It’s impossible to put together a list of the greatest Premier League matches without including arguably the greatest of them all: Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle.
With the fourth Premier League season reaching its climax, Liverpool trailed Manchester United by eight points, albeit with a game in hand and a superior goal difference.
The Reds – now closing in on six years without a title, their longest dry spell since 1972 – had suddenly found themselves entering the mix with an excellent run of form from December to March.
Built on a youthful foundation with the likes of Robbie Fowler, David James, Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, Rob Jones, Stan Collymore, Steve Harkness, and Jason McAteer – the average age of those eight players was under 23 – Roy Evans’ side had the belief they could beat anyone. They were unbeaten in 15, winning 10, before a loss to Nottingham Forest meant their next fixture – against Newcastle – was a must-win.
Newcastle meanwhile were leaking points left, right and centre, and were now three points behind United with two games in hand.
Despite the title still being in Newcastle’s hands, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were now the bookies’ favourites. Aside from the fact Newcastle had won just one of their last four games, they also had the trip to Anfield, a trip to champions Blackburn, as well as hosting European football-chasing Aston Villa. But a win at Anfield would lay down a huge marker for the rest of the season. It would effectively eliminate Liverpool from the title race and remind the leaders that they weren’t going anywhere.
Despite Liverpool’s recent form, it was clear who Manchester United’s main threat was; so much so that some suggested in jest that Liverpool might do Newcastle a favour in order to deny their rivals a third title in four years.
Manager Kevin Keegan was quick to laugh off that notion, and was equally dismissive of the suggestion that his players were feeling the pressure.
But the pressure was certainly on. Newcastle had spent big in the summer; six months after the shock departure of Andy Cole to Manchester United, Les Ferdinand was brought from QPR having scored 60 goals across three Premier League seasons. Warren Barton and David Ginola also arrived, with Tino Asprilla and David Batty joining in February, as Newcastle’s spending approached £30m – perhaps not much in today’s terms, but more than Blackburn had spent in the three seasons combined before they won the title.
Manchester United were also in a transition. Having surrendered the title to Blackburn the previous season, the club failed to make a major signing in the summer, also losing Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, who’d made a combined 100 Premier League starts in 1994/95.
While David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt all started the opening 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, none of them had reached the age of 21, and prompted Alan Hansen’s infamous line “you can’t win anything with kids”. Eric Cantona would also miss the first seven games of the season through suspension.
If Newcastle, three years into their stint in the top flight, were going to launch a title bid, now was the time.
The Magpies had a 10-point lead at Christmas, and despite losing 2-0 at Old Trafford on 27th December, they extended it to 12 by the end of January. That cushion had virtually evaporated three months later. The Toon had lost to West Ham and Arsenal, drawn with Manchester City (who were relegated at the end of the season), and of course, lost 1-0 to Manchester United.
It was the defeat to their title rivals that stung the most. The hosts were by far the better side in the first half, but were repeatedly denied by the heroics of Peter Schmeichel. The talismanic Eric Cantona – who’d scored the only goal in six of United’s 11 games between January and April, winning five and drawing the other – struck early in the second half to snatch all three points
As the game kicked off, Anfield was rocking. The Kop was in full voice, as was the travelling Toon Army.
Liverpool, keen to show the defeat to Forest was merely a blip, took the lead 94 seconds into the game.
Stan Collymore, riding a tackle from Steve Watson, beat Peter Beardsley to thump a cross to the back post, with a 20-year-old Robbie Fowler nodding in for his 26th league goal of the season. Anfield erupted.
Newcastle responded well, though. Efforts from Ferdinand and Ginola served as a quick reminder of the sort of night Liverpool were in for. And sure enough, in the 10th minute, the lively Asprilla jinked past Neil Ruddock, finding Ferdinand. With one touch and a snapshot finish through the palms of James, Newcastle were level.
The goal had spurred the visitors on. The game was being played at 100mph, the atmosphere nearing fever pitch, the tension inside Anfield palpable.
And in the blink of an eye, Ferdinand, with the outside of his boot, found Ginola ahead of his marker. Jason McAteer couldn’t catch the Frenchman, who hammered past James. Behind after two minutes, they were ahead inside 15, emblematic of a side that had rescued 13 points from losing positions up to that point. Another deafening roar from the Anfield Road end.
Jamie Redknapp came close to levelling just five minutes later with a long-range drive flashing just past a scrambling Pavel Srnicek’s post.
Soon after, Fowler found half a yard on the penalty spot, shuffling the ball smartly from right foot to left, poking just wide of the goal.
The game was still being contested at a breathless pace. Half an hour in, end to end, neither side giving an inch.
Steve McManaman should’ve equalised towards the end of the first half, with all the time and space in the world to power a header towards goal, only sending it back where it came from, agonisingly beyond the diving Fowler.
Surely wondering how they went into the interval behind, Liverpool got their much-deserved equaliser, but not before Rob Lee had a gilt-edged chance when through on goal, firing straight at James. What should’ve been 3-1 quickly became 2-2.
Newcastle had been second best since going in front, and McManaman, who’d been outstanding for Liverpool in a free role throughout the evening, found Fowler on the edge of the area, who drove into the bottom corner. Another ear-splitting roar from the Kop. Liverpool were level, and deservedly so.
The goal sparked an instant reaction from the visitors. Responding the only way they knew how, Beardsley’s expert pass to Lee took half of Liverpool’s midfield out of the game. Lee then found a gap in the Liverpool defence, and Asprilla, left in acres of space after being played onside, poked past the onrushing James with the outside of his boot. A superb finish, and Newcastle led again.
Sure enough, Liverpool hit back. An inch-perfect cross from McAteer evaded three Newcastle defenders as well as keeper Srnicek, with Collymore arriving at the back post.
It resembled schoolyard football at times, so chaotic was the contest, with both sides throwing caution to the wind and playing with such reckless abandon. Still, even in the later stages, the game continued at a frenetic pace.
Shortly after the equaliser, Fowler came inches away from his hat-trick and Liverpool’s fourth, somehow getting on the end of McManaman’s low cross.
With less than a quarter of an hour to go came Newcastle best – and final – chance of a winner. Philippe Albert with a long ball to Ferdinand, who showed great strength and trickery to beat Steve Harkness, but was unable to beat James.
With five minutes remaining, Liverpool were desperately chasing a winner, and called on the services of the veteran Ian Rush. Though he wouldn’t add to his 345 Liverpool goals on that night, he’d play a key part in one of the Premier League’s most iconic.
Newcastle became more frantic as stoppage time loomed. You sense that with such a dearth of experienced title winners – Ginola and Beardsley had three league winners’ medals with PSG and Liverpool, while Batty, who’d hardly played in Blackburn’s title win the previous season, was the other – the pressure really was getting them, despite Keegan’s insistence that it wasn’t. Newcastle had dropped 11 points in their last five games and looked like dropping two more. There wasn’t that composure in the side to calm things down and see the game out.
As it happened, it was Barnes and Rush, with seven league titles between them, who created the crucial opening.
Barnes, to Rush, to Barnes again, to Rush again. Then finally Barnes once more, with bodies all around him, the 32-year-old showed the calmness and awareness to pick out Collymore, who smashed home beyond Srnicek.
Ecstasy for Liverpool, agony for Newcastle. For the players, the fans, but perhaps most of all, for Keegan. Slumped over the advertising hoardings, Keegan was crestfallen, and apparently unable to speak in the dressing room afterwards.
The Newcastle side, known as the Entertainers, received endless plaudits for their brand of football, but also received their share of criticism for the insistence on their we’ll-score-one-more-than-you style. After the game, Keegan said in no uncertain terms that they would be unwavering in their philosophy.
Asked if he’d ignore those telling him to shut up shop and keep playing their way, Keegan said: “Yeah. Or I go.” And despite being on the wrong side of the 4-3, which could so easily have been the other way around, Keegan said “we lost nothing in defeat today”, such was the manner of their performance.
Keegan’s opposite number Evans described the 90 minutes as “kamikaze football” and that no one could win a title defending how the two sides did.
The Newcastle boss was magnanimous – and optimistic – in defeat, but the damage had been done. Losing to Blackburn with two late goals less than a week later, while Manchester United won every game bar one between then and the end of the season – the 3-1 defeat at The Dell when Ferguson ordered a kit change at half-time, claiming his players were struggling to pick each other out on the pitch.
The Red Devils’ following game was a hard-fought win over rivals Leeds, and Ferguson used it as an opportunity to turn the heat up further on their title rivals.
Knowing Newcastle had to face Leeds, who had nothing but pride to play for, Ferguson went as far as to say they were cheating their manager with their performances, that they’d raised their game to stop his side winning the league, and that if they’d put that effort in all season, they’d be in the top six.
Keegan saw through Ferguson, and at the end of an equally hard-fought win against Leeds two weeks later, he couldn’t stop himself biting back. A furious Keegan had been incensed by Ferguson questioning the integrity of Leeds’s players, sparking his iconic “I will love if it we beat them” interview.
Manchester United would win a third Premier League title, and while Newcastle would strengthen further in the summer with the signing of Alan Shearer for a world-record £15m, what looked like another title challenge early in the season faded away following a seven-game winless run through November and December, with Keegan resigning in early January.
He wouldn’t win the title as a manager, but Keegan, as he said himself on that unforgettable night, lost nothing in defeat.