The 1995/1996 season saw Manchester and Newcastle United compete for the Premiership title. Manchester United had narrowly missed out the season before but had sold Kanchelskis and Ince and had replaced them with Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt players who had won the 1992 youth cup.
On the first day of that season, Aston Villa defeated Manchester United 3-1 where on Tyneside our new signings Warren Barton, Les Ferdinand and Shaka Hislop had great debuts where we secured a 3-0 win over Coventry.
When Match of the Day came to summarising the Manchester United game, Alan Hansen, a former pundit and Liverpool legend uttered those immortal words: “You don’t win anything with kids”. Claiming that the players that had replaced the seemingly stalwarts of the Manchester United side of old would struggle to emulate their predecessors.
How wrong he was. As the season progressed, Newcastle amassed a 12-point lead, but soon this would sadly dissipate, seeing Manchester United take over at the top. In the summer of 1996, Keegan had offered his resignation but was persuaded to stay and broke the then transfer record to sign Shearer.
Manchester United signed Poborsky, Cruyff and Solksjaer and defeated us 4-0 in the charity shield. It seemed the battle for the 1996-1997 season had begun. Whilst Manchester United won their opening games, our first 3 games saw defeats away to Sheffield Wednesday at home and away to Everton, but a 2-0 win at home against Wimbledon followed, seeing Alan Shearer score his debut goal from a free kick.
As the season progressed, Manchester United and Newcastle swapped places at the top, but there were new challengers as a much-improved Liverpool and Arsenal under new manager Arsene Wenger started to challenge for a place at the top. Even Wimbledon under the guidance of Joe Kinnear took his south-east London club to 2nd place.
However, as Christmas 1996 approached Keegan for the first time, began to question his position at Newcastle. Behind the scenes, Shearer’s purchase meant that the club had to sell some players to balance the books. Unbeknownst to Keegan at the time, he felt Shearer’s purchase was one the club could afford but little did he know four months down the line, that the club were to float on the stock market and had to sell to raise £4.5 million pounds.
Newcastle’s form began to fall away despite the club being in 4th position. A 7-1 win over Tottenham should have cheered up Keegan but he said in his autobiography he felt sympathy for Francis. Something was wrong. On the 7th of January 1997, Keegan resigned after nearly 5 years on Tyneside. Newcastle fans everywhere were upset and at a loss to what was going on.
Questions began to be asked about why Keegan walked. Was it because he could not win the club the league the season before? Was there something going on at the club that we the fans did not know about? A representative from the club confirmed that Keegan had been asked to stay on to the end of the season but he felt he was unable to at the time and he did feel he could continue his position as manager.
Much speculation ensued as to what were Keegan’s motives for leaving. It was only until Keegan’s book was released on sale that he revealed the flotation was the reason for his resignation. He felt the club were always thinking of the next project and floating the club on the stock market, rather than thinking of the fans. He felt the board were thinking more about money than the fans that helped rebuild Newcastle United who in the previous decade had lost their way under mismanagement and misguidance at boardroom level under Gordon McKeag.
The race to replace Keegan started with even an outlandish attempt to entice Alex Ferguson to Tyneside being mooted by the then Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards. Sir Bobby Robson then at Barcelona was linked but Dalglish was appointed manager in January 1997 to replace King Kev.
The rest of the 1996/1997 season had many highs and few lows. The lows were defeats to Monaco and Nottingham Forest in the UEFA Cup and FA Cup respectively which extended our wait for silverware for another season.
The huge high was that we finished 2nd at the end of the season and qualified for Champions League football for the first time. The prerequisite was that we had to qualify over a 2-legged match in 1997/1998 to get into the competition proper.
Fans were delighted with Dalglish and all seemed to be great. Many felt that we could go on to bigger and better things with Dalglish and that he could be the manager to bring back silverware to Tyneside.
No fan would predict what was to unfold the season after. Crowd favourites were moved on and the side who season after season went from finishing 3rd to 6th but then to runners up in seasons 95-96 and 96-97, alarmingly slid to 14th in May 1998.
Keegan’s resignation started off a chain of events that altered the immediate future of Newcastle United. Kevin’s reign was one which changed Newcastle forever. Over his four and half years at the club he turned a club from one on the edge of the old Division 3 and almost oblivion to almost winning the Premier League title.
His reign will never be forgotten and his choice of replacement Dalglish was one initially that benefited the club and his experience guided us to 2nd place. His choice of signings other than the acquisitions of Gary Speed, Andy Griffin and Shay Given set the club five to six years. These sentiments are echoed by John Beresford on Match of the 1990s for the 1997/1998 season.
It often makes you think what would have happened if we won the league in 1995/1996 or if Keegan were to have stayed on until May 1997. Maybe we would have got Sir Bobby Robson in the summer of 1997 and the club were to have stayed at the top? If only?
By Gary Jackaman