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Mar 31, 2011

Newcastle's Entertainers fall at Anfield

Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of one of the greatest games in the history of the Premier League. Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle, on April 3, 1996, was a night of high drama at Anfield and was also the decisive defeat that all but ended Newcastle's thrilling title challenge as Manchester United's young team reeled in their rivals.

If ever a solitary game could be said to define a team, then that unforgettable night at Anfield is it. A wonderful exhibition of attacking, entertaining football undone by defensive frailties, with success snatched away at the last. As a snapshot of that memorable Magpies side under Kevin Keegan, it is unerring in its accuracy.

Famously, Newcastle's adherence to their principles prevented them from securing a first title in 69 years in the 1995-96 season, but it also earned them plenty of admirers while creating the conditions for a match that helped establish the Premier League brand of end-to-end, fiercely quick, entertaining football. That the contest ended with Keegan famously draped over an advertising hoarding, just weeks before he declared he "would love it" if he beat Alex Ferguson to the title, only added to the dramatic narrative. This truly was a game to remember.

In the summer of 1995, having been back in the top flight for two seasons, Newcastle made some key signings that transformed them into unlikely title contenders: a French midfielder by the name of David Ginola was purchased from Paris Saint Germain and QPR striker Les Ferdinand was recruited for the princely sum of £5 million.

The team gelled immediately, making a coruscating start to the season, and 'The Entertainers' were becoming the neutrals' favourites with The Guardian claiming "Keegan's exuberant and honest approach has won him the nation's respect".

On January 21, 1996, Newcastle opened up a 12-point lead over both Liverpool and Manchester United at the top of the table. With 15 games remaining, it seemed a possibly insurmountable tally, but then the sands shifted.

On February 10, Newcastle paid £6.75 million to sign Faustino Asprilla from Parma. The Colombian has been demonised by some as the catalyst for Newcastle's downfall, but while their form did undoubtedly tail off following his arrival, this is too simplistic a reading of the situation. Indeed, Asprilla made an immediate impact following his arrival when coming off the bench on his debut to inspire Newcastle to come from behind and beat Middlesbrough 2-1.

Asprilla, who it later transpired had indulged in a glass of wine prior to the match, admitted his substitution was somewhat unexpected: "Kevin Keegan told me to get dressed but to sit next to him on the bench so people could see I had signed. He said 'you will not play today - you are only here for the cameras'. Then Boro scored and Keegan said 'do you want to play?' I said 'no, no I only watch!' But he said 'come on Tino!'"

The rot started in the game after that win over Middlesbrough, as a 2-0 defeat at West Ham ushered in a run of five defeats in eight games. On March 4, Manchester United moved to within one point of the Magpies, having played a game more, after securing a vital 1-0 win at St James' Park. Eric Cantona, back from a lengthy suspension for that karate kick, scored the winner, while Peter Schmeichel was responsible for repelling wave after wave of Newcastle attacks.

Writing in The Guardian, David Lacey expressed the belief that having led the league for so long, Newcastle, and their manager, now faced a very different kind of challenge: "In football even Messiahs sometimes have to tread water. Kevin Keegan has proved he can manage; now he has to show he can cope."

In the face of an excellent run of form from a talented young United side, that had famously been decried as too inexperienced to win the title by Alan Hansen, Newcastle began to wilt. Fergie's fledglings , containing embryonic talents like Paul Scholes and David Beckham, as well as the already highly evolved Ryan Giggs, were closing the gap, planting that seed of doubt.

On March 23, Newcastle stumbled once again when losing 2-0 at Arsenal. United had now turned a 12-point deficit into a three-point advantage, although they had played two games more. Lacey continued his water analogy, the imagery growing more ominous: "Walking on water was always a tricky business. For months Newcastle United have put their faith in the Messianic management of Kevin Keegan. Now, if they are going to win the Championship, they will have to start learning to swim against the tide".

But like King Canute, Newcastle could not repel the advancing waters and they were further submerged in their next Premier League game: a visit to Anfield.

Though the Liverpool side under Roy Evans has retrospectively been burdened with the 'Spice Boys' tag, heading into the game they had only lost one of their previous 22 and boasted a strike force of Robbie Fowler, who would score 36 goals in all competitions that season, and Stan Collymore, the top flight's record signing at £8.6 million. In midfield, Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes and Steve McMananan supplied class and flair but, like Newcastle, it was evident where their problems were located. With both sides fluent in attack and contriving to defend horribly, it was little surprise that the game was a classic.

Liverpool took the lead after only two minutes when Collymore dug out a cross from the left and Fowler headed home at the far post. However, Asprilla bamboozled the Liverpool defence to cross for Les Ferdinand, who exploited some shocking goalkeeping from David James to make it 1-1, before Ginola scored to claim the lead after only 14 minutes.

Ten minutes after the break, with chances flowing for both sides, the game swung once more when Fowler, complete with his trademark nose plaster, converted from a McManaman cross. Even after Asprilla scored with a glorious finish following a through-ball from Rob Lee, Liverpool responded once again. The hero of the hour was Collymore, a player who never made the most of his undoubted talent as his career began to drift following a move to Aston Villa in 1997.

This, however, was his moment, and on 68 minutes he made it 3-3 when Newcastle allowed a cross from Jason McAteer to make its way across the box and find Collymore at the back post. A wonderful match still had time for a dramatic denouement - in injury time, Liverpool constructed a flowing move in midfield that appeared to culminate in Ian Rush and John Barnes stumbling over each other in the box. However, the latter still had the poise to poke the ball wide to Collymore, who finished with a flourish at Pavel Srnicek's near post.

Collymore would later say: "It was a fantastic goal to score. It was a pleasure to play in a game like that between two quality teams. It was like two boxers slugging it out, one throwing a punch then the other throwing one back."

As Collymore celebrated, the camera cut to the Newcastle manager, who was memorably pictured slumped over an advertising board, with commentator Peter Brackley declaring: "And Keegan just cannot take it in".

Even in the aftermath of defeat, when his strategy had been unpicked, he was unrepentant about the fact that Newcastle were determined to play with elan, to entertain, rather than to hold onto leads in a pragmatic fashion. Keegan said: "We carry on playing this way, or I go ... as long as football matches end up like this people will come and watch and you won't get empty seats at stadiums, because it was a real classic".

Though some Newcastle fans were frustrated by Keegan's devotion to the attacking arts, he received the full support of chairman Sir John Hall: "Stay away if you don't want to back Kevin. I've got no time for the moaners and I have been appalled at the criticism ... Kevin has said he would rather quit than play any differently. Well, he knows what he's doing. He has got us where we are."

It was left to Evans to provide a dose of realism. He said: "That was kamikaze football. Great for the fans but realistically nobody will win the championship defending every week like these teams did tonight."

And so it would prove. While Newcastle would only lose one of their remaining seven games in the league, Manchester United had already secured all-important momentum, with a run of 13 wins in their final 15 games delivering 'Fergie's Fledglings' the title. It was a triumph of youth, but also experience and savvy in the dugout, with their manager's psychological warfare eventually resulting in that infamous outburst from Keegan at Elland Road.

Numerous factors contributed to Newcastle's demise that season, but for Ginola, one result in particular was crucial. He said: "If we had managed to keep the score at 3-2 we would have won the league - definitely ... every single area of the team was very good, we played very attractive football also, and we definitely deserved to win the league." The neutrals would find it hard to disagree.

What happened next? Incredibly, the scoreline was repeated the following season at Anfield and Newcastle finished second in the table once again. However, Keegan had already departed St James' Park in shock circumstances in January. Asprilla returned to Parma in January 1998, but not before becoming a cult hero on Tyneside, and almost joined Darlington in 2002.

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