BACK in the season 1991-92, the former Spurs and Argentinean World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles was finding it hard to come to terms with the pressure of rebuilding an ailing Newcastle United having taken over from Jim Smith as boss.
Newcastle slumped to bottom of the Second Division table for only the fourth time in their history. Ardiles had to do something special to halt a slide that was sending Newcastle United into Division Three in what was their official Centenary Year. At the same time, actions off the football field were creating headlines with Sir John Hall's Magpie Group making a sustained bid to control the club.
Sir John Hall, the Tyneside entrepreneur and property developer, eventually gained part control of the Magpies which resulted in a boardroom restructuring in November 1991. However, at the very first meeting of the new management, United fans witnessed a shock coup. It was a move that came about because of the horrendous economic plight of the club.
Sir John noted, "We are haemorrhaging money at the rate of between £600,000 and £700,000 a year in interest charges. The financial position is such that we have reached a point where I couldn't sit on the sidelines any longer". United's worsening position needed drastic action, and very quickly.
Newcastle needed Sir John's financial muscle and business acumen. He took on the biggest challenge of his life, to transform United into the one of football's super-clubs with his enterprise and drive. In the coming months the Cameron Hall empire would overhaul the club from top to bottom. He was one step away from a complete take-over and rebirth of the Magpies.
For the next few months a power struggle developed as the old regime battled to counter Sir John's dynamism. Eventually the Magpie Group succeeded, and Newcastle United never looked back.
In the dressing-room Ardiles had little to offer in attempting to reverse his side's flagging fortunes. The board recognised they had to make a change and rapidly to have any chance of saving the club from relegation.
Following a low point in an away fixture against Oxford during February 1992, a game in which the black'n'whites lost 5-2, Ardiles was sacked and immediately replaced by Kevin Keegan - out of football since leaving the Magpies back in 1984.
When Keegan took over at St James Park it was a sensational appointment which captured the whole nation's imagination. Installed as a consultant-manager until the end of the season, he had one job - to save the club from relegation. Failure would almost certainly result in the club going under. That was unthinkable, but a real possibility.
The former England skipper inspired his players and by the time of the do-or-die confrontation took place at Filbert Street, Leicester at the end of the season, United had been on a roller-coaster of emotions as they fought against the drop.
Keegan used all his motivating skills to gee up his team for the final contest against promotion chasing Leicester. He noted, "We need a result, but we'll get it, survive and take-off". And Newcastle did exactly what the manager predicted.
In a white-hot atmosphere Gavin Peacock gave United a first-half lead, but Leicester rallied and grabbed a late equaliser to the agony of the massed United support. However Peacock was always a menace and Newcastle immediately hit-back in the dying minutes as United's star-man forced defender Steve Walsh into an injury time own-goal to give the Magpies a deserved 2-1 victory.
Three points which guaranteed Second Division football and with it, the Magpies' future. United's triumph in adversity was the turning point in Newcastle's fortunes.
Following United's amazing escape from the brink a few weeks earlier, Sir John Hall quickly moved to consolidate his position in control of affairs at St James Park. Rapidly he made decisive moves behind the scenes to force a total take-over.
The Chairman began planning a vast transformation of St James Park and overhaul of the club's finances. Backed by his son Douglas and Tyneside businessman Freddie Shepherd, as well as the considerable drive of Freddie Fletcher, the new managerial team persuaded Kevin Keegan to take a full-time appointment as boss during the summer of 1992.
The board were always convinced that only one man could lead Newcastle out of the relegation mire in the early '90s. Someone with a Midas touch, an inspiration to the legions of United supporters who longed for someone to lead and motivate them.
Keegan's charisma was never in doubt. He had to lift an indifferent team out of the relegation zone. And that was always going to be a tough task. But he received the backing of the board and the fans. Supporters flocked back to St James Park, just as they had done in 1982 when Keegan first arrived. Gallowgate - and the whole of Tyneside - buzzed with football fever.
Keegan began to build for the coming 1992-93 season. Cash was released, despite the growing debts - now effectively underwritten by the Cameron-Hall multi-million pound empire.
Keegan, supported ably by his assistant, former United and Liverpool star Terry McDermott, made three key signings in the summer months bringing versatile defender Barry Venison from Liverpool, John Beresford north from Portsmouth and luring Sunderland's skipper Paul Bracewell from Wear to Tyne.
He was to splash out another £700,000 early into the season on Charlton Athletic's highly rated striker and midfield player Robert Lee. And the ambition was there for all to see when a huge £3m bid - alas an unsuccessful one - was made to land Southampton's goalpoacher Alan Shearer.
Newcastle opened the new season in stunning fashion. They roared to a victorious start and simply could not stop winning! United registered ten wins out of ten games played, a maximum of 30 points, and galloped clear of the First Division field.
The country took notice as the Tynesiders began to capture the nation's imagination. Displaying a brand of football full of attacking ideas, tremendous workrate, great spirit as well as a solid back four, Newcastle reached 11 victories in succession with a splendid performance against Sunderland at Roker Park.
That notable success took United in sight of the record books, but then unfashionable Grimsby Town arrived at Gallowgate and spoiled the party, winning with a last minute goal. Yet Newcastle's run had been quite sensational, especially when compared to the previous season's efforts. It was the springboard that Keegan needed. United were clear at the top of the table.
A buzz of anticipation covered Tyneside. Both players and supporters were on the crest of a wave. The sleeping giant had awoken.
Before the final run-in to the season, Keegan splashed out in the transfer market. Scott Sellars came from Leeds United and during March the manager broke the club's record transfer by paying £1.75m for Bristol City's exciting young striker Andy Cole.
Although the big fee United paid was classed by many as a gamble for a player with limited experience, Keegan's judgement was proved ever so right. Cole rapidly developed into a natural goalscorer with devastating pace and expert placement of his shot. Within a few short months he was the new Number 9 hero to the Toon Army.
Newcastle clinched promotion into the Premier League with a fixture at Grimsby Town during May. A Geordie invasion engulfed Cleethorpes and Blundell Park and they witnessed a 2-0 scoreline and with it joyous scenes on the final whistle. Partying lasted all week with the final home fixture of the season against Leicester City proving a fitting finale to a marvellous season.
Newcastle were crowned Football League Champions with all the pomp and celebration of a club that had yearned for success for so long. And then the black'n'whites turned on a performance that astounded everyone, including millions on television. At half-time they ran off to rapturous acclaim 6-0 ahead! They tore Leicester apart - a good side already in the play-offs - with brilliant team play. With Newcastle going onto win 7-1, both David Kelly and Andy Cole registered hat-tricks.
Attendances, which had dwindled to an average of 17,267 the previous season, jumped dramatically to almost 30,000.
Activity was hectic at St James Park during the summer months of 1993 as Newcastle United made sure they were ready on and off the field for their first taste of the Premiership.
Ground redevelopment was well underway and manager Keegan had money to spend. Media speculation was rife that several players were heading north to Tyneside.
The signing to catch the public's imagination was the £1.5m homecoming of Peter Beardsley who returned to Tyneside from Everton. At over 30 years of age some doubted the wisdom of paying so much for a player at the end of his career, but Keegan knew his man. Beardsley was to be the key player in a United side that took the Premiership by storm.
Yet the Magpies had to cope without their little playmaker for the opening weeks after he sustained a broken jaw, and took a while to come to terms with the higher standard of football. United though, gradually found their feet and displayed a brand of football that gave Keegan's men the tag of The Entertainers.
An emphatic 3-0 success over Liverpool was the benchmark in United's progress. For long the men from Liverpool had dominated in Tyne-Mersey clashes. Now it was Newcastle's turn. The Anfield side were outplayed and outclassed by a slick moving Magpie machine with Andy Cole - fast becoming a noted centre-forward - grabbing a first-half hat-trick. United also took three points from the return meeting at Anfield to emphasise their newly found status.
Midway through the season a significant moment took place when Kevin Keegan signed a ten year contract. Keegan had shown in a short time that he was capable of managing a top side - few on Tyneside ever doubted that, but many away from the region had to be convinced.
He had transformed the Magpies from an outfit facing the Third Division trapdoor to one capable of challenging for the Premier League title, importantly in a style that impressed everyone.
Newcastle's manager soon splashed out in the transfer market now that cash was rolling into the Gallowgate bank account from every angle. Keegan spent over £2m on Norwich City's exciting winger Ruel Fox and then £2.7m on QPR centre-half Darren Peacock. Both were record signings for the Magpies.
Newcastle ending the 1993-94 season on a high. During March they played five games and won five games with a total of 17 games scored. Included was a magnificent seven against poor Swindon Town on Tyneside.
Newcastle targeted a European place and thrashed Aston Villa by five goals, on the day that Andy Cole grabbed his 40th goal of the season to create a new scoring record for the club. Newcastle finished in a creditable 3rd place behind Champions Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers. They ended the season as the Premiership's record goalscorers with 82 goals. They were back in the big-time.
At the start of the 1994-95 season many in the game tipped United for a trophy that Kevin Keegan was desperate to bring to Tyneside. Sir John Hall was looking further ahead, he noted, "My ambition is to see this club, within the next five years, established as one of the top three in the United Kingdom and, over the next ten years, amongst the top ten in Europe".
New faces arrived on Tyneside as Keegan continued his policy of being a buying manager. World Cup stars from USA 94, Belgium's Philippe Albert and Switzerland's Marc Hottiger were added to the squad and later Paul Kitson came from Derby County.
As the campaign started the Magpies' flowing football was on song. Passing was quick, accurate and the one-touch interplay was a pleasure to watch. And when they got into the box defenders couldn't handle the Cole led attack.
In Europe United thrashed Royal Antwerp 11-2 on aggregate and made their mark within the corridors of UEFA. Newcastle recorded a club record of nine wins in a row and not surprisingly were top of the Premiership and opening up a points gap. But the promising start was not sustained.
Following an exit in the UEFA Cup to Athletic Bilbao - a tie Newcastle should have won - the side appeared to have been affected by that Euro exit and consistency was difficult to maintain.
They were also ravaged by injury for the rest of the season and looked second best to Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers in the title race. Both clubs were to pass the black'n'whites as Newcastle slipped down the table and missed a European place.
And the disappointing season also saw Keegan stun the football world by selling the new King of Tyneside, Andy Cole to rivals Manchester United for a record £7m - then an unheard of sum in England. Cole had not asked for a move, but Keegan had decided to cash in on the goalscoring gem he had turned from an unknown into a hero. United's manager was intent on a change in strategy. He now had over £10m to bolster his squad and find a replacement for Cole.
The manager could also rely on extra funds from his board who backed Keegan to the limit. The club's tremendous economic recovery continued unabated. Before Sir John Hall took the Magpies under his control, turnover was a modest £4m in 1990 and less than £9m in the financial year ending 1993.
By the time the club had concluded their first season in the Premier League it had shot up to £17m, projected to reach over £40m by the end of the decade. St James Park was at capacity for every game. They were now second only to Manchester United in financial muscle.
Kevin Keegan was determined to make sure that he had a squad to sustain a long Premiership season and make a serious bid for silverware. In the close season of 1995 that saw millions of pounds exchange hands for top players from home and abroad, Newcastle United led the way and created football fever on Tyneside.
Wimbledon's Warren Barton was purchased for £4m, then Keegan landed his replacement for Andy Cole, paying £6m for Les Ferdinand from QPR. Soon after he brought the talented Paris St Germain forward David Ginola to England, a signing that captivated the Toon Army - and then spent more on goalkeeper Shaka Hislop. Keegan had assembled a formidable squad, one that was to take Manchester United all the way in the title race.
For much of the 1995-96 season Newcastle United had everything absolutely right. They roared to the top of the table and had a comfortable points advantage over their rivals from Old Trafford. Their football was scintillating. In attack, Les Ferdinand was outstanding, served on each wing by Ginola and Keith Gillespie who arrived at Gallowgate as part of the Cole deal. Peter Beardsley and Rob Lee were prompting from midefield and grabbing goals too.
Newcastle played like and looked like stylish Champions. And soon to be added to the squad were England's David Batty who arrived from Blackburn, and the Colombian international Tino Asprilla, who cost £7.5m from Italian club Parma. It seemed that Keegan could not be stopped in lifting the club's first Title trophy since 1927.
Over the Christmas period United held a lead of ten points over Manchester United, but a defeat by the Reds at Old Trafford was a crucial blow which United never really recovered from. And the pressure from all quarters mounted on the players and manager - not to mention the supporters.
The crucial run-in to the title started with a momentous clash with Manchester United at St James Park. It was a game that the black'n'whites needed to win to keep the Reds at bay. And they played to form as they dominated a match but could not score, then watched in agony as Eric Cantona stole the points to put the Reds back in the hunt for the Championship trophy.
United lost to Arsenal, then took part in a thrilling but heart-breaking encounter with Liverpool at Anfield. Newcastle lost 4-3 with a last minute goal from Stan Collymore. Newcastle kept winning their home games, but couldn't hold onto leads when away from Tyneside. United then faced three crucial away games in six days as the season reached its peak, a week which would decide the destination of the Premier League trophy.
Newcastle travelled to face Blackburn Rovers and dominated the match. David Batty gave United a 1-0 advantage with only 15 minutes left of the contest. United had one hand on the title trophy. But Newcastle's Achilles heel - their inability to defend stoutly when in front - caused their downfall. In the dying seconds Blackburn's substitute Graham Fenton - ironically a Geordie - netted twice to grab the points from the Tynesider's grasp.
United then won at Leeds thanks to a Keith Gillespie goal, then faced Nottingham Forest at the City Ground. Again the Magpies had one hand on the silverware when Peter Beardsley's glorious goal hit the back of the net and then missed several chances to claim the points. To the frustration of their fans, once more they let the game slip when Ian Woan crashed home a characteristic long range shot for the equaliser.
The Championship was now in Manchester United's hands and they didn't let it slip. They won the title with Newcastle a demoralised runner-up after leading the pack for most of the season. Peter Beardsley was to record in his biography, "We had ourselves to blame", while Kevin Keegan noted in the club's magazine, "We have played some wonderful football and I'm well aware that most of the neutral fans in this country feel that we've entertained them better than any other club. But that's not a consolation - I wanted Newcastle United to be champions and we're not the champions".
Copyright: P. Joannou, Newcastle United Club Historian