Fast forward two months to last April and the St James' Park souvenir shop was awash with people buying black and white trinkets to take with them to Wembley. It was Newcastle's first appearance in an FA Cup final since 1974 and the town was throbbing with anticipation. It was what? No excitement swirled round the banks of the Tyne, just a sense of foreboding.
"Kenny Dalglish will send the country to sleep," a man clutching a bag containing a replica shirt said. "The only way we can beat Arsenal is by boring them to death." He was wrong on both counts but only because Newcastle succumbed so meekly it was one of the most one-sided finals in years.
Dalglish had put an unsmiling and unloved face on a club that had been the domain of the laughing cavalier, Kevin Keegan. The fans never took to the man who attempted to reach out to them frequently but never addressed their hearts.
It was apparent almost as soon as Dalglish took over from Keegan in January 1997. Kevin the Messiah had one flaw, it was said, in that his team of a thousand glorious charges could not defend. Dalglish, the argument went, would add steel to the side and that ingredient would bring the championship to Newcastle for the first time since 1927.
David Ginola, the embodiment of Keegan's devil-may-care style, was soon a victim to the new pragmatism but, although Dalglish guided Newcastle into second place in the Premiership and the Champions' League, the antipathy towards the new style was overwhelming.
It was summed up with a cameo played out within two months of the new regime's creation. A Newcastle supporter, fed up with an initially downbeat performance at Anfield, walked along the touchline and threw his replica shirt at Dalglish. There you had it, a manager at odds with his supporters.
Even reaching the FA Cup final could not widen a bond that was never wider than a piece of string. In the first match this season Newcastle were booed off the field after a goalless draw against Charlton by supporters not wishing to give pounds 13m worth of summer signings a chance to blend. It was then that the penny dropped at board level. Dalglish had to go.
The difference between Dalglish's experience at his two previous clubs was profound. At Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers he had been adored, and there was disappointment when a man who is a complex cocktail of brilliance, stubborn determination and shyness chose to leave both Anfield and Ewood Park.
At Liverpool he took over in 1985 on the very night that the club suffered the first of two tragedies, Heysel, and was still there four years later when the Hillsborough disaster claimed 96 lives. It is arguable that only someone of Dalglish's resolute self-confidence could have reacted so well - dignified and articulate - when the city of Liverpool was in urgent need of someone to look up to for leadership.
Dalglish did suffer a delayed reaction but it was after the crisis subsided that he fathomed his own emotions and suddenly, unexpectedly, retired. Liverpool had won three championships under his management, but he said his family life was more important than glory, particularly when it had been so often tarnished with tragedy.
It was with some surprise that he returned to the sport within eight months with Blackburn, and armed with Jack Walker's money, Dalglish took the team out of the Second Division and to the championship in 1995.
Arguably that achievement was even greater than those at Anfield where he was handed a rich inheritance, but the attraction again proved fleeting and he retired in stages, first to become director of football and then altogether. Kenny was fine when the going was good, were the rumours, but a taxi had its engine running outside if it ever threatened to deteriorate.
Maybe it was that questioning of his reputation that encouraged Dalglish to erect personal walls but, when the already imposing barricades got to St James' Park, they became unbreachable. Friends testify to his humour and generosity but few outside his inner circle at Newcastle saw it, and so he was neither loved nor admired.
"My only question is the timing," John Regan, of Newcastle's independent supporters club, said yesterday. "Kenny Dalglish should have been sacked at the end of last season, so the new manager could have a full summer to bring in the players he wanted." Some epitaph for someone who got Newcastle into the Champions' League and Cup-Winners' Cup in successive seasons.
Perhaps no one could have successfully followed Keegan, who was more than a manager. He brought a promise of fulfilled dreams to Tyneside. The paradox is that Dalglish confounded everyone by replacing Keegan as Liverpool's star player. As a manager he never came close.Reuse content