THE STORY OF LES FERDINAND’S GLORIOUS TWO YEARS ON TYNSIDE.
8TH FEBRUARY 2004
The game had petered out. 10 minutes or so remained in a contest that was barely a contest by half time. The capacity crowd were snoozing, some even heading away to avoid queues at the bar. Newcastle were 3-0 up at St.James’ Park against a Leicester City side who were heading for the Championship. Not the title winning kind of Championship just yet. Relegation to the Championship. In a more recent context, these were halcyon days for Newcastle as Sir Bobby Robson’s side chased a lucrative Champion’s League spot. This was to be a routine win as Newcastle defended the Gallowgate end in the second half. With play grinding not too far from a halt, the ball would mundanely make its way down the left and into the home side’s right back position. A cross is delivered. A decent one. There’s a sharp dart to the near post and contact with a head. A powerful, Bullet Header. A Trademark goal. Leicester had scored. No celebration and a split second of silence. The stands suddenly awaken. They realise who. They’d seen it many times before in another time, another life. There’s applause and cheering of an opposition goal. To Newcastle Supporters, he’ll never be an enemy. ‘Goal for Leicester City… LES FERDINAND’ The stadium is alive and 52,000 are on their feet. An ovation. A long awaited, proper goodbye.
10TH JANUARY 1995
Word began to spread that Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan had sanctioned the sale of star striker Andy Cole to bitter rivals Manchester United. Cole had been a phenomenon for Newcastle. A number 9 and goal scorer, the likes of which Tyneside hadn’t seen for decades, if ever. Cole was a record breaker and an integral part of the initial entertainers team. A Newcastle team King Kev had taken from the brink of the old third division to challenging for the Premier League title in just 3 short years. The public outcry was massive, it was an unthinkable situation and the sale came totally out of the blue to many supporters. Keegan, to his credit, had a plan. He was always a visionary, always looking a move ahead, willing to sacrifice the queen to avoid check mate of the king, the club. Behind the scenes, Cole had become moody, isolated and increasingly difficult to work with. He was pining for a move and it was affecting the rest of the squad. Keegan knew he had to go. Forced to defend his decision in front of an angry gathering of supporters at the front steps of a sodden St.James’ Park, his message was clear: Trust me. But despite the manager’s defiance, it was hard to see how Cole could be replaced. Not only that, they’d now strengthened their biggest rival’s team. For the supporters it was sacrilege, a huge let down and reminder of the dark days of the 1980’s when a host of stars were flogged and never replaced. They thought, hoped, those times had gone. Maybe Newcastle were still a selling club but in an audacious Keegan’s mind the short term detriment to the club would be worth the long term gains and a striker was on his radar.
Leslie Ferdinand MBE
Les Ferdinand was a fine specimen of a centre forward. Big, strong and muscular with electric pace, an out and out goal scorer and one of the best headers of a ball the country had ever seen. He began his career in 1986 with non league Hayes having thought his chances of becoming a full time professional had passed him by. That was until Queens Park Rangers snapped him up for a measly fee of £50000. Initially things weren’t great for Les and he was sent out on respective loans to third division Brentford and then Turkish side, Bešiktaš. The latter of the deals turned out to be a game changer for Ferdinand. 14 goals in 24 games helped bešiktaš to the Turkish cup and he felt his time in Turkey ‘turned him into a man.’ Returning to QPR with fresh impetus, he became a prolific goal scorer in an often struggling side over the next few seasons. This lead to interest from Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and George Graham at Arsenal but it was interest not strong enough for moves to materialise. A phone call in early part of 1995 from Kevin Keegan would change Ferdinand’s life forever.
Keegan outlined his blueprint for Ferdinand: come and be Newcastle’s main man, wear the famous number 9 shirt and shoot us to the Premier League title. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. Ferdinand liked the idea but was reluctant. Loyal to QPR, he didn’t want to leave in the middle of season and abandon ship. Not only that, he was unsure about uprooting from his home, London and everything he had ever known to go to the grim, cold north east. He told Keegan he couldn’t leave at that moment and would re-evaluate in the summer. It was a huge blow for Kevin Keegan, under pressure to keep his promise and replace Andy Cole, he thought about pursuing other targets but, in the end they didn’t have what he saw in Ferdinand. He wanted Les and decided he was willing to wait until the summer and try again.
Newcastle crawled over the line of the 94/95 season. Despite patchy form they ended in, a still respectable, 6th. QPR also had a decent Premier League season in no small part thanks to Les Ferdinand. He had fulfilled his duty and could potentially leave on good terms. Not to be deterred, Kevin Keegan finally persuaded his man to move north after a £6,000,000 club record fee was agreed. That summer the feeling was that Keegan was moving the club to the next level, further additions made in the form of the brilliant, flamboyant french winger, David Ginola as well as England international full back Warren Barton and Goalkeeper, Shaka Hislop. The excitement was palpable with the club also signing a multi-million pound deal with sportswear giant Adidas, who produced the now famous grandad collar kit of the upcoming season. With a new look it seemed like the club was truly ready for the 21st century and Keegan’s decision 6 months earlier now looked vindicated. It was just a question of whether they could produce the goods on the pitch.
Newcastle’s first match of the season was home to Coventry on a blistering hot day in August. The football they would play that season turned out to be scintillating, breathtakingly cavalier and calamitous all rolled into one. The new signings would hit the ground running immediately, especially the record buy and new number 9. With Newcastle 2-0 up in the second half, Ferdinand raced onto a fine through ball to round the onrushing Coventry goalkeeper to slot home from 20 yards at a tight angle. A goal on his debut, the Gallowgate had a new hero and he’d never look back. Ferdinand would be the fulcrum of the great new entertainers team that season scoring 29 goals which included breaking the club record for scoring in consecutive games. Sir Les as he was now affectionately known on Tyneside could do no wrong, he was revered in the stands, a feeling that quickly became mutual. A Londoner that felt part of Newcastle, a cockney Geordie. It was a great love affair that looked sure end in glory but, as great as Newcastle were, defensive inadequacies and lack of experience at crucial times meant they would blow a 12 point lead at the top of the Premier League and ultimately finish 2nd to Manchester United.
SIR LES. NUMBER 10
Towards the end of the 95/96 season, Kevin Keegan looked tired. An explosive rant aimed at rival Alex Ferguson live on TV in the final week of the season showed the pressure was getting to him. And then, finishing 2nd was a bitter pill to swallow. That summer, he took himself away on holiday. He was sunning by the pool when the Chairman, Sir John Hall rang him sensing something was wrong. He asked his manager what he needed to win the title. Keegan’s response was throw away. ‘Alan Shearer’. To which the chairman’s repost was ‘YOU’VE GOT HIM.’ A stunned Keegan could not believe his luck and he was reinvigorated. The club agreed a world record transfer fee for Shearer but there was a catch- Shearer, a Geordie coming home, wanted and needed the number 9 shirt. Les Ferdinand’s beloved shirt. A shirt that fit perfectly. A shirt that he’d made light work of the previous season despite it’s heavily weighted expectation. Keegan called Ferdinand and explained the situation. Shearer was not coming to replace him, he was coming to partner him. Ferdinand reluctantly agreed to relinquish the shirt but deep down he felt slightly betrayed and his relationship with Keegan would never be the same. Ferdinand would wear the number 10 shirt from now on.
On the pitch, Shearer and Ferdinand hit it off from the start. A truly formidable Premier League partnership that would produce 49 goals combined in the 96/97 season as Keegan was true to his word. The season’s peak would come in the October when both front men were on target in the 5-0 demolition of arch title rivals Manchester United at St.James’ park. A result that was seen as a potential title clincher. However, unbeknownst to the players, a secret war was brewing behind the scenes between Keegan and the board. Keegan felt the fans were being mislead when it came to the sale of bonds and season tickets. In January, things would come to a head and Keegan would unbelievably resign as manager. Crazy timing in the context of title race and Tyneside went into mourning. King Kev was gone. The board, looking for a quick resolution and needing to make amends turned to former Liverpool great Kenny Dalglish to try and finish off Keegan’s work and win the title. It wasn’t to be and another 2nd place finish was achieved. Dalglish went into the summer of 97 looking to make Newcastle his team. It was still rubber stamped as Keegan’s entertainers and he wanted that image to disappear, to do things his way. He started by sanctioning the sale of David Ginola to Tottenham Hotspur and when the same club offered £6,000,000 for, the now 30 year old, Les Ferdinand he did the unimaginable and accepted. Ferdinand was shocked when he found out the news, he didn’t want to leave but Dalglish told him he had to take the money in order to bring in his own players. No sooner had Ferdinand unwillingly agreed a contract with spurs, Alan Shearer suffered a horrendous leg break in pre season friendly at Everton. Dalglish subsequently panicked and tried cancel Ferdinand’s move back to London. The damage was done. Ferdinand wouldn’t go back on his word to Spurs and, in any case, he didn’t feel wanted. He had unwittingly become everything Keegan promised he wouldn’t, second fiddle to Shearer and was only needed because of Shearer’s injury.
Les Ferdinand was gone after only 2 years on Tyneside. A muddled ending to an outstanding period at Newcastle. One can only wonder what may have happened had he stayed that little bit longer, there may even be an argument that part of his legend belongs to the fact his time was so short and so sweet. He arrived just another untrusted cockney with big boots to fill and left a hero, one of the finest players to ever pull on the Newcastle number 9 jersey. So what of his honorary knighthood? 41 goals in 68 appearances paints a little picture but Newcastle supporters will probably testify it’s less about the amount of times a man mountain rose effortlessly on the penalty spot to plant home a trademark bullet header or galloped through three or four men to smash the ball into a bottom corner but more about a man who, from the start, embraced and came to understand the club, the area, the people. A genuinely good guy- humble by all accounts, trying his very best and giving his all for Newcastle United. It has the ring to it, it sounds right. It is right. SIR LES FERDINAND.