The 2015/16 Premier League season, which starts on Saturday, marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most famous football quotes of all: “I will love it if we beat them.
It was Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan who mouthed those now infamous words at the end of the 1995/96 season. His emotional response, during a live television interview, came when Newcastle were on the ropes, fighting for a first domestic title since 1927. In the end, the dream died and the team labelled ‘The Entertainers’ lost out to Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson had played mind games by suggesting Newcastle’s final three opponents of the season (Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Tottenham) would not be up for those matches in the same way as they might have been if they were playing United.
Keegan responded in the manner of a man realising his team were destined to miss out on glory, having thrown away a 12-point lead held in January.
After beating Leeds, Keegan fumed: “When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce…I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimations when he said that. We have not resorted to that. You can tell him now, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it. But it really has got to me. I’ve voiced it live, not in front of the press or anywhere. I’m not even going to the press conference. But the battle is still on and Man United have not won this yet.”
Newcastle needed to win their final two games against Forest and Tottenham to set up a specially-arranged championship decider with United, but Keegan’s crestfallen rant in the Elland Road tunnel had had a detrimental effect. The Magpies could only draw both games 1-1 and United’s final day victory at Middlesbrough secured the title by four points.
But what if Newcastle hadn’t thrown away that four-game lead? What if they had ended the long wait for silverware? What if Ferguson hadn’t won the mind games? What if Keegan hadn’t lost the plot live on air?
Where could Newcastle be now?
The 20 years since the end of that dramatic Premier League climax has been tumultuous. They have never got so close to the domestic title, have had 14 different permanent managers, flirted with Champions League qualification, fought off relegation, suffered demotion then bounced back up to the top flight.
Things could have been so different for him had he chosen Old Trafford over St James Park – a cupboard full of winners medals for starters.
When Keegan quit in 1997, it started a revolving door of managers that included Shearer, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Robson (who built a talented team closest to replicating Keegan’s Entertainers), Graeme Souness and Alan Pardew. The majority went because patience continues to be thin on Tyneside, particularly in the boardroom where Sir John Hall has since been replaced by Freddy Shepherd and now Mike Ashley.
The Ashley period has seen tensions at their highest, not least because that relegation in 2009 occurred on his watch. A Newcastle fan shows off his spiderman mask and Shearer tatoo during the Coca Cola Championship match between …
The ‘Cockney Mafia’, as he and his associates are referred to on Tyneside, have not invested in the team in the way the fans expect and, indeed, demand. Instead Ashley has run the football club like his Sports Direct empire, seeking value for money with plenty of sell on value; the free-spending days of Keegan’s title-chasing dream replaced by frugal business practice.
It hasn’t helped that Ashley isn’t a Geordie. But then neither is Roman Abramovich a lifelong Chelsea resident, and Khaldoon Al Mubarak hardly knew the words to Blue Moon before buying control of Manchester City.
Newcastle fans just needed an owner willing to do everything in their power to bring success to the club, not one stirring up fans into such a frenzy they felt the need to write “Ashley Out” messages on old bed sheets. Had money been thrown at it in the right way, Newcastle could well have ended up on top of the pile by now.
Had Keegan’s Entertainers not blown it two decades ago, it is quite possible that the current owner wouldn’t even be in charge of the club.
There’s every chance that success would have built success, perhaps even to the point of persuading an Abramovich or an Al Mubarak to have headed to the north-east to purchase their footballing toy.
Instead, the wait goes on for the Toon Army.