12 points ahead half way through the season, tearing the league’s defences to shreds with care-free football, and you’ve just signed one of the most exciting players in world football for a whopping transfer fee who should put the seal on the club’s first league title since 1927.
What could possibly go wrong?
That’s the question many Newcastle United fans will be asking every time they see the red shirts of Manchester United appear on their fixture list.
The two clubs’ fortunes have diverged since the moment Eric Cantona connected with Phil Neville’s chipped cross to the back post in front of the Gallowgate End and banked his shot off the sodden Monday night, Tyneside turf into Pavel Srnicek’s net.
But it was in front of that end for the opening 45 minutes of this epic encounter where United – and more specifically their goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel – broke the will of Newcastle’s seemingly unstoppable goal scoring force.
The Dane’s reputation as a top rate keeper was already established, but his shutout at St James’ Park seared the 1992 European champion’s image as an era-defining talent into the minds of any Premier League watchers in the mid-nineties. Though their talismanic Frenchman would get the crucial score, it’s Schmeichel’s first-half performance that has defined the game in popular memory.
He’d been an essential part of the United team that ended the club’s own league title drought three seasons previously, but their suffering was dwarfed by that of Magpies followers.
Rescued by the cash of a wealthy local benefactor, Sir John Hall, and the passion of a club legend, Kevin Keegan, whose motivational skills outweighed his plotting or strategic decisions, Newcastle were the definitive sleeping giant at the time.
Keegan’s lassez-faire approach to defending and fearless attack stirred the club’s slumbering potential. Faustino Asprilla’s arrival, weeks before the United clash at St James’ Park, was to be an alarm clock clanging the Geordie beast to a full awakening.
The Colombian had flashed his talent for his national side in their ill-fated USA ’94 campaign, but many fans would’ve had glimpses of his spidery legs and waving arms as he slinked across our screens in Parma’s colours. Now, this most exotic of foreign footballing talents and flown into a flurry-swept Newcastle to lead them to their final glory.
And then results started to dip.
Sure, they’d lost to Man United on Boxing Day at Old Trafford, but they’d recovered those points a few weeks later, and five wins on the bounce saw them build a lead of a dozen points over Ferguson’s men. But Les Ferdinand saw 18 goals in 19 league games before Christmas become two in seven preceding the crucial Monday night showdown.
That downturn coincided with the £6.7m outlay on the South American, his languorous style and flamboyance failing to stave off – and some argued contributing to – their fatal collapse.
It began at Upton Park.
Asprilla had made his debut from the bench in the previous game at Middlesbrough, and appeared again here, but a seventh minute opener from Tony Cottee saw no reply. An awayday at Maine Road ended with six goals shared between the sides, the new recruit nabbing his first for the club before Phillipe Albert rescued a point with an 81st minute equaliser.
And then Schmeichel hit the toon.
The lead was already down to four points as United went on an eight game winning streak from mid-January, but a goalkeeping performance for the ages confirmed a Geordie freefall from the summit.
And it could’ve been all so different if they’d got a break in the first five minutes.
Schmeichel’s first stop would be a trademark smothering of the ball with his 6ft3 frame. Asprilla wins a flick on ahead of makeshift centre-half Gary Neville, deputising for Gary Pallister, and Steve Bruce’s clumsy stride cannot keep pace with an on-rushing Ferdinand, but his first touch gives the keeper just enough time to race from his goal and envelope the striker’s attempt to chip it past him with a pneumatic sprawling of his limbs.
The second provides the first inkling that this may not be Newcastle’s night.
Peter Beardsley in midfield picks up a smart layoff from Ferdinand and swiftly finds Asprilla with space to turn between United’s lines. His head straight up, he spots the striker streaking across the backline from the left channel towards to right-hand edge of the box.
A deftly weighted through ball is controlled with the outside of Ferdinand’s boot, making enough space to eke out a point-blank effort on goal that, under normal circumstances, would’ve slipped past the goalkeeper and sent Newcastle on their way to the most important win in the club’s history.
Only Schmeichel – despite looking slightly out-of-position due to the suddenness of Newcastle’s defence-splitting play – somehow knows to have his left-arm outstretched from his body, diving back towards his goal to pop the ball up off his wrist and catching with a grateful ease that belied the stakes of the game.
Ferdinand’s reaction is more befitting of the occasion.
He hurtles forward, landing flat on his stomach after jabbing his shot on goal, then double-takes towards the touchline in amazement, as if to say “how the f**k did that not go in?”
Turning back to his foe, he sees a man clutching the football to his chest and, in a manner that would become his custom, berating those in front of him while seemingly taking for granted the miraculous feat he’d just performed.
Schmeichel’s temper would not abate as the half wore on. Efforts from Beardsley, Ginola and Asprilla all troubled his goal, but centre-half Phillipe Albert would go closest to beating him with a rattle of the crossbar from close to 30-yards out.
Ferdinand, the earlier misses clearly playing on his mind now, slashed at a resulting rebound and pitched the ball high into the upper tiers of the home support.
Half-time brought relief for Ferguson’s side, and they sparked at the start of the second period, manufacturing more efforts in five minutes than the whole of the opening period before Cantona struck.
Newcastle tested their last line of defence as their league hopes dribbled away, with Asprilla forcing a sharp stop from a header, but it wasn’t until the 87th minute that the team in red looked seriously threatened again.
A breaking ball from a Ferdinand knockdown slides between the defenders as Robert Lee angles his run towards the front post, and, for a split-second it looks as though it will bobble past the giant goalie and allow the midfielder rescue a point – and steal two from their nearest rivals.
But an outstretched arm reaches back to take the ball, one-handed, from the toe of the Newcastle man before he can prod it home, and with that desperate grasping save, Schmeichel seized the initiative for United to go on and win a third title in four seasons on the final day of the campaign.
Newcastle would bolster their attack with Alan Shearer that summer for a record fee, but would never again get as close to a championship win, while the final pieces of United’s treble winning side joined “the kids” of ’95-’96 in rolling on to treble glory in 1999, though how different things could’ve been if not for Schmeichel’s resistence that night is a tantalising question to consider.