Everyone has got their opinion on why Newcastle United didn’t win the Premier League in 1996 – and Les Ferdinand is no different.
Newcastle were 12 points clear at the top of the table in mid-January of that season, but a run of five defeats from eight games saw them surrender the initiative to Manchester United, who ultimately won the title by four points.
The signing of Tino Asprilla in February and subsequent unbalancing of the team is often pinpointed as one of the main reasons for Newcastle’s collapse – and while Ferdinand agrees, he believes they might have held off Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had they come out on the right side of that famous 4-3 against Liverpool at Anfield.
“Psychologically, Kevin was one of the best I worked with,” Ferdinand says. “He knew what buttons to press, what made you tick. He spoke to everyone with the same understanding. But in the second half of that season, too many of us lost form.
“I was scoring goals, Rob Lee was scoring goals, David Ginola was producing, but then we struggled. Keith Gillespie got injured and we had to shuffle round a little bit. Keegan wanted to get me and Tino Asprilla into the side together, which I felt made us a bit lop-sided and lost our threat.
“Every season, when teams are going for the title, there are pivotal games. Everyone looks at the Manchester United game (when Newcastle lost 1-0 at home), but I don’t think that was the one that lost us the title.
“For me it was the Liverpool game. Had we won, we’d have had momentum to start winning again, it would have lifted us mentally and physically, but it drained us.
“Against Man United, we had chance after chance. On the night, I just thought ‘keep getting in there’, and I kept getting in there, but Peter Schmeichel just made save after save.”
Newcastle had also lost 2-0 at Old Trafford earlier in the season and started the following campaign with a 4-0 defeat to the same opposition in the Charity Shield at Wembley before gaining revenge with a memorable 5-0 win.
Had things worked out slightly differently, Ferdinand might have found himself in red on those days having been targeted by Ferguson. But a change of manager at QPR put paid to that, and Ferdinand made a £6million switch to Newcastle in the summer of 1995 as a replacement for the striker the Red Devils had signed a few months earlier instead, Andy Cole.
He could have moved to Aston Villa on better terms, but within five minutes of sitting down with Keegan he’d made his mind up to move to St James’ Park.
“Manchester United wanted to sign me before they signed Andy Cole, maybe because Andy was flying at Newcastle and they felt they had no chance of getting him,” Ferdinand says.
“They had the conversation and we talked. We were going to do it and then it didn’t happen because Ray Wilkins replaced Gerry Francis as manager and pulled the plug.
“By the end of the season, I’d come to the decision that I was going to leave QPR. Ray and I had sat down and we realised it was the right time.
“Aston Villa were the first club to bid £6million, then I got the call from Kevin who asked if I’d do them the honour of speaking to them before I made a decision.
“So I went to speak to the late Doug Ellis at Villa, then in the afternoon I met Kevin. I sat down with him at a hotel in London and he started talking about Newcastle, what it represents and what he wanted to do and I was sold within five minutes.
“I always said that if I was going to leave QPR, I wanted to improve myself as a footballer. With all due respect to Aston Villa at the time, that season we’d finished above them in the league. They were a bigger club but a sideways step in my career.
“Everyone remembers Newcastle at the time, they were flying, and I thought if there was somebody I was going to learn from, it was one of the greatest centre-forwards England has ever had.”
Ferdinand scored 29 goals in his first season on Tyneside, yet Keegan’s response to the Magpies’ near-miss was not to bolster his defence but to sign one of the only two players who’d outscored the striker in the Premier League: Alan Shearer, for a world-record £15million.
That brought up a potentially difficult issue for Ferdinand when he was asked to part with No.9 shirt. He agreed, and to this day remains philosophical about the whole episode.
“Kevin said to me when I joined, ‘We’ve just lost Andy Cole and I tried to bring you to the club to play with him, I wanted to put you two together.’
“If I had‘ve joined and Andy was No.9, I was never getting the No.9. But he went, and Keegan said he had no doubts in his mind that I was the man to take the shirt on.
“A year later, Keegan came back and said, ‘No one knows this yet, but we’re thinking we’re going to sign Alan Shearer, it’s going to be a world-record fee, but he’s asked for the No.9 shirt.’ For me, my thought process was, ‘If you’re asking, deep down you want him to have it.’
“A few things went through my mind, but the majority of the Geordie supporters would want Alan Shearer in that shirt and I didn’t want to be the one that scuppered the deal.
“I never looked at it and thought, ‘I won’t play,’ and I never held a grudge towards Alan because he just asked a question. When I went to Spurs, I did the same thing – Darren Anderton was wearing the No.9 and all the numbers had been done, but I spoke to him and he said he’d take No.10.”
Despite being similar players, Ferdinand and Shearer went on to enjoy a great partnership, scoring 49 goals as a pair in their one season together in 1996-97.
But while Keegan had no problem pairing them up, it was a different story at international level.
“We both really wanted to make it work,” Ferdinand says. “When Keegan spoke to me about it, he said, ‘I’m not trying to prove anybody wrong, I just believe it could work.’
“My game was about holding the ball up and so was Alan’s, but we were also about scoring goals, and neither of us were going to compromise that.
“But my England career was probably hampered by me and Alan being very similar. We didn’t play that many times for England together; it was either one or the other, and it was normally Alan.”
Keegan left the club in January 1997 to be replaced by Kenny Dalglish, and Ferdinand soon followed, joining Tottenham Hotspur that summer. He never wanted to depart from Newcastle, and his exit was more acrimonious than he would have liked.
“It is well documented I never wanted to leave Newcastle, but they came to me and said they wanted to raise £6million, and they were getting offers for me. I was being touted about and clubs became aware Newcastle may be willing to do a deal.
“Kenny said he didn’t want to lose me but they kept me in tune with what was going on, then it was agreed. I wasn’t happy with how it all happened.
“I did my medical and agreed teems at Spurs, then Alan got injured. Newcastle tried to come back and speak to me, but if I give my word on something and shake hands, as far as I’m concerned it’s done. As tempting as it was to go back, the way I was treated by certain people at the club, I just thought maybe my time was up.”
He never quite hit the heights of his time in the North East at White Hart Lane but remained for five and a half years, scoring 39 goals and winning the Worthington Cup in 1999.
And having grown up as a Tottenham fan, he is glad he got to pull on his team’s shirt.
“I was always a Tottenham fan as a boy, but I enjoyed fonder times at Newcastle than I did at Spurs,” he says. “It was a real struggle for me, I had injuries and the team was nowhere near the place Newcastle was when I went there.
“There were five changes of manager and a change of board in the six years I was there, which tells you everything. But my boyhood dream came true.”
Now Ferdinand is back where he started, overseeing things at QPR as director of football, a role he has held since 2015.
“My responsibility is how the club moves forward holistically,” he says. “When I went into QPR, they’d gone 15 years without having an academy product play for the first team, but since I’ve been there, virtually every year, someone has come through and made their debut and stayed part of the team.
“The CEO tells me the budgets, and we put the strategies in place because everyone knows the recent history of the club and how money has been spent.”
If he can help the club unearth another Les Ferdinand, he’ll have done just fine.