23 years ago, Newcastle somehow managed to blow the 12-point lead they had over Manchester United going into the New Year, a situation that shaped the future of both clubs for very different reasons.
Let’s enter a parallel universe for a moment, then, to a world in which Kevin Keegan’s men went on to lift the 1995-96 Premier League title, and take a look at how the course of football history could have been altered.
CANTONA JOINS THE TOON
With Manchester United’s dominance of English football now seemingly over, maverick Frenchman Eric Cantona decides to call time on his Old Trafford career and head north-east to join the Keegan revolution.
KK cites Eric’s arrival as the missing link his team has been crying out for and within two years, a Cantona inspired Magpies clinch an historic treble following a dramatic night at the Camp Nou, where Keegan’s side score two late goals against Bayern Munich to turn the Champions League Final on its head.
Cantona’s late late winner elevates him to god-like status on Tyneside, sees Keegan knighted in the New Year’s Honours and provides a fitting finale to a season which went down to the wire once again.
Back at Old Trafford, there’s talk of boardroom unrest after Alex Ferguson’s team fails to cement a top-four position.
MAGPIES HUMBLED IN OLD TRAFFORD MAULING
The treble-winners face an early season test as they take an unbeaten start to the new campaign to Old Trafford in October. Cantona is the pantomime villain and is pelted with tomatoes by disgruntled fans on the Stretford End as he comes out to warm-up.
As the game kicks off, it’s obvious Fergie has his side champing at the bit, determined to put Keegan’s men in their place. By half-time, Old Trafford is rocking with the hosts 3-0 up thanks to goals from Norwegian marksman Ole Gunnar Solskjær (2) and defender David May, who can no longer boast that he has more medals than Toon frontman Alan Shearer.
The second-half continues in the same vain with local lads Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes both on the scoresheet. Fergie claims the performance to be the “finest since I came to the club” whilst his opposite number Keegan puts the defeat down to tiredness after their midweek Champions League win against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
NEWCASTLE SET FOR U.S. TAKEOVER
The man responsible for Newcastle United’s rise to prominence, local business tycoon Sir John Hall, has stated that the dawn of a new century and his failing health means he’s ready to sell his beloved club if the right offer comes along. Over in America, billionaire US businessman Malcolm Glazer is understood to be ready to take over at St James’ with reports suggesting he’s preparing a £600 million pound bid for the Magpies.
With an extensive sports portfolio already, Glazer declares that he will turn the Toon into the “biggest club on the planet” within five years – and, barely two weeks later, the deal is signed with Sir John given the lifetime Presidency.
There’s very different takeover talk happening at Old Trafford, however, with sports goods manufacturer Mike Ashley believed to be ready to become the majority shareholder at the Theatre of Dreams.
KEEGAN READY FOR ENGLAND ROLE
After their elimination by 10-man Brazil at the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea, the Football Association announce that Head-Coach Sven-Göran Eriksson will step down from the role with immediate effect, with Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan tipped to be his successor.
After a trophy-laden 10 years on Tyneside, Keegan has become the people’s choice and is the clear favourite to take over. With the new season just a few weeks away, Sir Kevin announces that he will become the new Three Lions boss, leaving Toon fans crying into their Newcastle Brown Ale.
His record at St James’ Park of four league titles, a Champions League and two FA Cups is unlikely to ever be beaten – and it’s an upbeat Sir Kev who declares on his first day in his new job that he would “Love it if England could win the 2006 World Cup in Germany”.
ASHLEY TAKEOVER SPARKS FERGIE EXIT AT OLD TRAFFORD
2002 is also a summer of change at Old Trafford as Alex Ferguson announces he’s leaving the club after 16 years at the helm.
The arrival of new owner Mike Ashley is understood to be the catalyst behind Fergie’s decision, with the great man returning to Scotland to head up a consortium aiming to buy St Mirren, the club where he cut his teeth as a manager back in 1974. Ferguson enlists the help of his good friend, racehorse owner and Irish businessman JP McManus, stating that he intends to turn the Saints into Scotland’s biggest club and end the Rangers/Celtic domination.
A month later the deal is done and Fergie heads straight back to Old Trafford to offer the manager’s role to Roy Keane, who sensationally walked out of the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup training base in the Far-East after twatting coach Mick McCarthy during a game of dominoes that got out of hand. Former United midfielder Mick Phelan is expected to become Keane’s number two.