Ian Cusack relives Newcastle United's nightmare 1991-92 season
It must seem hard to credit for neutrals, and heartrending to recall for the devoted Magpies fan, but not even four years ago Newcastle United were a fluent, attractive side. I’ll never enjoy football as much again. Sadly, Kevin Keegan’s departure and a failure of nerve after a promising start under Kenny Dalglish have consigned the team to a regular berth amid the dross of lower mid-table Premiership mediocrity. We are now Everton II; the nagging worry is that we will become Man City II.
However, not even ten years ago, the very idea of us being able to attain 13th place in the top flight was as ludicrous as Douglas Hall’s recent claims that Newcastle are as big as Barcelona. The sales of Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne had eventually resulted in ignominious relegation in 1989 under Jim Smith. The Bald Eagle subsequently tried and failed twice to get Newcastle promoted employing the most stultifying, mundane football imaginable. Crowds were down to 15,000, interest in the area at an all time low. Going to games was seen as an odd way to get rid of disposable income. Post Italia 90 euphoria didn’t arrive on Tyneside.
The board, far-sighted as ever, turned to Ossie Ardiles, the hope being that he could teach the team to pass its way fluently out of the division. Despite the then teenage talents of Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Steve Howey and Alan Thompson, he almost managed it by taking us out the wrong way, down to the Third. Having to work with a transfer budget of less than £250,000, however, the poor guy never stood a chance.
There were many painful results in 1991-1992. Four-nil at Southend on New Year’s Day, a 4-3 home reverse to Charlton after leading 3-0 and 5-2 in a Baskervillian pea-souper at the Manor Ground, which saw us exchange places with Oxford at the bottom of the table. This was the last straw. Ossie, lovely bloke though he was, had to go. The Metro Centre Millionaire, still able to charm the Geordie public with his illogical bombast, turned to Kevin Keegan, possibly the only Newcastle player he’d heard of apart from Jackie Milburn, to rescue us.
Hindsight has told us that, after almost nine years in management, Kevin Keegan knows as much about tactics as William Hague knows about social drinking. Yet here he was, fresh from eight years of practising bunker shots in Marbella, responsible for saving the club. In these historically revisionist times, it must be noted that he did save Newcastle United and he did genuinely care. With only the addition of Brian Kilcline, he managed to scramble two wins and a draw in his first four games. Survival seemed possible.
Brighton, another side in the scrap at the bottom, arrived on Tyneside with the home fans’ expectations now raised above ground level. A crowd of 24,597 gathered. The resultant 1-0 defeat, courtesy of a late Mark Gall strike, may not seem as catastrophic as subsequent 6-2 maulings at Molineux or 4-1 at the Baseball Ground, where we had three sent off, but it is the most devastated and depressed I’ve felt leaving a football ground. It was Edvard Munch, James Ellroy and Eraserhead in a cocktail with anti-depressants and bourbon. It felt like the end of the world. Even John Major’s triumph a month later didn’t cut me to the quick as badly as this game did.
The point about this match was that it was just so bone-chillingly preventable. Brighton were awful, they should have been dismissed without breaking sweat. Yet Gavin Peacock, our only truly class player, contrived to miss two open goals in the first and last minutes. Gall’s sloppy, opportunist effort was like a needle in a balloon; our spirits visibly deflated. There were still 13 minutes to go, but the game was up.
How could they fail us like that? At full-time, there was no booing, no flurry of invective at officials or players, just a mute acceptance that our time was up. Packed, silent pubs digested the league tables in Tyneside’s Saturday evening sports paper, The Pink. The consensus was that we were doomed. Hammerings can be bounced back from, lucky draws are moral victories and wins, rare as they were that year, were optimistically viewed as springboards. Meek home defeats against sides even worse than yourselves are daggers to the heart.
Yet, being Newcastle, things are never that simple. We won three of the next four against sides above us, then lost five in a row, before winning the last two to survive by the flattering margin of four points. Brighton went down and this game was forgotten by most. How different things might have been if they had avoided the drop instead of us.
From WSC 171 May 2001. What was happening this month