It seemed inconceivable in May 1997 that Newcastle would undergo such a significant change not just in their fortunes but in their personnel.
It all began in pre-season when crowd favourites Ginola, Clark and Ferdinand were sold as was Peter Beardsley to Bolton. Their replacements were unheard of and many questioned whether they would achieve anywhere near the performances the entertainer team was capable off.
Jon Dahl Tomasson, Shay Given and Alessandro Pistone came in as did Brian Pinas, Temuri Ketsbaia who soon became a fan favourite more so for getting the goal to help us qualify for the Champions League proper and Stuart Pearce from Nottingham Forest.
His next two signings brought much derision from fans as the dad’s army of John Barnes and Ian Rush joined Stuart Pearce from Liverpool and Leeds respectively at a combined age of over 90.
Newcastle’s pre-season went well until an awful injury sustained by Shearer meant the club did their utmost to try and prevent Les Ferdinand from moving to Tottenham. However, Les had already committed to the North London club and we were left with just a young Tomasson, Ketsbaia and Asprilla for the new season.
Goals were hard to come by and this was evident as we slid from being title contenders to mid table mediocrity flirting precariously close with the relegation zone. The Champions League brought Barcelona onto Tyneside for a momentous match up and a great 3-2 win was the highlight of the season. Fans everywhere were elated, overjoyed with what their team had accomplished. If only these performances were translatable in terms of the Premier League.
In Shearer’s noticeable absence the struggles worsened. With goals being hard to find, only draws and 1-0 wins saw the club hovering in mid-table. The club bowed out of the Champions League but it gave us fans the opportunity to experience some great matches and to go to grounds you would never have imagined visiting 5 years ago when we were on the edge of demotion to the old Division 3 and what would be oblivion.
1998 arrived with the signings of the late great Gary Speed and Andreas Andersson. Dabizas and Griffin were added but the glaring problem was the lack of goals and it annoyingly went unaddressed and unacknowledged as the season progressed.
More surprisingly was the news that Asprilla’s stay on Tyneside was to be cut short with the decision to sell him back to Parma. It alarmed and puzzled fans given the shortage up front. Shearer returned against Bolton but he was unready and seemed to be rushed back too early to compensate for the lack of firepower upfront.
One of the talking points of our season was our cup run. It was our saving grace as our Premier League season was becoming more of a relegation battle than our usual fight with Manchester United for the title.
The 4th round paired us with non-league Stevenage with many believing that it would be a routine 4 nil or 5 nil move. The game was played at Stevenage’s home ground and Shearer put us 1-0 up. An equalizer saw us draw 1-1. Were we at risk of being another giant that would be slayed in the cup that year?
Luckily, we won the home replay 2-1 and progressed to the semi-finals against a play-off chasing Sheffield United side from the Nationwide 1st division. A 1-0 win with Shearer scoring the all-important goal sent us all into raptures and Newcastle reached the cup final for the first time since 1974.
With the reassurance that Premier League football would be secured for another season after an upturn of form with victories against Barnsley and Chelsea, Newcastle headed to Wembley hoping to bring the FA Cup back to Tyneside.
A poor performance on the day saw Arsenal beat Newcastle 2-0 with us being awarded an UEFA Cup Winners Cup place for our endeavours. It was an end to a trying, hugely disappointing season where it was clear that the entertainers team had been well and truly affected by the loss of David Ginola, Les Ferdinand, John Beresford and Peter Beardsley.
Kenny worked quickly to prepare for pre-season and spent a huge amount, £12 million in all on Georgiadis, Sunderland goalkeeper Lionel Perez, Stephane Guivarc’h, Carl Serrant, Gary Brady, Laurent Charvet, Dietmar Hamann and Nolberto Solano.
The season began with a 0-0 draw against newly promoted Charlton. Rumours were rife that Dalglish was to be sacked as the board had misgivings and a lack of faith in his ability to galvanise the squad and to get it challenging in the top half of the Premier League. A 1-1 draw with Chelsea seemed to allay any fears but it proved too little too late to save Dalglish and he was sacked after 18 months in charge.
Dalglish’s reign started positively with Championship League football being secured. What followed was a season with few highs and many lows and the club almost being relegated to Division 1 with only 44 points gained last season and John Barnes being our top goal scorer with 6. The Entertainers era for us was well and truly over.
By Gary Jackaman