Ian Cusack explains how Newcastle fans feel about the on that got away
If, last August, someone had informed me that the season ahead would finish with Manchester United winning the double, that Sunderland would be First Division champions and that Newcastle would blow a 12-point lead in the Premiership then the only option available would have been to imbibe copious quantities of Hemlock. Yet a month on from the end of the season, my equilibrium has been restored and I’m eagerly anticipating the Charity Shield. I know this is no consolation really, but it is the first chance any of us has had to see Newcastle at Wembley since our plucky defeat by Tranmere Rovers, then in Division 4, at the 1988 Mercantile Credit bonanza. I didn’t think you’d remember it.
There is an inescapable fact about last season: Newcastle should have been Premiership champions. Even before the season was over the rush to find a scapegoat for the failure was on. Candidates varied from Keegan, for signing Asprilla and not telling the team to defend; Asprilla, for arriving just when the form began to wobble; astonishingly Ferdinand, presumably for only scoring 29 goals; Beardsley, for being too old; Robert Lee, for being a Cockney; and Ginola and Gillespie, for being French and coming from Man Utd respectively.
Apart from the uniformly superb David Batty, it seemed only Philippe Albert was above criticism, until he was slated unmercifully for not closing down Woan, before the latter unleashed the exocet at the City Ground which marked the death of our dream.
The supporters, instead of revelling in the joy of being the second best team in the country, began to doubt certain members of the team, as every pundit looked to apportion guilt. In the eyes of all the fans, though, Keegan’s emotional outburst at Elland Road simply proved that he wanted to win it as much as we did. He was beyond reproach in the eyes of all the Toon Army, and that includes me.
The fact is no individual should shoulder the blame. It was a team thing: doubts had set in and, apart from QPR at home, we stopped winning games when playing badly. We even started losing games when playing well. It wasn’t bad luck, it was bad timing that finally did us in.
If the wobbles away from home had been in September and October, no-one would have remembered them come mid April. Whilst Barton never really came good and Shaka Hislop was less of a keeper than the generally magnificent Pavel Srnicek, I would state categorically that Newcastle United had, player for player, the best team in the Premiership, but didn’t have the best player.
Whilst, say, Alan Shearer and Robbie Fowler are superb exponents of the striker’s art and could have got us more goals when the midfield were failing to chip in and Ferdinand was going through a barren spell, the crucial difference between the two teams was the brilliance of Cantona. The seemingly endless streak of 1-0 wins that allowed Manchester United to chip away at, then finally overhaul, The Toon’s lead, were all inspired by him.
Their victory at St James’ Park, with a goal scored by him after a display of inspired keeping by Schmeichel, was absolutely crucial. The dismal run of away form, including the heart-stopping tragedies of Anfield and Ewood Park, were entirely attributable to that night, our only home League defeat. Newcastle United stopped believing that they would be champions after 4th March.
The atmosphere at the last match was as good as it had been all season, and there is no doubt that every single one of our 34,000 ticket holders will renew with indecent haste. You don’t just support your team when they win things. I’d love us to win something, though: despite proud noises to the contrary from the club and many of the fans, I can’t see it being the Premiership next year, the 70th anniversary of our last League championship.
The expectations of Newcastle United fans now are the highest they have ever been, but blind loyalty is still the primary emotion and it cuts across logical thought. An FA Cup win, or even a League Cup one whilst that tournament still exists, would do for most, if not all of us. Not just for our own sakes, not just to put one over on the Media Jonahs, but to reward the deity that is Kevin Keegan, for rescuing us four years ago from the jaws of oblivion.
It has been said that if Manchester United sign Alan Shearer they will adopt a stranglehold on the domestic game as powerful as that of Rangers in Scotland. If that is the case, Liverpool, finally emerging from the hangover of the nightmare Souness years, must be similar to the resurgent Celtic, and Newcastle, 41 years without a domestic honour, loved by all neutrals and seemingly forever destined to play the role of eternal bridesmaids, are Hearts. Hopefully though, Albion Rovers will be represented by Sunderland.
From WSC 113 July 1996. What was happening this month