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An Interview With: Gavin Peacock (July 2020)

Last week, I spent the best part of an hour on speaker phone to a landline in Alberta, Canada. On the other end was a Newcastle United legend and one of the earliest players I remember my Dad raving about when he came home from the match, Mr. Gavin Peacock. I’d just turned seven years old when he signed for Newcastle but that is an era of our club which transcends age, imprinting onto the minds of anyone fortunate enough to be alive to experience it. The almost mythical years, when the club went from relegation survival to top flight promotion in the blink of an eye and Newcastle legends were created. It was an absolute pleasure speaking to one of them.


Peacock’s Dad, Keith, played for Charlton Athletic so lived in the South East of England but this didn’t prevent a young Gavin’s first ever kit as a child being a black and white one. His Dad’s parents, Tom and Lydia, were from South Shields and his Grandad, who was a World War Two navy veteran, was looking for work after the war and moved to Dagenham. Tom instilled his love of the club into Keith and then Gavin and they would regularly travel North for holidays during the ‘70s to see the family. Gavin recalls having a Supermac t-shirt, as well as his Newcastle kit, and confirms that Newcastle was always in his life and in his blood. However, despite always wanting to follow his Dad’s path into professional football, he never thought he’d play for the club.


Having began his career at First Division Queens Park Rangers in 1984, he was signed by his Dad at Gillingham in 1987 before a move to Harry Redknapp’s Bournemouth in 1989. The club was relegated that season and he began the 1990-91 season in the Third Division but on November 30th 1990, Newcastle paid £275,000 to take him North and up to the Second Division. “I was at Bournemouth, Harry Redknapp was manager and it was great to play for him but when he said Newcastle are in for you I knew I was going. I wanted to come up to the top level and obviously knew Newcastle was a big club, a sleeping giant, and I went straight home to my wife and said Newcastle have come in. I know we’ve only been here a year at Bournemouth and got our first little house but it’s an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and knew I was going to sign. Jim Smith had been my manager at QPR and given me my first team debut a few years earlier, so he obviously liked me as a young player and kept an eye on me. He wanted an attacking midfield player and by then I was a more mature player (23 years old). It wasn’t even a question in my head, I was going to Newcastle.”


There was no man prouder than his Grandad the day he signed for Newcastle and he offered the advice that if he was to sweat blood for the shirt, it would endear him to the fans but Gavin admits that he didn’t fully grasp this until he put on the shirt. Although Tom was coming into the final few years of his life, he still made a few journeys up to watch him play at St. James’ Park. “They’ll forgive you many things on the field if they see you’d sweat blood for the team because if they could put on the shirt, that’s what they’d do. Obviously they have to see that you have a certain amount of talent but it’s that passion for the club they want to see.” It wasn’t until Leicester away, his debut, on December 1st 1990 when he went into the changing room and saw his number 8 black and white shirt hanging up that it really hit him. He signed midweek and was put straight in for the game on the Saturday and this would be the first time he’d pull on the shirt. He recalls going out for the warmup and there were 3000-4000 Geordies in the corner cheering and screaming. “This was only the warmup and I got goosebumps and that’s when it really hit me. From that first time, I got it and I think the fans got me. They saw I had some talent and I was going to lay it all on the line for them. It was a good relationship. You hear players talk about the fans but it really does mean a lot if you have a connection with them and I still feel that now. You have this bond with them and even after years that still remains because of your shared love and passion.”


Gavin would play for three different managers at Newcastle and enjoyed a good relationship with all of them. “I loved Jim Smith. When I was a youngster at QPR, I was a bit nervous of him because he’d growl and shout and you but when I was at Newcastle and a more mature player I knew what he was like and he was a decent man. He knew football well and had a good track record in the game. It was just one of those things that just didn’t work out. Ossie then comes in and said he was going to play a diamond system and put me at the head of the diamond. He called me a rough diamond that needed polished. Ossie released me on the pitch and I was really scoring goals at this point. He was not afraid to take a chance on youth so Lee Clark, Steve Howey, Steve Watson and Robbie Elliott all came in. I was the oldest in that younger group, if you like. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Ossie for that but we just weren’t defending well and with youngsters there was obviously an inconsistency to our play. When he left, everyone was very sad because he was such a lovely, great man and well liked by all. Of course, the one person who they could have brought in to dull that feeling was Kevin.”


On February 5th 1992, almost eight years after he retired as a player, Kevin Keegan entered the world of football management. “I had posters of Kevin on my bedroom wall when I was a kid and I just knew when he signed that things would be special. You could feel it the minute he came in and told us all on the first training session that we’d survive this year and then take off. He kept passing that vision on and he delivered it. Kevin was a great motivator of men. In the dressing room before that first game against Bristol city, he was going round speaking to individual players and he got to me and he said, ‘You’re the man, today. Bill Shankly used to say to me, ‘Drop hand grenades all over the field.’’ And I thought, wow Bill Shankly used to say that to you and now you’re saying it to me! I burst out down the tunnel and ran all game, made a couple of goals in a 3-0 win and he just had that ability to say the right things to right players.” Gavin pauses to answer the door to his son, Jake, or ‘Jake the Geordie’ as he calls him. He returns to finish the Keegan story, with a stifled laugh. “When he got the England job, Paul Scholes scored three goals against Poland and he spoke about how Kevin was a great motivator of men afterwards in a newspaper interview. Apparently he’d told him to go out there and drop hand grenades all over the field! I read that and thought, oh I thought I was special!”


He enthuses about what made Keegan so successful in those early years at Newcastle and what he brought to the club, “Kevin was a superstar in European terms, won European Footballer of the Year twice, and it does have an impact mentally. To a lot of the players he was a hero, he was a poster on their childhood bedroom walls from Match and Shoot magazines. You set your mind on being someone like him, so it can have a great impact but once you get into the every day of football management it takes more than being a great player. He knew what to say to different players and he knew how to put players together in training and then translate that onto the field. He’d use different triangle of players, like me, Rob Lee and Lee Clark. We’d play together well in training so he’d keep us close together on the field on a Saturday. He began to change things pretty quickly but keep in mind we were a team that was struggling against relegation, so when you’re in that vain, it’s difficult to turn it around. But we could score goals. We had me and Kelly and that was a big thing. We could win games because we could score goals and that’s what really got us there in the end.”


Asked whether there was another side to Keegan, beyond the man manager, he replies instantly. “He had a ruthless streak, Kevin. He didn’t mess about and you didn’t mess about with him. If you crossed him, or he perceived that you crossed him, you’d be out. Micky Quinn did an interview with a newspaper a couple of weeks after Keegan came and he described the set-up as a shambles and Kevin as lucky, claiming if he swam in the River Tyne he’d come up with a salmon in his mouth. The next Monday, Keegan calls Quinn into the office and he’s got the article pinned up behind him on the board and doesn’t say a word to Quinn about the article. Just talks about the team and the game. Quinny got the picture but he was gone in November. You don’t get to the level he did as a player without having a tough side to you and you need that as a manager otherwise you’d never make a decision and be swayed by the crowd or the media. Wise leaders listen to the advice of others around them, which Kevin did. He was compassionate too and showed that side to me when I needed to leave the club.”


Having helped win Division One in the 1992-93 season, and promotion to the newly formed Premier League, Gavin left Newcastle in a £1.5 million transfer to Chelsea. “The move to Chelsea was purely due to my personal circumstances. Our son was born at the end of the season and was born without his right hand. It was a huge shock and my wife wanted to get back down to be near her Mum, it was our first child and it was a difficult time. I spoke to Kevin about it and he wanted me to stay, he said he was bringing in Beardsley and talked about how well we’d play together. But he understood and acknowledged there were more important things than football, that’s what I mean about the compassion of Kevin.”


We move on to talk about the infamous Leicester game, on the final day of the 1991-92 season, for which Gavin will be eternally remembered by Newcastle fans. “I felt the pressure at the time. It was such a weight, that final game. David Kelly had scored against Portsmouth at home the week before and that was vital but we didn’t really know that going into the final game and the pressure was just phenomenal. Newcastle could have slipped into the Third Division for the first time in their history, the club could have gone into administration. Who knows what would have happened? It would have been disastrous. You had thousands of Geordies there in the away end and they were cheering louder than the Leicester fans and it was Filbert Street! People were being sick in the dressing room because of nerves, we had the weight of a whole city on our shoulders and it came down to that ninety minutes. We’d been feeling pressure all season but the week leading up to that game was a different level.”


Gavin scored the opening goal, his 16th of a season in which he finished the club’s top goal scorer. “Getting the first goal was huge and a great relief. They equalized in the 89th minute through Steve Walsh and we weren’t sure whether a point was enough. Then the own goal from Steve Walsh to win it for us, I was chasing him back and thought I’d get there and he just poked it before me and it goes in. I’m seeing Leicester fans come on to the field so I peel away towards the Newcastle fans but they’re coming on to the field at this point to confront the Leicester fans. I’m at the furthest point from the tunnel, between two sets of fans and just about made it out of there! It was great relief, though, and euphoric. Once promotion was achieved the following year, that was euphoria with some relief at getting over the line, but with survival the overriding emotion was definitely relief. That was the difference between the two experiences.”


Asked about the best player he played with during his time at Newcastle, Gavin pauses before giving notable mentions to a few. Although it is obvious he has a clear winner in mind. “Quinn was a great striker, a great number nine. Lee Clark was a brilliant player. Andy Cole, a great striker. I loved playing with ‘Ned’ Kelly but (his voice fills with enthusiasm) Rob Lee was the best player I played with there. He was pound-for-pound the best buy Newcastle ever made. He was such a good player and an all-rounder. Could score a goal, tackle, head, had a great football brain. He was a genius. We keep in touch and the thing I love about him, as a person, he’s never changed. For all that he’s achieved in the game, he’s still the same lad who came up from London and played for Newcastle.”


Gavin would finish his time at Newcastle with 46 goals in 120 appearances and I ask him about his favourite goal and his best goal, in terms of quality. He begins with quality, “Swindon at home in the season we faced relegation, Keegan’s first season. We’d gone up for a set piece and it was cleared out and Kevin Scott smashed it back in. It went over my head and I spun around on the edge of the box and caught it on my right foot, onto my left thigh, back on to my right foot and volleyed it over the keeper. If it had been on Match of the Day, it would have been goal of the season. It means a lot to me because it was perfection, beauty and a sense of personal achievement. My favourite goal is the Leicester goal because of what it meant to everyone involved with the club. It was so significant.”


He speaks with such passion and enthusiasm throughout the call and I wonder whether he has similar feelings when reflecting on his time at other clubs or if Newcastle was unique. “Newcastle was very special. At QPR or Chelsea, the fans were spread out throughout London and the surrounding counties so I could walk out in the South East and one or two people might recognise me but Newcastle was more concentrated. I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised! I went to the pictures with my wife one day and some fans saw us going in. I'm paying for my ticket and next thing there’s a bunch of fans out there singing and chanting my name until l went out to talk to them. You just wouldn’t get that in London. So I had special times with those three clubs but the intensity was there with Newcastle.”


“I think in terms of Newcastle, it was the black and white rollercoaster, as I call it, as there were so many ups and downs. There were the difficult early times, Jim Smith getting sacked and then Ossie coming in, relegation fears which we survived with Keegan then promotion. Even at the highest point of promotion, with that glory, there was that personal pain there as well which led to leaving. There’s such a depth of emotion when I think of Newcastle. I don’t regret leaving because it was the right thing to do for my family but I would have loved to have been at Newcastle for The Entertainers period. I wouldn’t have left Newcastle otherwise, there was no reason for me to do so.” You can feel a genuine, warm emotion in his voice when he discusses this period. “The hardest part was never having the chance to say goodbye to the fans because it was the close-season. Yeah, that was hard.”


We conclude by reflecting on his time here and how he looks back on Newcastle. “One of the great things about being a professional footballer is giving people such pleasure. Football is the highlight for people each week, going to St. James’ Park, and being able to take that on and serve up something for them that gives them that thrill is incredible. There’s a feeling of togetherness and a pride in the city. It’s great to look back and see that you’ve done well for a club and that it’s been remembered. I think we need to remember our old players and history and would love to see the club develop that relationship with the legends on match days, to keep the history. The fans like that, they like to keep the history and see where they’ve come from. To be part of that and keep it ongoing is a great privilege. I love it.”

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