From the 4-3 classic to an 11-goal thriller in 1909, via the Toon spanking nine past the Reds in a 1934 shellacking
Let's get it out of the way first. No other fixture between two of English football's behemoths has conjured up a singular, definitive occasion such as this. Whether it's the greatest 90 minutes of the Premier League era, as is often claimed, is a separate argument: teams have traded a higher number of goals; more meaningful winners have been scored later in the season; better sides have gone nose-to-nose in bona fide summit meetings. But as far as drama, plot, subtext and good old-fashioned base entertainment goes, only a churl would pick fault. This famous match was a perfect storm of sparkling attack, questionable defence, desperate dice-throwing and rollercoaster lead-swapping, the effective denouement to a grand narrative arc of a 69-year pipe dream going up in smoke.
Liverpool made heavy weather of the win – and the pitch was a midden – but it is easy to forget now that victory against a side still in the box seat for the title wasn't entirely unexpected. Nottingham Forest may have just ended Liverpool's four-month, 20-match unbeaten run, it was true, but Newcastle's form was far more patchy: a 12-point lead over Manchester United had been transformed into a three-point deficit (albeit with two games in hand) after a run of four points from 15. Roy Evans's regenerated Reds were on the up; not that we knew it for sure then, but Kevin Keegan's men had already peaked and were over the brow, their bolt for glory tragically mistimed.
This was the match that gave Newcastle a hearty shove back down the track. Faustino Asprilla looked like being their matchwinner for a while, having set up Les Ferdinand and scored another, but Newcastle's defence couldn't hold the livewire Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore, the latter's signature performance turning a 3-2 scoreline in the visitors' favour into the most jaw-dropping of home wins. Collymore's outrageous far-post pelt was payback for the last-minute winner plundered by Steve Watson at St James' Park in November. That season, Newcastle had constantly served up top-drawer action, win or lose. They also, noted the pitch-perfect David Lacey after this pulsating night at Anfield, regularly "demonstrated the art of winning friends and losing championships".
Evans, his side still with an outside chance of the title, admitted: "That was kamikaze football. Great for the fans but realistically nobody will win the championship defending every week like these teams did tonight." Keegan still hasn't lifted his forehead from that advertising hoarding in the mind's eye, though in the aftermath of defeat he belligerently and defiantly announced that "if we stop playing this way, I go". When you manage to make a man like Roy Evans, fatally compromised by romantic notions himself, sound like an arch pragmatist, the klaxons really should go off.
The following season produced another rollercoaster 4-3 win for Liverpool in the same fixture, Fowler with an injury-time face-saver after the Reds had squandered a three-goal lead with 19 minutes to play. And it could well have been three 4-3s on the bounce had events in a Paris underpass not caused the nation to lose the collective noggin and the match to be cancelled. The spell broken, the rescheduled game the following January was a pitiful affair, decided by a solitary Michael Owen goal.
Yet something had snapped in Newcastle's head. Since those two 4-3s, they've never faced Liverpool with a surplus of confidence, and despite registering their fair share of home wins – six in 14 at St James' – have been thumped more often than is usual in head-to-head combat between two Premier League big boys. Look at the Toon's troubles: six 3-0s, 4-1, 4-2, 5-1 and 6-0, with the two biggest defeats coming on home turf.
This fixture also brings an almost cast-iron guarantee of fun: there hasn't been a 0-0 draw since 1974, and even then Alan Waddle missed four gilt-edged chances, while Peter Cormack cleared John Tudor's header off the line, and there was a well-received display by RAF police dogs during the interval too. But it would be incorrect to consider this state of affairs a solely modern phenomenon. The first two matches between these sides at Anfield, in the 1890s, both ended 5-1 to the home side. And then there's one of the greatest comebacks in Football League history, a scoreline and comeback which knocks that 4-3 into a cocked hat …
Newcastle were the reigning champions of England in December 1909. And a good thing for Liverpool too, for they'd travelled to the Toon on the last day of the previous season needing at least a point to stay up. Luckily for Tom Watson's side, Newcastle had already won the championship, and though Liverpool's England international goalkeeper Sam Hardy – a man who went by the nickname Safe and Steady – was required to make several desperate saves, tiny Ronald Orr scored a second-half goal on the break to grab two points that secured his team's top-flight status.
When the champs travelled to Anfield eight months later, the gap in quality between the two sides had closed – both were near the top of the table – though that wasn't immediately apparent after kick-off. Newcastle went into the break 5-2 up, thanks to a four-goal display from the deadly Albert Shepherd. The Toon were, by all accounts, outstanding in the first half. Shepherd may have plundered the goals, but Jimmy Howie and Jock Rutherford took the plaudits for the display, tearing Liverpool apart down their right wing again and again. "The way they attracted their opponents in order to give Shepherd the chances of which he took such advantage was perfect," wrote Redshirt in Liverpool's match programme a week later. Hardy "had no chance with any of the goals Shepherd scored", three of his four being "simply grand".
But Liverpool were transformed in the second half. Jack Parkinson was a "constant menace" and pulled a goal back, his second of the afternoon. Redshirt argued that Parkinson might easily have matched Shepherd's personal tally on another day. Orr scored twice to draw the scores level and put the fear into Toon tickers. "When Orr equalised from a scrimmage, the crowd nearly went frantic," reported the Liverpool Courier. The Manchester Guardian finishes the tale: "Excitement was intense when the scores were equalised, and it ran riot when Goddard obtained the 11th and winning goal 10 minutes from the end." Newcastle, it was widely concluded, had run themselves into the ground during an over-excitable first half.
"The Anfield spectator who grumbled at the conclusion of last Saturday's game is a born grumbler," cooed Redshirt, who concluded with commiserations for the vanquished visitors. "An away team that scores five times and retires defeated is indeed a wonder." As was the match itself. Only one other Newcastle game has ever featured more goals in 90 minutes – their 13-0 win over Newport County in 1946 – while no other Liverpool match has bettered this total. In conclusion: between this pair, 'twas ever thus.
Hardy is not the only legendary Liverpool goalkeeper to get a pain in his back after facing Newcastle. Here's one of the club's most iconic figures, Elisha Scott, bending over to fish the ball out of his net nine times at St James' Park on New Year's Day 1934. The Newcastle fans must have been mapping out a glorious 12 months ahead in their minds.
Both teams had fallen a long way from their title-winning heydays of the 1920s – they were in 17th and 18th place before this game – but the future would look brighter for Toon after the 90 minutes. They scored at a rate of once every 10, Jimmy Richardson and Sam Weaver both claiming hat-tricks. It was not a totally unexpected victory, for Liverpool hadn't won in nine, losing six of those games. That dismal run had coincided with Scott's return to the team – he had been displaced by newcomer Arthur Riley – though not a single loyal soul in the Kop wished to vocalise the fact.
In fairness to Scott, he doesn't appear to have copped much blame for this sorry capitulation, a poor team display which may or may not have been exacerbated by copious amounts of egg nog the night before. "But for fine work by Scott, who was entirely blameless on what must have been one of his most unhappy afternoons, Newcastle's score would have run well into double figures," insisted the Manchester Guardian. "Three of the goals were scored by Sam Weaver, who is quickly making as big a name for himself at inside forward as he had previously gained as an international half-back."
Newcastle won their next game too, against Leeds, and wheeched into what appeared to be the safety of mid-table. Liverpool continued to struggle, though. Scott only played another six games for the club he had become synonymous with, finally making way for Riley for good after a defeat at Chelsea. Liverpool won six games during the run-in to avoid relegation by four points and three places. As for Newcastle? You're ahead of us. After the Leeds match, they only won two more games all season. The second of those, a 5-1 thrashing of Wolves on the penultimate Saturday of the season, meant they retained a chance of staying up, but on the final day relegation rivals Chelsea drew with new champions Arsenal, Birmingham City won 7-3 (!) at Leicester, and Newcastle themselves lost 2-1 at Stoke, Stanley Matthews hammering home the final nail on the coffin lid of their first-ever relegation.
Not much of a harbinger, then, but what a scoreline! It remains Liverpool's biggest top-flight defeat to this day, and only one goal off their worst humping ever (a 9-1 Second Division capitulation at Birmingham City in 1954).
Here's another harbinger which proved worse than useless: Liverpool topping the English league on the first day of the 1950s. Not only would George Kay's team, chasing the first-ever 20th-century Double, fail to win either league or FA Cup that season, the decade would turn out to be the most miserable in the entire history of the club, with only relegation, that aforementioned worst-ever defeat, and stagnation lying ahead.
This is the game which tipped them off course. It certainly tipped them off the top of the First Division table, with the team five matches away from a second league title in four seasons. Liverpool had been lucky to draw with Newcastle at Anfield earlier in the season. Toon winger Bobby Mitchell had whistled a volley past Cyril Sidlow, only for the referee to disallow the goal with a preposterous ruling of ungentlemanly conduct: Mitchell had told his team-mates to "leave it to me", a call the official decided had put off Reds captain Phil Taylor.
When the teams met again at St James', Mitchell took all of seven minutes to begin the payback, zipping past Bill Shepherd and Bill Jones and lashing home past Ray Minshall. George Hannah added a second two minutes later, and though Willie Fagan pulled one back before the interval, there was little hope for Liverpool, their former Newcastle striker Albert Stubbins having been carted off with concussion.
Even though Jack Fairbrother was clattered by Billy Liddell in the second half, levelling up the teams at 10-a-side, there was no way back for the visitors, Ernie Taylor, Mitchell and Tommy Walker turning a win into a rout. "We had one of those days," sighed Liddell. They had five more of them as their season sputtered out. Three losses and a draw in the league saw Kay's men end up in eighth spot, and they lost the cup final to Arsenal, outplayed by Reg Lewis, Joe Mercer and Denis Compton, but also outkicked, Liddell being tossed around in thuggish fashion by the no-nonsense Alex Forbes.
Newcastle were on the up, though. They finished above Liverpool in the league and though the famous Milburn-Mitchell-Walker-Robledo side never quite put together a coherent title challenge, three FA Cups were about to come their way in what was unquestionably the club's most glamorous decade.
Liverpool's undressing of Newcastle in the 1974 FA Cup final is probably the most complete performance in fixtures between these two clubs, but the Joy of Six has chuntered on about the brilliance of Alec Lindsay's disallowed pearler, the joyous be-bop stylings of David Coleman's commentary, Kevin Keegan's nod to Total Football, and the pre-match majesty of Bruce Forsyth – from boos to a chorus of Nice One Brucie in 20 seconds, the greatest Wembley performance – before.
Anyway, as that final spoke more about the end of an era, Shankly's swansong and all that, let's concentrate on the dawning of one of English football's great sides instead. Going into the Football League's centenary season, champions Everton were expected to retain their title, with George Graham's Arsenal – who had topped the table for three months during the previous season, and ended an eight-year trophy drought with the Littlewoods Cup – hotly tipped to push Colin Harvey's side hard. Liverpool, it's easy to forget, had just lost Ian Rush to Juventus, and there was no guarantee the £1.9m British record signing of Peter Beardsley would gel with the other new boys John Barnes and John Aldridge (who had signed in January but only started twice, albeit scoring on both occasions). "The loss of Rush could well create a goal-scoring vacuum at Anfield," argued your super soaraway Guardian, which to be fair has never promised to underwrite your betting money.
Liverpool, as the records show, flew out of the blocks, though the table didn't reflect their fast start – a jiggered sewer under the Kop forced the postponement of their first two home fixtures. They arrived in Newcastle in mid-September in fine fettle, having won spectacularly at Arsenal (a long-range Steve Nicol header) and Coventry (four goals). The home side, despite heavy investment in English football's first Brazilian, Mirandinha, were languishing near the foot of the table after a dismal start under their 1974 Cup final keeper Willie McFaul. Liverpool, in the first live televised game of the season, were about to show the nation what all the fuss was about.
Beardsley – getting the bird from the fans of the club he'd just left – released Barnes to set up Nicol for the opener. Aldridge made it two. Nicol would have chipped Liverpool into a 3-0 lead before half-time had Beardsley not wandered offside, but the warnings weren't heeded. Beardsley set up Nicol to make it three, and though Neil McDonald pulled one back from the penalty spot after the otherwise quiet Mirandinha was put on his face by Gary Gillespie, Nicol completed an astonishing hat-trick with a scooped chip after being released by Aldridge down the inside-right channel. Nicol ended the day with a record of six goals in six games from the right-back spot, while Aldridge had yet to fail to score for Liverpool while starting a match. The nation now had a fair idea what was going on.
Shame about Newcastle's capitulation, though. Partly because poor McFaul found himself out of work within the month, undressed by Liverpool again, but mainly because the result denied BBC1 viewers up and down the country a different sort of televisual treat. "If, when the game is over, you sense an interview with Mirandinha coming on, please turn down the volume immediately," our very own Stephen Bierley had advised in the weekend's football diary before the match. "The Brazilian's grasp of English is still rather rudimentary, but his vernacular, courtesy of Paul Gascoigne, is coming on a treat."
And here were another team announcing themselves on the biggest stage. Liverpool had been tipped by this paper as potential title winners. Easy to laugh now, but it wasn't a wholly outrageous argument back then, with champions Manchester United expected to be distracted by their first Champions Cup campaign in 26 years, and new Liverpool assistant Roy Evans taking a firm grip on matters tactical, allowing manager Graeme Souness to stand there and simply bristle. The signing of Nigel Clough – again, hindsight makes us so very clever – was also seen as a potential masterstroke.
Newcastle, like Evans also newly promoted, were pegged at 13th, expected to "consolidate with something to spare" but do little else. "Success means avoiding relegation," we argued. Especially as, after one minute and 50 seconds of a pre-season friendly at Anfield, corpulent lummox Neil Ruddock shattered Peter Beardsley's cheekbone, putting Newcastle's new signing from Everton out of the picture for the season's opening exchanges.
The Reds got off to a flyer, winning four of their first five, and were early pacesetters along with eventual champions (OK, we ballsed this one up) Manchester United. Newcastle meanwhile lost their first two, but eventually clambered up to mid-table (so far, so good for our punditry). But their climb had given them traction and momentum, and by the time Liverpool and Ruddock – who had lost all four of their Premiership games in September – came to St James' Park in November, there was only a point between the teams. But it soon became apparent they were also separated by a gulf.
Andy Cole put Newcastle ahead on four minutes, added a second on the quarter hour, and put matters beyond Liverpool on the half hour. A brilliant hat-trick, though Scott Sellars down the left ran him close for man of the match, as did Beardsley who had his revenge by setting up the second with a slide-rule pass that had set Sellars away to assist with extreme prejudice. "We got a doing in the first half," admitted Souness, who was gone within three months. Keegan, however, was just about to enter his imperial phase as a manager – hey, it's not all about trophies – and he simply simpered over his emerging team's performance. "The first-half performance has got to be the best we have played in my time here. I know we were 6-0 at half-time against Leicester in the First Division last year, but this was the Premier League, and this was Liverpool."
Newcastle finished the season in third place, 15 points off United's pace but 17 ahead of eighth-placed Liverpool. A new order was taking shape. Within a couple of seasons, Newcastle would be ready to take a serious tilt at the title. Now, then, how would that pan out?