Anyone who scores a winning goal for Newcastle United against Sunderland will always be remembered fondly on Tyneside, and as Les Ferdinand had 54 other goals to his name in only two seasons with the club, something close to the status of hero is guaranteed. The affection is mutual, and although employed primarily by Tottenham as a part-time coach these days, "Sir Les" will follow this afternoon's North-east derby with keen interest.
"Very enjoyable but perhaps too short," is his summary of those heady years from 1995-97, in which Newcastle under Kevin Keegan played some of the most entertaining football of the era and took part in many of the most thrilling games, yet achieved no more than finishing runners-up to Manchester United. Ferdinand had arrived from Queens Park Rangers with a hard act to follow, Keegan having controversially sold Andy Cole to United six months earlier; a decision he was forced to stand on the steps at St James' Park to defend.
In that first season Newcastle blew the best opportunity they have had to become English champions in the past 80 years. To the outside world, Keegan seemed to be cracking up as fast as the team. As Ferdinand recalls: "We were 12 points clear at one time with a game in hand, which could have been 15, so when we lost the first one it wasn't a case of going round the changing-room saying 'pull your finger out'. We were still nine points clear with a game in hand but it dwindled down to three. We lost to Liverpool [4-3] and to Blackburn. It was a slippery slope of losing games."
Yet he does not agree that Keegan's wild outburst about United in a televised interview ("I will love it if we beat them") was a contributory factor: "When I saw it, I thought 'good on you, Kevin'. When we see a player that wears his heart on his sleeve we all go 'yeah, we like that', but when a manager does it, it's taken as a sign of weakness."
With hindsight, he realises there were signs of tension building up early on in the following season, as the club prepared for a flotation that would effectively sink its football ambitions. There was one celebration amid a difficult start for the new striking combination of Ferdinand and Alan Shearer, who arrived for a record £15m and demanded, to Ferdinand's displeasure, the No 9 shirt.
Wearing No 10 – which in turn upset the previous occupant, Lee Clark – Ferdinand scored the winner away to newly promoted Sunderland: "Those derbies were very passionate. It was the last season at Roker Park and unfortunately no away supporters were allowed at either game. They were one-nil up, then we equalised to deathly silence and when we went two-one up there wasn't a sound, it was like a morgue. I'd heard so much about the way the supporters were that I would have liked to have experienced it over the two games."
He would not be given the chance. In January, Keegan, frustrated by the flotation taking precedence over football, told the directors he would leave at the end of the season, then resigned when the news was leaked. His successor, Kenny Dalglish, told Ferdinand he wanted him to stay, but that summer the financially strapped board accepted an offer of £6m from Spurs, his boyhood favourites. The way in which Ferdinand mentions "Kevin" and "Dalglish" suggests which of the two he preferred. "I enjoyed working with Kevin. You get different managers throughout your career. Some are very tactically minded; Kevin put a team together, believed in them and we just went out and played, never really worked on anything, no tactics.
"Over the years people have said that's the one thing about Kevin, he didn't have any tactics, but he had a lot of passion and got his teams to play good football." And Dalglish? "He was quite methodical, worked on different aspects of what we were going to do rather than just a carefree 'go out and play'."
Keegan believed in the partnership with Shearer, which produced 41 of the team's 73 League goals in that one season together. But the new England manager, Terry Venables, was less convinced and consequently only four of Ferdinand's 17 England caps came during his reign. "It was frustrating for me and affected my England appearances. He came out with the statement that he didn't feel me and Alan Shearer could play together because we were too similar and for that reason played with Teddy Sheringham and Alan."
As a result he finished his career in 2006 having been in an England squad at a European Championship (1996) and a World Cup (1998) without having made it on to the pitch. The final figures show five international goals, a total of more than 150 League goals in England, plus 14 in a lively interlude for Besiktas, and he became the first player to score for six different teams in the Premier League: QPR, Newcastle, Tottenham, West Ham, Leicester and Bolton. Not bad for someone whose attitude and commitment as a teenager were sometimes doubted by managers and scouts watching him in non-League days.
He did duty at that time as a painter and decorator, driving to training with Hayes twice a week as white-van man, which is why he is now working with VW to promote the latest model of the Volkswagen Transporter. The late start as a professional – he was 19 when signed by QPR – was beneficial, he now believes: "You understand what going out to work from 8am till 6pm is and you appreciate it when you're training from 10am till 1pm. You can't beat playing. I've tried several things since, but there's nothing that can give you the buzz of going out in front of 40,000 and scoring."
As for Newcastle, and the current No 9, he will be watching with interest today: "We're desperate for a player of Andy Carroll's type in the England squad, but he needs to do it in the Premier League over a season or two before he can stake a claim in that side. He's a leader of the line who scores goals.
"A lot of players in the Newcastle team have a point to prove. A lot went down with Newcastle and some have played in the Premier League and not done well. So they've got an opportunity to prove people wrong." Much like a 19-year-old decorator with attitude did some 25 years ago.
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