Liverpool v Newcastle 21 years on: A Coming of Age

The defining league game of the new age of satellite football celebrated its 21st birthday a few days back.

“Collymore closing in!” and all that. Poetry to Liverpool fans, purgatory for Newcastle supporters.

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For me, the glamour surrounds of a Northumberland workingmen’s club was the vantage point for a never-to-be-forgotten night of goals, elation and heartache.

The squall of spilled Carling Black Label and McEwan’s Best Scotch which greeted strikes from Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Tino Asprilla was all part of a wild night when the wheels came off Newcastle United’s title challenge.

Watching highlights of the April 1996 top of the table clash, reveals a game from a different era, one which has aged well in many respects, but is increasingly a museum piece.

The juggernauts of Liverpool and Newcastle United collided spectacularly in a 4-3 thriller widely acclaimed as the most exhilarating match ever seen in the Premier League.

In any era, either side would have been worthy league champions.

Fowler, Redknapp, Barnes and McManaman could grace any team, as could Ferdinand, Ginola, Beardsley and Asprilla.

But both ultimately flattered to deceive, their challenges snuffed out by Alex Ferguson’s perennial party-poopers.

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As a Newcastle fan, watching Kevin Keegan’s side back then was like getting an access all parks pass to Disney World.

He had no pretence of doing anything other than meeting Sir John Hall’s brief of winning Newcastle its first league title since Hadrian visited the North East for a long weekend.

No dynasty building. Just assembling the heavy artillery needed to deliver the maximum firepower possible to land the title as quickly as he could.

In doing so, Keegan and his team connected in a way no other Newcastle side has done before or since with fans who crave the acknowledgment of knowing their devotion is appreciated by those lucky enough to represent them.

‘Toon’ live games in the mid-1990s were the very definition of ‘appointment to view television’ for fans.

Days were built around them and watching the match in the boozer – if you weren’t lucky enough to be able to get into St James’ Park – took off in a huge way.

Sky Sports’ business model appeared to be constructed on the foundations of mega live clashes involving Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle.

Standing room only

Getting a seat in the old Morpeth Social Club the night Newcastle rolled into Anfield proved more difficult than usual.

A refurbishment of the main bar downstairs meant the little-used upstairs bar was to be the amphitheatre for the masses to watch the gladiators do battle.

Its 1950s-style wall seats and furnishings were relics from a different era – a lot like the likely lads who descended on it that night craning to see the drama unfold on a fatback tele mounted on a wall bracket.

Shoehorned into the tiny room,  the place was absolutely rocking.

Christ only knows what passers-by outside thought. Grown men leaping around framed against condensation soaked windows – best not go there.

Game on

The game itself was simply superb. It still raises the heart rate all these years later.

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It encapsulated all that was so good and yet so bad about Newcastle at the time. Rapier-like attack, powder puff defence.

When Fowler – then the most dangerous young striker in the country – stole in to plant a header past Pavel Srnicek in the second minute, it was hardly a surprise.

What followed was thrust and counter thrust. Caution thrown to the wind by two sides front-loaded with talent.

Asprilla’s goal in particular had blokes around me on the tables, hanging off each other as he cartwheeled over to the Toon fans in celebration.

Dinking the ball around David James with the outside of his right boot for it to spin sideways off the turf into the net was typical of a player who no-one could quite get a handle on.

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Only Newcastle United could accommodate Asprilla.

Their Las Vegas team was built on gamblers – even full-backs Steve Watson and John Beresford were given licence to spin the roulette wheel, marauding forward in a way only out and out wingers dared attempt. Fantastic to watch, but it came at a cost.

I swear the television camera is nearly rocked off its gantry when Collymore scores his last gasp winner.

The crowd roar is at a higher octave, more like that heard in South American games, such is their total absorption in the drama.

Commentator Andy Gray was moved to say it was a privilege – he stressed it twice – to witness it. It didn’t feel like it at the time to me, but I eventually came to realise he was right.

For those distraught, face down on tables in Morpeth Social Club, we knew our chance had probably gone.

Games against Blackburn and later Nottingham Forest would deliver the final blows and extinguish all hope of winning the ultimate prize in English football.

Modern times

So what is the game’s relevance today? In some ways it’s like unearthing a time capsule, the game recorded on a video tape, lying next to a Sega Mega Drive and pair of Adidas Predator boots.

Free-flowing football with players trusted to adapt to changing situations as they unfold on the pitch. Not your standard Premier League fodder nowadays.

Just look at England mark 2016. Footballers lost when their opponents suss Plan A. Without the wit to know why or how to cope.

Player athleticism and tactical analysis are king in the era of big bucks. They trump all. At its expense are skill and flair – and often excitement.

Seeing two teams cancel each other out through superbly plotted managerial plans has a certain appeal.

But it seems there are few gamblers at the top level anymore, willing to concede in the pursuit of scoring more.

Of course, as a Toon fan the Liverpool-Newcastle game was going to move me more than many other football supporters.

But apart from England’s 1990 World Cup semi-final exit, I can’t ever remember being so completely gripped by a game or being carried along on the wave of emotion that went with it.

Its impact stayed with me long after the game ended. Working as a press officer at Northumbria Police, I was used to speaking with reporters about matters other than criminal investigations.

The number of journalists – months later – from outside the North East who told me exactly where they were the night of the Anfield game, the impact it had on them and how Newcastle was the result they looked for after their own side’s, stuck in my mind.

All telling me this because I supported Newcastle United. Maybe more in sympathy than anything else, they wanted to talk about my club.

The power of football to bring strangers together never ceases to amaze me.

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Times change of course, even Morpeth Social Club – the old boozer – is long gone, replaced by a cracking bar, conference and gig venue called the Riverside Lodge.

Newcastle meanwhile stand on the cusp of yet another return to the big time and all that entails. Time to look forward.

No harm though once in a while, of turning back the clock 20 years to a time when we had joy, we had fun and a couple of seasons in the sun.

 

 

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