges, but a Juninho-inspired Middlesborough manage to eke out a 2-1 win against Manchester United on the last day of the season, and when the news of the scoreline trickles through to St James Park, David Ginola whips a cross into the penalty box with which Les Ferdinand connects. Newcastle snatch the title.

Keegan is heralded by the press as a master of mind games, and revels in the image. In fact, the turn of phrase comes out throughout the summer — Keegan manages to unsettle Juninho by telling the Sun that he would “love it if he could sign Juninho, love it”. Juninho comes on board for the following season, reasoning that he doesn’t have to drive much further to get to training every day.

January 1997 — The New Year’s Honours List includes a knighthood for Kevin Keegan. Publically it is denied, but many believe that the Queen is bowing to the demands of Newcastle residents, who send more than a million letters demanding recognition for their manager.

April 1997 — Keegan’s side sit second in the league, one place ahead of a faltering Manchester United. A resurgent Arsenal, led by new manager Arsene Wenger, are marching toward the title. Their famous defence of Adams, Keown, Dixon and Winterburn keep Newcastle’s attacking talent quiet at Highbury and record a 1-0 victory which puts the title out of reach for the Toon Army. Sir Kev, livid at the heavy-handed treatment Juninho and Ginola receive in the game, launches into an impassioned tirade against Arsene Wenger and anyone connected to anywhere in North London, but to no avail.

June 1997 “We need more attacking talent,” Sir Kev insists. Alan Shearer arrives for £15m, and he is joined by Gianluigi Lentini and Teddy Sheringham. The most incredible deal, however, sees Eric Cantona arrive in Newcastle for £3m, after expressing his distaste at the lack of silverware at Old Trafford. “When the magpies follow a knight, it is because they believe he will love it if they throw sardines, love it” Cantona says cryptically. The signings are facilitated by the sale of the back four. In Spain, Florentino Perez watches carefully and gets an idea.

October 1997 — Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United lose their fifth game in a row. The fans boo the team off after their clash with Aston Villa, and Ferguson is forced to explain the Red Devil’s dip in form. “I think Alan Hansen was right,” he says, “You don’t win anything with kids. I really thought David Beckham was going to be good, but he’s so short on confidence and I’m starting to wonder whether he’ll ever amount to anything.”

May 1998 — Newcastle win their second Premiership title. Sir Kev’s side score 128 times in the season and concede 68. Arsene Wenger expresses his bemusement, suggesting that such football is not a blueprint for long term success. “I’ve been reading about George Graham’s Arsenal, and I’m starting to see what he was getting at“. Bergkamp moves to Newcastle.

June 1998 — David Beckham is released from Manchester United, and is picked up by Leyton Orient. England endure a wretched World Cup, but the bright spot is the performance of 18 year-old Michael Owen. Posh Spice, looking to broaden her popularity, begins a relationship with the Liverpool striker.

May 1999 — Arsenal win the Premiership, scoring 54 times and conceding only 12. Newcastle are second again, with each game they play seeing an average of six goals. Sir Kev is at a loss to explain the side’s failed campaign, but finds £25m to fund the signing of Michael Owen.

Manchester United finish 11th, and Ferguson pays for it with his job. “Football — bloody hell,” he muses, “I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t have taken much to change for us be winning the treble right about now”. Eric Cantona sweeps back into Old Trafford as the new United coach.

Jan 2001 — Keegan’s Newcastle enjoy sporadic success and a first FA Cup win in 45 years in 2000, but are losing too many games. Goalkeeper Shay Given loses faith after Keegan selects him and ten attacking players to take on Everton, and demands a transfer. For their next game, Keegan selects Faustino Asprilla as rush goalie. It’s the final straw for Sir Kev, who resigns, leaving behind a legacy of domestic triumph, but an urgent need for some defensive players. Such is the popularity of Sir Kev with the fans that nobody can countenance taking on the job.

March 2001 — After an extensive search and hitherto fruitless search, Newcastle turn to Joe Kinnear. The fans fume, and the media is bemused. Kinnear swears. A lot.

May 2001 — Liverpool end their wait for the League title with an astonishing quadruple of the League, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup. Gerard Houllier is offered a lifetime contract an Anfield. Newcastle’s season falls away and Kinnear steers the side to seventh. Florentino Perez, now President of Real Madrid and looking on at the Premiership from Spain, briefly considers halting his burgeoning galacticos project, before having a change of heart and employing Keegan and providing him with a book of blank cheques. He would love it, he says, if Shearer came to join him. Love it. Posh and Micks book tickets to Madrid.

Mark is one of the founders of Sport without Spin which pokes fun at the contradictions, illogicalities and chat that sporting coverage in the media creates. This week, they’ve been looking at the evolution of the Beckham transfer story, the shopping exploits of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, and trying not to lose any more sleep over Charles N’Zogbia…

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