More than 25 years ago, Manchester United pulled off one of the most extraordinary transfers in English football history.
In January 1995, Newcastle United’s talisman Andy Cole was prised from St James’s Park for a British record £7 million, with flying winger Keith Gillespie heading to Tyneside as a £1m makeweight.
It was the first seismic transfer of the Premier League era and the deal sent shockwaves through the world of the sport.
And although Gillespie went on to enjoy a stellar career after life at Old Trafford, in some quarters the Northern Irishman is best remembered for his involvement in Alex Ferguson’s mind-blowing transfer.
Considering his achievements in the game, that is rather imprudent. After all, he was an integral member of the buccaneering Newcastle side that came tantalisingly close to beating Man United to the Premier League title in 1996. He also achieved 86 caps for his country, played Champions League football and worked for some of the most iconic managers in world football.
But it doesn’t bother Gillespie in the slightest.
“Not at all,” he stresses. “Obviously I didn’t play the amount of games I wanted to at Manchester United – I only played in 14 – but it’s 14 more than a lot of people.
“You get people who call me a Man United reject, but I don’t think I was.”
Despite scoring on his debut as a 17-year-old in an FA Cup victory over Bury, Gillespie, who had graduated from the famous FA Youth Cup-winning side of 1992, couldn’t displace Andrei Kanchelskis in the first XI.
At that time, clubs were limited to naming a maximum of three foreign players in their European squads and as Gillespie wasn’t English, he was the ideal makeweight for Cole – the hottest striker in the Premier League.
Gillespie was still a teenager and his ability to run at full backs with frightening pace had already attracted the attention of Keegan, who’d had a bid turned down for the tyro only months earlier. Newcastle were knocking on the door of the top six and under the guidance of the attack-minded Keegan, were a club on the up.
“I could have turned the deal down and if I had, Andy Cole wouldn’t have gone to Manchester United,” says Gillespie. “It’s as simple as that.
“Ferguson was great, he was fantastic with me and we had a great relationship. But he had watched his side lose 4-0 to Barcelona not long before the move, with Peter Schmeichel left in the stands because he was a foreigner. He really wanted an English striker.
“Fortunately for me, the pressure was on Andy Cole because of the size of the transfer. For me, the most important thing was to hit the ground running at Newcastle and I was able to do that.
“I remember my home debut and getting the ball after about 40 seconds and skinning the full back. I knew from that moment I’d have the fans on board.”
Gillespie was a revelation on Tyneside, playing a starring role as the Magpies built an incredible 12-point lead over his former club in an unforgettable campaign.
His form, perhaps, prompted Ferguson to regret his decision to let Gillespie go. When the Scot fell out with Kanchelskis and sold him to Everton just six months after Gillespie had departed, Ferguson made contact with Keegan in an attempt to bring him back to the club. The approach was rejected, but it showed how highly Ferguson rated the Bangor-born boy.
Gillespie was happy to stay in the north east, but he was helpless as his former club produced one of the Premier League’s greatest-ever comebacks, as United pipped Newcastle to the title.
Gary Lineker, then a BBC pundit, claimed Keegan’s decision to drop Gillespie in the latter part of the season was one of the main reasons for their spectacular collapse.
The decision to bring in Colombian striker Faustino Asprilla in February prompted a change in system and Gillespie was the fall guy.
“I was the youngest player in the squad and we’d had such a successful season by playing a 4-4-2, with me on the right and David Ginola on the left,” explains Gillespie.
“But we brought in Tino Asprilla, who was to play up front with Les Ferdinand. Peter Beardsley was a fantastic player, one of the best I’ve ever played with, but he moved to the right-hand side of midfield – and Peter Beardsley isn’t a winger. He’d played in behind Les all season.
“It was the easy decision to drop me. Rob Lee had told me he was going to speak to the manager, to tell him he wanted me restored to the wing. Eventually it happened and I scored the winner against Leeds on the night Kevin had his rant.
“If it’s not broke, why try to fix it? We were going along nicely and then we change our whole formation.”
Unfortunately, it was too late. But Gillespie wasn’t one to hold a grudge.
“I would have run through a brick wall for him [Keegan],” he said. “I would have played under him forever.
“I hold nothing against Kevin Keegan. I know everything he did for Newcastle was because he thought it was right. Maybe on this instance, it wasn’t right, but he wasn’t to know that.”
They say nobody remembers who finishes second, but the Newcastle team of 1996 went down in history. Against all odds they almost brought the first top-flight title back to Tyneside since 1927.
“There was probably only one person who believed we could win the league and that was Kevin Keegan,” Gillespie tells The Set Pieces.
“He’s such an infectious character and after the first six games, we’d won five. He had us believing we could win it.
“Training was just so enjoyable and we just loved being around him. His man management was the best I’ve ever seen. It’s such an important trait to have as a manager because you have so many people to keep happy.
“Most times the league table doesn’t lie, but it probably did that season. You can look at certain moments in seasons that change things and, for me, the biggest one was when we played Manchester United at home and lost 1-0 despite dominating the match.
“Keegan was absolutely devastated at the end of the season. It was disappointing we didn’t get over the line for him because if we did, we could have really built something at Newcastle.”
In Ferguson and Keegan, Gillespie had already worked under two of English football’s most famous names. But he would also be managed by Bryan Robson, Graeme Souness and Kenny Dalglish, who had the almost impossible job of replacing Keegan.
“I was really devastated [when Keegan left] and I think everyone was,” recalls Gillespie. “Nobody saw it coming. He was the best manager I’ve worked under.
“It was always going to be difficult to replace someone so successful, an idol in the eyes of the fans. When you replace him with a name like Kenny Dalglish, though, it was almost considered the perfect replacement. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out like that, even though I loved working under Kenny.
“It’s funny because he was someone I disliked so much because he was Liverpool and I was a Manchester United fan. But we had a brilliant relationship.”
Dalglish would oversee one of the greatest nights in Newcastle’s recent history when they defeated Barcelona 3-2 in the club’s first-ever Champions League match, with Gillespie producing a blistering performance – setting up two goals for Asprilla and torturing Spanish left-back Sergi.
But he was dismissed by chairman Freddie Shepherd after two draws in the opening games in the subsequent 1998-99 season.
Gillespie doesn’t have such fond memories of his replacement, Ruud Gullit, however, who was to cut his career at the club short.
“He came in with an ego,” says Gillespie. “You’ve got players like Rob Lee, who he didn’t give a squad number to. You’ve got Alan Shearer, who he left on the bench in a derby game against Sunderland, which is absolutely incredible when you think back on that even now.
“If you come in with a big ego, you have to back it up with results. And he didn’t do that.”
The players were used to the warmth of Keegan and Dalglish, but Gullit was the exact opposite, effectively giving Gillespie the cold shoulder.
“The first time I had a conversation with Gullit was in a restaurant when I was out with my family,” explains Gillespie.
“He took me to one side and explained about the style of football he had wanted to play.”
That was the last conversation Gillespie would have with the Dutchman.
“I’ve no idea why he blanked me, especially after the positive conversation we had,” the Northern Irishman says.
“I think everyone was excited at the time of his appointment because we thought we were getting a big-name manager, but it just didn’t work for him.”
From the highs of topping Barcelona on a night that’s gone down in Newcastle folklore, Gillespie found himself moving to Blackburn just over a year later, where he suffered the agony of relegation.
“I was Brian Kidd’s first signing and he was great to work under, so I went from working under someone who barely spoke to me, to someone who I had grown up with,” adds Gillespie.
With Rovers struggling to make an impact in Division One, Kidd was to be replaced as manager by Souness in November 1999. And for Gillespie, playing for the Scot was like deja-vu.
“I played the first four games [under Souness] and I’d done really well. We weren’t going to get promoted or relegated and we couldn’t make the play-offs, so he was looking at players for next season.
“I was on the bench for the last six games and when I came back for pre-season, he just never spoke to me.
“I had no relationship with him. It was really strange. I’d walk past him in the morning and he’d walk straight past me.”
A loan move to Wigan would follow for Gillespie and shortly after his return, he was restored to the first team, helping Rovers return to the Promised Land.
“I played the majority of the games in the Premier League, but I still don’t understand why he [Souness] treated me like that,” Gillespie wonders.
“He admitted he was hard on me in his book – but he never gave a reason.”
Gillespie spent almost five years at Ewood Park, where he won the Worthington Cup – with none other than Andy Cole scoring the winner against Tottenham – before spells at Sheffield United and Bradford.
Now 45, Gillespie recently came out of retirement to play for amateur Northern Ireland club FC Mindwell, launched to raise awareness of mental health problems in men. And he looks back on his career with fondness.
“I had good and bad times but it’s always important to remember the good times, you can’t have ups all the time,” he adds.
“I feel very fortunate to ply my trade across the water for so long and play for the clubs I did.
“I played for some of the biggest managers in football. When you look at the Premier League and the managers I worked under, there maybe isn’t a player who’s worked under those kinds of names: Alex Ferguson, Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit and Graeme Souness. Five of the biggest.”
Names that belie Gillespie’s tag as the other man.