Liverpool and Newcastle United lock horns again this weekend in what has always been an eagerly anticipated Premier League fixture.
Twenty years ago, these two footballing giants gave us thrilling back-to-back encounters in English football’s top-flight, a pair of games that are still regarded as the greatest Premier League games ever played.
IT’S THE HOPE THAT KILLS YOU
Going into the first meeting back in April ’96, Newcastle United had already seen their 12-point advantage over Manchester United evaporate but the Toon, managed by former Anfield legend Kevin Keegan, were still very much in the title race. Despite trailing Fergie’s men by three points, Newcastle had two games in hand – which if they won, would take them back to the summit of the table.
And, after 14 minutes the Toon were 2-1 up thanks to goals from Les Ferdinand and French god David Ginola. When Colombian mad-man Faustino Asprilla had cancelled out Robbie Fowler’s leveller on 57 minutes it seemed as though the gods were smiling on Keegan as the nation willed his swashbuckling side towards their first league championship in 69 years.
What happened over the next 22 minutes has gone down in football folklore.
After Stan Collymore smashed home an injury-time winner for the Reds, the sight of Keegan prostrate over the advertising hoardings told you that he knew his side had blown it and that they would never get this close again… Or would they?
LIGHTNING CAN STRIKE TWICE
Eleven months later and it was Liverpool pushing Man United close in the title run-in, with Newcastle still not out of it in fourth place. The Magpies had replaced a worn out Keegan with another former Liverpool icon Kenny Dalglish, who’d already tasted glory as a manager with Blackburn Rovers two years earlier and who’d made it his personal mission to piss Alex Ferguson off at every given opportunity.
The Anfield club were coached by everyone’s favourite uncle Roy Evans and at half-time his side were in total control having scored three unanswered goals in the opening 45 minutes. With 19 minutes of the game left, Keith Gillespie looked to have scored a consolation for the visitors and even when Asprilla scored a second three minutes from time, it seemed like Newcastle had at least saved face.
Within a minute however, Geordie fans packed into the Anfield Road must have thought that the half-time pies at had been laced with LSD as Kevin Bacon lookalike Warren Barton (yes, Warren Barton) became the unlikely hero bringing the scores level. Watching at home, Fergie must have popped open another vintage claret as the two pretenders to his crown looked to have cancelled each other out, but right at the death, the only thing popping was Reds striker Robbie Fowler, out of the sky to be exact, to head his team the winner.
IF YOU KNOW YOUR HISTORY
Kevin Keegan was a Liverpool legend in the mid-late seventies and there will have been Liverpool fans on the Kop on that incredible April night in 1996 who deep down inside, would have been willing their former player to break Manchester United hearts for a second consecutive season after Dalglish’s Blackburn side had won the title at Anfield 12 months earlier to end United’s early dominance of the Premier League.
After the delirium of Collymore’s late winner came the reality that their side had practically helped hand the title back to Old Trafford and despite Uncle Roy coming out afterwards saying that they had to remain professional, if you listen closely, in the background you can hear some of his players, professional scousers like Fowler, Steve McManaman and Jason McAteer, passing round the sick bucket.
THE AGING PROCESS
We’ve all seen managers age during a period of time; Pep Guardiola left Barcelona before he went insane and Jose Mourinho has always looked like someone suffering from chronic sleep deprivation by about December.
On April 4 1996, Kevin Keegan became the first manager to visibly age over 90 minutes and the nation was transfixed to its screens as the man who once won Superstars despite having no skin left on his back after a crash in a bike race, looked ready to cash-in his old age pension at full-time.
Hindsight now tells us that the 4-3 defeat was the beginning of the end for KK who completely lost it a couple of weeks later on live TV in front of a gloating Richard Keys and Andy Gray. It was obvious then that Keegan was not cut out for management so he became the obvious man to take over the England national team in 1999.
THE MAKING OF MARTIN
Commentator Martin Tyler had been a staple of ITV’s football coverage years before the birth of Sky TV and the man himself still cites that crazy April night in 96 as the “best match he’s ever commentated on”.
Looking back now it all seemed so innocent back then and when Tyler lost it as Collymore buried the winner in front of the Kop, he did it spontaneously and not with the help of a production team who are now determined to embarrass him every Sunday afternoon demanding he declares “and its LIVE!!!” before every big kick-off.
In the modern era Tyler remains head and shoulders above all others when it comes to football commentary and listening back to that Anfield showdown from 23 years ago, you really are witnessing a master of his trade at the top of his game.
THE BEST OF BRITISH
It’s only just over 22 years ago but it seems light years away when you see that the second 4-3 meeting between these two contained 16 British players in the respective starting XIs. Cynics will say that players such as Liverpool central defender Mark Wright and captain John Barnes were coming to the end of their careers, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that top-flight English football was still something the average working person could identify with back in the late 90s.
The foreign invasion was well under way by now of course and the very fact that players of the calibre of Fabrizio Ravanelli were prepared to swap Turin for Middlesbrough, showed the financial clout English clubs were rewarded with if they could get themselves to the “promised land” of the Premier League. March 10 1997 would be significant in more ways than one. Call me an old duffer if you wish, but football almost lost its innocence on that chaotic night at Anfield.