I wasn't entirely aware of what was going on at Newcastle United prior to Alan Shearer. I can recall, in that data-swallowing Panini-stickers mode you have as a kid, knowing that Ruel Fox and Keith Gillespie and Scott Sellars existed, but if you'd asked me what they actually did I'd probably have bluffed it, in that eager-to-please mode you also had as a kid. No Sky in my house, see. That whole 'I would love it if we beat them' episode – didn't know that had happened. Nor that Manchester United, like gigantic space aliens, had relentlessly tracked the lovable little Magpies down over a 12-point gap, until eventually they stomped on them, leaving Tweety Pies circling Kevin Keegan's head.
'So watch it on Match of the Day', you may cry at your computer screen. But if MOTD starts at 10.30pm, and I'm being sent to bed at around 9pm, how am I meant to control access to the TV so that no one changes the channel while I'm recording? And that's before you get to the practical drawback of losing at least an hour and a half of the VHS before the MOTD theme tune has even played. 'Okay,' you might say, 'but isn't it possible that in that hour and a half you could strike upon a post-watershed show or film where some girl will get naked all up in your recording?' Yes, I'd reply eagerly, that could definitely happen.
By the time he joined Newcastle, Euro 96 had happened and I was becoming so engulfed by football that, in the standout moment of my life thus far, I was often allowed to stay up on Saturday nights to watch MOTD. And if not, parents became more sensitive to my requests that it be properly recorded. Meaning that, among other things, my overspill on the videotape would now happen after MOTD, not before, running deep into those post-midnight badlands. I mean, it was still the BBC – we're hardly talking Eurotrash and Kavos Uncovered – but you took what you could get in that purely innocent, pre-internet age.
Here's what I did know: £15 million was a lot of money for a transfer fee. A 'whole new ballgame' amount. At the time, it was not far off double the record British transfer fee, previously paid for Stan Collymore. But this was for indisputably the best striker in the Premier League, a man who had fired Blackburn Rovers to the 1994-95 title with 34 laser-guided rockets from his boots. And head. And that one against Leeds off his face.
It's better, then, to imagine this cultural relative not in terms of Newcastle's entire 1996-97 season, which ended in the space aliens again stomping on them, but of one moment within it. That moment came on 20 October 1996 at St James Park, when Newcastle beat Manchester United 5-0. It is the game that I remember best, and have watched replayed the most, of any in Premier League history. It was, essentially, the game when Wayne Knight (you know, Jurassic Park, Don in 3rd Rock from the Sun) turned his fleshy, beaming face to the baying Magpie hordes and said, 'Ladies and gentleman... Michael Jordan.'
Remember how kids films used to be, before the grownups decided that we weren't too keen on growing up and would like all major kids films to be for us too? Right – they were for kids. Annoying, bratty American kids with their hats on backwards and floppy hair and Ray-Bans saying 'oh maaaaann' and 'you suck' too much, but kids nonetheless. Compare that to Up!, where the guy's wife dies prematurely within about five minutes, and the kid's father basically won't look at him; or Inside Out, where the geometry of the subconscious mind is mapped out in various dimensions.
But In Space Jam, Michael Jordan is dragged down a golf hole in order to save the Looney Tunes, who have foolishly entered into a winner-takes-all basketball game with aliens called Nerdlucks who started small but now, having stolen the powers of a collection of NBA stars, are very large and called the Monstars.
Bro: don't tell me that's not a plot. And don't tell me you don't get a lump in your throat when Charles Barkley, wandering around the 'hood after his ability has been sapped by the aliens, stumbles upon a pickup game and asks if he can play, and in front of the awestruck kids can barely catch a ball.
You know, of course, what the direct relative to Alan Shearer in Space Jam is: Michael's Secret Stuff. Down at half-time – by a number that wouldn't fit on the scoreboard and then suddenly reverts to '66' when they come back out – the Looney Tunes are doomed to a lifetime as tourist attractions on Moron Mountain. Then Bugs fills up a bottle of plain water, writes Michael's Secret Stuff on it, and gives it to the team. Pandemonium ensues. Or, by another reading, Nike's entire marketing strategy in the '90s is aggressively satirised. Either way, the Looney Tunes develop special powers, and get back into the game. As Michael tells them afterwards, 'You had it in you all along.'
You hardly need me to tell you that Elmer Fudd, Lola Bunny, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote represent a metaphor, however briefly, for Peter Beardsley, David Ginola, Rob Lee and Les Ferdinand. This was a team that must have felt a stricken, vulnerable, laughing stock after the previous season's capitulation, prey for the Monstars of Old Trafford. Ladies and gentleman... Alan Shearer.
(Although obviously they did still get crushed by them in the end).
The Hand of History: Newcastle 5-0 Man Utd, 20 October 1996
Within my most watched Premier League game is my most watched Premier League goal. I know by heart every element of it: the cadence of Martin Tyler saying, 'On a day when Newcastle would have gladly taken one, here they are, looking for number five'; the second touch Philippe Albert takes that everyone in St James Park realises leaves him with no option but to do something wicked; that premonition that only happens in sports stadiums for something irresistible about to happen.
But what he then does, soundtracked by Tyler's orgasmically drawn-out pronunciation of his name, is at least 17 times better than they could have hoped for. A chip over Schmeichel from the edge of the box, executed in a final piss-take of the superiority United arrived with, that probably left any Geordies who witnessed it glowing for the next six months.
Honestly, this is going to look clearer on your phone
A Little Cultural Context
I wasn't aware, until I read a book of Hunter S. Thompson's collected journalism that involved him shadowing the young superstar in the '70s, that O.J Simpson was for a time second only to Muhammad Ali in US sporting fame; he still holds NFL records today. Anyway, he's back in court for a civil trial brought by relatives of the dead, who weren't that impressed by what had happened first time around under the watch of Papa Kardashian. More locally, Oasis set out on what wasn't called 'The Beginning of the End' tour, promoting (What's The Story) Morning Glory?