This interview took place at the Grove hotel just outside Watford on Sunday 24th January, the day after Watford 2-1 Toon. I began by asking Sir Les about playing under Kevin Keegan, before moving on to other big stories during his time on Tyneside
What did you make of Keegan when you first met him?
I'd been speaking to Aston Villa; I'd been with Doug Ellis for three hours and I was on the motorway when I got a message and it was from Kevin Keegan. He just said "Please give me the opportunity to speak with you". Within 10 minutes, I'd signed! He was so enthusiastic, he didn't really need to sell the Toon to me to be honest. He talked about the fans, I felt he was someone I could learn from. It meant alot that he actually came to see me personally, the Villa manager didn't do that. He was so bubbly.
What was he like as a manager?
He had this effervescent character, he was just so enthusiastic. He was a fantastic man-manager, he could make you feel six inches taller! Having played there himself, he was able to talk about what it was like at St James' Park and he'd try to sell the club by talking about the supporters. The season before, I'd been up there with QPR, we'd won 2-1 and I'd scored but the Newcastle fans were still cheering the whole game and clapped them off at the end. I remember saying in the dressing after "Wow, imagine playing up here for them". It was at that point that I actually knew I wanted to play for the Newcastle fans.
He only actually presided over two 4-3 matches in his entire time at Newcastle (Liverpool (a) 95/96, Villa (h) 96/97). Do you think it is a myth that he is tactically inept?
No I don't. With all due respect to him, I don't think that is a myth. He always felt we'd score more. It was clear we had a problem in defence. Mark Lawrenson used to pan our defending every week on 'Match Of The Day' so he was invited to come in and work with our defenders, he couldn't solve the problem though. We always knew we'd concede. Put it this way - we didn't win games 1-0! At international level, it didn't really work out for him, maybe that job requires someone with a bit more tactical acumen. You can't just go out and buy David Ginola or Phillipe Albert, it's different at that level. You also can't see the players on the training ground every day. Man-management is his great strength.
What was the reaction amongst the players when he made his famous 'Love it' speech?
It was quite funny really as we had no idea about it until we got back home. We'd played away at Leeds on a Monday night and had won 1-0. Back in those days you had no 'Sky Sports' on the bus. I was one of those players that could never sleep after a match, it would take me a while to wind down. It had gone midnight when I was watching a re-run of the match and my phone rang, it was Warren Barton. He just said "Have you seen what's on the news?!" I saw the interview after the match, I couldn't believe it! That was Kevin though, he always wore his heart on his sleeve. I think we all had a bit of a joke with him about it to be honest.
How big of a shock was it when he left the club in January '97?
It was a big shock! Not winning the title affected everybody to an extent. To come so close and do it the way we did. Not a day goes by when I don't think we should have won it. It changed Kevin though, almost like a light had gone out in his head.
Is it possible to pick a best game during your time at Newcastle?
(pause) oh yeah! It'd have to be Man U! The 5-0. It felt different in the dressing room beforehand. I'll always remember Keegan's speech before the match. They'd beaten us 4-0 just a few months earlier in the charity shield at Wembley. He said "40,000 people clapped you off the last time, 36,000 of those are here today. You need to put this right" and we certainly did, no one likes to be humiliated on the football pitch.
Who was the most gifted player you played with on Tyneside?
David Ginola! Even though he only scored seven goals in his two years there, how many more did he make?! His goals were fantastic as well, remember the one against Ferencvaros where he flicked it up? The Manchester United one as well when he just unleashed it quite similar to his first one away at Sheffield Wednesday. He had a fantastic talent. He left for Spurs before me actually and he knew I didn't want to leave Toon, he phoned me up to try and persuade me!
Rob Lee was great as well, you honestly just didn't know how good he was until you played alongside him.
What did you make of Tino Asprilla when he made his debut away at Middlesbrough?
We knew we had a hell of a talent. I knew about him already as I'd watched him a few times for Palma on the T.V. We played away at Arsenal in the League Cup a few months in to the season and got beat 2-0, Keegan pulled me aside and said he was going to sign someone to help me out a bit, he felt the other lads were always expecting me to just bail us out, presuming I'd score. That's why he signed Tino. I remember when he first came over, it was snowing and he was wearing this big fir coat (laughs) the season after, we were playing in Europe (Metz at home) and just before the match Keegan said to him "Don't do anything stupid, don't get booked" then when he scored he started swinging his shirt on the corner flag! He ended up suspended for the next match (laughs).
Just how disappointing was it to miss out on Euro 96?
It was very disappointing. In any other country in the world, the PFA player of the year would be in the national team for a major tournament. I didn't even play a minute of Euro 96. There were players from other countries who were nowhere near the national side and they played themselves into it over that season.
How did the players feel about signing Alan Shearer for a world record fee?
It was funny as we'd heard all these stories in the press. We were going away on a pre-season tour to Singapore and, at the airport, Terry Mac told me that Keegan wanted a word. I said I was busy, I was stocking up on my duty-free! (laughs) Anyway, Terry said that Kevin really needs to speak to me so I went down the escalator and he was waiting for me in this little alcove. He told me he wanted me to be the first to know that he was signing Shearer but also to reassure me it was as a strike partner not a replacement so he wasn't getting rid of me or anything like that. He felt we could compliment each other, Kevin wasn't trying to prove anyone wrong but Terry Venables felt we couldn't play together and that was one of the reasons I didn't play in Euro 96. We knew we were signing someone with the best scoring record in the country.
How big of a wrench was it to give up the number 9 shirt?
Like I said, we were in this alcove and I was being told the news but then Keegan mentioned that there was one more thing. Shearer wanted the number nine shirt as he'd worn it his whole life. I reminded him that I'd also always worn the number nine. He was going on that it was just a number and during his playing days he didn't mind what he had on his back so I asked him why he always wore a number seven on his chain!
Keegan said he'd also had to speak to Peter Beardsley about giving up being the penalty taker which was odd as five minutes earlier he was saying I was the first to know! In the end I just said that the fact I was even being asked to give it up was proof he wanted Al to have it and so Shearer ended up wearing the number nine in my second season there. I'd say my relationship with Kevin changed a bit after that, it was never quite the same. He said in his autobiography that I'd asked for sixty nine and ninety nine but that's simply nonsense. I'd actually gone to the kit man, you can ask him this, to see which numbers were free. Turns out twenty three was free and Michael Jordan has always been a bit of a hero of mine so I chose that one. Management got back to me and said they wanted me to have a number between one and eleven, I told them I'd already had one of those and they'd taken it off me. In the end, I wore number ten. I was very disappointed Keegan chose to lie like that in his autobiography, he knew what it meant to me. Having scored twenty nine goals in my first season there, I'd earned the right to wear that shirt.
When Kenny Dalglish was appointed manager, did you feel he was the right man for the job and has that opinion perhaps changed in hindsight?
He'd already won the league as a manager with Blackburn and he'd won everything going as a player so he had a proven pedigree. He knew what it took to win things. I felt he could make me a better player. To be honest, anyone coming in was going to struggle having to follow Kevin Keegan. Its actually not that different from what's happening at Manchester United these days with people struggling to follow Alex Ferguson. Once you've had success, or certainly relative success, it is very hard to follow in those footsteps.
How did Dalglish differ from Keegan in his interactions with the players?
Keegan was effervescent and funny, that was his personality. Dalglish was sullen and more serious. Don't get me wrong, I've been on the golf course with Kenny and he could be a funny guy as well. To be honest when he first came in I couldn't understand a word he was saying! (laughs) They had very different personalities, Keegan wouldn't mind who we were playing as he'd just concentrate on us where as Kenny would go through each player and discuss how we'd play the opposition.
I remember one time Kenny had his back to us going through all the different players of another team and Alan Shearer was making faces trying to make us laugh. I had this big grin on my face just as Kenny turned around and he asked me in front of everyone what was so funny. He also asked me to share the joke with the whole team, I looked back at Al and he was sitting there with this dead pan look on his face! When Kenny turned back round I could see Al sitting there laughing again (laughs). They were totally different managers, Keegan was an extrovert, a man of the people.
When you went down to sign for Tottenham the day Alan Shearer got injured, who from NUFC phoned you and what did they say?
It was Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall. I'd already spoken to Alan Sugar and agreed to go to Spurs. I'd spoken to Kenny Dalglish pre-season and he'd told me that for some away games he only wanted one upfront. I asked him outright if it would always be Al and he said yeah. So pretty much, if I was banging in the goals and he was going through a dry-spell, he'd still start with Shearer up front on his own and I'd be expected to sit on the bench. That was never going to be good enough for me. Spurs came in with a six million pound bid, maybe management thought that would be a good bit of business's as they were getting all their money back and also had two years and 50 goals out of me. My agent got in touch with them and told them I still didn't want to leave, but he was told "Sometimes in life you don't get what you want" which I felt was a bit unfair. Well anyway, I'd heard the news that Al was injured and it looked like he was out for the season so I called him to see how he was. At the end of the conversation I was about to put to put the phone down when he said that Newcastle wanted to keep me. It turns out Newcastle weren't allowed to speak to me directly as they'd accepted the bid from Tottenham. Newcastle couldn't now quash the deal, they weren't allowed to and they could only legally speak to my agent.
To be honest, I never wanted to leave. After the way they'd treated me though I ended up signing for Spurs out of pride and it was the worst footballing decision of my life. I always say, even today, never make a decision based on pride. I still give that advice to the lads I work with at QPR.
You seemed visibly moved by the reception you received when returning to play at SJP for Spurs. How did that feel?
When I'd played for Newcastle, I'd been back to play against QPR. You're always unsure of what reaction you are going to get. Now I'm not the kind of player that doesn't celebrate against his former clubs, everytime I scored I'd be jumping for joy! Well I did end up scoring against QPR and celebrating as well. We won the match and at the end I went over to applaud the Newcastle fans. The QPR fans were clapping me as well so I ended up going to all four sides of the ground. Everyone in the dressing room was like "wow", it was an unbelievable reception.
At St James' it was even better! I was playing for Spurs, Newcastle had won the game. At the end of the match, I was going to head over to the away fans but the whole stadium just erupted! I just stood in the centre circle taking the acclaim. I had swapped shirts with someone and I had this black and white top wrapped around my shoulders. I'm not the most emotional person but I was actually choked up by it. It is by far the most emotional I've ever been on a football field. I actually got a little stick from Spurs fans because of it. They were saying if I didn't want to leave then I should have stayed at NUFC.
Newcastle fans are often described as insular in the media. How welcomed were you when you moved up north?
I couldn't have hoped for any more. I consider myself a well-educated guy and I was aware that only thirty years ago there had been problems at St James' Park with regards to racism. I kind of thought to myself, not everyone will have changed in only thirty years. I think Andy Cole paved the way to be honest. I never had a moments problem during my time up there. I'm smiling actually, I've just remembered something! I was sent a picture a while ago, its on my phone. There was a kid 20 years ago and for his non-school uniform day he wanted to go as Les Ferdinand. He wore the denim away shirt from 96/97 and his Dad blacked him up with boot polish! (laughs) Imagine that happening today! You couldn't do it! I thought that was brilliant (laughs).
As a London boy, I used to go back every weekend when I first moved. Pretty soon it was every other weekend. But eventually I just wanted to stay in the Toon.
It is often claimed that Newcastle fans are deluded, any truth in this?
No. What makes a big club? Is it trophies? It ain't that. It's the fan base. You look at Newcastle and they have underachieved on the pitch. The fans are no different from any other club in the sense that they want success and they haven't had it. You look at how much Newcastle have spent in the Premier League era, I bet it's right up there! One of the top spenders, I reckon. That breeds expectation.
You're the last player to score a winning goal in a Wear-Tyne derby at Roker Park. When they were promoted in '96 did it come as a surprise just how big a derby it is and what it means to the region as a whole?
Yeah, I only really played in QPR v Chelsea but I'd always heard about this derby up North and the atmosphere that goes with it. There was this huge build-up during the week and there were even more journalists sniffing around than usual. Despite all of this though, I was quite relaxed. I remember thinking to just treat it like any other game, I thought we were going to win and also that I was going to score. Even when we went 1-0 down, I said in the centre circle "Don't worry, we'll win this".
I remember on the way to the ground, we were on the team coach and there was this old fella crossing the road. The coach stopped for him and he looked up and saw it was us, he put his shopping down and started sticking his fingers up and swearing! (laughs). I went to retrieve a ball near the byline in the second half and there are all these Sunderland fans hauling abuse, shouting and swearing. I remember wondering what's happened to all the North-East hospitality! (laughs). At the match, there were no away fans allowed in. There's always a few that manage it though. When we scored the first to make it 1-1 it was deathly quiet, then we saw about 10 fans going mad celebrating, all we could see after that was fists everywhere!
Do you think the managers job at Newcastle has become something of a poisoned chalice?
(pause) A poisoned chalice? I don't know about that. I'd say the supporters want the entertainers back. Ashley has taken a lot of stick but if things are to improve then there needs to be some harmony between the fans and the board. That's the most important thing in getting Newcastle back to where we all want them to be. Without that harmony and communication, things will just continue as they are.
In retrospect, was it a mistake re-appointing Kevin Keegan for his second stint as manager with all the fan emotion that surrounds him?
Yeah, it's always very difficult to go back and replicate what you've had and what you've achieved. He came back into a totally different situation too. The first time around he had Sir John in charge who was a fan himself, desperate for Newcastle to do well. They backed him 150%.
Keegan said it would have revolutionised football had we won the title, do you agree?
Yeah, without a shadow of a doubt. Every single day I think we should have won that title. I've had fans from all over the world come up to me and say how much they enjoyed watching that team. I try to analyse it as an individual, and that's all I can really do these days. Peter Beardsley was the only one of us who had really won things, the rest of us didn't have the experience of getting over that line. We didn't really have a winning mentality to be honest. When we were twelve points clear and we lost a game we weren't thinking 'we really need to make sure this doesn't happen again' we were still content with having a game in hand and having that lead in the title race, I put that down to a little bit of complacency. The Liverpool game was the important one. In any season, any title race, any relegation battle, there is always a pivotal match. To lose that game in the way we did effected us. It destroyed Kevin, drained him.
We had such a team spirit in those days. I've got a framed picture that takes pride of place in my study. It all came about when Warren Barton's partner was away for the weekend and he didn't fancy cooking. He asked if I fancied doing something for tea, just something simple like go out for some pasta or something. Steve Howey was in the showers and he overheard us so he as asking if he could come too (laughs). We explained to him that it wasn't a night out or anything like that but he wanted to come anyway. By the time the evening came around, the whole squad had a meal out together. I've got a picture of us all together and that's what I got framed. The only people who couldn't make it were Pav, God rest his soul, and Peter Beardsley. Everyone else was there.
Speaking of Pav, that brings us to sad news we've had recently. Just how popular was he in the dressing room?
Pav was someone who I had a lot of time for, a lot of respect for. As a man, he was straight-laced and serious but very likable. I think it just shows that some people have their time longer than others and some have their time shorter than others. While we are here we've got to enjoy our time and make the most of it as long as its not hurting anyone. What I will say is that there have been alot of tributes to him and every one of them has been accurate. He was trying to get the team back together for a 20th anniversary reunion. We'll still do that.
As players you would often socialise in Newcastle. That seems to have changed these days. Is that a negative?
It's a negative for supporters, there's no longer really a connection between players and the fans these days. That's what happens when there's too much money in the game. We'd arrive at the stadium and walk from the car park, fans would be able to ask for autographs and things. These days that doesn't happen. I was very lucky in the sense that I was there during the good times, we were winning games and I was scoring goals. When things aren't so good, the players need a little protection. Everybody wants to be liked, players are no different as they don't want to be receiving stick.
Do you still spend any time in the North-East and follow the fortunes of NUFC?
I always follow the fortunes. I used to go up there to play golf a few times each year. Obviously I'm very busy at QPR these days so I'm based in London. I went up for the Shearer testimonial which was a great occasion. The Steve Harper one has finished my career off though! I had a really bad knee but I was asked to play anyway. The physio took one look at me and said "you are going nowhere near that pitch!" I agreed to only take the kick off so they strapped my knee up, as soon as I took the kick and saw the fans I told myself I could stay on even for just ten minutes. By the time I came off, my knee had to be drained of fluid! I've not been on a pitch since!I
Where realistically should Newcastle be aiming to finish these days?
With all due respect, this season is about avoiding relegation. Staying above that bottom three is the important thing. The top four is very hard to break into, maybe with some wise investment Newcastle could have some progression along the lines of Tottenham or Crystal Palace.