We celebrate the great on-field football partnerships. To kick us off, it’s time to give thanks to the Messiah who gave us Shearer and Ferdinand.
There’s a point in every club’s ascent to the top of the game that the excitement and enjoyment at watching them play gives way to distaste. The club does something vulgar, something that seemingly goes against the very essence of what they’re about. And once it’s done, there’s no going back.
Often, this happens when a club begins to take itself too seriously, gets too big for its boots. Club owners, managers and players escalated to the big-time forget where they came from, and what got them there.
It’s the football equivalent of a cherished indie band signing with a major label. You know what’s coming next: radio-friendly unit-shifters, arena gigs supporting Coldplay, a back-to-basics acoustic album, grim death. It may now be hipster cliche, but you really did prefer their early stuff.
Newcastle United would reach that point in the summer of 1997, when Kenny Dalglish – just writing that name creates an almost uncontainable urge to use the term ‘dour’ – sold Les Ferdinand and David Ginola to Tottenham.
Dalglish took a look at one of the most fun teams of the era and callously dismantled it. It didn’t make sense from an aesthetic point of view – or from a football one. Because before an England managerial stint whose highlights included playing Phil Neville and resigning in a Wembley toilet, grizzled professional optimist Kevin Keegan had added the country’s best striker to his merry band of Entertainers – and they could have won it all.
Making the Messiah
The 1995-96 season was one of the best title races of the decade, but it was never meant to be Newcastle making the running. Blackburn were the reigning champions, and Manchester United the jilted lover, crying in the bathroom mirror, swearing furious revenge. Newcastle fans were still reeling over the sale of Andy Cole in January, a Richter Scale shockwave that prompted crowds of angry Geordies to turn up at the steps of St James’ demanding to know why their God had forsaken them. Stood on high at the top of the steps, their Messiah, in his ethereal grey polo shirt tucked into grey slacks, made a plea to his benchcoat-wearing flock for faith. A pledge that the time would come when he would lead them to the promised land.
Keegan would now deliver his miracle, his water-into-wine moment. The fans kept the faith, and by the middle of January 1996, when his revamped Newcastle side were twelve points clear at the top of the table, the Cult of Keegan was carved into stone.
Despite losing a player that had smashed in 41 goals for Newcastle in a single season, Keegan had built a seemingly unstoppable free-scoring machine. Powered by the thunderous thighs of Ferdinand, Ginola’s lovely, lovely hair and the reet canny Peter Beardsley, Newcastle were wonderful to watch.
Then ‘it’ happened. Five losses in eight games and an angry Elland Road rant later, and Newcastle had committed one of the all-time great chokes, providing pundits with fodder for cautionary springtime warnings for the next 20 years and leaving Keegan with a haunted verge-of-tears look he would carry for the rest of his life.
People would talk about Alex Ferguson’s “mind games”, Newcastle’s lack of bottle and the possibility that being able to defend even just a little bit might help them over the line in future, but Keegan had a better idea. Despite having added the rubber-legged Colombian funbag Tino Asprilla to his squad in the chokiest part of the choke, Keegan knew what he needed: more goals.
The Prodigal Son Returns
By July, the player most beloved of the Britpoppers high on Euro ‘96 was Gazza. But the player most coveted by Europe’s football managers was Alan Shearer.
Despite firing relative nobodies Blackburn to the title and season after season stuffed with goals, a drought for the national team in the build-up to the tournament had the fans against him, demanding he be benched. By the time England crashed out in the semi-finals, he could have celebrated his Golden Boot win by creosoting the fence around Buckingham Palace and Her Maj’ would have let him.
Alex Ferguson wanted him desperately, but Big Al only wanted to go home. To Newcastle, to raise his hand to the Gallowgate. So off he popped for a then world record £15 million, and Newcastle fans were jubilant. And secretly, so was everyone else – outside of Salford and patches of the Home Counties.
Shearer and Ferdinand! Keegan had somehow taken The Entertainers, added the most boring man in football, and made them the most exciting prospect in the game.
Beware a Scotsman scorned
Ok, so it didn’t start well. Initial discussions over which of these striking behemoths would bag the famous number nine shirt ended in arguments and recriminations, with Shearer left hold the prize and Ferdinand licking his wounds. The Toon then marched into the Charity Shield with the world’s most expensive player as part of a strikeforce Keegan said would be “the most potent in world football”, backed up on the field by both Beardsley and Ginola, the Magpies were resoundingly spanked 4-0 by Manchester United.
It’s a mark of the man Alex Ferguson was and the sway he held over that dressing room that he could get his players to go full-throttle and demolish Newcastle in a friendly. Undoubtedly red-faced with anger at Shearer’s snub of a move to Old Trafford, his players exacted his bitter revenge.
That “abysmal” performance (Keegan) was followed by a 2-0 loss in the first Premier League game of the season, at Everton. After two games the “what a waste of money” chants were in full swing, and the tabloids were reveling in it.
But it wouldn’t last forever. Two minutes before the end of the next game, at home to Wimbledon. Shearer launched a free-kick into the top corner and St James’ was in heaven.
Getting into gear
While Shearer would promptly score again from the penalty spot in a loss to Sheffield Wednesday, Ferdinand would soon step up in the important games.
One-nil down to bitter rivals Sunderland at the old Roker Park, in the 52nd minute Shearer would scrap a loose ball to Ferdinand, who would beat two challenges and dink a perfect cross onto the head of Peter Beardsley for the equaliser. Ten minutes later pressure from Shearer would force a corner, met by a bullet header from Ferdinand to win the one that really mattered.
A brace from Ferdinand at White Hart Lane would give Newcastle another from-behind win just days later, and Keegan’s dream was starting to take shape. The pair would share a goal each to beat Shearer’s old club Blackburn, while Big Al would step up with the only goal of a tricky tie at Leeds. When one didn’t get you, the other one would.
Even when you got at the Newcastle defence, Shearer and Ferdinand could still take the game away from you. At the end of September, two from Ferdinand and one from Shearer would cancel out a Dwight Yorke hat-trick as Newcastle beat Villa 4-3.
But it was on 20th October, on a Super Sunday at St James’ that Keegan’s Newcastle peaked.
Alex Ferguson’s team was transitioning from the old guard to the Class of ‘92, but it was still a strong team. Yet Ginola would give a young Gary Neville a torrid time, and a midfield containing Nicky Butt and David Beckham, shorn of Roy Keane, would be overrun. One could only assume the young colts in the United midfield were scared of grizzled Beardsley, since he spent most of the game with no one near him.
United would have their moments, but a towering Ferdinand header from a Shearer cross, before Big Al followed up a parried shot from his strike partner, would push Newcastle into a 4-0 lead. Philippe Albert would then deliver the coup de grâce: striding forward from defence, with the whole weary United defence expecting a centre-half’s wild swing, the Belgian chipped the ball over a stranded Schmeichel.
It remains one of the most iconic moments in the history of Premier League; a languid chip of exquisite delicacy and technique, landing with the force of an atomic bomb. Five-nil. The champions were hammered. Embarrassed. Newcastle were unstoppable.
Newcastle was a side built in the image of its manager. It meant an irresistible attacking force of skill mixed with an old-fashioned ability to get ‘stuck in’. It also meant they could collapse like Northern Rock.
A groin injury for Shearer would mean the meanest strikeforce in town would not start another game together until December 9th, and Newcastle’s momentum disappeared with it. They laboured through games, dropping points everywhere.
Despite a return to form with a 7-1 thumping of Spurs just after Christmas, in which Shearer and Ferdinand would score two each, another collapse was on its way. This time it was Keegan himself.
Still recovering from the previous season’s meltdown, and increasingly looking like a labrador fretfully waiting for it’s owner to realise that his shoes have been pissed in, Keegan quit in early January saying he had “taken the club as far as he could”.
In came Dalglish, and while the fans literally wept in the streets, the show would have to go on. Luckily Shearer and Ferdinand knew only goals, and that’s what they would deliver. Newcastle would strain every sinew to get back in touch, but every time one of their big strikers had to miss a game, points would go missing too. In the end, they would fall short yet again.
What they could have won
In all, Shearer and Ferdinand bagged 41 league goals that year. But consider they started together in just 26 of the 38 Premier League games Newcastle played, and it’s no stretch to say things could have been very different.
At least one of them would score in 20 of those 26 matches. Shearer got 21 in games when they started together, Ferdinand 16. With them both starting they averaged 2.08 points per game – when just one of that first-choice pairing was missing that fell to just 1.25 points per game.
Newcastle would ultimately finish second, by seven points, with the potentially decisive penultimate game at Old Trafford rendered meaningless and petering out into a 0-0 draw. United would win the league with just 75 points – with a few more games out of their dynamic duo, it’s perfectly feasible Newcastle could have beaten them.
With a Premier League trophy, and the ghost of 1995/96 banished for good, who knows how Newcastle’s history could have gone? Instead, no-fun Dalglish would send Ferdinand and Ginola to Tottenham, and Beardsley to Bolton. Before long, Asprilla was gone too. In came Jon Dahl Tomasson, Temuri Ketsbaia and an aged John Barnes and Ian Rush.
The following year, Newcastle would finish 13th, but no one cared. The affection, the joy, was gone. The rest is disappointing history. But for another season or two of Shearer and Ferdinand.