Wednesday, 31 December 2014

April 1992: How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love David Kelly

This piece originally appeared in Issue 2 of Newcastle United's Popular Side fanzine.

Looking back now, April 1992 was a horrifically shit month. On the 9th, with the unemployment figures balanced by the fact Neil Kinnock had ginger hair, a Welsh accent and had just made a complete and utter arse of himself on stage in Sheffield, John Major led the Conservative Party to a come-from-behind election victory with 14.5 million votes and a working majority of 21. 'It Was the Sun Wot Won It' trumpeted Murdoch's biggest selling mouthpiece. Not even the sight of Chris Patton and Colin Moynihan - former sports mininster and Thatcher's principal cheerleader for ID cards - losing their seats came close to stemming my teenage rage at five more years of Tory rack and ruin.  Things weren't any better elsewhere in the world.  It was the start of the Seige of Sarajevo and the LA Riots, the Katina P. spilt 60,000 tons of crude oil into the sea off Mozambique, Right Said Fred's Deeply Dippy was nailed to the top of the charts, and my impending GCSEs meant I was spending most of my free time indoors going through the motions of studying dates, equations and four-line French dialogues that all seemed to end with someone wanting un velo, s'il vous plait.  And then there was Newcastle United...

 On the last day of March, the team had marked my 16th birthday with a 6-2 trouncing at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Andy Mutch scoring three times as Kevin Keegan impotently looked on from the touchline of the half-finished stadium.  Single goal defeats to Tranmere Rovers, Ipswich Town and Millwall followed in the first three weeks of the new month, before a catastrophic Easter Monday at the Baseball Ground in which Derby County won 4-1, Kevin Brock, Liam O’Brien, Kevin Scott and Terry McDermott were all red carded and Brian Coddington joined Trelford Mills as persona non grata on Tyneside.  There were only one hundred and eighty minutes of the season left to play and Keegan’s team were third from the foot of the old Division Two, ahead of Port Vale and Brighton but now twelve goals adrift of Oxford United and the precarious safety of 21st position.  With the club haemorrhaging an estimated £700,000 a year in interest payments alone, relegation meant doing a Leeds before Leeds had even thought of doing it themselves.   

Wind back two months and things had looked significantly rosier.  On the afternoon of February 6th, almost eight years after he was last seen being helicoptered clear of the St James’ Park pitch, Kevin Keegan pushed his way through the swing doors at Newcastle Breweries’ Visitor Centre. “I can honestly say that there’s no job in football I’ve ever wanted,” he confidently told the assembled press. “This is the only job I’ve ever wanted.” If the sentiment was confused the reaction to his appointment was anything but.  The previous month had seen Ossie Ardiles’side take a 4-0 hammering at Southend United, go out of the FA Cup to Bournemouth and surrender a three-goal lead to lose 4-3 at home to Charlton Athletic, Alan Pardew scoring the 89th minute winner.  The death knell sounded at the Oxford’s Manor Ground, a dispiriting 5-2 loss dropping the team to second bottom. “A shameful performance,” said Douglas Hall with all his customary tact and understanding.  'He didn’t know how to stop the slide. We would have gone down if he’d stayed. If we had gone down we would have gone bankrupt.”  

Something had to change.  Temporarily, something did. 29,000 people turned out to see Bristol City swept aside 3-0 in Keegan’s first game.  Forty days’ later, in a moment that was pure, unadulterated flounce, the second coming almost ground to an unexpected end when the directors refused to supply the £250,000 needed to turn Oldham defender Brian Kilcline’s one-month loan into a permanent transfer. “It wasn’t like it said in the brochure,” Keegan complained from a Hampshire driveway while fans in beanie hats and beige Harrington jackets barracked John Hall through the press room windows.  The king returned, a Kevin Sheedy equaliser nicked a point at Grimsby Town and then David Kelly scored the only goal of the Tyne-Wear Derby on March 29th; which, for those of you who’ve been paying attention, is right about where we came in.  

April 25th 1992. Financial oblivion beckons as Newcastle United face the unwelcome prospect of a first  relegation to the third-tier of English football.  It’s the final home game of the season and the opposition are FA Cup semi-finalists Portsmouth.  Among the starting line-up are Tommy Wright, Brian Kilcline  - “the most important signing I made for Newcastle,” Keegan later judged – top scorer Gavin Peacock, future football financier Ray Ranson, and Seb Coe lookalike Kevin Brock.  There are 26,000 in the crowd, both the Milburn D Paddock and my stomach are heaving. “Trust in Keegan,” they'd said, but as the 85th minute ticked by on the Gallowgate scorerboard whatever youthful bravado I’d entertained pre-match had long since disappeared I was busily composing a chain of conditional sentences – “If we don’t score here, we’ll have to beat Leicester…but if we don’t beat Leicester…” - which ended in the discomforting thought of Newcastle going not just down but under when the ball was struck forwards in the direction of Micky Quinn, who’d moved two steps off his marker on the edge of the Portsmouth ‘D’ 
What happened next is preserved in video-recorded footage online. Ray Ranson floats a long pass from halfway that brushes the top of Kelly's head. Quinn, his back to the Gallowgate goal, hooks the ball right-footed into space on the Milburn side of the penalty area, Kelly reacting half a yard quicker than Andy Awford to whack a rising shot past Portsmouth keeper Alan Knight on the second bounce.  Kevin Sheedy, a man who’d won two English championships and a Cup Winners’ Cup with Everton, celebrates with a scissor kick to the roof of the net. On the concrete steps of the Gallowgate bodies writhe in every conceivable direction, hats and scarves go tumbling and arms clutch joyously at the nearest neck. I bear hug my dad, grab hold of my brother, half-stumble forwards and am pinioned against a crash barrier by a fat man with beer-and-boiled-onion breath screeching “Get in! Get in! Get in!” over and over and over and over. Sometimes life is as simple as this: the ball hits the net and nothing else matters.  

“The place just erupted like you’ve never heard before,” Gavin Peacock remembered. “The relief flooded all over everybody. You could feel it – relief from the whole of Newcastle.” If it wasn’t exactly jogo bonito, it was incontrovertibly the moment that altered everything for Kevin Keegan and John Hall. In the financial circumstances, Kelly had just struck arguably the most important goal ever scored at St James’ Park. “It happened because Kevin was so positive,” he said seventeen years later, as we prepared, less successfully, for another must-win clash with Pompey. “We had been battered at Wolves and Derby and it was looking grim…but he was telling us ‘Get through this and we will be in the top flight in a year’s time’. I think I scored about three goals in my entire career that were outside the box and that was one of them.” 

The rest, of course, you know as well as I do.  For those of us with birth certificates dating from the mid-to-late 1970s football really did seem to have been invented in 1992: when Newcastle United next played Portsmouth we were in the midst of an eleven-game winning streak that would end in promotion with 96 points, 29 wins and 92 goals from our 46 matches. Without David Kelly, we might not have existed at all. 

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