Bruised by a failed Premier League title challenge, scarred by a Wembley humiliation, Newcastle United stepped on to a rain-sodden St James’ Park pitch with revenge at the forefront of their minds.
Walking out alongside them was the Manchester United team that had inflicted both of those heavy blows upon Kevin Keegan’s side.
The visitors were led by the two men who had broken Newcastle and their inspirational manager just months before this Tyneside showdown. Eric Cantona had struck the only goal of the game in the last Premier League meeting between the two sides seven months earlier. Nerves were frayed and tensions mounted as the Magpies creaked under the pressure. A first top-flight title in sixty-nine years was slipping away.
A 12-point lead was overhauled, Keegan exploded as Sir Alex Ferguson clicked the battle of minds into top gear. With Newcastle beaten and broken, the title went to Old Trafford. A sombre mood enveloped Tyneside for weeks.
But the club gained a moral victory during the summer, when Keegan persuaded Alan Shearer to snub the seemingly guaranteed silverware on offer at Old Trafford to return to his native North East.
Shearer’s arrival was intended to herald a power shift at the top of the Premier League, but the mood darkened again as Newcastle and Man United renewed their rivalry in the Charity Shield. A rampant Red Devils put four past Newcastle without reply and Cantona, predictably, was at the heart of everything.
The scene was now set for their first league meeting of the 1996/97 season on a rainy October day on Tyneside. Despite that chastening Charity Shield defeat, St James’ Park buzzed with expectancy and nervous tension. What followed has gone down in Magpies folklore.
A tentative opening to the game saw both sides showing plenty of endeavour without reward. Then the opening goal arrived and it fell to the hosts.
It was not from the wing wizardry of David Ginola or the jinking Geordie genius of Peter Beardsley that broke the deadlock. Nor was it from the brains or brawn of Keegan’s twin towers Les Ferdinand or Alan Shearer. It didn’t even come from the extravagance of ‘defender’ Philippe Albert – but more of him later.
No, when it arrived, the goal came from the head of the man that provided some defensive ballast to Keegan’s marauding Magpies.
Darren Peacock prowled the edge of the six-yard box as Ginola sent in a corner from the left-hand side. The cross found Shearer around ten yards out and the England striker headed back across goal. As the ball looped towards an unmarked Peacock, he headed tentatively towards goal, more in hope than expectation. Peter Schmeichel, distracted by the close attentions of Ferdinand and Albert, inexplicably allowed the ball to run underneath him.
St James’ erupted, the Gallowgate roared, and the scorer celebrated, almost apologetically.
There was none of the usual Keegan-inspired flair, this was steel and grit where silk was commonplace. Peacock, although proud of his effort, still admits that it was as much a shock to him as it was to the millions watching around the world.
“Alan flicked it, it came towards me and I got on the end of it. I just nodded it towards goal and it’s gone in…apparently,” Peacock recalls.
“That was it, that was really it and even though there were maybe better goals scored, it was the start of something very, very special.”
In reality, that something special had started months before that October day. The match day routine was, in Peacock’s words, “normal”, although something still felt different as Keegan’s men prepared to meet their old foe.
“The mood in the build-up was normal for Newcastle, but that doesn’t mean it is normal for other clubs,” said Peacock.
“There was always a build-up when there was a big game and at that point we were rivaling Manchester United. The whole country were talking about us, we had three thousand [watching] training, the city was buzzing.
“Manchester United had been there and done it. They had the trophies, the players, the manager. But this felt different. We felt the supporters, the city, were right behind us, ready to help us push on an extra notch.
“Everybody felt that. It was expectation and fear and as you walked out on to the pitch it was very evident that the supporters were ready and we knew we had to be ready too.”
After Peacock’s opener, it quickly became clear just how motivated Keegan’s cavaliers were to inflict revenge on their tormentors. The Magpies hassled and harried the visitors, they were sharp and strong in the tackle, bold and brave in attack. But surprisingly, it was not the previous season’s title failure that provided the anger for their energy.
Peacock believes it was the Charity Shield humiliation, and Newcastle’s own performance at Wembley, that caused the sharpest sting and gave them the motivation to exact revenge on their opponents.
“We always remembered the Charity Shield, more than the previous season. We had a clear picture of what had happened at Wembley, we hadn’t played well. We knew we had in the previous game at St James’ Park, but at Wembley we were awful.
“It might not have been such a big deal for Manchester United, but for us at Newcastle, for the players and the supporters, this was huge. We wanted to get one back; not just to win the game, but to play to our maximum, to give something back to the supporters.”
Buoyed by Peacock’s goal, the Magpies laid siege to Schmeichel’s goal. Ginola produced the form that lit up his early days on Tyneside with a sublime turn inside Gary Neville, unleashing a rising shot into the top corner.
Two-nil became three just after the hour mark. In the two clubs’ previous meeting in March, Schmeichel had frustrated the home side with a breathtaking display, denying Ferdinand on several occasions. But this time there was no stopping the powerful striker as he rose to meet a cross from Shearer, the sort of cross that strikers go to bed and dream about receiving every night.
The bar and post were hit, Schmeichel turned quickly, but only to see the ball nestle in his net. Ferdinand celebrated and Shearer gestured towards the Manchester United supporters that had jeered his every touch, still annoyed by his double snub of a move to Old Trafford. His turn would be next.
Beardsley crashed a shot at goal, Schmeichel saved. Ferdinand pounced on the rebound, Schmeichel parried. But Shearer would not be denied. The stretch, as Sky’s Martin Tyler said, “was complete”.
The best was yet to come. The Magpies surpassed their four-goal Wembley woes with a goal that has gone down in Premier League history. Albert strolled forward from his centre-back position, collected a pass from Robert Lee and lofted the ball over Schmeichel in almost arrogant fashion. “Absolutely glorious,” bellowed Tyler.
“Every goal seemed to mean something to us,” Peacock adds. “David, Les, Alan, they all had their own reasons to celebrate their goals. But Philippe’s meant something to all of us, not just because it was such a beautiful goal.
“It meant we went past four, the four they had scored at Wembley. We knew they were gone, we knew we would keep going forward. We kept possession, we kept moving and passing and the fifth goal came from that.
“Philippe is widely loved at Newcastle and it wasn’t a typical defender’s goal. The football before it, the finish, the noise and celebrations, and the fact it meant we eclipsed their four at Wembley – it was a unique moment in our careers and a special moment for the whole of Newcastle.”
The following week saw Manchester United beaten 6-3 at Southampton as Newcastle also dropped points with a 2-0 defeat at Leicester City. By the time Ferguson’s side lifted the title, Keegan had shocked St James’ by leaving his post. Part of Newcastle’s hopes and dreams went with him.
The Magpies, now under the guidance of Kenny Dalglish, finished second, but something was missing. It was the end of The Entertainers era for Newcastle.
For Peacock, the memories will always remain; an understanding of what Newcastle United can be, and the sense of belonging he felt for the first, and perhaps only time, in his career.
That sense of belonging brought him to our meeting at a social club in Fleetwood, where a group of Newcastle fans travelled to meet him and several other former Magpies to hear of their tales in black and white. He was rewarded, too, with the presentation of a silver salver, a token of appreciation.
“We had such a great team, with special individuals, and it was the outstanding game. The goals we scored, how we played, the way we frustrated them, it all stays with me even now.
“They weren’t used to being beaten in that manner, they were frustrated, and they were annoyed. People say you didn’t win anything and, of course, we didn’t. But that day stands out. It was a special time for everyone within the club, within the city and to be part of it will live with me for the rest of my life.”
For the vast majority of the 36,000 fans inside St James’ Park on that October day in 1996, those ninety minutes will live with them for the rest of their lives too.