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'After Andy Cole left, they were expecting a big signing but they got Jim Crawford'

The former League of Ireland midfielder was on the fringes when Newcastle made a charge for the Premier League title twenty years ago.

Image: Owen Humphreys

ON CHRISTMAS DAY twenty years ago, Newcastle United were ten points clear at the top of the Premier League table.

The day before, they put three past Nottingham Forest – Robert Lee grabbed a brace and David Ginola scored his very first goal at St. James’ Park. It was a tenth victory in ten games on home soil. To brush away a high-calibre opposition so easily was ominous.

Afterwards, then-Forest boss Frank Clark said, ‘Their strength is having so few weaknesses’.

From nineteen league games, they had lost twice. They played vibrant, attacking football under Kevin Keegan. In Les Ferdinand, they had one of the most powerful strikers in English football. The supporting cast wasn’t bad either: Ginola and Lee stood alongside the likes of Peter Beardsley and Ruel Fox.

And tucked away on the fringes of the squad was a young Irishman who had joined towards the end of the previous campaign.

Crawford7 Crawford in action for Bohemians in 1993. Source: Paul Marriott/EMPICS Sport

Jim Crawford was one of the brightest prospects in the League of Ireland in the early 1990s, turning out for Turlough O’Connor’s Bohemians side. And inevitably, by the first few months of 1995, he was in demand.

“I came off the back of a very good season at Bohemians – I was Young Player of the Year and enjoying my football and went on trial at Aston Villa but the feel of the club just wasn’t right”, he says.

“And then Kevin Keegan asked me over on a week’s trial to Newcastle, I did well and even before the week was out, he brought me into his office and said ‘Look, we’d like to offer you a contract’ and I was over the moon.

But straightaway, there was a problem because I was still tied to Bohs and we were still in the FAI Cup and Turlough (O’Connor) still wanted to hang on to me past the deadline day – which was around Easter time back then. It started to get a little difficult between Newcastle and Bohs and Terry McDermott rang me and said, ‘Look Jim, do you want to join Newcastle?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I really do’ and he goes ‘Right, we’ll sort it out’. And the next minute I got a phone-call from the secretary of Bohemians to get down to Dalymount Park because they were faxing over the contract to sign and that was that. I’d image what they said to Bohemians was ‘If you don’t let the boy go, the deal is done, it’s finished and you won’t get a penny’.”

Keegan had overseen a massive and rapid transformation at the Tyneside club. When he arrived as manager in February 1992, they were battling relegation to the old Third Division. He stabilised and revitalised. The following term, he pushed them to the title and they were promoted to the Premier League with new signing Andy Cole scoring goals for fun during the run-in.

Soccer- Newcastle United v Psv Eindhoven Source: Tony Marshall

So long in the doldrums, Newcastle were back in the big time with a bang and when Keegan partnered Cole with Beardsley, it was explosive. The latter terrorised defences with his pace and finishing prowess, tallying 34 goals in 40 league games to push his side to a superb third-placed finish.

The club were on the rise but when Cole joined Manchester United for a record fee in January 1995, Keegan was famously left explaining his actions to furious supporters outside the gates of St. James’ Park.

Shortly after, Crawford arrived.

“I went over just before Easter”, he says.

Cole had just gone so I think they were expecting a big signing and all of a sudden they had Jim Crawford. Keith Gillespie was part-exchange and I came in the back door. I was just a kid that they had the opportunity to sign.

“As soon as I went over and trained, Keegan was great with me, initially. Everybody said that he was a great man-manager and he was – if you were in his plans, he’d roll out the red carpet for you. He was decent to me at the beginning and my first game when I got over there was against Chelsea so he brought me on the team bus just to meet the lads and get to know them a bit more. He got me straight into the thick of things at the beginning.”

SOCCER - Blackburn v Newcastle United Source: Laurence Griffiths

A gifted midfielder, Crawford feverishly took to his new surroundings, throwing himself into training sessions, determined not to look out of place. But ultimately, a weariness began to creep in as his body couldn’t keep up with the demands.

“When I first got there, I did well and I was fitting in nicely and then, I think, I started to get tired because I wasn’t used to the intensity and the standard of training. It was a million miles away from what I’d been used to at Bohs, that’s for sure.

Back then, we trained at a place called the Maiden Castle in Durham and it was sort-of on college grounds. We trained on hockey pitches – they were like golf greens – so the quality of the pitch was unbelievable. During mid-term breaks, Kevin Keegan would allow fans in to watch us train so sometimes we’d have 2,000 people watching us train. It was actually nerve-wracking going out and doing a simple training session because you had such a big crowd watching. The intensity of the training was so much higher than what I’d ever been used to – the pace was so much quicker.”

In the summer of 1995, Keegan entered the transfer market and signed Ginola and Ferdinand to bolster his attack whilst adding goalkeeper Shaka Hislop and full-back Warren Barton too. When the new season began, the team gelled together effortlessly. The fluid, carefree, almost cavalier approach to games quickly ensured Newcastle became a must-watch side.

It was electric stuff. From their first ten games, they scored twenty-six goals. They knocked three past Coventry, Bolton, Manchester City and Everton while they racked up six against a sorry Wimbledon.

Still trying to force his way into the first-team picture, Crawford was amazed by the quality around him every time he stepped onto the training pitch. An impressionable young man, he absorbed and appreciated in equal measure.

“It was amazing. You saw these guys on TV and saw their abilities but working with them at close hand was different”, he remembers.

Soccer ... Carling Premiership League ... Nottingham Forest  v  Newcastle United Source: Laurence Griffiths

“For me, David Ginola was the best technical footballer I ever had the pleasure of working with. Then you had Peter Beardsley, who saw passes that no-one else could and had a great work ethic as well. Then later you had Alan Shearer – a phenomenal goal-scorer, hard-working. I say to young strikers now that he used to nearly count his goals at every training session and he’d be fuming about the chances he missed. Les Ferdinand had power, he was fantastic in the air. And then there were other players like Lee Clark, Robbie Elliot who, in their own right, were very good.

I used to always say to myself, ‘Right, Lee Clark, he’s a central midfielder, I’ve got to be competing with him.’ He was playing in the first-team that particular season and then David Batty became available and Keegan signed him. So, Lee Clark was then on the bench and it had got to be such a big club that the chequebook was always open.”

As Newcastle took the final bell, Keegan wanted reinforcements so he signed Batty from Blackburn and another striker – Faustino Asprilla – from Parma.

It meant that Crawford was pushed further back the pecking order though there wasn’t much in the way of bad blood. He was still living in a bubble. Newcastle were the best team in the country, adored by an intense and loyal fan-base and possessed some of the finest talent in the league.

“We’d be doing the warm-up at training and Keegan sometimes would take it,” he says.

“You’d be jogging around the place and you might stop to do a stretch and Keegan would say ‘Look, we’re the best squad in this country. Look at all these people coming out to see you train. Why? Because you’re the best.’ He’d turn to Ginola and he’d say, ‘Fans are paying so much money to watch you play’. And he’d even go to John Beresford and point out his qualities and he was excellent like that. For me, I was always on the fringes but I learned a lot playing with these players.”

UEFA Cup ....  Newcastle United v Halmstads Source: David Hewitson

He has fond memories of Asprilla – the rubber-legged Colombian.

He was a laugh-a-minute but spoke very, very broken English. We were travelling down to a game on the bus and we had the TV on. Juninho, who was at Middlesbrough and a Brazilian, was doing a full post-match interview in English. He came over around the same time as Tino. He was given a very comprehensive interview and we had Tino who couldn’t speak a word. There he was with his headphones on, keeping himself to himself and everybody was shouting at him saying, ‘Jaysus Christ, why don’t you get the finger out and start learning the language!’ But he didn’t care, Tino. And sometimes it rubbed off on the way he played. He just did his own thing.”

The fall was inevitable for an imbalanced Newcastle side. But when it eventually came, it was sharp and brutal. Manchester United started to pick up form and Keegan’s team began to get ahead of themselves. The cracks started to appear.

In February, they went to Upton Park and lost 2-0 to West Ham and followed it up with a 3-3 draw at Manchester City – a late equaliser from Philippe Albert saving face.

“After Christmas, I think it was one of those things,” says Crawford.

“We were getting closer to the finishing line and started to wobble – losing confidence and losing games we should’ve been winning, conceding goals when we shouldn’t have. Ultimately it cost the team the championship and I’d say that out of the top four teams, Newcastle had the worst defensive record because I remember at the time we were conceding silly goals. I remember thinking that it might come back to haunt us later on. Keegan made the comment before that if the other team scored three, Newcastle would score four. It’s a bold statement to make because, for me, teams that do go on to win the league have decent defensive records.”

On 4th March 1996, United headed to Newcastle for a crucial clash. It was a depleted side with Gary Neville partnering Steve Bruce at centre-half and younger brother Phil deputising at left-back.

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For the opening 45 minutes, United were battered. But for Peter Schmeichel denying Ferdinand twice and the woodwork preventing Albert’s free-kick from nestling in the top corner, it could’ve been 3-0 at the break.

Instead, six minutes after the restart, United were in front. Roy Keane got the better of Batty in midfield and swung a cross-field ball to Neville on the left. He exchanged passes with Cole before lifting over a cross to the far post where Cantona volleyed to the bottom corner.

United moved to within three points of the league leaders with that victory but Crawford doesn’t believe it was the defining moment of the season.

“I don’t think that was the turning point. Les Ferdinand missed a great chance and Peter Schmeichel kept United in the game that night. As did the two Neville brothers – Gary Neville was outstanding, as was Schmeichel and then Cantona…I remember the ball being crossed to the far post and he hit a magnificent volley into the ground.

That particular year, United were nicking 1-0 wins, especially in games where we thought they’d drop points. They kept grinding out those victories and we started dropping silly points. There were a lot of games where you could see we were struggling with confidence and ultimately United won it at a canter. It was soul-destroying.”

Less than a year later, Keegan was gone and Crawford wasn’t far behind.

He had made steady progress – famously replacing Ferdinand at Anfield as Newcastle delivered a magnificent second-half rally against Liverpool in March 1997, only to lose 4-3.

But it wasn’t enough. There had been loan stints at Rotherham and Dundee and when manager Kenny Dalglish called him into the office one morning, Crawford knew what was coming.

“It was on the way. I knew. It was just confirmation, really. He said ‘Look, Jim, I don’t really see any football here for you. It would probably be best for you to look for another club.’ And I always admired him for that.

I think Kenny Dalglish had structure about his teams but had that man-management too. He was over here a few years ago and asked a friend of mine, who is close to him over here, that he’d love to see me. That just shows the measure of Dalglish, that there was a fringe player from years ago that he wanted to have a chat with. And that was nice.”

Crawford went to Reading and played under his former Newcastle coach Tommy Burns but it was an injury-plagued spell there. The relentless fitness issues affected his form and his confidence and after a turbulent two years, he returned to Ireland.

Soccer - Friendly - Reading v Southampton Crawford's time at Reading was injury-plagued. Source: Tony Marshall

“I was disappointed,” he admits.

“Alan Pardew came into Reading and let me go. I struggled at the club. There were a host of teams that wanted to sign me in Ireland and I have no regrets going to Shelbourne.”

It proved a good decision.

Crawford won four league titles with Shels in his seven years there. There was a brief stint at Sporting Fingal before he stepped away from playing and concentrated instead on a coaching career.

He’s now an assistant to Paul Doolin with the Republic of Ireland under-18s and under-19s but those memories of Newcastle’s glory years still make him ponder on what might have been.

Understandably.

“Like any footballer, you often sit down and you think ‘Maybe I could’ve done this or I could’ve done that – maybe things would’ve been different.’ But you just have to get on with it.”

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