Sunday, 20th October 1996 is a day I’ll never forget.  Yes, I know, every Newcastle fan has this date etched on their memory, or has been told about it, continuously by parents and grandparents, as the day everything that Kevin Keegan stood for in footballing terms, worked to perfection.

Pavel Srnicek in goal; Watson and Beresford the full backs; Peacock and Albert in the centre of defence; David Batty sat in front of them, with Peter Beardsley operating in behind my favourite forward partnership of Shearer and Les Ferdinand; finished off with Rob Lee cutting inside from the right and David Ginola on the left wing.  It was a fluid team, not a rigid 4-4-2, with every player decent going forward and swapping positions, a bit like the Dutch style of playing total football.

Defending was not our forte, with the ethos based around scoring more goals than the opposition.  Never boring!  This Newcastle United team, in my eyes, pulled off the finest performance I’ve ever seen at St. James’ Park and I’ve been going since 1975.

Man Utd were on form at that time, having beaten Spurs, Liverpool and Fenerbahçe in the Champions League in their previous three matches. Newcastle had 21 points in the Premier League, 2 more than Man Utd, having won our last 6 games, but had been brought down to earth on the Tuesday before this game, with a defeat away to Ferencvåros.  This was a huge match.  The Red Devils had caught and passed Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, to win the Premier League, the previous season.  That still hurts to this day, but they had also humiliated us at  wembley, on 11th August 1996, as we’d totally capitulated in the FA Charity Shield match, with myself and many other Geordies thinking that was going to be the first of many trophies to come.  Little did we, really, know!

I very nearly didn’t make it to the game that day, though.  I’d met a girl from Dublin, on the way home from London a few days after the Charity Shield match and we hit it off, so to speak.  That is a story for somewhere else, but, her mother had travelled over from Eire to meet me that weekend.  They knew that I had a ticket for the match and that I’d be leaving them in the Metro Centre to finish off shopping and meet up later that evening.  However, whilst they were looking at engagement rings, which I was oblivious to, I started to get an itch in my eye.

I was seriously allergic to animal dander and we’d just walked past the pet store.  I know!  Now, when I had a reaction my eye would itch, go bloodshot, then the white would turn yellow and expand to a comedic size, covering the pupil and feeling like it was going to explode.  I was advised by the chemist to go straight to hospital, so I got a taxi to the RVI around 1.30pm, leaving my horrified potential future wife and mother-in-law behind.  The triage nurse was totally shocked by my freakish look and said I’d have to wait to see the doctor.  I waited and waited.  I had my black & white NUFC top on, so they knew I was hoping to be seen sharpish.  At 3.40pm I was finally seen and the doctor seemed more intrigued than anything else.  I explained that I had to leave very soon, stressed out that I was going to miss the match, but he eventually cleaned and bandaged it, with the finishing touch of a huge eye patch to keep it on.  I thanked him, immediately shot out of the hospital and sprinted up to the ground, getting to my seat just as the ref started the game.

I had a season ticket in the Leazes End, with my mate, Bob, whom I’d met by virtue of sitting next to each other at our first Premier League match.  He and others were concerned, but I just joked and said I’d only be able to see half of the match. we talked about how difficult the game was going to be, with Man Utd’s solid defence and counter attacking style, the major plus for us being that Keane and Giggs weren’t fit, but they still had a formidable side, especially because of the presence of Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Pallister, Beckham, Poborsky and Cantona.  we wanted revenge and were ready to play our part!

Newcastle pushed forward from the opening whistle, with Shearer pressing their defence well.  Tackles were flying in from both sides.  Both teams seemed up for it and neither team wanted to lose.

After the first few minutes, it became clear that we were looking to get the ball to Ginola as much as possible, but were also happy to knock it up to the forwards, both brilliant at holding up the ball, but Man Utd were proving difficult to break down, until Ginola glided past Neville and Beckham, laying it off to Ferdinand, whose shot from the edge of the 18 yard box was deflected for a corner.

Shearer won a header from Ginola’s corner and Gavin Peacock nodded goal-wards and we all celebrated.  Mr. Dunn, the referee, gave the goal, although it was impossible to tell from where I was sitting, the Man Utd players were convinced Irwin had cleared it before the whole of the ball had crossed the line.  It felt like we may have had a bit of luck, for once!  Later pictures would show the ball to have crossed the goal line, but most of us were used to being on the wrong end of refereeing and linesmen’s decisions!

Manchester Utd pushed for an equaliser, but we fought for every ball and made it really difficult for them.  A long ball forward fell into the path of Poborsky.  Steve Watson placed his body in front of the Czech winger, who’d taken a poor touch, but as Pav came out to take the ball, Poborsky poked the ball then dived into his compatriot, looking for a penalty that the ref rightly waved away.  It felt like another little bit of luck, though, as Alex Ferguson would demand that his players contest everything.

On the half hour, Newcastle were again pushing forward.  Beardsley pushed the ball out to Beresford, who found Ginola on the corner of the box, with Neville tight in attendance.  The mercurial Frenchman controlled the ball, holding off Neville and as the defender took a step back, Ginola swivelled and hit a perfect right footed shot, curled past a helpless Schmeichel and into the corner of the goal.  We were going crazy in the stands.  We’d not scored against Man Utd since a 1-1 draw in January ’95, but we were 2-0 up now and nothing else that had gone before mattered.  “Could we hold on?” was the question in my mind.

Not only did we hold on, but we would end up absolutely destroying the opposition.

Shearer pulled out wide in the second half and sent in an inch perfect cross onto the head of Les Ferdinand, who seemed to have an ability to float in the air, his neck muscles pushing his head through the ball, which flew past the keeper, hit the bar, then hit the post and went in.

I looked over at Shearer as Bob was hugging me, the pair of us jumping in unison, to hail his pass, only to see him running past the Man Utd fans in the Leazes/East Stand Corner, taunting them by manically waving his hands in the air, as they hurled abuse at him.

Oh! How we laughed as we celebrated, continuing the chants of “Shearer turned you down!” as our No. 9 tapped in the fourth, after shots from Beardsley and Ferdinand were parried by the big Danish keeper.

Newcastle made mugs of Manchester United for the rest of the game, with Ginola being the chief architect of the play, making Gary Neville look like a non-league hopeful, who’d never played at full back before.

The passing, movement and the way we totally controlled and managed the game was a joy to witness.  Man Utd had some chances and kept fighting, but elements of Kevin Keegan’s chemistry experiment at Newcastle blended together perfectly during this 90 minutes of extraordinary football.

The icing on the cake was Philippe Albert’s goal, though.  In the 83rd minute the elegant Belgian defender took the ball from Rob Lee and pushed forward, looking as if he was going to absolutely hammer it towards the goal.

That’s what everyone, Schmeichel included, expected him to do, but from just beyond the edge of the D, Albert, shorn of his moustache, dinked his left foot under the ball to spin it up and slowly, over the forlorn keeper and into the net just in front of me.

This moment of sheer magnificence, along with the body language of the best goalkeeper in the world, turning his head, completely helpless, sent us all into  rapturous bewilderment and perfectly sums up that match.

I said in We Are The Geordies that it’s all about capturing moments of euphoria, where the sadness and disappointments we experience along the way, make these instances all the more sweeter.

This was the best honey coated, saccharine sweet moment I’ve experienced as a Newcastle United fan and it will always stick with me.  

Davy Craig