Newcastle’s Forgotten Entertainers: We forgot to insure £15m Alan Shearer
The Newcastle United side of the mid-1990s boasted one of the most revered squads in football history. The likes of Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola still enjoy deity-like status on Tyneside, a place where Kevin Keegan is still referred to as a Messiah, having come so close to making Geordie dreams come true.
On the periphery of The Entertainers were its supporting cast; young prospects huddled together in their own corner of the changing room, rubbing shoulders with club greats as they dreamed of stardom.
Now, 25 years on, Chris Holland, Jim Crawford, Paul Brayson and Darren Huckerby share untold stories with Jonathon Rogers about the highs and lows of being a part of one of the greatest teams, and indeed storylines, the Premier League has ever seen. Read part one here, featuring the story of how Holland was nearly blinded by an ammonia attack in a nightclub, and the quartet’s first impressions of a certain Tino Asprilla.
The end of the dream
The acquisitions of Tino Asprilla and David Batty in February 1996 were seen as Keegan’s insurance policy to guarantee the end of Newcastle’s 69-year wait for a league title, but while the Magpies continued to splash cash, the emergence of the Class of ’92 were helping Manchester United ominously grow in strength.
These spending sprees left Keegan’s neglected young guns feeling helpless.
“When a new forward came into the club, you felt, ‘Well, I’m further down the pecking order again,” admits Paul Brayson, a local lad who had shattered goalscoring records in Newcastle’s youth teams.
“It wasn’t like they’re bringing in Joe Bloggs from Gateshead, it’s Asprilla from Parma,” added fellow striker Darren Huckerby, signed from fourth-tier Lincoln City for £400,000 that same season. “I began thinking I wasn’t going to be at Newcastle for 10 years, so it was about learning from these world-class players while I could.”
Jim Crawford, a £75,000 signing from Dublin-based outfit Bohemians, also began to feel the strain.
“You were putting all these demands on yourself, and that was without any signings,” he says. “I was beating myself up after training sessions, thinking that I could have done better, but the competition and intensity was unbelievable.
“Then Batty came in and you felt it wasn’t going to happen.”
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Week-by-week, Newcastle’s near-insurmountable lead agonisingly crumbled and control of the title race switched to Old Trafford. Victory at Liverpool in April could have returned Keegan’s troops to the summit, but Stan Collymore’s last-minute winner in an iconic 4-3 defeat proved to be an unrecoverable psychological setback.
Holland had a prime spot for a game regarded as arguably the best in the Premier League era.
“To watch that from the dugout was the most amazing thing in the world. The dressing room was dead afterwards – everyone was shocked.
“At that stage of the season it was difficult to get the players back up after that type of game. The experienced players were trying, but it had to affect the lads.”
Crawford concurs: “Things began to get a bit more tense around the place and the players were downhearted when Manchester United kept picking up victories. You got the feeling around the entire city that we were under pressure.”
For lifelong fan Brayson, watching the collapse close-hand was doubly difficult.
“It was horrible, it just seemed to slip away,” he says. “Once we couldn’t mathematically win it, everyone was gutted.”
“Newcastle should never have given away that kind of lead with the players they had,” Huckerby reflects. “The players who were there at the time will always look back at that with regret.”
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After losing out to Manchester United in the title race, meaning Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had claimed four titles in five years, Keegan and chairman Sir John Hall knew it was going to take something extraordinary to shake up English football. It would also be incredibly expensive – £15million in fact – but proved to be an iconic bit of business.
“The first-team had gone away for pre-season, but I stayed behind as I was injured,” Crawford says. “All of a sudden, the medical team were telling the injured players to go home, and you knew something big was happening.
“They were worried that it might leak out that Shearer might be coming.”
“They flew him over to join us on the tour, but he couldn’t play,” laughs Chris Holland, a midfielder compared to Paul Gascoigne by Gazza himself. “It was incredible – we’d just bought the world’s most expensive player and not even insured him!”
If training sessions had been tough for the youngsters before the capture of arguably the world’s best striker, Shearer drove the standard up to almost unobtainable levels.
“When I coach teams now, I always refer to how hard he worked and how much a goal in a training session meant to him,” says Crawford, now manager of the Republic of Ireland Under-21s. “When it came to a Saturday afternoon, scoring goals was second nature to him.”
Holland was equally impressed: “He’d go and play centre-half in a five-a-side and he’d be the best centre-half in the squad, and then he’d do the same on the right wing. He could have played anywhere.”
“I remember rooming with him on an away trip and he was a real prankster,” smiles Brayson. “He did little daft things to me like unscrewing the top off the saltshakers, but he loved the craic.
“We got on well because we were both Geordies, and I looked at him and thought, ‘I’d love to be from Newcastle and be the main striker.’”
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However, the arrival of Shearer had consequences. With a £15million deficit on the club’s balance sheet, finances had to be raised – and quickly. Holland and Huckerby were the first to be sacrificed.
“Between Darren and I, the club got a couple of million. It wasn’t like Kevin wanted to do it, but we were the easiest lads to get rid of,” says a diplomatic Holland. “He wanted Alan Shearer, which was fair enough – I’d have done the same thing.
“Even if we were missing two central midfielders, he’d pull Ginola into the middle of the park, and when you start doing that, you know you’re not even fourth choice.
“I initially went down to Birmingham City to get some games in my system and hopefully come back, but they wanted to sign me. Keegan was honest enough to tell me that if I wanted to play football, I was best staying down there.”
Huckerby, meanwhile, was happy for a fresh start at Coventry City.
“Newcastle made a £700,000 profit on someone who’d played twice, so it was a good deal for them, but the pressure was on me – I wasn’t just a kid from Lincoln anymore, I was a £1million player from Newcastle.”
Two months later, Huckerby left Keegan ruing his decision. Playing like someone with a chip on his shoulder, he scored once and assisted another to hand his new employers victory at the Magpies’ expense.
🎥 GOAL OF THE DAY:
"Huckerby scores! The perfect start for Coventry City!"
— Coventry City (@Coventry_City) August 31, 2018
“I was just looking to score my first goal and luckily it was against Newcastle,” he says. “I still had a lot of things to work on but pace kills defenders, and I knew if I was racing Phillippe Albert, there was only going to be one winner.
“After the game, I went onto the bus to see the lads and Ginola said to me, ‘Now you’ve played in the Premier League, don’t start spending stupid money buying stupid cars!’”
The emotional damage from the previous season’s collapse undoubtedly affected Keegan. His resignation was rejected in the summer, but he couldn’t rediscover his trademark effervescence.
A row with the authorities saw him churlishly scrap his reserve team, ensuring opportunities for unestablished players became virtually impossible, especially considering that in the 31 games he managed during 1996-97, he made the maximum three substitutions only four times – and on seven occasions didn’t make any.
Crawford was an unused sub 16 times at Newcastle. “I was on the bench when we were 7-0 up against Tottenham,” he says. “It would have been great to get on for 15 minutes to be a part of it, but it didn’t happen (Keegan made just one sub that day).
“I think he wanted to win 10-0! Experience is great for players; if the game is over you can empty the bench to boost morale, and make people feel part of that particular victory.”
Even though their relationship was strained, it was still almost impossible to think of Keegan and his beloved Newcastle ever parting ways. However, the unthinkable happened.
In January 1997, Tyneside was rocked by the news that the Entertainers’ ringleader had quit, and the city was left in a state of mourning.
“It came out of the blue,” says Brayson. “I remember we played Charlton away and I was in the first-team squad, which wasn’t long after I’d signed a pro contract.
“I felt that if I was going to get my chance, it would have been under Kevin. I remember going to the training ground the Monday after and he wasn’t there, and when I got home, I found out that he had resigned.”
“I could sense it was coming,” says Crawford. “I was disappointed because I liked him as a person and he was a very good manager, but things weren’t working out at that particular time. There was a lot of deflation amongst the lads.”
Lightning strikes twice
As well as the end an era, it was the end of the Entertainers too, but the show had to go on. Kenny Dalglish was hastily shepherded in as Keegan’s replacement – a proven winner but with a more pragmatic approach that flew in the face of the gung-ho style favoured by his predecessor.
Taking stock of his new squad, Dalglish finally handed Crawford a belated Premier League debut on what proved to be another incredible night at Anfield in March 1997.
“Kenny was an icon for me growing up, so to play under him was a huge privilege – I loved him,” Crawford says. “We were 3-0 down at Liverpool and Kenny sent me on. It could have been 6-0 at that stage, but we stayed in it and all of a sudden it was 3-3.
“It was such a magical feeling when Warren Barton scored the equaliser. I couldn’t stop screaming, even though I had nothing to do with the comeback!
“I had been on the bench thinking we were in trouble, and then suddenly I’m on as a sub and we were about to nick an unbelievable point. When they scored again, I was devastated. You could have heard a pin drop in the dressing room.”
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Five days later, Crawford came on as a sub again with his team cruising to victory against Huckerby’s Coventry.
“When the final whistle went, I made sure I was waving to my friends in the crowd, and it was a lovely moment because it was a proper league game on a Saturday afternoon, and we sent the Geordies home happy. That’ll live with me forever.”
Little did Crawford know, but he was also waving goodbye to first-team football at St James’ Park.
‘I just loved the club and didn’t want to leave’
As Dalglish swept the decks, Crawford and Brayson were left clinging onto whatever precious memories they could glean before they got the dreaded call.
The Irishman netted a poignant goal in a pre-season tournament in his native Dublin, his only Newcastle goal, while Brayson made a second, albeit fleeting, appearance in a League Cup tie against Hull City. Both experienced magical Champions League nights from the bench, but in March 1998 came the crushing reality that their dreams were over.
“I was supposed to play in a reserve game, but then a triallist started in front of me,” Brayson says. “I was confused, but I knew it couldn’t be good. The week after, Kenny told me that he was going to accept a bid from Reading for me.
“I didn’t have any time to make my mind up as it was approaching deadline day. I spoke to Reading and agreed to sign, so I never returned to the training ground to say my goodbyes. Not long after they signed Paul Dalglish, and I was like, ‘Oh, right…’”
However, Brayson wouldn’t be making the move to Berkshire alone, as Crawford followed him to the Madejski Stadium.
“I was training with the first team and I’d been on the bench a lot, so I was wondering if there was a way in,” Crawford says. “If I take a step back now, I’d be the first to say I was wasting my time, but as foolish as it sounds, I just loved the club and I didn’t want to leave.
“One day, Kenny brought me into his office and said, ‘Look, Jim, it’s not going to happen for you here.’ If Kenny hadn’t opened my eyes and told me I needed to get out, I’d probably still be at Newcastle now!”
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While the four players amassed just 11 appearances between them in black and white, they’ll forever remain a footnote in Newcastle United folklore, part of a select group who can call themselves an Entertainer.
“I had the best four years of my life at Newcastle,” says Holland, who now juggles working in construction with his role as assistant manager at sixth-tier side Guiseley. “When I sit back and think about all the people in the world who would have loved to be in my shoes, it’s something to be proud of.”
“I’ll never forget having 3,000 fans breathing down my neck while I was doing shooting practice,” Crawford chuckles. “The number of competitive minutes I had isn’t worth talking about, but I appreciated every moment on the pitch, in those training sessions or being around the town meeting fantastic people.”
“Despite me only playing two games people remember them, which is crazy seeing as it was 25 years ago,” says Norwich City ambassador Huckerby. “The Newcastle fans only saw a little glimpse of the player I could have been, but the amount of love they have for their club is incredible.”
“It was right place, wrong time for me,” admits Brayson, who is still playing into his forties at local league outfit Newcastle Benfield. “However, that was the best time to be a Newcastle player – being a part of The Entertainers.
“How many people want to say they played at St James’ in front of a capacity crowd for their hometown team at that time? It was a dream come true.”