Sid Lambert is a 43-year-old man playing Retro Football Manager on his iPhone. He’s gone back to 1995/96 to take over Newcastle United and put right what once went wrong: beat Manchester United to the title. And he’d love it if he beat them. Love it.
Nine games. Nine games remain to rewrite history. Nine games to bring home a trophy to a football club that’s not had to invest in any silver polish since 1969.
As expected, stepping into Kevin Keegan’s shoes has been challenging. They called him The Messiah for a reason and at times I’ve felt like Judas Escariot walking around Disciples HQ. Thankfully, after a rocky start I’ve won the masses over. We’ve played some exceptional football, and we’ve rebuilt the squad – partly by design, partly because our injury list looks like we’ve been practising set-pieces at the Somme.
Still, this patched-up Sid Lambert side has made it to the business end of the season in pole position for glory. We just need to get over the line.
The run-in starts with a trip to east London and West Ham United, we stroll into a two-goal lead at the interval. Critics sneered when I suggested Gheorghe Hagi and David Ginola could play in the same team together. Yes, they’ve got the collective work-rate of a narcoleptic slug, but when they’ve got the ball at their feet their mind-muscle connection is quicker than anyone in the league. They set up big Al for two more goals to add to his tally, and three precious points in the bank.
Next up it’s derby day, a game where Sky Sports are legally obliged to inform you that “bragging rights” are at stake. There’s a tension around the city. Boro won’t be coming here to lie down. They’ll be aiming a kick square at the plums of our title tilt. It’s up to us to show we’ve got the balls to cope with the occasion.
My nerves are eased somewhat when I get the team sheet 45 minutes before kick-off. Their defence looks leakier than Richard Nixon’s administration during Watergate.
It takes Alan Shearer only 16 minutes to breach their meagre defences.
And then 12 minutes later the moment this stadium has been waiting for.
From that point on, it’s a procession. Boro can’t get near the ball. And when they do, they treat it like a hand grenade. Tino Asprilla strolls on from the subs bench to get a third and Sir Les crowns his majestic performance with a the fourth.
The post-match ratings are a sight to behold. “Wor Bobby” Carlos scoring his first for the Toon, and David Ginola putting in the sort of magical performance that makes you wonder if he could walk across the Tyne. As for Nigel Pearson and Steve Vickers, I’m pretty sure I saw them both outpaced by the corner flag during the second half.
The goal bonanza continues at Bolton where Shearer nets another three to take his tally to six in three games. He’s ably assisted, in every sense, by the cultured feet of David Batty who seems to have momentarily mistaken himself for Glenn Hoddle.
Three wins from three keeps our noses in front of Bruce Rioch’s Arsenal. And as for Manchester United, you tell Alex Ferguson, you tell him that it’s now a two-horse race.
Our confidence is at an all-time high and the victory march continues at home to a QPR side that briefly topped the table earlier in the season.
David Batty gets on the scoresheet, which happens about as regularly as Halley’s Comet enters the Earth’s atmosphere. But it’s the contribution of Roberto Carlos that also catches the eye again. I don’t use these words lightly, but he really has been an upgrade on John Beresford.
There’s good news from elsewhere as word reaches us from Anfield that Arsenal have been defeated thanks to a winner from new signing Olivier Dacourt.
Six points clear of our nearest rivals and on a sensational run of form, we should have had no trepidation about our trip to Maine Road. But these are the moments when football really shows you who’s boss. We somehow manage to put in one of our worst performances of the season against a team ravaged by injuries.
After an hour of us hoofing the ball aimlessly into the Manchester skyline, we are brought back down to Earth with a bump when Alan Ball makes one of the most extraordinary substitutions in football history. Long before Stuart Pearce sent big David James up front – with European qualification on the line – and told his team to get it in the mixer, Ball replaces Peter Beagrie with reserve keeper Martyn Margetson.
Incredibly, this proves to be a turning point in the game. Minutes later Manchester City go long and Big Niall Quin does what Big Niall Quinn does so effectively. The Irishman’s header finds Uwe Rosler in the sort of space a dog turd might enjoy in a public swimming pool. The German striker scores and the game is lost.
A win for Arsenal reduces the gap to three points and as I pull up Ceefax when I get home, I’m greeted with news of some interesting transfer activity. It seems our rivals aren’t ready to concede the title just yet.
Injuries to Paul Gascoigne and Roberto Carlos don’t improve my mood, but thankfully the fixture generator has taken pity on us. When you’re coming off that sort of rotten showing, if there’s one opponent in the universe you could hand-pick to face, it would be Southampton at home. They are dismal.
The memories of Maine Road are quickly banished as Shearer and the fit-again Hagi set us into a two-goal lead. The Saints offer so little that I can even afford the luxury of resting Alan Shearer in the second half, ensuring his fitness for the final weeks of the season.
It means a rare glimpse of the much-maligned Mark Hateley. The veteran striker was an emergency early-season signing, possibly the worst decision in these parts since PJ went paintballing in Byker Grove.
But football loves a redemption story and with twenty minutes to go, the Big Lad finally gets off the mark.
The win puts United mathematically out of the title race and gives us breathing space above Arsenal, Our superior goal difference adds an extra cushion. Two wins from the final three games will be enough to put us in Premier League dreamland.
The dream becomes a nightmare at Forest, where both teams struggle to create any chances of note but Bryan Roy nets a late winner.
Meanwhile an Arsenal win at home to Southampton, where Venison, Dodd and Hall play like Zippy, George and Bungle, is enough to reduce our lead to goal difference.
I’m trying to put a brave face on it for the benefit of the players, but the reality is that my bum’s squeaking like Joe Pasquale at a carol concert. The next game will decide the fate of the title. We play Arsenal at home.
I barely sleep the night before, pondering the eleven I’ll send into our most decisive fixture of the season. The main dilemma is Gascoigne, whose fitness levels have been diabolical of late. The genial midfielder likes his calories like he like his cement blocks: hard and heavy. He’s not been able to play successive games since his triumphant return to Tyneside. Regardless of the size of his waistline, history shows that he is the man for the big occasion. And there are none bigger than this.
Any thought that Arsenal will try and hit us on the break disappear once I see their line-up. A front three of Wright, Bergkamp and Salinas, ably assisted by Merson, Platt and Lombardo. It’s going to be a shootout between the top tier’s top scorers.
And it’s our top scorer who strikes first. More wing wizardry from Ginola, and our heroic number 9 notches his 27th of the season.
The goal provokes a response from Arsenal. Bergkamp and Wright go close, but Big Shaka is equal to their efforts. The clock ticks by. Seconds feel like hours. Tension rises in the stands.
At pitch level, I’m trying desperately to stay calm. I debate sending on an extra defender to shore us up. But that’s not a Sid Lambert team. We’re not going to cling on. We’re going to die on our swords if necessary. I send on Gheorghe Hagi and tell him to work some magic.
The Romanian reaches into his box of tricks and produces a pass which puts Shearer in the clear. It’s two-nil. It’s game over. It means the title is essentially ours.
I’ll be honest, when I envisaged the game in my head last night, there weren’t many scenarios whereby Darren Peacock was the difference between all or nothing. But the Tyne Pontyail emptied his pockets after the game and found Dennis Bergkamp.
Only the most incredible set of results can wrench this title from our grasp. I tell the players to go out and enjoy themselves by the Quayside.
It’s a bizarre feeling. We’re champions in all but name. An eight-goal cushion on goal difference means we don’t have to go to Hillsborough and get something.
Which is just as well, as our players turn up for the finale smelling of Brown Ale and sun cream. We fold to a timid 1-0 defeat.
It doesn’t matter because we hear on the transistor radios that Arsenal have bottled it at Villa Park. Who had Andy Townsend scoring the decisive goal? Not for me, Clive.
The curse is lifted. History has been corrected. Like Sam Beckett and his Quantum Leap accelerator, I have gone back in time and put right what once went wrong.
Newcastle United are Premier League Champions and I love it. Love it.
Written by Sid Lambert from A Funny Old Game
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