Ask anyone for a list of seminal moments in the Premier League era and you´d be hard pushed to find one that didn´t feature Kevin Keegan´s finger-jabbing outburst in the spring of 1996 as Manchester United slowly but surely eroded Newcastle´s seemingly insurmountable lead to take the title to Old Trafford.
While Manchester United have had some worthy adversaries in the intervening years, it is a testament to how close Newcastle ran their title rivals that year that Sir Alex Ferguson pulled off a positively Keeganesque masterstroke last summer to ensure that Manchester City´s first Premier League success would be a one-off.
Rewind to July 1996 and Kevin Keegan is sitting alongside Alan Shearer at a press conference to announce the return of Tyneside´s prodigal son in a world record £15 million transfer from Blackburn Rovers. Shearer´s arrival was intended to ensure that a front-line boasting Ferdinand, Beardsley and Asprilla would become even more irresistible and guarantee that the near-miss of the previous season would not be repeated the following May.
The popular public perception of Keegan´s ´Entertainers´ was that they were thrilling in attack but lax at the back and more than happy to accept the challenge of outscoring opponents rather than aiming to shut them out through defensive solidity. However, while there´s an element of truth to that, time has helped to exaggerate and perpetuate the myth. The reality is that Ferguson´s men scored 73 goals that season (seven more than Newcastle managed) and conceded 35 (while Newcastle´s notoriously ´leaky´ defence only let in two more goals).
Faced with the challenge of taking his team onto the next level, Keegan pre-empted one of Frasier Crane’s most classic lines by subscribing to the notion that “if less is more, just think how much more ‘more’ will be!” There was no subtle tweaking of tactics to tighten up at the back - the idea was simply to blow everybody else out of the water.
Unfortunately, however, it’s too simplistic to say that the team who scores the most goals (or, indeed, concedes the fewest) will win the league – the reality lies somewhere in the middle. So, while it would be bordering on sacrilege to suggest that Newcastle should never have signed Shearer, with the benefit of hindsight, we’re entitled to wonder whether a top class defender may have been a more shrewd purchase and provided the steeliness and resolve that was sadly lacking as Stan Collymore, Graham Fenton, Ian Woan and other Geordie nemeses dashed our title dreams.
The Premier League, of course, has moved on since the heady days of the mid-90s; tactics are now more nuanced and intricate, many teams advocate a more cautious, possession-based style of play and few teams play in the free-flowing cavalier style that Keegan employed. All of which made it so surprising that Sir Alex Ferguson decided not to address the relative lack of quality midfield options he has at his disposal and chose to bring Robin Van Persie to Old Trafford instead.
It’s plain to see that he has been the difference between the two Manchester sides this season and it’s both frustrating and refreshing to realise that, for all the criticism he has endured over the years, Keegan may well have been right all along. Attack truly is the best form of defence and very few opponents can withstand a constant bombardment from world class opponents for 90 minutes. Keegan was so close to achieving footballing perfection with the players that he had at his disposal – they may not have received detailed notes on the opposition before every game or studied different tactical permutations but Newcastle were absolutely scintillating when Shearer, Ferdinand, Beardsley, Ginola and co. clicked and the 5-0 destruction of Manchester United was one of the greatest performances in the club’s history.
Now, nearly 20 years on, despite successive owners having ploughed hundreds of millions of pounds into the club, we haven’t even come close to mounting another title challenge and while Sir Bobby’s team were wonderful at times, they never replicated the style and ruthlessness of Keegan’s men.
Sure, Keegan didn’t win us a trophy but, in many ways, his legacy is much greater than that. We played to win and, more often than not, we not only won but we won in style. Now, as we limply struggle towards the finish line after a campaign of abject failure, it’s thoroughly depressing to think that we will never reach those heights again. What if that was as good as it gets?