THE result of the 1995/96 title race was to affect United in the following season, although to start with Keegan was doubly determined to win that elusive but most important trophy in the country.
The football world was shocked as Newcastle United paid a world record fee of £15m to bring Alan Shearer back to his native Tyneside during the summer, a deal that showed the rest of the game that the club were indeed a big player - and intent in claiming success on the field.
Shearer's purchase was a coup. Hailed the best centre-forward in Europe at the time, his Geordie background gave him massive fan support and the pairing of Ferdinand and Shearer up front was to prove a devastating combination. Newcastle though, started with something of a hangover from the previous season's title race.
They lost embarrassingly to Manchester United in the FA Charity Shield and took a while to develop tactics to suit the Shearer-Ferdinand double strike-force. But after a victory at Roker Park, Sunderland, the team clicked and goals flowed, culminating in a wonderful 5-0 revenge victory over Manchester United at St James Park. Newcastle were back on top of the table again and favourites to lift the Championship.
But fate was not on Newcastle's side. Injuries disrupted plans with crucially both Shearer and Ferdinand out for spells. United slipped from top spot. And behind the scenes the club was going through a major floatation to transform the club into a plc - a move that was to raise massive funds, but also rock the foundations as Kevin Keegan became a high profile casualty.
The pressure that had mounted on the manager was immense. Last season's championship failure had taken its toll on Keegan - even to the point of resignation. And the floatation required a commitment from Newcastle's boss that he would be around as United developed from a private company to one publicly owned. That was not forthcoming and relationships between manager and certain sections of the board deteriorated.
Events came to a head over the New Year holiday period when after almost five years in charge Kevin Keegan left Newcastle with bitterness. During January the football world was stunned as the Magpies had to find a new man to lead their challenge. Sir John Hall said in Black and White magazine, "The job he did for us was just phenomenal. He has lifted our stature to such an extent that we are now recognised as one of the top clubs in Europe".
Newcastle's directors did not take long to appoint a new manager. Within days Kenny Dalglish was installed at St James Park - one of the few men who could step into Keegan's shoes. With a track record as a player and manager second to none, he appeared the ideal choice.
But there was to be a stark contrast between the two as Dalglish began to dismantle Keegan's bright, entertaining line-up, full of goals and big names and develop his own less flamboyant outfit which found goals hard to come by, resulting in the entertainment value dropping alarmingly.
But to start with most United supporters were content with the appointment and Dalglish took time to assess the squad he had inherited. Most judges considered all the new manager had to do was to add two or three players to Keegan's squad - especially at the back to strengthen the defence.
For the remaining programme of the 1996-97 season, Dalglish guided United on the right tracks for a European place again. Without hitting the headlines, the Magpies even found themselves with an outside chance of the title as the last month of the season unfolded. Newcastle took the points at Arsenal and had to win at West Ham to have any chance of catching Manchester United in the title race. But United could only draw and the Reds once again lifted the trophy.
Newcastle though, following a 5-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, clinched their second successive Runners-up spot and with it a place in the new and highly lucrative European Champions League.
Season 1997-98 was to be another campaign of highs and lows. Dalglish began wheeling and dealing in the transfer market. One of the first players to go was the popular and matchwinning genius of David Ginola who joined Tottenham.
Quickly to follow was Les Ferdinand, also sold to Spurs, ironically during the same weekend that Alan Shearer fractured his fibula and badly ruptured ligaments. Newcastle supporters were not happy.
After boasting the best pair of strikers in the Premiership, backed by the best provider, Newcastle had lost them all. Dalglish brought in a line of new faces, including veterans Ian Rush, John Barnes and Stuart Pearce. None though were in the same top quality mould as Keegan's signings.
The black'n'whites entered the Champions League with a patched up line-up and after qualifying with a two legged victory against Croatia Zagreb, Newcastle were drawn in the Group stage alongwith Dynamo Kiev, PSV and the mighty Barcelona.
It was a quite a test. But Newcastle did have one player in Tino Asprilla who kept his best football for European occasions. The temperamental Colombian had not been a great success in Premiership action, but did continually find the net when in continental mode.
United opened their Champions League campaign with an epic against Barcelona at Gallowgate. It was a game beamed around the world and Newcastle showed impressive style as they stormed into a 3-0 lead with a brilliant Asprilla hat-trick.
Although the Spanish giants pulled two goals back late into the game, Newcastle's performance was hailed as one of their best ever. For an hour they outclassed Barcelona and around 200 million enthusiasts watched around the world on television.
After that opening Newcastle struggled in their remaining games, mainly due to injury problems, losing Asprilla on top of their loss of both Ferdinand and Shearer. They drew in Kiev but lost both games against the Dutch, and lost 1-0 on a rain soaked evening in Barcelona. Failing to qualify for the next stage United signed off with a 2-0 home victory over Dynamo Kiev, the group's top team.
In domestic football Dalglish's side also struggled to maintain a Premiership challenge. During the second half of the season Newcastle were heading down the table rather than up and were threatened with relegation at one low point. However, in the FA Cup United went all the way to Wembley with the return of Alan Shearer from injury giving the side a major boost.
After defeating Everton and going through an uncomfortable tie - both on and off the pitch - against non-leaguers Stevenage Borough, United reached the Sixth Round with a victory over Tranmere Rovers. The magic of the FA Cup had now captivated Tyneside and a comfortable win over Barnsley took United into the semi-final with Sheffield United at Old Trafford.
A single goal from Alan Shearer was enough to give the Toon Army a Wembley final, but United had never been too convincing and many feared for the outcome in the meeting with eventual Double winners Arsenal at the Twin Towers.
And on the day the Gunners were far too clever for a subdued and negative United side, Newcastle losing 2-0. The display was as disappointing as the Championship race in 1995, and Kenny Dalglish quickly lost many of his newly found Geordie allies on that afternoon.
During the summer of 1998 Magpie boss Kenny Dalglish went on a spending spree in a bid to revitalise his side. Internationals like Germany's Didi Hamman, Peru's Nol Solano and French World Cup winner Stephane Guivarc'h all arrived, while Kevin Keegan's side had all but been totally dismantled.
Expectation on Tyneside though was as high as ever. Following the frustration of the FA Cup final display with Arsenal and concluding the previous season in a lowly Premiership placing, Dalglish appeared determined to regain the Magpies' status as an exciting Premier League force.
But not for the first time - or no doubt the last - Newcastle United hit the headlines just as the season began. Kenny Dalglish departed to the delight of many Newcastle supporters, and another high profile manager took control, this time former Chelsea boss and one of the world's greatest players, Dutch ace Ruud Gullit.
The new appointment was heralded with much elation and as a new starting point in regaining the club's position as the country's most favourite side, gained with Kevin Keegan's Entertainers, but lost under the guidance of Dalglish.
Ruud Gullit was quick to point out that he would need time and money to rebuild the St James Park staff. He quite rightly took a period to assess the playing squad he had inherited, one that had lost a flamboyant and stylish content so favoured on Tyneside.
He was not slow to note that he needed to make changes. Out went Guivarc'h, as did David Batty, John Barnes and local favourite Steve Watson, sold to raise funds. More would have been sold, but Gullit was restricted with limited interest in Dalglish's players.
In came young French full-back Didier Domi from Paris St Germain for over £3m and Scottish international striker Duncan Ferguson arrived in a big £8m deal from Everton. Unluckily Ferguson was soon sidelined with a bad injury that kept him out of action for most of the campaign. Later in the season Croatia Zagreb's talented forward Silvio Maric joined Gullit's new look staff.
In between the transfer activity, United's season was an inconsistent one. The Premiership programme was disjointed, the Magpies hovering in mid-table or occasionally slipping dangerously close to the relegation dogfight. Only once did they put a sustained run together, that shortly after Gullit's arrival when they reached 5th place in the table following three league victories in a row.
Newcastle fell in the Football League Cup to Blackburn Rovers after a 1-1 draw and a penalty shoot-out that favoured the Ewood club. In the UEFA Cup Winners Cup, again the black'n'whites did not venture far. Drawn against experienced European campaigners Partizan Belgrade, United took a 2-1 lead to Yugoslavia, but went out of the competition on the away goals after losing by a single goal in the Slav capital. It had been a tense and fiery atmosphere to cope with, as only a few months later NATO and Britain were at war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo.
It was left to the FA Cup to provide Newcastle's fervent Toon Army with something to shout about. And just like last season the black'n'whites dished up a rousing run to Wembley - again though without being totally convincing on the field. Newcastle had fortune on their side too, as the luck of the draw saw the Magpies playing all their opening four rounds of the competition at Gallowgate.
Struggling Crystal Palace arrived first, but fell, then Bradford City suffered the same fate. Blackburn Rovers provided tougher opposition. They aimed to give Newcastle a double cup knock-out and held United to a 0-0 draw and earned a replay at Ewood Park. However, Newcastle put together a battling display in Lancashire and on loan striker Louis Saha took a brilliant Hamann long cross field ball to fire into the net and send United a step closer to Wembley.
In the quarter-final Everton travelled to Tyneside attempting to stop United's successive Wembley bid. For a period they foiled the Magpies, but a late rally saw Newcastle victorious by 4-1 with popular Georgian Temuri Ketsbaia putting on a five star show. United were back at Old Trafford for the semi-final, scene of last year's jubilation after defeating Sheffield United.
This time George Graham's Tottenham Hotspur stood between the Tynesiders and another cup final. It was a side that included former Toon heroes Les Ferdinand and David Ginola, who had displayed top form in the season and earn both Footballer of the Year awards to the frustration of Newcastle's fans.
For 90 minutes a tense affair took place without many clear-cut openings, but in extra-time and with Duncan Ferguson on as sub even though he was not fully fit, Newcastle took control. Alan Shearer converted a penalty then hit a screamer into the top corner of the net to make sure it was going to be a Geordie fanfare at Wembley again.
The Wembley occasion in 1999 had a déjà vu feeling about it. Up against Manchester United this time, Newcastle were clearly second best, and although defeated by the eventual treble winners, the Magpies did perform better than against the Gunners in 1998.
Crucial moments of the match sealed United's fate; a bad defensive mistake gave away a second killer goal, and two misses, one by Ketsbaia - who hit a post - and by Maric, that would have put the black'n'whites back in the match.
Copyright: P. Joannou, Newcastle United Club Historian