On April 3 1996, Liverpool and Newcastle engaged in what is widely agreed as being one of the single most exciting games in the history of the Premier League. Newcastle had been coming under increasing pressure as League front-runners following losses to West Ham, Arsenal and Manchester United in recent games. Another defeat could have proved disastrous for Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers against Roy Evans’ Spice Boys, who were also pushing both United and Newcastle to the wire.
The game started disastrously for Newcastle, with Robbie Fowler scoring the first of his brace that night, after only two minutes. Newcastle hit back within ten minutes and again in the 14th, with goals from Les Ferdinand and David Ginola. Both teams tore into each other apace, attacking with speed and flair down the Newcastle flanks and through the Liverpool midfield. Half time; 2-1 Newcastle.
The second half kicked off with, as in the first, Fowler netting early on, to draw the Reds level. Again the League leaders hit back, this time through the gangly Colombian Faustino Asprilla on 57’ regaining Newcastle’s lead once more. Liverpool were not to be denied however, and struck back in the 68th minute with Stan Collymore getting their deserved equaliser. As the game continued to ebb and flow and churn the emotions of both sets of fans, faces hidden by their hands and clumps of torn out hair filling the air, both teams continued to launch attack after attack. In the first minute of stoppage time, John Barnes approached the Newcastle penalty area. The commentary is the stuff of legend, known by heart to fans of both teams:
“Barnes, Rush, Barnes… … Still John Barnes, Collymore closing iiiiiiiiiiin…”
Upon this moment, we focus this next installment of The Butterfly Effect and how what happened next, impacted on the world of football, changing the very fabric of the space and time in which it exists.
Instead of slamming the ball past Pavel Srnicek:
“… oh, that’s over from Collymore. That would have been some goal for Liverpool.”
The referee blew for full-time within moments and Newcastle secured a valuable point against their rivals. Both sets of fans applauded the teams as they celebrated and sounded their appreciation for the spectacle to which they had just been treated.
For Newcastle, the point and the scintillating nature of the game stirred the players from the malaise which they had suffered since February, recording only one win in four along the way. From the Liverpool game until the end of the season, Newcastle remained unbeaten, dispatching six teams with one goal victories and drawing one, a goal apiece, with defending Champions Blackburn Rovers.
Keegan had been widely ridiculed for his press conference after the Leeds game when he had reacted to Alex Ferguson’s attempted mind-games with this famous reaction;
And love it Keegan did, as Ferdinand and the evergreen Peter Beardsley scored four and three goals respectively as Newcastle clinched the Premier League title for the first time in more than fifty years.
For Liverpool, the point proved to be the catalyst which propelled them to finish third in the Premier League above Aston Villa and Arsenal, and into the FA Cup Final against Manchester United. Frustrated by a nil-nil stalemate and the surrender of another league title, Eric Cantona in the 84th minute dived into a horrendous two footed tackle on Liverpool right back Rob Jones. Jones, writhing on the floor after suffering at the feet of the Frenchman, was stretchered from the field and replaced by Michael Thomas. Cantona in turn, was shown a straight red card by referee Dermot Gallagher. The final continued on deep into extra time with United reduced to ten men. As penalties became almost inevitable, up stepped veteran substitute Thomas and, struck the ball right footed, hard and high into the top right hand corner from twenty yards, in much the same way as he had for Arsenal against Liverpool to win the old Division One title, some seven years earlier. Liverpool won the FA Cup to give manager Roy Evans a first trophy in charge.
Following a second consecutive season with no silverware, Alex Ferguson suffered his first mass exodus of players frustrated at the stuttering regime at Old Trafford. Taking a lead from Paul Ince’s transfer to Internazionale the previous summer, Peter Schmeichel left the Theatre of Dreams for Serie A, signing for Milan. Cantona, following his horror tackle in the FAs showpiece Cup final, was lambasted by the press and talk abounded of a possible ban on the Frenchman.
Unwilling to stand and be abused in a nation he felt no longer loved, he left for European Champions Juventus in a cut price deal of £2m, to begin a new life at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Ferguson was left fuming as the hierarchy agreed to the sale against his wishes, leaving an irreconcilable rift between himself and the board. The situation was exacerbated when Ferguson refused to attend any press conferences or talk to any media who he felt were as responsible as the board for the departure of the much critised Cantona. Worse still for the English press, Brian Kidd was left to speak with them.1
The move turned out to be the making of the often frustrating, mercurial striker. Cantona struck up a partnership with the young Alessandro Del Piero which became one of the most celebrated strike duos of all time. For their audacity, brilliance and longevity, the two players became synonymous with the resurgence of The Old Lady in a period of unimaginable victory which brought Scudetti in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2003 and another Champions League in 1997. Cantona scored a hat-trick that night in the Olympiastadion in Munich, against a Dortmund defence including Matthias Sammer and Jurgen Kohler, to defeat the Germans 4-3 and become the first – and so far only – team to retain the Champions League. Cantona’s partner in crime, Del Piero, of course got the other Juve goal.
Atop his success in the Italian domestic game, Cantona also reconciled his difference with the French Football Federation and, in early 1998, at the age of 31, was recalled for Les Bleus. His decision to return was vindicated as he finished joint top-scorer with six goals to his name in the French World Cup victory later that year. Cantona then retired from International Football again in 2000 after the French European Championship victory, following a disagreement with former French great and incoming national team manager, Michel Platini.
Following two further Serie A titles, 2003 signalled the end of the partnership with Del Piero as Eric Cantona, Principe di Torino, hung up his boots aged 37. He was later voted by fans worldwide as being one of the top five players ever to have graced the pitch, alongside Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Di Stefano.
Back in England, Newcastle stormed on from their initial League title success, the process of securing victory over United seeming to engender a winning mentality amongst the fans, players and management. Often, they would appear to be on the verge of losing or drawing games, only to grind out – at times – impossible results. In a similar vein to their black and white clad counterparts in Turin, the Toon Army retained their Premier League title in 1997, and added further crowns in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Keegan’s departure in the February of 19992 for the England job had threatened to derail Newcastle’s chances that season, however, into the breach stepped 38 year Peter Beardsley.
Fresh from an aborted retirement with Australia’s Melbourne Knights, Beardsley returned as caretaker manager and dragged the demoralised Magpies to their third title in four years. Along with the drive and boost to morale added by the return of Beardsley, Alan Shearer’s goals had also fired Newcastle to the Champions League final that season. Although in the final, with the exception of a late and ultimately fruitless flurry of shots on goal in the 89th minute, Newcastle were thoroughly outfought by an outstanding Bayern Munich side who ran out one-nil winners at Camp Nou.
Keegan meanwhile was crafting an England team built predominantly around the talents of Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and David Beckham. At Euro 2000, England made it through the group stage as runners up to Portugal after defeating Romania 4-3, only to lose in the quarter finals to eventual finalists Italy (who incidentally lost to Eric Cantona’s France).
In the 2002 World Cup however, Keegan discovered the perfect formula. Shearer and Michael Owen had forged a potent strike force, scoring goal after goal and sending the team into the quarter finals against Brazil.
England took the lead through Owen, against a Brazil team including the three R’s, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, but the Three Lions were pegged back by a Rivaldo strike with the last kick of the first half.
Shortly after the restart, Ronaldinho robbed Beckham of the ball and looking up, saw the retreating David Seaman scrambling back to his line. Audaciously, Ronaldinho chipped the ball towards Seaman’s goal, where, with the ‘keeper beaten all ends up, the ball struck the bar and bounced clear. Frustrated by his miss, Ronaldinho petulantly stamped on the leg of England right-back Danny Mills and was shown a straight red card by referee Felipe Ramos, never to appear in the famous Yellow shirt again.3
Worse was to follow for the 10 men Selecao when, in the 84th minute, a David Beckham corner was headed home by Alan Shearer to send England into the World Cup Semi-Final for the first time in twelve years, where they brushed aside Turkey with a solid one-nil victory to set up a final against a dogged Germany.
In the event, England completely outplayed Germany as they had done in both qualification games against them, including a resounding 5-1 victory in Munich, as well as a tight 1-0 home victory in the last International game at the old Wembley, thanks to a Dietmar Hamann own goal. Michael Owen was once again the German tormentor, scoring both goals in a two-nil victory and securing a second English World Cup victory, after 36 years of hurt.
Michael Owen was named Player of the World Cup – an achievement which later secured him a second successive Ballon d’Or – but upon their return from Japan and South Korea greater prizes abounded. The manager became ‘Sir Kevin Keegan’, the entire squad were awarded OBEs and an open top bus tour was stopped in its tracks with over ten million people crammed into central London to catch a glimpse of their heroes.
World Champions England went into Euro 2004 with new bright young thing, Wayne Rooney of Everton breaking into the team to replace the veteran Alan Shearer, the former captain who had chosen to focus his attention on his club career. Engendered by the winning spirit, as Newcastle had been following their initial league success in 1996, England romped through to the semi-finals, defeating home team Portugal on penalties in the quarters and coming up against a tough Netherlands team in the semis. With Owen and Rooney forging a formidable partnership, Holland’s rearguard were tested time and again, and by the 58th minute, England were two up with goals from Rooney and Lampard. Holland pegged them back however, forcing an own goal from Ashley Cole. England though, clung to victory to set up their second final in as many years.
Strongly favoured against tournament surprise package Greece, the English press painted a picture of a walkover, with the final being an apparent formality. Greece however never read the script and, with a combination of brute force, organisation to rival a Chinese Communist Party rally and dogged defending, as well as a freak knee injury to the unfortunate Owen in the 6th minute, the Galanolefki stunned the World Champions to win one-nil.
In the ensuing years, England sadly never recaptured their previous form, with a 2006 World Cup quarter final exit, followed by failure to qualify for the 2010 South African World Cup after a stinging defeat to Poland. Keegan received an unheralded amount of criticism from the press who opined in particular his confused, mistimed substitutions. Keegan claimed, several months later when he was sacked by the FA Board, that “there were people who were jealous of my achievements and threatened by my stature within the game.” The FA went on to appoint their first foreign coach, amid cries for a different approach. The appointment came in the form of Jose Mourinho who became the highest paid manager of all time, and in turn pledged to restore the glory days to the English people.
Back on Tyneside, Newcastle continued their assault on the English game, winning, as we mentioned in 1999, but also in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009 and again in 2011. They were rivalled for the title by Arsenal – who took the League in 1998, 2002 and 2004 – and the newly wealthy Chelsea of Russian Oligarch, Boris Berezovsky – who won in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Newcastle also continued to sign the best young players in an attempt to create a legacy, including a young Portuguese by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo and a young Catalan, who had been rumoured to be interesting Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger; Francesc Fabregas.
Peter Beardsley however, seemed to be losing motivation for the game, his press conferences becoming ever briefer and his focus apparently elsewhere. Seemingly at the advice of Chairman Sir John Hall, Beardsley agreed to vacate the manager’s job and move upstairs to become Director of Footballing Strategy. His new remit included overseeing the Newcastle academy, widely recognised as one of the best in Europe – nicknamed The Farmhouse – as well as running the extensive Newcastle scouting network and working with new player-manager Alan Shearer on player recruitment.
Shearer, simply put, excelled in his new role. He continued to bang in goals apace as well as captaining the side, but provided a calm, confident yet controlling influence on his young squad. When he retired from playing duty in 2006, handing over the captaincy to the outstanding Joey Barton and his striking berth to Cristiano (he dropped the Ronaldo in 2005 after negative comparisons with the overweight and aging former Brazil superstar) following Shearer’s earlier successful conversion of the flimsy winger into a goalscoring centre-forward, Newcastle were in fantastic shape.
In 2008 however, local rivals Sunderland were acquired by the Omani Royal Family. Under new ownership and with the assistance of the Omani Petro Dollars, Sunderland proceeded to purchase hundreds of millions of pounds worth of the best Premier League players as well as Wayne Bridge. Shearer consistently referred to the ‘loud locals’ as not being ready to contest the Premier League title with the likes of the Toon and Arsenal, but as the 2011/12 season started, Sunderland were looking a force to be reckoned with, even if manager Roy Keane admitted his team were still “five yards behind Newcastle”.
Shortly before the season commenced, the aging Sir John Hall, announced he would be leaving his role as Chairman of the club. “We need someone”, he remarked “who bleeds Black and White. I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome back to the club, your new Chairman and World Cup winner, Sir Kevin Keegan”.
Words by Rich Pye, research by Gavin Brightman.
For other insights into what might have been, see other articles in The Butterfly Effect series:
1. Another trophy-less season in 1997/98 in which United finished 8th brought an end to Alex Ferguson’s 12 years in charge at Old Trafford. The season was remembered more for the infighting at United than for the football, with a very public spat between Fergie and Martin Edwards reaching its inevitable conclusion. Within weeks of leaving, Ferguson took up the vacant post at Everton FC from under the nose of his one-time disciple, Walter Smith, who looked set to be appointed. After 10 relatively successful seasons at the Toffees with two League Cup wins and one F.A Cup, as well as an unprecedented six Sixth place finishes in a row from 2000-2006, Fergie retired from football. Brian Kidd meanwhile was installed as manager of Manchester United and in a disastrous spell that saw them flirting with relegation, he was fired in February 1999 with Ron Atkinson put in temporary charge. Over the course of the next 10 seasons, United went through no less than seven first team managers, never achieving better than a solitary 7th place finish in 2003/04.
2. It should also be noted that because Keegan never left Newcastle, he never ended up at Fulham. Fulham thus relied at first on the nous of Ray Wilkins, then when Mohammed Al Fayed tired of his incessant tactical corrections being ignored took charge of team affairs himself. As Fulham slipped down the leagues, Al Fayed famously renamed his team The Harrods White Knights. Shortly after, Fulham slipped out of the football league and subsequently out of business. Chelsea ended up buying Craven Cottage and using it as a car park for their first team.
3. Following the Brazilian exit at the ’02 World Cup, Ronaldinho was widely blamed for the team’s exit. As we mentioned, he never again played for the National team, however the damage to his career didn’t stop there. An expected move from Paris St Germain to Barcelona was cancelled as the Nou Camp hierarchy felt him to be too much of a liability. He then spent a spell on loan with Flamengo in his home country, however following an incident with a fan in a petrol station, who he was accused of punching in the head and fracturing his skull – a charge for which he was eventually cleared when it emerged that in fact the man had tried to attack Ronaldinho, only to slip and knock himself out on the side of a parked car – Ronaldinho travelled back to Europe and was allowed to leave PSG on a free. Snapped up by then Bolton Manager Sam Allardyce, his partnership with Jay-Jay Okocha briefly lit up the Premier League, however his past came back to haunt him further, when it emerged in a News of the World expose, that he had in fact taken a bribe to get himself sent off. Ronaldinho was given a lifetime ban from professional football and was last heard of coaching high school football in Boise, Idaho.