“If you touched the right nerve with Kevin Keegan he could come out with some really juicy stuff.”
That assessment of the former Newcastle boss by talkSPORT’s Graham Courtney was never more appropriate than on April 29, 1996 when what started as a standard post-match interview mutated into arguably the biggest managerial meltdown in Premier League history.
The title race was very much in its final stretch as Newcastle’s ‘great entertainers’ went toe-to-toe with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
It should never have got to that stage as the Magpies had a 12-point lead in January but poor form between February and April let the Red Devils catch up and take charge.
And although a hard-fought 1-0 win at Leeds kept Newcastle in it, hopes of a first league title in 69 years were ebbing way.
Keegan was then quizzed on comments Ferguson made about the Leeds players earlier in the month, the Scot suggesting they’d reserve their best performance for when they play Man United and ease up when Newcastle came to town.
What followed was simply extraordinary.
“A lot of things have been said over the last few days, some of it almost slanderous and we’ve never commented,” a defiant Keegan told Sky Sports. “We’ve just got on, working, trying to pass the ball like we do in training.
“I think things have been said about… I think you’ve got to send Ferguson a tape of this game, haven’t you? Isn’t that what he asked for?”
Fergie had also taken issue with Newcastle taking part in a testimonial match for Stuart Pearce after the season ended. He suggested Pearce’s club at the time, Nottingham Forest, wouldn’t be at their best when the two sides met in the Premier League a week earlier.
“We’re playing Notts Forest on Thursday and he objected to that! Now that [the testimonial] was fixed up months ago…
“That sort of stuff, we’re bigger than that… when you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce, I’ve kept really quiet but he really went down in my estimation when he said that, we have not resorted to that.
“But I’ll tell him, you can tell him, he’ll be watching. We’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something and I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. LOVE IT!”
Who knows how Fergie reacted as Keegan cracked but you can imagine him at either Man United’s training ground or at home with his feet up, sipping on a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and thinking ‘gotcha!’
It’s well documented how much Fergie enjoyed the psychological warfare with an opposite number during a title race and there’s a consensus that Keegan’s meltdown came as a direct result of Fergie’s prodding through the media.
But has the legendary Man United boss been given too much credit?
Former Magpies defender Warren Barton eludes to how the manager’s personality changed as the season wore on and results got progressively worse.
“When things were going for Kevin he was magnificent,” Barton told talkSPORT. “He wanted everybody to be happy, he wanted everybody to feel positive and for everyone to have that feelgood factor.”
Among those who Keegan desperately wanted to be happy were Newcastle’s Toon Army, who were well within their rights to start dreaming of a league title many would never have seen in their life. This proved to be King Kev’s downfall, The Times’ Martin Hardy explains.
“It was more the pressure inside Newcastle than what Ferguson was pushing,” Hardy told Jamie Carragher in his Greatest Games book. “The pressure was cranked up so much and they didn’t know how to handle it.
“When you haven’t been there, you have no experience. In the dressing room, only Peter Beardsley and David Batty had been through that situation.
“In the same way, the city didn’t know how to react either. There was a bit of naivety. The amount of pressure that was inside the city was phenomenal and Kevin carried all that.”
Man United got what they needed at Boro as they won the title and memories of Keegan’s ‘I will love it if we beat them’ rant are very much alive a quarter of a century on. Don’t pretend you’ve never attempted an impression of it.
Because of this, Keegan is sometimes poked fun at despite achieving great things as a player and manager. However, there’s one place in the country where Keegan enhanced his reputation after that impassioned speech at Elland Road. Newcastle.
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“Kevin was so passionate about the Geordie nation and that rant. Would he take it back? I’m sure he wouldn’t,” talkSPORT pundit and England cricket hero Steve Harmison said.
“This is what Newcastle fans love. Kevin Keegan was representing Newcastle fans. I don’t think there were any Newcastle fans hiding behind the sofa.
“A little bit of embarrassment? None whatsoever. This was the leader of our nation you could say and he was speaking for the whole nation and he was throwing one back at Sir Alex Ferguson.
“Even though Sir Alex Ferguson won because Man United won the title in the end, I don’t think for one minute that Newcastle fans wish that Kevin hadn’t said that. Definitely not.”
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