Great Football League Teams 5: Newcastle United 1992-3
In June 2010 my beloved black and whites cantered to the second tier title, just as we had done seventeen years previously. But the circumstances were vastly different. At the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign, we were a rabble – shorn of many of our supposedly best players, crippled with financial concerns, demoralised by (amongst other things) a 6-1 pre-season drubbing at Leyton Orient, without a permanent manager at the helm and potentially in freefall. But – crucially – we had just dropped out of the Premier League for the first time in sixteen years and, despite all our myriad problems, were still considered among the favourites to win the league. By contrast, the core of the side Kevin Keegan took to the title in 1992-3 had so very nearly plummeted into the third tier the season previously. Unlike our esteemed owner, I’m certainly not one to disregard or belittle Chris Hughton’s achievement – but Keegan’s was arguably more remarkable.
April 1992, away to Derby – a game from which we desperately needed points in our battle against relegation. King Kev had swept back into Toon in February, inspiring a 3-0 win over Bristol City, but by the time we went to the Baseball Ground the Messiah’s magic touch appeared to have deserted him – we’d lost four in a row, including a 6-2 shellacking at Wolves. The Derby game was an unmitigated disaster – a penalty goal and a man down after just two minutes, we finished up 4-1 and three red cards to the worse. Mercifully, five days later came the goal regularly regarded as the most crucial in the club’s history, David ‘Ned’ Kelly breaking the St James’ Park deadlock against Portsmouth with just minutes on the clock for a priceless three points. It was still very much squeaky bum time as the season came to a close at Filbert Street. Gavin Peacock gave us the lead, only for Steve Walsh to equalise in the last minute – and then, incredibly, put through his own net in stoppage time. In truth, a draw would have been sufficient to keep us up, but the players weren’t to know that at the time.
Clearly drastic improvement was required, and with the dust settling on one of our most traumatic campaigns, Keegan set about strengthening the side. As a manager much maligned since for tactical naivety and prioritising attack over defence, it’s worth recalling that his first signing for the club was Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline, an uncompromising central defender who looked like Aslan and was as rugged as the Cornish coastline. And in assessing our squad it was our propensity to crumble and concede goals that Keegan sought to address. His priciest summer recruit was left back John Beresford, who, having missed a vital penalty in Portsmouth’s FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool, was then pursued by the Scousers. When he failed a medical at Anfield, Keegan swooped. A couple of his other signings raised eyebrows even higher: not one but two former Sunderland captains, right back Barry Venison (hair metal’s loss and football’s gain) and defensive midfielder Paul Bracewell.
Bracewell hit upon the best possible way to win over the St James’ Park crowd, volleying in a beauty just ten minutes into our first game of the season. Our visitors Southend were eventually beaten 3-2 and there began one of the most remarkable runs in recent football history. The league’s fixture computer cruelly sent us to the Baseball Ground next, but the memory of our humiliation less than four months earlier was wiped out by a 2-1 win in which Lee Clark got the vital goal – might our rough diamond local lad be ready to shed his unfortunate nickname, Jigsaw, earned by virtue of repeatedly going to pieces in the box?
And so it continued. Victories over West Ham (2-0), Luton (2-0), Bristol Rovers (2-1) and Portsmouth (3-1) were followed by a bizarre 5-0 ‘thrashing’ of Bristol City in which Gavin Peacock notched two dubiously-awarded penalties and Franz Carr scored with a cross. The solitary goal against Peterborough came courtesy of Kevin Sheedy, the ageing former First Division title-winner with Everton having been Keegan’s sole offensive recruit of the close-season. Two more wins followed, at Brentford and at home to Tranmere, and then came the big one: Sunderland away. Having squandered a lead given to us by Gary Owers’ own goal, it looked as though the winning run may have ground to a halt – only for Liam O’Brien to curl in a superbly crafty free-kick. Eleven out of eleven – quite an achievement.
It couldn’t last, of course – but even then it took a spectacular long-range piledriver from Grimsby’s Jim Dobbin to bring the sequence to an end. We lost again the following week at Leicester, Sheedy seeing red for a challenge so ferocious that it snapped Simon Grayson’s shinpad in half, but then settled back into a pattern of pleasingly regular wins. Peacock and Kelly were developing into a lethal partnership, which must have delighted Peacock’s dad Keith – except when his boy poached a brace in a win at his very own Charlton. We had reason to be grateful to the Addicks for more than just their complicity in that result, though; midway through the winning streak we’d signed Robert Lee, legend having it that Keegan persuaded the naive right winger to join us over our top-flight neighbours Middlesbrough on the grounds that Newcastle was closer to London than Smogside… It turned out to be arguably the best £700,000 we’ve ever spent.
Naturally there had to be a sticky spell, and ours stretched from mid January until late February. We went six games without a win, failing to score in four of them, until a 3-0 win on the Wirral reinvigorated the promotion push. We thrashed Brentford 5-1 in the next game, but most of the talk in the pubs afterwards was of the one that got away, Lee having had an audacious Beckham-esque volley from 70 yards ruled out by a very dodgy offside decision. Pummellings were subsequently also dished out to Notts County (4-0) and Barnsley (6-0).
The last scorer in the win over County, and claimant of a hat-trick in the terrorising of the Tykes, was a young man by the name of Andy Cole, a former Arsenal trainee that we’d poached from Bristol City for £1.75m – Keegan’s recruitment policy continuing to reap immediate dividends. He also made a double swoop for utility defender Mark Robinson and Scott Sellars. The slight, mop-topped winger came in to replace Sheedy and his creaking knees, and promptly elbowed his way into our affections by sending Sunderland spiralling to defeat with another clever curling free-kick. The St James’ pitch was half underwater that day, lashed by torrential rain – but we were waving not drowning.
Fitting, perhaps, that in our next outing the team against which we were to secure both promotion and the title should have been Grimsby, who’d brought down the curtain on our opening sequence of victories. Cole scored a minute after the interval, Kelly added a second in stoppage time, jubilant fans spilled onto the Blundell Park turf – and, the next day, my commemorative wraparound-covered edition of local rag the Journal was defaced by my felt-tip-pen-wielding five-year-old brother…
A further quirk of fate meant that, as they had been the previous season, Leicester were our opponents on the final day. The Foxes were once again gunning for the play-offs, but the contrast in our fortunes – from forlorn wastrels clinging on grimly for survival to triumphant champions looking forward to exiting the division in the opposite direction – was incredible. That day, in front of the TV cameras, the Entertainers were born. Wearing our new Asics strip seemed to put us in a Premier League state of mind and we delivered the most ruthless first-half display I’ve ever seen us muster, decimating a side that was amongst the best in the league. Kelly plundered a hat-trick and Cole a brace that he later converted into his own treble, Lee also scoring in a 7-1 trouncing.
The old First Division trophy was the first silverware of any description many of us had ever seen us win, so the open-top-bus parade through Gosforth and into Newcastle was understandably enthusiastically attended. The parade culminated at Civic Centre, where King Kev gave an emotional speech that took five times as long as it might have done, every sentence raising an almighty cheer which he had to let subside before resuming.
Keegan was sparing with the sentiment when he took the controversial and courageous decision that summer to sell the previous two seasons’ top scorers Kelly and Peacock and pair Cole with old teammate Peter Beardsley – and he was ultimately vindicated, Cole scoring a stupendous 41 goals in all competitions in 1993-4 to shatter Hughie Gallagher’s club record in what was to be his only full season in black and white. But Peacock and Kelly were exceptions, and most of the title-winning team got the chance to play their part at the higher level. Yorkshireman Beresford and Londoner Lee in particular matured into top-class players who may not have ended their careers on Tyneside but who now consider themselves adopted Geordies, while the spirit of the Entertainers is alive and well in Yorkshire.
That glorious 1992-3 season laid the foundations for the side that went on to take the Premier League by storm, finishing third in the debut season and later tragic runners-up to Man Utd twice in succession – 4-3 defeats to Liverpool, King Kev’s ‘love it‘ rant and all. A time when we were everyone’s favourite team, rather than everyone’s favourite punchline. Happy days.