The Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan will put another flurry of speculation behind him as he attempts to spring a major upset on Sir Alex Ferguson.
The Magpies entertain Manchester United at St James' Park on Saturday evening with all bets off as they attempt to end a run of nine Premier League games without a win. It would come as a huge surprise if they were able to do that against the champions at the end of a week that has seen insiders deny rumours that the owner, Mike Ashley, has put the club up for sale amid suggestions that the former striker, Alan Shearer, has been asked to head a consortium to buy the billionaire out.
However, few would have expected what happened the last time Keegan sent a Newcastle side out against United at St James' on 20 October, 1996. The Magpies' 5-0 victory that day, which came only months after they were pipped to the title by Ferguson's men, was one of the high points of Keegan's first spell in charge, and having guided Manchester City to 3-1 and 4-1 wins over their arch-rivals since, he has fared better than most against the Scot.
Keegan said: "I don't know what my record is like against Sir Alex, but I don't think it is as bad as some managers. I'm sure it is not the worst. They have got the form and we have not, so we will see if we can surprise a few people. We have had a little bit of a break and we have worked the players a little bit harder.
"We gave them a couple of days off, but they are back now and fresh – and we know what is ahead of us on Saturday. I have been pleased and we are building up to what is a very big game for us."
However, Keegan, who was famously drawn into Ferguson's mind games on live television as his club's 1995-96 title challenge faded, knows only too well what lies ahead of his confidence-starved players this weekend. Their last league win came at Fulham on 15 December, and they have taken only three of 27 possible points since.
Keegan is still waiting for his first win since his return, and with winnable encounters against Bolton and Middlesbrough on their own patch having slipped by, his side's need is increasing by the week. United bounced back from their derby defeat by Manchester City with an FA Cup fifth-round demolition of Premier League leaders Arsenal on Saturday.
Newcastle have not played since they surrendered a 1-0 lead at Aston Villa to lose 4-1 on 9 February, but Keegan is convinced his players will be ready. He said: "Two weeks without a game has been a long time, and the last game against Aston Villa was not a good performance. Man United will have had two games by the time they play us, so we have little things going for us."
Meanwhile, the club is refusing to respond to claims that it is being offered for sale despite persistent rumours in the city.
Elsewhere in the North-east, Keegan's Middlesbrough counterpart, Gareth Southgate, is hoping Stewart Downing's decision to commit his future to the club will help him attract new signings and keep his promising youngsters.
The 23-year-old England winger agreed a new five-year deal on Friday, only weeks after the Brazilian striker Afonso Alves became the club's record signing and helped spark a fresh wave of optimism with relegation fears giving way to dreams of FA Cup glory.
Southgate will not allow himself to be carried away, but is happy progress is being made both on and off the pitch. He believes Alves' capture did Boro little harm in persuading Downing to sign, and is confident that will have a knock-on effect.
Southgate said: "Players that you are looking to bring to the club will look at players like Stewart Downing and feel he is a player they would want to come and play with. And within our own dressing room, it is important players realise they can stay and be looked after.
"Stewart has probably signed four or five contracts in his time here, and it is important we are seen to be looking after our own young players in the right way, and that we are able to keep hold of them if it is something we as a club want to do."
Talks are under way with just such a player, with the 21-year-old defender David Wheater now the man in the frame. The Redcar-born youngster has been a revelation this season – indeed, his emergence is part of the reason the club were prepared to sell Jonathan Woodgate to Tottenham.
Southgate and the chief executive Keith Lamb have held discussions with the player, his parents and his advisers, and further talks are expected this week with the early signs promising.
Southgate said: "To be honest, with David, I have been very impressed by his family, and that's a credit to the upbringing they have given him. We take them on board at 15, 16, but the people who really are most important in any player's development are his parents at the beginning. They set the tone for all of us on the long road ahead. His father's attitude to everything I found really refreshing.
"I am very hopeful we can get an agreement with David and his family and his advisers and we can help to improve him further as a player. The long and short of it is David wants to stay and his dad's attitude to keeping him hungry was very refreshing.
"It is a deal we want to do and, like Stewart Downing, if we can get it wrapped up, it will be an important one for us as a club."
Wheater will be available for the Premier League trip to Liverpool, but will miss the FA Cup fifth-round replay against Sheffield United through suspension.Reuse content