Book Review: Touching Distance
by Martin Hardy
Published by de Coubertin Books
According to cliché, no one remembers losers. Try telling that to us Newcastle United fans who lived every glorious, painful minute of the 1995–6 Premier League season. Certainly Martin Hardy’s Touching Distance argues no such thing; instead, the book makes a convincing case that, on the contrary, in that particular season the losers were the ones worth remembering.
If there’s one narrative trajectory that Hollywood loves almost as much as against-all-odds triumph, it’s spectacular, agonising, heroic failure. For so long, Newcastle appeared to be tracing the first, only to end up epitomising the second. Not that the story of the season would ever have made it past a director and gone into production – it would have been binned as ludicrously improbable and the scriptwriter instantly dismissed as a hack.
That story is of course already familiar to many, including those from well beyond Tyneside: the “Entertainers” tag, new signings Les Ferdinand and David Ginola combining with existing talent to play scintillating football, the 12-point lead in early January, the 4–3 defeat at Anfield still regularly hailed (rightly or wrongly) as the best game the Premier League has ever seen, Kevin Keegan’s “I will love it if we beat them” rant, a Cantona-and-Schmeichel-powered Man United scenting blood and recording a relentless series of 1–0 wins (including one at St James’ Park in which we battered them senseless) to claim the title with all the remorselessness of a lion tracking down a wounded gazelle.
The key challenge for any book like Hardy’s, then, is to offer new insights and fresh perspectives on an already well-rehearsed history. Touching Distance succeeds in meeting and indeed overcoming that challenge in four principal ways.
First, Hardy’s account is gripping in its immediacy. It thrusts you into the thick of the action, leaves you perched precariously on the edge of your seat, fingernails bitten to the quick, mouth hanging open and heart pumping as the ball spins in slow motion towards the net, and then elated by the deafening roar of the crowd or deflated by another crushing defeat. Hardy was there, in his capacity as a journalist (and fan, at least by default?), and he makes absolutely sure that you feel as though you were too.
Second, he debunks – or at very least questions the hard evidence for – the tediously regurgitated myths that continue to surround the side. Defensively weak? Nonsense. We conceded a total of 37 goals, just two more than Man United. The signing of Tino Asprilla fatally upset the balance of the team? Hardy acknowledges that the player who missed out as a consequence of accommodating the new arrival, Keith Gillespie, argues as much, but he also underlines how the Colombian maverick added firepower and unpredictability at a vital moment – not least on his debut at Middlesbrough when (after a lunchtime glass of wine) he came off the bench and took just six minutes to provide a superb assist for Steve Watson’s equaliser in a game that the visitors went on to win. Keegan’s post-Leeds rant was a “meltdown” signifying that he’d lost the psychological battle with his Old Trafford adversary Sir Alex Ferguson? Not for the fans, for whom it exemplified a passion and yearning for success to match their own, or for the players, for whom (according to Gillespie) “it was an absolutely brilliant reaction. I don’t think any of the players would say it put any pressure on us.”
Third, Hardy understands the importance of context, putting the season into perspective rather than treating it in splendid isolation. That Newcastle came so close to winning the Premier League title is all the more remarkable when you consider that it was only our third campaign at that level, and that promotion to the Premier League was won at a canter just 12 months after being a David Kelly goal away from relegation to the third tier for the first time in the club’s history. That, Hardy acknowledges, is also an indispensable part of the story – as is Keegan’s return to Newcastle as manager in February 1992, and indeed his initial arrival at St James’ Park as a player a decade earlier. The possibility of the England captain and two-time European Footballer of the Year signing for a second-tier team still sounds barely credible. That the Messiah returned ten years later is, Hardy observes, at least partially attributable to the fact that future Newcastle manager Alan Pardew scored for Charlton at St James’ in January 1992, the winner in a 4–3 victory in which the Addicks had been 3–0 down and which helped to seal the fate of Keegan’s predecessor in the dugout, Ossie Ardiles.
Fourth, by conducting exclusive and extensive interviews with the key protagonists, Hardy is able to give the reader privileged behind-the-scenes access. Touching Distance is a fount of colourful anecdotes, recounting how Keegan took Rob Lee, his wife and his baby son on a house-hunting trip around the north-east fuelled by midget gems; how Robbie Elliott’s chicken dance goal celebration originated from a drunken holiday bet with Andy Hunt; how the club’s 1995 Christmas party descended into a mass game of keepy-up right in the centre of town, featuring (among others) Watson and Lee Clark dressed as Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble respectively; how Ferdinand was taught to cook by chairman Sir John Hall’s butler; how a tired and emotional Brian “Killer” Kilcline, dressed in matching mustard-coloured cords and jumper, had a Del-Boy-falling-through-the-bar moment on board the infamous floating nightclub the Tuxedo Princess, witnessed by Kelly and Kevin Sheedy, after a heavy day at York Races; and how Ginola had a penchant for fags and angrily insisting that Gillespie, his away-day roommate, should ensure that the cheese in his cheese and ham toasties should be hot.
The interview material is also invaluable in supplying backstories, tracing the often unusual and convoluted routes (footballing or otherwise) that the main characters took to end up starring in Newcastle’s near-fairytale. Not that all of those characters wore black and white, of course. It is a quirk of fate that Man United’s captain that season was aspiring author Steve Bruce, a Geordie born and bred and therefore naturally a boyhood Newcastle fan – as was the one individual often cited as having inflicted the most damage on the club’s title bid, Blackburn’s Graham Fenton. He met Keegan at the age of nine, at the Blue Star Soccer Day in Dunston in 1983, but when their paths crossed again, 13 years later, Keegan would have been far less inclined to pose and smile for a photo, Fenton’s double in the last five minutes of the game at Ewood Park condemning Newcastle to a mortally wounding 2–1 defeat. It’s less widely known that the player who assisted both goals was one Alan Shearer (Fenton: “I think he was just glad that he hadn’t scored”), who had been a 13-year-old ballboy at Keegan’s testimonial in 1984, left Blackburn for his hometown club for a world-record fee of £15 million two months after helping extinguish our hopes and went on to break Jackie Milburn’s goalscoring record; that the coach who had taken the extra finishing session Fenton undertook before the match was Derek Fazackerley, until the previous year a member of Keegan’s staff at St James’ Park; and that Fenton had eight friends – Newcastle fans all – crashing on his living-room floor both the night before and the night of the match itself.
Fenton is, however, merely a bit-part player in Touching Distance, and as such is certainly not alone. At the very centre of the book is Keegan; it’s his name in the subtitle, and his image on the cover – acknowledging the applause of the supporters after the final match of the season, his rueful look matching the rueful comments on the conclusion of the campaign made in conversation with Hardy 20 years later. Keegan brought belief and infectious enthusiasm to the club, providing the spark that was so urgently needed. Time and again, those who played for him pay tribute to his exceptional man management; his ability to instil supreme self-confidence in his charges; his dismissive attitude towards opposition teamsheets; his resolute faith in the power and value of positive, attacking football even in training (Darren Peacock: “I asked if we could do a bit of defending and we did it once. We did it once before we played Southampton and we lost and we didn’t do it again. I think it was ‘95”); the sheer unbridled joy of being at the club he oversaw.
Not that everyone had the same joyous experience, however. The evidence of a laddish dressing-room culture (Kilcline proudly proclaiming that he took youngsters who couldn’t handle their drink under his wing, John Beresford thanking the Quayside and its array of pubs and nightclubs for the fact that he got divorced), while hardly unique to Newcastle, now appears in a more troubling light following David Eatock’s revelations about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of coach George Ormond. It’s horrific to think that this was going on, either unnoticed or (worse still) ignored, during such a feted period in the club’s history, and can’t help but tarnish the memory somewhat – but it would be grossly unfair to fault Hardy’s book on the grounds that it omits to consider allegations that weren’t made public until after its publication.
History, it is often claimed, is written by the winners. In Touching Distance, however, it’s written by the losers, and is much the better for it. That season – the closest we’ve come to a major trophy since winning the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969, having been outplayed in no fewer than four cup finals since then – it was a genuine pleasure to be a Newcastle United supporter. And it’s not very often you can say that.