It is Sunday which means, of course, it is time for the latest instalment of the 'My Favourite Premiership XI'. This week's selection comes from Newcastle United fan (in case his piece did not make that clear enough) Michael Hudson. Michael can also be found writing over at his own site - The Accidental Groundhopper.
Some people think it was signing Faustino Asprilla that cost Newcastle United the Premier League title in 1995-96. Others still say Keegan’s “I’d love it if we beat ‘em” rant at Leeds United was to blame, or Graham Fenton’s late double for Blackburn Rovers, or losing 4-3 away to Liverpool. But most of us who were there remember the two games against Manchester United, Keith Gillespie getting injured in a post-Christmas defeat at Old Trafford, and Peter Schmeichel single-handedly saving his side from annihilation in the first half of the return at St James’ Park. Newcastle battered Ferguson’s side, pouring forward in wave after wave of attacks. Impossibly, the two teams went into the break still goalless. Fifteen minutes after the restart, Eric Cantona scored the winner. For obvious reasons, the Dane wasn't everyone's favourite goalkeeper - but he was undoubtedly the best.
He was sent off three times in the inaugural Premier League season, became the last ever Liverpool player to score a goal in front of the terraced Kop, and finished top scorer for West Ham with ten goals in 1995-96, but Julian Dicks gets his place in the team for something he did off the pitch before the Premier League began. In February 1992, as West Ham fans protested against season ticket price rises and being asked to pay between £500 and £950 to guarantee their seat in their ground, Dicks told newspaper reporters: “The Bond Scheme is wrong. You can’t ask an ordinary bloke to pay £975 just to watch his favourite football team”. Disregarding a club warning, he repeated his comments in a fanzine interview just a few weeks later: “I wouldn’t buy a Bond because they are a lot of money and are morally wrong”. The West Ham board eventually saw sense. Unfortunately, football didn’t.
Elegant, comfortable in possession of the ball, and defensively underrated, Philippe Albert epitomised many of Newcastle United’s qualities in the mid-1990s, scoring the fifth and final goal of the game which, together with that 4-3 defeat to Liverpool, still defines Keegan’s team to this day. Gathering a pass from Robert Lee, he touches the ball to the left, pushes it forward into space, and flights an almost effortless chip over the heads of two defenders and Peter Schmeichel into the centre of the net. Partnering him is Colin Hendry, a man who looked and played like he’d just been plucked from a medieval battlefield. Although the plaudits went to Shearer and Sutton, Blackburn Rovers would never have won the title without Hendry and Tim Flowers in defence.
Never the greatest defensively - “Nowhere near good enough for the Premier League,” a commentator once sniffed - I first came across Lee Young-Pyo playing in midfield for Anyang Cheetahs (later franchised out of existence by the Korean FA and LG Group) at home to Daejeon Citizen in the K-League. A year later, I watched Ahn Jung-hwan head his curving right-footed cross past Gianluigi Buffon to knock Italy out of the World Cup, and didn’t have to buy another drink for the rest of the night.
Nicknamed ‘The Little Maestro’ by Diego Maradona, Nolberto Solano scored 37 goals in 230 league appearances for Newcastle. My favourite came at Elland Road, two days before Christmas 2001. 3-1 down to goals from Bowyer, Harte and Mark Viduka, Newcastle equalised through a Robbie Elliott header and an Alan Shearer penalty. With only a minute left to play, Craig Bellamy won a tackle against Erik Bakke, Kieron Dyer picked up the loose ball on halfway, raced through the Leeds midfield and rolled a pass into Solano’s path. As Nigel Martyn belatedly edged left to cover his near post, the shot slid along the ground and into the opposite corner of the net. It was, people later said, the defeat that started Leeds’ near terminal decline.
Only Fumaca (who made one start and four substitute appearances for Newcastle United in the 1999-2000 season, and was disparagingly nicknamed Formica for his complete inability to trap or keep possession of the ball) comes anywhere near rivalling Ali Dia as the worst player in Premier League history. A 30-year-old Sengalese amateur, Southampton manager Graeme Souness signed him from Blyth Spartans on the recommendation of a man claiming to be FIFA Player of the Year George Weah. Named as a substitute for an away game at Leeds, Dia came on for the injured Matt Le Tissier after 32 minutes. “His performance was almost comical,” the watching Le Tissier recalled. “He kind of took my place, but he was just wandering everywhere. I don't think he realised what position he was supposed to be in. It was embarrassing to watch.” Dia lasted until the 53rd minute before Ken Monkou was sent on instead. His next league appearance was for Gateshead. Le Tissier himself completes the midfield three. As Xavi once said, "For me he was sensational".
From the moment Faustino Asprilla turned up at St James’ Park wearing a grey fur coat in a snowstorm, he was sublimely dissimilar to anyone we’d seen before. Contrary to popular misconception, Tino was arguably Newcastle’s best player in the title run-in, scoring three and turning a near certain defeat against Middlesbrough into three points on his debut, after sinking a pre-match glass of wine in the team hotel. Preposterously talented, he had a deceptively languid running style, his feet operating like an octopus’s arms trying to keep a predator at bay. When he was in the mood, he was almost unstoppable: only two of the best goalkeeping displays I’ve ever seen stopped him running up cricket scores in back-to-back games against the Uniteds of Manchester and West Ham in April 1996. The following season, Barcelona weren’t quite so lucky.
Andy Carroll wasn’t the first Newcastle United centre-forward to be sold in the middle of a season. But when Keegan let Andy Cole join Manchester United in exchange for £6 million and Keith Gillespie, he already had his replacement lined up. I’d seen Les Ferdinand destroy our defence in a 3-0 defeat at Loftus Road, but he was even better in black and white stripes, scoring fifty goals in eighty-three games and winning PFA Footballer of the Year in 1996.
Roker Park, January 1997. Paul Merson finds Dennis Bergkamp twenty yards out from the Sunderland goal. The Dutchman miscontrols, drags the ball back as a defender closes in, shifts it onto his right foot, and curls a shot past the despairing goalkeeper into the far corner of the net. Rafael Van der Vaart and Robin Van Persie are good, but Bergkamp was better.
Thoughts, comments and opinions please...