Darren Peacock interviewed
First part of the interview took place at Lancaster City’s ‘Giant Axe’ stadium on Saturday 26th October, the day before the derby:
You recently played in the Steve Harper testimonial at St James’. He used it to raise £300,000 for local charities, do you think the standard of opposition and the high fan turn-out are a reflection of him as a man?
Yeah, I thought it was a fitting occasion for the career he had there. The team he managed to get out was fantastic. The best thing that came out of that was all the money for charity. They picked a team that fans will associate with Kevin Keegan and the good style of football, the likes of Shearer and Ginola will get any fan in. He was great for Newcastle, he could have gone elsewhere and done a lot more, it’s unusual these days to stay at one club for that long.
You also played in the Peter Beardsley one. Recently we’ve had one for Robert Lee which seemed badly organised and one for Shearer which was fantastic, how did it compare to these games?
The Peter Beardsley one was back when the stadium capacity was only 36,000. He could have filled the current ground, it was another great occasion. Fans will always remember those players that they associate with the fantastic playing style. The gaffer went out and bought so many flair players during that time.
Talking about those players brings us to the ‘So Close’ team of 1996. There seems a lot of factors over-looked when thinking about why we didn’t win the title. We had the Gillespie injury as well as a general dip in form of key players. Do you think it’s been made easy for the media to come up with lazy answers such as Tino unbalancing the team and Keegan ‘losing his head’?
Yeah, I think you have to blame the players. A lot of people also forget than Man United went on a fantastic unbeaten run, they went twenty something matches without losing. But it was us, the players, who threw it away. People blame the defence but we only conceded 2 more goals than Man United that season. The gaffer tried so many different formations with our defence, 3 at the back, 4 at the back but it was still all out attack, some days Phillipe Albert ended up playing on the right wing! I try not to think about that season too much, the gaffer said that the first trophy would be the most difficult to win and so it proved.
Does it keep you up at night?
No not any more, the further away it was brings more clarity but I try not to think about it really.
You played in some great Toon matches in that era, scoring against Man U and coming off the bench as we beat Barca, is it possible to pick a very best match?
Not really a best match no, it was more about just the general philosophy of ‘we’ll score more’. I remember one match (Leicester at home 96/97) when we were 3-1 down and came back to win. That’s what the fans remember, the European nights as well were fantastic, there was something about those nights that just made the atmosphere electric! The supporters really are second to none. Some days we’d get 4 or 5,000 just to watch us training. When the stadium was sold out, they used to pack out beam backs at the pictures, so many people wanted to watch the match.
Kevin Keegan, you’re a manager now and things are going well, what have you taken from him as an influence?
It’s obviously very early days in my management career, I try to pick up things from everyone I’ve worked with. The thing I remember from Kevin was that his enthusiasm was catching. He could make good players into better players, not necessarily through coaching, it was more inside your head. One Monday he pulled me aside and said ‘You can’t play any better than this’ at the time I thought that was a bit negative from the gaffer but it actually caused me to go on and raise my game.
Do you one day see yourself in the hottest of all hotseats at St James’ Park?
No comment! (laughs) no, I’m really happy learning at Lancaster at the moment, I’m still a novice.
I’ve swerved that one haven’t I? (laughs)
It’s derby weekend and I have to say I’m getting nervous just thinking about it! When Sunderland were promoted in 96 did it come as a surprise the next season just how big a match it is and what the derby means to the region as a whole?
Oh, it’s a huge derby! When I played in those matches, the away fans were banned such was the level of hatred between the two sets of supporters. It means a massive amount to everyone. I think it added an extra bit of spice back then as we had a few local lads in the team, they know what its all about, they grew up with it.
I was actually up there last season for the derby (a 0-3 home defeat), Newcastle were shocking weren’t they!
What’s your prediction for tomorrow and where do you see the two teams finishing this season?
I think Newcastle have been decent in some games this season despite some of the injuries where as Sunderland haven’t won yet. I’ve got to go for Newcastle haven’t I!
I think Sunderland will get relegated this season but Newcastle are still building and might dip into the market, somewhere around mid-table.
Do you still spend any time in the region and follow the fortunes of NUFC?
Oh yeah, my wife’s family is from the North-East so we go up quite often. Obviously I’ve been quite busy this season with management but we go up when we can. I was able to do a bit of work up there last year which was nice.
Let’s talk about Mike Ashley, it’s easy to forget but he seemed to come in like a breath of fresh air. He then re-appointed and dismissed Kevin Keegan which possibly resulted in relegation. How do you feel about Ashley’s tenure?
I think relations have been strained with the supporters to say the least! He’s a great businessman but it’s different with a football club. The Newcastle supporters really see it as a community, when he’s renaming St James’ Park, he’s actually re-branding history.
In retrospect was it a mistake re-appointing Kevin Keegan with all the fan emotion that surrounds him and his years at Newcastle?
No, I don’t think so, I don’t think it was a mistake. Everywhere he’s gone he’s given teams a lift - Man City, Fulham and obviously Newcastle. I think he just needed to be left to get on with his job, that’s what he’s good at. It was more a case of big personalities clashing which happens sometimes.
At the end of that season, Alan Shearer came in for 8 games to steady the ship. He seemed to give us a brief lift, we won an important game against Middlesbrough but still went down. Having played with him do you believe he has the right temperament to one day return to management?
Oh Definitely, I’m not sure whether he wants to return to management at the moment with his media career but anyone playing for him would respect his record. Current players will only respect that for so long though, you have to then be successful as a manager not just a player.
Since we finished 2nd in the mid-nineties, we’ve seen the emergence of Chelsea, Man City and Spurs all challenging for the title and the top four places. Where realistically should Newcastle be aiming to finish these days?
I think it’s difficult at the moment if you’re not willing to pay world record transfer fees, the type of money Chelsea and City have gone out and paid for players. Don’t forget also that living in London is a big selling point for some of the top foreign players, Manchester too to a lesser extent. I think Newcastle should maybe be aiming for top 6 to top 10. The supporters are second to none but it’s all about finances these days, the fans will always be there though.
Part 2 of the interview took place in Lancaster on Nov 8th:
You played for both QPR and Blackburn in the top flight. How does the Newcastle support compare?
You don’t want to disrespect supporters of other teams because every individual will believe their own support to be the most passionate but with Newcastle it was the sheer volume of the passion that stood out. We talked about having 4 or 5000 just to watch us train in that Keegan era. There’d be ice cream vans and hot dog sellers, it was like a summer fait! It was like a festival really just to see us train. Keegan had those expectations that we’d all wait afterwards and chat to supporters and sign autographs. Keegan was all for the supporters, it changed a little when Kenny came in and it was all a lot more sectioned off.
When Dalglish was appointed as Keegan’s successor early in 1997, did you feel he was the right man for the job and has that opinion perhaps changed with hindsight?
I didn’t really have an opinion either way, as a player I just got on with it. It was difficult as the gaffer (Keegan) was always very close to the players, always wanting to make sure we were ok and asking about our families and things. He’d often pull us away for a quick chat. A lot of that changed with Kenny. To be fair I think he was on a hiding to nothing following Keegan, he tried to change things around very quickly. Whether he was the right man or not never really crossed my mind.
What did you make of Keegan when you first met him?
I flew up from QPR after I’d got clearance from them to speak to Newcastle and met him at a hotel in Gosforth. I remember he came bundling in, he was on a high because Newcastle had just beaten Ipswich. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, he didn’t really need to sell Newcastle to me to be honest but the first thing he mentioned was the supporters, his enthusiasm was just catching. He was always so ambitious for the fans. I talk to him sometimes and you can still see it now. I asked him for advice before I took on the Lancaster job and he’s always happy to help. That enthusiasm, it’s part of who he is.
How would you describe life on Tyneside back then, as players you would often socialise in Newcastle. That seems to have changed these days, is that a negative?
Yes, I think it is. All the lads would socialise together, we’d go out after the match. It was good for camaraderie between players. Not necessarily a big night out but we’d go for meals with wives and girlfriends. The supporters would come up to us for a chat and you expect that, especially in a small city. The players would gel together, we’d have a great time.
Keegan said it would have revolutionised football had we won the title, do you agree?
I’m not sure if it would have revolutionised it, it would have changed football though. Other teams would have changed as we would have been the model. On the other hand, you’d get teams wanting to bulldoze us and stop the flair players at all costs. It would all be about which tactics to employ. Man United were the closest to us in terms of football played at that time, we’d batter teams for the first half hour and try to be 2 or 3 goals up where as they’d soak up a lot of pressure and hit teams on the counter attack, they were so quick at that. It may have revolutionised things to be honest, Keegan was all about scoring more where as Ferguson and then Wenger, any other manger, would look at things more tactically. It would have given a few people food for thought, that’s for sure.
Newcastle fans are often described as deluded because we allegedly have too high expectations, what’s your experience of this?
No, I don’t think so. I think they just care so much and have that passion. The history of Newcastle is huge and now they have a world-wide appeal to supporters. With the size of the club, they have every right to expect success. They dont want to be losing a third or a quarter of the matches, where’s the fun in that? They need to expect more than that. No, I wouldn’t say they’re deluded.
I remember at the time in The Mag we once had a back cover with two photos next to each other of you and Elle Mcpherson entitled ‘separated at birth’ due to your hairstyle (I assume)any regrets?
(laughs) regrets? About what, looking like Elle Mcpherson?! (laughs) no, not really. I’d say we all probably end up regretting our hairstyles when we’re in our twenties, probably thinking we look great at the time!
Was it a race for the hairdryer after training between you and Barry Venison?
I don’t know about that! (laughs) I’d say Venners was more primped, he looked like he could have been in an 80s pop group!
If you were offered the Newcastle managers job, what would be your priorities?
In the short-term on the pitch I would making sure they were keeping clean sheets and scoring goals, getting the basics right. In the longer term I would be looking at the academy and asking why more local lads aren’t coming through.
In the short-term, things seem to have changed these days. It’s much more of a squad game the stakes are so high for staying in the premiership. I was there for the Benfica match last season and I couldn’t understand the tactics then I realised he had an important premiership match that weekend and the priority these days in staying in the league. The rewards are huge!
Would you swap your playing time from your era for the present day with the wages being so high?
I think it’s a different game these days. I’d say it’s quicker and more tactical, training methods are different too. When I was playing we’d watch recordings of the match, that way I could see when I’d made a mistake. These days they have all these stats that they analyse. No, I wouldn’t swap my time for now, I couldn’t any way but there was a social side of things back then that you don’t tend to get so much now, there’s that much at stake. I was happy with my playing time.
If Lancaster drew Newcastle in The FA cup who would you want to win?
Lancaster! (laughs) actually I’d take a draw at St James’ and bring them back here, see how Newcastle get on with our pitch! It’d be an achievement just to get that far in the competition though, what are the odds of it happening? I remember when I was at Hereford and we played Man United, they couldn’t deal with the pitch. They ended up beating us 1-0 in the last minute but it was a struggle, that’s the romance of the cup.
What’s your best Kevin Keegan story?
Trying to think what I can tell you! (laughs) I remember at one point we were playing so well he didn’t even need to give a team talk, he’d just walk in and say “same team, same subs” then walk out again! I’d love to one day be in that position in my job, the team was just picking itself.