STUART PEARCE has reason to recall the last time the elusive cup of a major trophy was dashed from the thirsting lips of the Toon Army. Three days after Kevin Keegan's cavaliers completed their Devon Loch in the Premiership stakes two years ago, 2,000 Newcastle fans packed into the Bridgford Stand at the City Ground for Pearce's testimonial match.
"Now you're gonna believe us," they sang, "we nearly won the league." At the final whistle, a Keegan penalty having failed to save Newcastle from a defeat less painful than their championship surrender to Manchester United, Pearce acknowledged the Geordie chants of "Psycho" with more than his familiar clenched-fist salute.
He removed his jersey and threw it to the Tyneside throng. It was ever thus with Pearce, the one player guaranteed to give his all, even the shirt off his back. This afternoon at Wembley that shirt will be black and white.
"It's strange how things work out," Pearce mused. "I'll never forget what Kevin Keegan did for me. Even when things went badly for Newcastle he honoured his promise to bring his team down to Nottingham. I'll always remember that.
"I'll always remember the Geordies who came down too. I was very grateful to them at the time and I'm grateful I've had the chance to repay them by giving my best in a black and white shirt."
That best has paid back the Toon Army with an opportunity to end the long wait for firstclass silverware at St James' Park. As the only ever- present in Newcastle's FA Cup run to Wembley, Pearce has done more than anyone else to put his club within 90 minutes of their first major prize (with due deference to the Texaco and Anglo-Italian cups) since the Fairs Cup in 1969.
The cavalier days have turned from black and white to sepia at Newcastle this season but Pearce has been a swashbuckling success for Kenny Dalglish's Roundheads. At left-back and at centre-half, he helped to restrict the rearguard damage done to the downwardly-mobile Magpies in the Premiership campaign, which ended last Sunday with the runners-up of 12 months ago four points off a relegation place.
Pearce and his defensive colleagues conceded 44 Premiership goals, an increase of just four from last season, when Newcastle qualified for the Champions' League. Their problem has not been at the back but at the front, where productivity has dropped by more than half - from 73 league goals last term to 35 this.
Newcastle's season will probably be remembered for scoring of a rather different kind - the prolific spree credited to their former chairman and, er, vice-chairman - unless, that is, Pearce and the rest of the boys in black and white can snuff out the Arsenal this afternoon. Their hopes of doing so will only be enhanced by the inspirational presence of English football's lionheart.
Pearce has one FA Cup medal in his personal trophy cabinet but it was placed there disdainfully in 1991, after the free-kick he hammered past Erik Thorstvedt proved to be nothing more than a consolation goal for Nottingham Forest against Spurs. When he returned to the City Ground that night, as the losing captain, he found the Forest directors celebrating their big day out. He was not a happy man.
"I tore a right old strip off one of them," he recalled. "I play football to win, not to come second. I get very disappointed when I don't win.
"I don't believe defeat at Wembley is a cause for celebration. Some people might say: "Well, we've had a good day out or whatever." But I've yet to be convinced of that."
At 36 Pearce remains as pragmatically sparky as the 20-year-old punk- rock-loving left-back who reached the first round of the FA Cup with Wealdstone while in the employ of Brent Council as an electrician. "We lost 2-0 at Swindon," he said, smiling at the memory. "Paul Rideout told me to get back to my nine to five job. It's probably my working upbringing and the fact that I've played as a semi-professional that has made me appreciate how lucky I am to be a professional footballer. I used to work in the estates around Wembley Stadium.
"Football has been kind to me, very kind. It's a great life being a professional footballer. I'd go to the park to play for nothing if I didn't get paid. I feel quite lucky that I've had the career I've had... that I'm having, I should say."
The slip was Freudian. Pearce will not be hanging up his boots in the Wembley dressing room at tea-time today. He still has a year to run on the contract he signed for Newcastle when he uprooted from Forest last summer. Having this week been omitted from Glenn Hoddle's first-draft World Cup squad, though, he acknowledges that - after 76 caps and semi- final appearances in the World Cup and the European Championship - his distinguished career in national service has finally come to an end.
"I'd be lying if I told you I don't feel disappointed," he said. "It's meant a lot to me, playing for my country. But I wish Glenn and the squad all well and good for the summer. If I can't play for England I'll support them.
"Nothing would give me greater pleasure than England coming home from France with the World Cup. I'd probably be the first one to tell Glenn he'd done well to leave me out of the squad."
Pearce, of course, has firsthand knowledge of the managerial selection process. On the eve of his first match as Forest's player-manager last season he jotted down his chosen line-up and asked his wife for her opinion. "I'm sure it will be fine," Liz Pearce said, "but you do realise you haven't picked a goalkeeper."
The following day, with Mark Crossley's name at the top of the team sheet, Forest won 2-1 at the City Ground. Their opponents ? Arsenal.
Pearce may have lasted only five months in the management game but his curriculum vitae includes a victory in opposition to the Frenchman who hopes to guide the Gunners to the Premiership and FA Cup double this afternoon.
He has also, for that matter, outsmarted the boss whose team stand in the Wembley way of Arsene's Arsenal. The last manager to knock out Newcastle in the FA Cup will be playing for them today.
"Yeah, that's right," Pearce said, smiling at the reflected irony of Forest's 2-1 fourth-round success at St James' last season. "Funny old game, eh''?
Tyneside's years of famine: How Newcastle have failed to win a major trophy for 29 years
SUPERMAC, HEREFORD AND THE FALSE DAWN
NEWCASTLE have not won the League title since 1927, nor the FA Cup since 1955. Their last major trophy arrived 29 years ago when Joe Harvey's team, featuring "Pop" Robson, Wyn Davies, Bobby Moncur and Frank Clark, won the Fairs Cup in 1969. By the summer of 1971, Robson and Davies had moved on and Harvey had paid a club-record fee for a player who was to join the club's tradition of great number nines. Malcolm MacDonald, soon to be dubbed "Supermac", became a Tyneside folk hero over the next five years yet brought the club no tangible success, despite a new wave of optimism. Indeed, his first season was to make the names of Ronnie Radford and Ricky George as famous as his, thanks to non-League Hereford's moment of FA Cup glory (above). In the League, only MacDonald's goals saved United from slipping back into the Second Division. Football at St James' Park lacked nothing in entertainment but everything in trophies. Even when Harvey's team reached the FA Cup final in 1974, they were soundly beaten by Liverpool, for whom Kevin Keegan was outstanding.
ANOTHER WEMBLEY FAILURE
HARVEY'S reign ended in 1975 when he was replaced by Gordon Lee, something of a dour pragmatist who disliked so-called "star" players. His teams failed to excite yet the fifth place he achieved in 1976 was the highest by a Newcastle side for 25 years and he was unlucky not to win the League Cup in the same season, when injuries and a flu bug wrecked the team's Wembley preparations; a side out on its feet by the end lost to a brilliant goal by Newcastle-born Dennis Tueart. Lee regularly clashed with MacDonald, and sold him to Arsenal.
MIDWAY through the following season, Lee left as well, accepting the opportunity to manage Everton. It was a departure mourned by few after the sale of MacDonald. In spite of the turmoil, Newcastle still qualified for the Uefa Cup. Yet coach Richard Dinnis, who had stepped into the breach, could not hold the team together and the 1977-78 season saw another year battling against the drop, which this time ended in defeat.
ARTHUR COX AND THE FIRST COMING OF KEEGAN
THE crisis was eventually solved by Arthur Cox, the former Chesterfield manager given the Newcastle job when speculation had been rife that a new board would appoint Bobby Robson, Lawrie McMenemy or even Brian Clough. It was Cox who signed Keegan, for a bargain pounds 100,000, and brought Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley to prominence. His side won promotion in 1984, but Cox soon left for Derby.
CRISIS FOLLOWS CRISIS THEN
KEEGAN SAVES THE DAY
AFTER Cox came Jack Charlton, who steadied the ship yet could not win popularity. His successor, Willie McFaul, took the team to fifth place but, after Waddle, Beardsley and Paul Gascoigne had been sold by a board perceived as lacking ambition, Newcastle were relegated again in 1989. After McFaul came Jim Smith and then Ossie Ardiles, but only when Sir John Hall, the recently installed chairman, replaced the Argentine with Keegan was the slide halted. The new "messiah" had 16 games to save the club from falling into the old Third Division and pulled it off with a 2-1 win at Leicester on the last day of the 1991-92 season.
HOPE BUT NO GLORY - YET
FOOTBALL under Keegan was sometimes the stuff of fantasy - but apart from the new First Division championship in 1993 Keegan could deliver only unfulfilled dreams. His teams produced the most exciting football in the Premier League but their quest for honours came to nought. His title dream was thwarted repeatedly by Manchester United, most notably in 1995-96 when Newcastle led the table by 12 points in January, only to finish second. Keegan's verbal attack on Alex Ferguson (left) gave the first hint of the mental frailty that was to culminate in his resignation in January last year, leaving behind a pounds 40m transfer deficit when he handed the reins to Kenny Dalglish.
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