Rolling Back The Years: On attacking football, a Premier League classic, and one team (and manager) that lost more than just a match...
It has been widely accepted as the greatest match of the Premier League era.
A seven-goal thriller, between two top-of-the-table sides, that was ended in fitting fashion—with a stoppage-time winner in front of the exultant home fans.
It is a game that has entered into the lore of the league, held up as an example of the great entertainment it can provide. But such immortalisation came at a price.
Both sides won fans that day but the losers, Newcastle United, lost more than just three points.
They also effectively lost their shot at the league title, their manager (who, pushed by fans and the media, began to lose confidence in his tactical approach) and, within a few seasons, their short tenure as one of England's best sides.
A Must-Win Encounter
Newcastle arrived at Anfield on April 30, 1996 still hoping that a first top-flight title in 69 years could be theirs.
Twelve points ahead of Manchester United at one point early in the campaign, Kevin Keegan’s men now entered the run-in three points behind United but with two games in hand.
While that position still looked reasonably promising, the club’s recent form had not been. Three defeats in five matches—including a 2-0 loss at Arsenal in their last encounter—had suggested that, while the wheels had not fallen off the bandwagon just yet, they were certainly starting to loosen a little.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were plotting a different trajectory. They too had lost their previous league match (to Nottingham Forest), but that only ended a 21-match unbeaten streak that had drawn them to the fringes of the title race. Now eight points behind United with a game in hand (with seven games still to play), Roy Evans had not completely given up hope of an unlikely title charge.
Victory against Newcastle would be crucial to that ambition, of course.
In that aim he was helped by his opposite number, who refused to curb his attacking instincts—even when not losing this away match was arguably more important than winning. Keegan named Peter Beardsley, David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and Faustino Asprilla in his 4-4-2, an attacking quartet that left David Batty and Robert Lee (who himself liked to roam forward) with a lot of plugging to do in central midfield.
Evans, meanwhile, had a similar array of attacking talent to choose from—with Steve McManaman playing behind Stan Collymore and Robbie Fowler in a talented, if occasionally inconsistent, trident.
He also played three at the back to focus on Asprilla and Ferdinand, with the defensively minded Rob Jones and Jason McAteer shackling Beardsley and Ginola in a five-man midfield designed to hog possession.
“We were third and Newcastle were second and we were going to try to keep things tight and try to nick a win,” Collymore later noted to the Guardian. “We always fancied ourselves to score at home, but we'd have been happy with a 1-0 with a goal going in off someone's shin.”
A Game of Style Not Substance
Whether it was the system or nerves on the part of the visitors, Liverpool needed just two minutes to take the lead—although rather than the shin it came off a more orthodox part of the body, the forehead.
Fowler started and finished the move, picking the ball up in midfield before laying it off and making a beeline for the far post, arriving just in time to meet Collymore’s deep cross.
Newcastle responded positively to that setback, and were on level terms within ten minutes. Again, it was the strike partnership that created and scored the goal; Asprilla darting into the box before providing a cutback that Ferdinand smashed in off the underside of the crossbar. David James, however, perhaps could have done better.
Another four minutes later, and Newcastle were ahead. Jones, in a rare attempt at an attacking foray, was dispossessed, sparking a counterattack from the away side. Ferdinand released Ginola through on goal down the left, and the mercurial Frenchman made no mistake in slotting past the onrushing James.
The first half could not continue at such a pace, and although Liverpool had chances to equalise—Jamie Redknapp firing over from long range, and Fowler slipping narrowly wide while being crowded in the penalty box—the home side duly went in 2-1 down at half-time.
Perhaps grateful for the 15 minutes of rest, the second half started at a frantic rate. Lee and John Scales saw great openings at opposite ends of the pitch both desperately denied, before Liverpool finally got back on terms.
Ginola, after another charmed run, was slow to track back when his deflected strike looped harmlessly into the arms of James, and the goalkeeper exploited that inattention as he released the ball to McAteer to begin a counter down Liverpool’s right.
The Irishman lofted the ball to McManaman upfield, who dribbled into the box and slide the ball across for Fowler to drive emphatically home.
The England international celebrated by sliding head first into the goal, perhaps an indication of the frenzy this contest was beginning to create.
Just two minutes later, however, Newcastle’s lead was restored. A poor throw-in saw Liverpool lose the ball in the Newcastle half, with Beardsley wriggling free of attention to find the breaking Lee inside the centre-circle.
Spotting that Asprilla ahead of him had drifted in behind Ruddock (who seemed to think Scales, deeper and over on the right-hand side of the pitch, was playing a high line with him), Lee found the Colombian—who showed a clinical edge to clip the ball over James as the goalkeeper rushed from his line to try and clear the through ball.
Then it became the Stan Collymore Show. The former Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace striker’s stay at Liverpool was an inconsistent one, but, for this game as much as any other, it perhaps remains the club he is most identified with.
With 20 minutes remaining he got Liverpool’s second equaliser of the night, turning home a pinpoint cross from McAteer (getting more and more freedom from Ginola down the right) that cut Pavel Srnicek out of proceedings entirely.
“Jason McAteer is much like David Beckham in a way, he didn't need to beat the man but would put in crosses from deep,” Collymore remembered. “I just gambled and I was in the right place when the cross came in.”
That set up a dramatic finish, with Liverpool in the ascendancy but only a close miss from Fowler to show for their endeavour. The game duly ticked into injury time, with Liverpool desperate for the win they knew they needed if that title dream was to stay alive.
It was the unlikely figure of Scales who would be crucial in starting the attack, the defender turning away from Ferdinand before giving and receiving back the ball from substitute Ian Rush.
Scales then found John Barnes, who burst into the box after another smart one-two with Rush (who had replaced Jones on the 85th minute in Evans’ final roll of the dice). Barnes found Rush again 20 yards out, as the Wales legend tried to find space for a shot.
That desire led him to jink left—straight into the path of Barnes, as the two players scrambled to get out of each other’s way as the crowd reached fever pitch. As Newcastle’s defensive ranks closed in it was Rush who demurred to his teammate, with Barnes suddenly the centre of attention.
But with the away side desperately focused on him, Barnes was the only player to notice Collymore ghosting in from the left and found him with a smart pass.
That set the stage for No. 8 to take a touch a unleash one of the most famous goals in Premier League history.
“All I can remember thinking was 'Hit the target,'” Collymore recalled. “I wanted to hit it across Pavel Srnicek, which is what you're supposed to do. But I hit it so hard that it beat him at his near post.
"I didn't know what to feel after. It was fantastic. I ran over to the Kop and was thinking: ‘What have I done?’”
With Keegan slumped over the advertising hoardings in front of the away dugout and the crowd still hysterical, the referee blew the final whistle. Liverpool had won.
In the post-match press conferences, the differing views of the two managers could not have been starker.
Evans, while delighted with the win, acknowledged that it was not a style of play that any team could sustain for long. Liverpool would not always be this expansive.
“To be fair, it was kamikaze defending,” Evans, whose side would lose to lowly Coventry in their very next match, said. “Managers would be dead within six months if every game was like that.”
Yet, despite such a pivotal defeat, Keegan remained adamant about his philosophy.
In private he had apparently already romanticised the 90 minutes ("I know I should be disappointed, but I'm elated,” he later recalled, also reported by the Guardian, telling his assistant manager at the final whistle) while in public he cut a more bullish figure.
"We shall go on playing this way, playing the same sort of players, or I will go," he stated. "If we do not win anything, so be it."
It would prove to be a prophetic remark.
Newcastle never recovered from the defeat, with Keegan’s infamous meltdown—”I would love it if we beat them”—just four weeks away. Time and time again paying the price for over-committing in attack, Keegan was criticised ever more for a perceived cavalier approach.
“I am appalled by the criticism,” Newcastle’s chairman, Sir John Hall, felt compelled to respond at one point. “These people should remember this club was heading for the old Third Division when Kevin took over.”
Newcastle eventually finished four points behind Manchester United (who lost just one of their last six games), with Liverpool—perhaps emotionally exhausted from the win at Anfield—seven points further back in third.
By January of 1997, Keegan, still facing criticism for his style even as his team remained in the title race the next season, would resign from the club he loved.
"I feel I have taken the club as far as I can and that it would be in the best interest of all concerned if I resign now," he said in a statement.
The more reasoned reaction to his departure (the Daily Mail ran with the headline "Fans Weep as King Kevin Abdicates") was illuminating.
As the New York Times story read:
Keegan had responded to soccer's increasingly global talent market like an inquisitive boy in the toy shop. He bought mainly exotic, attacking players.
He believed in characters such as Colombia's Faustino Asprilla and France's David Ginola. Their flair is hypnotic, but while Keegan dared to put them together, he neglected to secure the defence behind them.
It was this fault—a blindness to the pragmatic side of soccer—that eventually caused him to resign.
As football got ever more rational, Keegan’s free-flowing approach was too flawed to deliver trophies. But it did deliver one of the greatest matches in the league’s history, a moment when the sport hit a new note of dramatic expression.
Whether that truly remains a consolation to him, only he knows.