As Bad As Things Got: Newcastle United, 20th April 1992
With a decade of stultification now under their belts, it would be easy to get sucked into the idea that Newcastle United are in an unprecedented slump. This, however, isn’t quite true. As English football basked in a warming post-Italia 90 glow of positivity, cold winds were blowing through Tyneside, a combination of years of decline and a power struggle that almost pushed the club down into the third tier, and by the Premier League launched its ‘whole new ball game’ in 1992 the club seemed to be in a perpetual state of decline.
The club’s previous spell in the doldrums had ended in a spectacular way. Relegation from the First Division in 1978 hadn’t been followed with much of a challenge to get back there, but the arrival of Kevin Keegan from Southampton in the summer of 1982 changed the atmosphere around the club. Keegan hadn’t previously played for Newcastle and he wasn’t a local, but he connected almost immediately with supporters and, after a relatively near miss in 1983, promotion back to the top flight followed at the end of the following season, as Keegan retired as a player.
For a while, it looked as though Newcastle might have been heading back towards happier times. Keegan might have retired, but a triumvirate of lavishly talented local players – Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley and Chris Waddle – pointed a way towards a brighter future. By the end of the decade, though, this dream was in ruins. Gascoigne, Beardsley and Waddle became national heroes in the summer of 1990, but none of them were Newcastle players by this point. Waddle left for Spurs in 1985 for £590,000, Beardsley went to Liverpool in 1987 for £1.9m, and Gascoigne followed Waddle to White Hart Lane a year later for £2.2m.
Bringing in more than £4.5m in transfer fees in four years was no mean feat at this time, but this money was spent fighting financial fires and necessary ground improvements rather than on renovating the first team squad. Jack Charlton and Willie McFaul kept the club in the First Division, but by the time that McFaul left in October 1988 Newcastle were entrenched in a battle to avoid relegation that his successor Jim Smith couldn’t successfully negotiate. Their first season back in the Second Division ended in a play-off semi-final defeat over two legs to Sunderland – the second leg of which was pebbledashed with increasing violence as their season ebbed away – after having finished in third place in the table, and by the end of the 1990/91 season Newcastle were in mid-table in Second Division, with crowds having dropped as low as 15,000.
All of this played out against a backdrop of civil war in the boardroom. The McKeag family had a long history with the club, as one of the two families that had controlled it for many years. Local politician William McKeag was a director for 28 years and was chairman between 1957 and 1960, and his son Gordon ascended to a directorship upon William’s death in November 1972. In 1988, while still in recovery following a quintuple heart bypass, he became the chairman, but his time in charge would prove be brief and unhappy.
Sir John Hall had made his money from property development, most notably with the construction of the Metro Centre in Gateshead in the mid-1980s. Hall had big plans for Newcastle United, wanting to reimagine it as a Barcelona-style “sporting club” playing in a redeveloped stadium, but the remnants of the old board wanted to retain control of it. Alongside the McKeags was the Seymour family. Stan Seymour had played in Newcastle’s FA Cup winning team of 1927 and had battled with William McKeag in the boradroom as far back as the 1950s, and his son Stan jr also later joined the board, becoming chairman in 1980 and bringing Kevin Keegan to St James Park two years later.
Gordon McKeag was only supposed to be a short-term appointment and he was replaced by George Forbes in 1990, but by this time the trappings of control were starting to slip from their hands. Both the local press and the local council were now openly critical of the way in which Newcastle were being run, and in the court of public opinion Hall, with his grandiose talk of the club’s future, was the favoured choice of supporters.
By comparison, the plummy-voiced Gordon McKeag looked like a relic of the past by the time of his departure from the boardroom, an anachronism in comparison with the forward-looking property developer. With Waddle, Beardsley and Gascoigne having been sold and the optimism of the club’s 1984 promotion having completely evaporated, McKeag had little goodwill to rely on when he couldn’t turn things around. There were sit-down protests by supporters and talk of a boycott which only seemed a little superfluous because so many fans seemed to be drifting away from the club of their own accord.
By March 1991, with promotion prospects slipping away, Smith resigned his impossible position. His replacement, Osvalo Ardiles, was an appeal to both the head and the heart. Ardiles had been exactly the sort of player that Newcastle supporters were attracted to, and his short managerial career had already been successful. He’d taken over at Swindon Town when Lou Macari left for West Ham United in 1989, and at the end of the 1989/90 season had taken the club its highest ever league position, winning the play-offs (in which Newcastle had lost in the semi-finals) before having a place in the First Division snatched away over financial irregularities which had occurred prior to Ardiles’ arrival at the club. He already had a reputation for playing attacking football, and with Swindon still suffering from the fall-out from the previous summer, he accepted Newcastle’s overtures and became the club’s new manager. They finished the 1990/91 season in 11th place in the Second Division.
There was little reason, however, to believe that the 1991/92 season would be any improvement for Newcastle. Ardiles’ transfer budget in the summer of 1991 was just £250,000, and although a new generation of young players such as Lee Clark, Steve Watson, Steve Howey and Alan Thompson was starting to come through, the team started the season badly, winning just one of their first eleven matches, with a 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth at the start of October leaving them bottom of the Second Division table. John Hall, meanwhile, was continuing to buy up shares wherever he could find them whilst continuing to drum up support amongst the fanbase for his takeover. By the winter of 1991/92, he’d amassed the 40% holding which made him the club’s biggest shareholder. A place on the board finally followed.
The bitter power struggle finally came to an end at the start of 1992. With the team still fighting to avoid relegation, Hall became the majority shareholder, and his attention immediately turned to the struggle to avoid relegation. At the start of February, Newcastle travelled to The Manor Ground to play Oxford United, the only team below them in the Second Division at the time. Oxford won the game 5-2, and Ardiles was sacked three days later. Considering the atmosphere surrounding the club the the year that he was in charge, he probably never really stood that much of a chance.
The choice to replace him was, to say the least, a surprising one. Kevin Keegan had retired as a player in the summer of 1984 and, apart from a very brief period in Australia the following year, had spent most of the previous seven and a half years honing his golf skills in Spain. Hall persuaded him to return to the club, but upon his arrival Keegan was reportedly so shocked at the condition of the club’s Benwell training ground that he paid for it to be cleaned up out of his own pocket.
In many respects, Keegan’s appointment at Newcastle shouldn’t have worked. A rookie manager who’d been out of the game for almost eight years turning up at a club that had been circling the precipice of a disaster for the previous couple of years sounded like a recipe for disaster. And, to start with, it almost was. Initially, he was a breath of cold air through the club, and Newcastle only lost two of his first nine matches in charge, culminating in a 1-0 against Sunderland at St James Park on the 29th March. The following Tuesday, however, came the beginning of a fresh crash. Newcastle were beaten 6-2 at Wolverhampton Wanderers, the start of a run of four straight defeats which undid much of the good work of his successful first few weeks in charge.
On April 20th 1992, Easter Monday, Newcastle travelled to the East Midlands to play a Derby County team that was chasing one of the automatic promotion places at the other end of the division. The afternoon didn’t start well. After just three minutes had been played, Kevin Brock was adjudged to have handled the ball on his own goal line, leading to a red card and an early lead for Derby from the penalty spot. Later in the half, captain Kevin Scott joined Brock in the dressing room over a reckless tackle on the edge of his own penalty area, and by this time a defensive mistake by Steve Watson had allowed Paul Kitson in to double Derby’s lead.
The second half only saw things go from bad to worse. Gavin Peacock pulled a goal back early on, but Derby soon restored their two goal lead and a petulant kick from Liam O’Brien reduced the Newcastle team down to eight players. Derby ended up winning the match 4-1, and Newcastle United were back in the relegation places on goal difference – no Division Two team would concede more goals than they did that season – with just two matches of the season left to play.
The following Saturday brought the first steps on the road to salvation, but they made hard work of it. At home against Portsmouth, a 26,000 crowd saw Newcastle huff and puff for 85 minutes, before a David Kelly goal in front of the Gallowgate End lifted them up two places in the league table, above both Oxford United and Plymouth Argyle. They weren’t quite home and dry yet – they went into the final game of the season two points above the relegation places – but their fate had, critically, been returned very much to their own hands.
Newcastle were away to Leicester City, for whom a win would guarantee promotion into the newly-formed Premier League, while Plymouth Argyle were at home against Blackburn Rovers and Oxford United were away to Tranmere Rovers. The mathematics were very simple – if Newcastle could win, they’d be safe. If they failed to do so and Oxford and Plymouth both won their matches, they’d be playing third tier football for the first time in their history, the following season. With transistor radios pressed against ears all around Filbert Street, Leicester seemed even more stricken with nerves that Newcastle, and a bad backpass by Steve Thompson allowed Gavin Peacock to nick the ball past the goalkeeper and in during a first half that Newcastle had dominated.
Leicester came back in the second half, but left gaps at the back which Newcastle could have exploited. Still, though, the score remained at 1-0 until the dying minutes, when a Steve Walsh header from a corner brought the home side level. After a pitch invasion by celebrating Leicester supporters had been cleared – they were still hugging the touchline afterwards, in scenes reminiscent of another last day of the Second Division season match between Derby County and Fulham, played nine years earlier – a long ball was launched forward, and after another defensive error by goalscorer Walsh, who’d misjudged the ball in the first place, the defender tried to atone by… poking the ball past his own goalkeeper and in, to hand the points to Newcastle and sentence Leicester City to a place in the play-offs. Cue another pitch invasion from the home supporters, this time in anger and frustration rather than the celebration of just a couple of minutes earlier.
As things turned out, Walsh’s own goal was decoration, rather than anything else. Oxford United had won 2-1 at Tranmere, but Plymouth had lost 3-1 at home to Blackburn Rovers and were relegated instead. Newcastle’s players might not have known it at the time, but everything they went through that day was rendered irrelelvant by the result from Home Park. Newcastle finished the 1991/92 season in 20th place in the table, four points above the relegation places. It was – and remains – the lowest final league position in the entire history of the club (eclipsing their 19th place finish in the Second Division in 1938), but they had at least survived.
On the last day of the following season, Newcastle were at home to Leicester City, but the circumstances couldn’t have been much different to twelve months earlier. Newcastle had already won the championship and a place in the Premier League, and they raced to a 6-0 lead by half-time, eventually winning the match 7-1. Leicester, who’d started the game in 5th place in the table, subsequently lost 4-3 in the play-off final to Swindon Town at Wembley, after beating Portsmouth in the semi-finals. Kevin Keegan would go on to take Newcastle United into the Champions League and almost to the Premier League title in 1996.
Newcastle United have been relegated twice from the Premier League since 1993, but returned immediately as champions both times, and at the time of writing it seems as though their chances of staying up this season will go to the wire in very much the same way that they did 29 years earlier, with many saying that should they manage to stay up this season, this will be an effect of the paucity of quality below them in the Premier League than anything that this team achieves.
Much as the last decade has been a period of stagnation for the club, though, things were worse at St James Park in the early 1990s. During the couple of years prior to John Hall’s eventual wresting of control of the club from the previous board, the possibility of Newcastle United sliding into insolvency had been very real indeed, whereas a combination of Premier League television money and (in the event that relegation should come to pass this season) parachute payment money should at least insulate the club from the absolute worst of the financial effects of relegation.
For all of that, though, by the end of the 1991/92 season the green shoots of recovery were already starting to show at Newcastle United. The plans were in place to start bringing the ground up to the standards of the 1990s, the new chairman was prepared to splash some money on the team, and the new manager was starting to win fans around, which resulted in him attaining a Messiah-like status within the club’s support within a couple of seasons. Newcastle United might have found themselves excluded from the – some would argue unwarranted – positivity that flowed through the game in this country following the 1990 World Cup, but they were rescued in just enough time to become one of the surprise powerhouses of the early years of the Premier League. It was a position that few would have predicted, on the 20th April 1992.