For Newcastle United fans with birth certificates dating from the mid-to-late 1970s, football really did seem to have been invented in 1992. On the afternoon of February 6th, hours after the hapless Ossie Ardiles had been greeted at his own front door by a club official delivering a P45, Kevin Keegan breezed in through the swing doors at Newcastle Breweries’ Visitor Centre. “I can honestly say that there’s no job in football I’ve ever wanted,” he told a room of flashing lightbulbs. “This is the only job I’ve ever wanted.”
The sentiment may have been confused but it was very definitely mutual. Six thousand people had witnessed the 5-2 defeat at Oxford United which left Newcastle second from bottom of the old Division One and, despite vehement post-match protestations to the contrary, finally settled Ardiles’ demise. More than 29,000 turned out for Keegan’s first game, a 3-0 win over Bristol City sealed with two goals from David Kelly, a recent signing from promotion chasing Leicester. But, much like the plot of a Bruce Willis action flick, the situation would take a dramatic turn for the worse before improbably coming good five minutes from the end. Barely 40 days into the job, Keegan stormed out of the ground in the aftermath of a 3-1 win over Swindon Town, having been denied the £250,000 required to turn Oldham defender Brian ‘Killer’ Kilcline’s loan into a permanent transfer. Later exits from England and Newcastle (twice) were eminently understandable, laudable even, but at the time this seemed like pure, unadulterated flounce. “It wasn’t like it said in the brochure,” he complained while his assistant Terry McDermott patiently coaxed him into returning from a lay-by on the way back to Hampshire. A fortnight later another Kelly goal was enough to beat local rivals Sunderland, but then came five league defeats in a row, culminating in a 4-1 defeat against Derby County in which McDermott and three players were controversially dismissed and the team slumped back to third from bottom, ahead of Port Vale and Brighton, and twelve goals adrift of Oxford and the precarious safety of 21st place.
It was a game we had to win, but with 85 minutes gone on the old Gallowgate scoreboard, whatever youthful bravado I had entertained pre-match had long since dissipated.
April 25th 1992. Newcastle, haemorrhaging cash and on the brink of relegation into the third-tier of English football for the first time in their 110-year history, played their final home game of the season against FA Cup semi-finalists Portsmouth. Among the starting line-up that day were Tommy Wright, a one time Belfast barman now managing Lisburn Distillery, Brian Kilcline – “the most important signing I made for Newcastle,” Keegan later judged – future FA Cup winner Gavin Peacock, football financier Ray Ranson, and Sebastian Coe lookalike Kevin Brock. It was a game we had to win, but with 85 minutes gone on the old Gallowgate scoreboard, whatever youthful bravado I had entertained pre-match had long since dissipated along with what was left of my nails. Sixteen years old, I was busy composing a chain of conditional sentences which ended in the discomforting thought of my football club going bankrupt when the ball was struck forwards in the direction of Micky Quinn, who’d moved two steps off his marker on the edge of the Portsmouth ‘D’.
I’ve only ever been able to find brief snippets of what happened next online. Quinn, his back to the Gallowgate goal, hooked the ball right-footed into space on the Milburn side of the penalty area, David Kelly reacted half a yard quicker than Andy Awford and smashed a rising shot past Portsmouth keeper Alan Knight on the second bounce, Kevin Sheedy, a man who’d won two league titles and a Cup Winners’ Cup with Everton, following up with a celebratory scissor kick into the roof of the net. On the concrete steps of the Gallowgate, bodies writhed in every conceivable direction, hats and scarves went tumbling and arms clutched joyously around the nearest neck. I hugged my brother; I hugged my dad, then stumbled forwards and was pinioned to a crash barrier by a man with beer and boiled-onion breath screaming ‘Get in! Get in! Get in!” over and over straight into my ear. “The place just erupted like you’ve never heard before,” Gavin Peacock, a Jim Smith signing who partnered Kelly up front, remembered. “The relief flooded all over everybody. You could feel it – relief from the whole of Newcastle.” If it wasn’t exactly jogo bonito, it was incontrovertibly the moment that changed everything for Kevin Keegan and the Magpies, the most important goal ever scored at St James’ Park. “It happened because Kevin was so positive,” Kelly said seventeen years later. “We had been battered at Wolves and Derby and it was looking grim…but he was telling us 'Get through this and we will be in the top flight in a year's time'. I think I scored about three goals in my entire career that were outside the box and that was one of them.”
Newcastle went to Leicester the following Saturday afternoon and won 2-1 to end the season in twentieth place, four points clear of Plymouth Argyle and relegation. Five months later we played Portsmouth again, brushing them aside 3-1 as part of an eleven-game winning streak that would end in promotion with 96 points, 29 wins and 92 goals from our 46 matches. Now that was football.
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