TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in January 1996, the atmosphere in the city of Newcastle, and inside St James' Park football ground, was a lot different to the one today, and not just because of Covid 19.

We are talking about how people in Newcastle, and football supporters in the North-East (apart possibly from Sunderland fans) were feeling about Newcastle United's position at the top of the Premier League, nine points ahead of nearest rivals Manchester United, with a game in hand.

Ecstatic and buoyant, we watched Kevin Keegan's team of entertainers take the Premier League by storm. Newcastle were winning with fast, attractive and attacking football. Friends would ring just after tea: "Where can we go to watch the match tonight, which pub will have the game on?" Others invited you into their homes: "Come up if you want to watch the game."

It was fantastic to see a North-East team keep on winning, if only because it was such a long time since we had tasted success in domestic competitions. You had to go back to 1973 and Sunderland's FA Cup win for our last big domestic success, and before that to 1951, 1952 and 1955 for Newcastle's three FA Cup wins, and even earlier to 1927 for Newcastle's last Division 1 success. It is 1936 since Sunderland last tasted a Division 1 championship success while the Boro have never won the FA Cup or the top division title.

North-East pride and expectancy meant there was an awful lot hanging on Newcastle United results in 1996. Could they keep their winning run going? On Saturday, January 20, 1996,when they beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 with goals from Paul Kitson and Peter Beardsley they were still unbeaten at home with only 15 Premier League games left.

But sadly Newcastle's form fell apart.

We could play the blame game and mention Andy Cole, Faustino Asprilla and Sir Alex Ferguson. Keegan made few mistakes in his first spell as United manager from 1992 to 1997, but the selling of Andy Cole in January 1995 to his main rivals Manchester United after Cole had scored nine goals in 18 Premier League games for Newcastle at the start of the 1994-95 season, and 68 from 81 Premier games overall, could be one.

Terry McDermott in his autobiography states that Keegan had noticed a loss of form and enthusiasm in Cole's game, and was lining Les Ferdinand up as a replacement.

Ferdinand did arrive, but in February 1996, so did Faustino Asprilla for £6.7m from Parma. There's no doubting Asprilla had ability, but he was hardly consistent, and was often in the news for the wrong reasons due to his off the field antics.

Then we had Sir Alex Ferguson playing mind games, which got under Keegan's skin.

Sir Alex made comments about teams like Nottingham Forest and Leeds United trying harder against Manchester than against Newcastle. He cited an arranged friendly between Forest and Newcastle on behalf of Stuart Pearce as a reason for Forest going easy with Newcastle. Keegan became vividly upset in a TV interview. In an emotional voice, he finished his rant, which was aimed at Ferguson: "I'll tell you, you can tell him now if you're watching it, we're still fighting for this title, and he's got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and... and... I'll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!”

He was referring to the home fixture with United on March 4, which, unfortunately, Newcastle lost 1-0. Eric Cantona scored, with Cole involved in the move, while Peter Schmeichel in goal had his greatest ever game.

It left Newcastle just one point ahead.

There was another defeat at Arsenal 2-0 on March 23 before the journey to Liverpool on April 3, for what has been described as the Premier League's greatest ever game. The scoring went Fowler (Liverpool, 5 mins,1-0); Ferdinand (Newcastle 10 mins, 1-1); Ginola (Newcastle 14 mins, 1-2); Fowler (Liverpool 47 mins, 2-2); Asprilla (Newcastle 57 mins, 2-3); Collymore (Liverpool 68 mins, 3-3); Collymore (Liverpool 90+2 mins 4-3). On the final whistle, I can still see Keegan slumped dejectedly in his dug-out. It was nearly all over, and he knew it.

On the final Saturday, May 4, Newcastle had to beat Spurs at home and United had to lose at Middlesbrough for the Magpies to take the Premier League title. Newcastle drew 1-1 with Spurs while Manchester beat the Boro 3-0.

l Thanks this week to Scott Wilson, David Kidd, and Michael Burke.