The following is an excerpt from the best-selling ‘You Can’t Win Anything With Kids’ – we’re transported to May 1996, and Newcastle United have just beaten Leeds…
United’s performance was as savage as it was clinical,’ reported Paul Walker for the Daily Star. One thing was certain; Newcastle knew that United were going to Middlesbrough with the intent of winning and winning big. So in order for Newcastle to feel as if they held an advantage on the final day, they would have to win at Leeds and Forest (an altogether different proposition on home soil, as United themselves had discovered) by a combined goal tally of seven.
Newcastle played at Leeds the following day and gave a performance of merit of their own which indicated that they might yet have the fortitude to take the title all the way. Keith Gillespie’s 18th minute header felt as if it had come too early in the game as Leeds put Newcastle under sufficient pressure to allay any fears Ferguson may have had about their commitment.Their efforts were still not enough and so the Magpies were able to hold on and see the game out. Part one of their job done, then, and if they could match United’s five goal haul against Forest, they would go into the last game just a goal worse off.
However, as we all know now, the biggest story coming out of Elland Road on Monday,April 29th 1996 wasn’t Newcastle’s well- earned victory. It was Kevin Keegan’s post-match interview with presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray for Sky Sports.
‘We just wanna keep our hopes alive,’ Keegan began, ‘a lot of things have been said over these last few days. Some of it almost slanderous.We’ve never commented.We’ve just got on working, trying to pass the ball like we do in training.’
Keys interjected. ‘What do you mean by that?That people have been having a go at you and your team?
‘No, no I think things have been said about… I think you’ve got to send Alex Ferguson a tape of this game haven’t you? Isn’t that what he asked for?’
Andy Gray in the Sky Studio,‘Well I’m sure if he was watching it tonight Kev, he can have no arguments about the way that Leeds went about their job, they really tested your team…’
‘And we’re playing Notts Forest on Thursday, and he objected to that!’ Keegan responds. ‘Now that was fixed up four months ago.We were supposed to play Notts Forest. Now that sort of stuff, we’re bett… we’re bigger than that.’
‘But that’s part and parcel of the psychological battle, Kevin…’ Keys attempted to say. Andy Gray disagreed, but not as vocally or passionately as Keegan.
‘No! When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds, and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce… I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that.We have not resorted to that. But I’ll tell you, you can tell him now, he’ll be watching it, we’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something. And I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it. But it really has got to me. I’ve voiced it live, not in front of the press or anywhere. I’m not even going to the press conference. But the battle’s still on and Man United have not won this yet.’
The outburst was box office; it hasn’t been replayed time and time again without good cause. Keegan, who had seemingly been struggling under the weight of the pressure since Christmas, had arguably done the worst thing possible with two games left to play. Had he remained quiet on the matter-he wasn’t asked, remember- he could have let his team’s impressive performance speak for itself. But there was enough evidence to suggest that the manager’s words and actions were beginning to affect the mood of the Newcastle players.
‘After the game you’re concentrating on your own performance,’ Deane says now, explaining that he didn’t witness the interview live but quickly became aware of it as the news of it spread around Elland Road. ‘He was showing how passionate he was-the reputation of Newcastle fans goes without saying and I think they had the right man representing them. I overheard a conversation between two Newcastle players who I won’t name, but they seemed really surprised by what he had said. Bemused. But, like I said, after losing, I was reflecting more on my own performance and feeling bad about not scoring.’ Keegan’s comments were perceived as evidence that the pressure had got to him. Deane feels that is probably a little unfair.
‘I just thought Kevin was letting off steam. Looking back, I think it’s brilliant.We go on about a lack of characters and a lack of soul in the game… what that did was give the supporters an insight into the desire he had. I think he should be commended for saying it because it’s the kind of thing fans want to hear.’
Without doubt it was a rallying cry for the Toon Army but the public reaction wasn’t kind. Ferguson’s reaction in his first autobiography seems a little disingenuous; for someone who had made it his business to ensure he took every conceivable advantage, it seems not entirely straightforward that he would not have understood that his comments after the Leeds game would have annoyed Keegan.‘After the final whistle I… was stopped dead in my tracks by Kevin’s outburst. God, I felt for him. Looking at replays later, I was better able to digest what he had said and at first it made me feel a bit guilty… Although I was a little disappointed when he attacked me, I just put it down to pressure.’
Newcastle’s win had ensured that the title race would go down to the final day-perfect for Sky, whose manipulation of the fixture list had worked wonderfully for the dramatic requirements of the viewing public.