This feature first appeared on Planet Football on 22nd October 2020 – link
The Newcastle United side of the mid-1990s boasted one of the most revered squads in football history. The likes of Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola still enjoy deity-like status on Tyneside, a place where Kevin Keegan is still referred to as a Messiah, having come so close to making Geordie dreams come true.
On the periphery of The Entertainers were its supporting cast; young prospects huddled together in their own corner of the changing room, rubbing shoulders with club greats as they dreamed of stardom.
Now, 25 years on, Chris Holland, Jim Crawford, Paul Brayson and Darren Huckerby share untold stories about the highs and lows of being a part of one of the greatest teams, and indeed storylines, the Premier League has ever seen.
Earning their stripes
Chris Holland was the first to sit in that quiet corner of the changing room at Newcastle’s Maiden Castle training base in January 1994. The newly-promoted Magpies were flying high in the top-flight thanks to their swashbuckling style, and an adoring media had quickly christened them ‘The Entertainers’.
With owner Sir John Hall’s chequebook at his disposal, Kevin Keegan was constantly looking to improve his squad and moved quickly when he heard about the availability of an 18-year-old midfielder at Preston North End who’d been groomed at the FA’s Centre of Excellence.
“Newcastle had a lot of good first-team players but wanted some young blood to come through and challenge them,” Holland says. “I was spotted at a reserve game and got asked to go up there and see Keegan.
“I was a bit starstruck, but once I spoke to him, I couldn’t turn it down. It was a dream to work with him.”
A £100,000 fee secured Holland’s signature, and two months later the investment began paying dividends when the first team were hit by an injury crisis. Holland was to be blooded in black and white in a Premier League game against Ipswich Town.
“I couldn’t drive at the time, so when it came to getting to the ground, I just put my bootbag on my shoulder and took the bus! The players were absolutely gobsmacked, but it was just natural for me because I wasn’t that well known.”
All that would change 90 minutes later, as Holland assisted both goal-king Andy Cole and Scott Sellars in a 2-0 victory.
“It was daunting, but the better players you play with, the easier it is,” he says. “There’s always a pass on, and you’ve got people like Peter Beardsley helping you, so I couldn’t go wrong. After being involved in the first goal, my nerves settled and I just enjoyed myself.”
Two further appearances followed before the treatment room emptied, but Holland was already relishing his new-found status.
“Playing just one game for Newcastle made a huge difference. I got called up to the England under-21s, and then Coventry and Wimbledon put in bids, but Keegan wanted to keep me for another year to see how I developed.”
‘It was a massive disappointment!’
That year would ultimately be a frustrating one for both Holland and Newcastle.
Incredibly, issues between Keegan and Cole saw the star striker shipped off to the side they were aiming to catch at the top of English football, Manchester United.
The Toon Army demanded replacements, but the arrival of an unknown 21-year-old from a part-time Irish side probably wasn’t going to appease them.
“I was in Dublin when Keegan was at St James’ Park telling the supporters to trust him because he’d get players in,” Jim Crawford chuckles. “I arrived a week after that and I’m sure it was a massive disappointment!”
The midfielder had been on the radar of Newcastle’s scouts for a while. He had pedigree as Ireland’s Young Player of the Year, having been a regular for Dublin-based Bohemians, and had crossed swords with an up-and-coming Zinedine Zidane in the UEFA Cup, so it was no surprise that he thrived during a week-long trial.
“There was quite a lot of interest in me,” Crawford says. “I’d already been to Aston Villa, but I didn’t get the right feeling.
“The Geordies were so likeable and similar to Irish people, and that drew me to the city. I was only there a couple of days when I rang home saying I loved it.
“I caught Keegan’s eye and he told me he wanted to sign me. It was a fantastic feeling to have a manager that you’re in awe of say that.
“I went back to Ireland as we were competing for the league and cup at the time, but I didn’t want to stay. I wanted to be at Newcastle.”
After prolonged negotiations, Keegan got his man for £75,000.
“When I first went in, I said to myself, ‘Who do I need to get past to get onto the bench?’ It was Scott Sellars and Lee Clark.
“I knew I had a bit of work to get to that level, but you have to be strong mentally. I didn’t want to become someone that became weak and said, ‘I can’t compete with that.’ I worked as hard as I could to bridge the gap.”
The majority of that work took place in the unglamorous, underground world of reserve team football, and at that level one name was the talk of the Toon.
Paul Brayson grew up a five-minute walk from St James’ Park, dreaming of playing for his hometown club. He’d raced through the club’s youth teams by shattering numerous goalscoring records, and fans suddenly had the tantalising prospect of a local lad leading the line.
“I was Peter Beardsley’s apprentice so I’d sort all of his kit out and clean his boots,” Brayson says. “Peter has been my hero since I was kid, and it was an honour to train with him and players like that.
“After scoring loads of goals for the youth team, I made my debut for the reserves aged 17 and in my second game I got a hat-trick. The next day, Keegan put his arm around me and said, ‘Brilliant.’
“That’s when I knew he was taking notice. I felt if I kept scoring goals for the reserves, I’d get a chance.”
That chance finally arrived in the summer of 1995. Fielded in a pre-season friendly against Hartlepool United, the hot prospect got himself on the scoresheet with a cute chip. Four days later, he played alongside Cole’s replacement Les Ferdinand at Rushden and Diamonds and netted once again, earning him the reward he craved more than anything.
“On the bus on the way home, Keegan called me to the front and said to tell my dad to set up a meeting with him to sign a pro contract. He was great with me and got me involved in the first-team whenever he could.
“In my first two seasons, I scored over 100 goals for the youth and reserve teams, but there was a lot of pressure on Newcastle to do well because they’d spent a lot of money, so it was hard to put young kids into the team.”
One such player finding that out the hard way was Holland, who, after a promising start to his Magpies career, hadn’t seen a minute of first-team action in 14 months.
Attempting to rectify that, he returned to pre-season training early to be at his absolute sharpest. However, a cruel twist of fate nearly curtailed not just the upcoming campaign, but his entire career.
“Myself and a few of the younger lads decided to go out one night, and there was a bit of an altercation, which was nothing to do with me,” Holland says. “As I was walking down the steps to the toilet, someone threw something which got in my eye.
“I was sent to hospital with a few others who had scarring on their faces, but everything just looked a bit foggy to me, so I ended up going home. I then got a phone call at 4am and was told I was the worst out of the lot.”
The substance was ammonia and it had burned Holland’s cornea. Suddenly, he found himself in a battle to save his eyesight.
For six weeks, he was locked in his own room to avoid other infections and dust. Vitamins and steroid drops had to be administered every hour, including when he was trying to sleep.
“It was a nightmare. I was going back to pre-season thinking I was in for a big year and then this happened.”
Sadly, the damage to Holland’s cornea was beyond repair. A graft saw him regain just 30% of sight in his right eye.
When he eventually returned to training, he had to wear an eyepatch to avoid infection and admits that he was scared at the prospect of looking for a new livelihood aged just 20.
“The patch compensated my vision, but I wasn’t myself, so I took it off. I was worried that if the ball came to me and I couldn’t see it, my career was over.
“I could have sat on my laurels and felt it was never going to happen, but I thought I had to get back to where I was.”
Living the dream
In October 1995, the perfect opportunity arrived for Holland to do just that.
Thanks to the acquisitions of Ferdinand and the flamboyant David Ginola, Keegan’s new-look side had fired themselves to the top of the Premier League and swatted Bristol City aside 5-0 in the first leg of a League Cup tie. That meant the second leg at St James’ was practically a dead rubber, but it would be a night that Holland, Crawford and Brayson would never forget.
Partnering Ferdinand in attack, the latter tore around the famous old pitch desperately trying to do what came naturally to him.
“There were a few nerves as I was making my debut for the club I’ve supported all my life, but I was mainly just excited,” Brayson says. “I was inches away from getting a goal on two or three occasions, I just wish the ball dropped the right way.”
With his team trailing 1-0 at half-time, Keegan brought on Holland for Sellars, who helped turn the game around.
“He put me on the left-hand side because when I opened myself up, I could see everything,” Holland says. “I was playing through adrenaline because it was so good to be back.
“My career could have been over but suddenly I knew it wasn’t. The fans all cheered me on, and I felt like they and the players were buzzing for me.
“When you’re playing with all that going on, you can’t not do well. I got man of the match.”
As the second half progressed, one debutant gave way for another as Crawford replaced Brayson.
“When I first saw Paul, he was on a different level for someone so young,” Crawford says. “He was the wonderboy at the time and got a lot of attention from Kevin.
“However, I was excited to come on for him. I found it quite easy as I had loads of time and space on the ball, because you forget that you’re playing with these world-class players who were dominating possession and creating chances.
“I loved it, and I wanted more.”
‘We’ve got a player here’
The following month, when Keegan heard that Alex Ferguson’s United were considering snapping up a promising hotshot from Lincoln City, he acted quickly to steal a march on his biggest rival.
“I turned up to play Mansfield and was told that Lincoln had agreed a £400,000 fee with Newcastle, so I had to go there with Keegan after the game,” says Darren Huckerby. “It was very strange, but I just got into his car!
“My agent and my dad came up, and we negotiated the next day. At one point I was going back because Newcastle only offered me £400 a week. There were players at Lincoln getting paid three times as much, but my dad told me I couldn’t turn down this chance.”
Having had no time to dwell on swapping a Division Three relegation dogfight for a Premier League title tilt, reality quickly hit the 19-year-old.
“There used to be 2-3,000 people at training at Newcastle sometimes, more than what watched Lincoln matches, so there’s no hiding place. I doubt anyone had a clue who I was, but you’ve just got to show people what you’re about.
“In one of my first training sessions, I was on Beardsley’s team. I scored loads of goals and he said, ‘We’ve got a player here.’ He was one of my heroes growing up so that was a big thing.
“It’s not easy going into a new environment when you’re a young lad who’s not really done much. What made it easier is that on my first day I went to change with the other youngsters.
“I may have been bought for a bit more money, but we were all the same, just trying to make our way in the game.”
The quartet in the quiet corner of the changing room was now complete, and within a month Huckerby was handed a chance to join Holland, Brayson and Crawford in making his first-team bow.
Keegan decided to name his new recruit on the bench for a League Cup game at Liverpool; a thrilling moment for a young pro, usually, but it left Huckerby with a dilemma.
“I knew I’d played for Lincoln in the earlier rounds, but I wasn’t sure if the rules around playing cup-tied players had changed,” Huckerby laughs. “Having to tell the manager about that was a bit of a nightmare but it wasn’t just about me making my debut, it was more important the club weren’t thrown out of the competition.
“All Keegan said was, ‘Cheers,’ and changed it! It was a shame because he wanted me on the bench, but it was a big compliment.”
When legally named on the teamsheet for an FA Cup replay against Chelsea in January 1996, Huckerby replaced an ailing Ferdinand midway through the second half to finally make his bow.
“I played with Michael Duberry a few years later, and he said he could remember this long-haired kid coming on who he was going to boot into the stand, but I ripped him to bits.
“Every time I got the ball, I tried to run at people, created a few good chances and nearly scored myself.”
Huckerby also featured in the following game, replacing Paul Kitson for the final 17 minutes of a 2-1 home win against Bolton Wanderers that took Keegan’s side 12 points clear. It was a watershed moment for both Newcastle and their budding striker; after that the Magpies’ seemingly secure grip on the title got gradually weaker.
Three days after his first appearance for Newcastle, Huckerby had made his last.
While none of the four hopefuls had the audacity to class themselves as first-teamers just yet, their appearances for Keegan’s side had made them that by proxy; the perks of which allowed them to sample the legendary social side of The Entertainers.
“Once I got involved in the first-team squad, I’d be invited to go down the Quayside with them on a Tuesday for a meal and a night out,” Holland says.
“I had a good time, but when you’re walking around the city with that lot, they got a lot of attention. No-one came up to me as I was just the lad at the back who only played now and again!”
Huckerby echoes the sentiment: “You’d go out and have a drink with the lads, but you’ve still got to keep yourself to yourself as you’re just a teenager coming through, so you don’t really feel part of it.
“Everyone was as good as gold though. Every morning, Ginola would shake everybody’s hand, whether you were Alan Shearer or me. He was a world-class player, but he was also a people person.”
“Kevin created an environment where everyone looked out for each other,” says Crawford. “All the first-teamers would chat with us.
“Peter Beardsley was a great fella, always asking how you were doing, and Rob Lee too. Steve Watson and Lee Clark were really quick-witted and fun, so they all mingled with us. It was never a case of us and them.”
Crawford chuckles: “Somebody who came in from leftfield was Asprilla. He was crazy!
“One day, one of the younger lads decided to let the air out of Tino’s back tyres before we got on the bus for a reserve team game, and we then forgot about it. The next morning, we saw Tino drive into the car park with his tyres still flat – he didn’t care!”
“Tino was a free spirit, I’ll put it that way,” Huckerby adds. “I’m sure he enjoyed the Quayside and living in Newcastle, but he was brought in to win the Premier League – and it didn’t work.”
The end of the dream
The acquisitions of Tino Asprilla and David Batty in February 1996 were seen as Keegan’s insurance policy to guarantee the end of Newcastle’s 69-year wait for a league title, but while the Magpies continued to splash cash, the emergence of the Class of ’92 were helping Manchester United ominously grow in strength.
These spending sprees left Keegan’s neglected young guns feeling helpless.
“When a new forward came into the club, you felt, ‘Well, I’m further down the pecking order again,” admits Brayson.
“It wasn’t like they’re bringing in Joe Bloggs from Gateshead, it’s Asprilla from Parma,” added fellow striker Huckerby. “I began thinking I wasn’t going to be at Newcastle for 10 years, so it was about learning from these world-class players while I could.”
Crawford also began to feel the strain. “You were putting all these demands on yourself, and that was without any signings,” he says. “I was beating myself up after training sessions, thinking that I could have done better, but the competition and intensity was unbelievable.
“Then Batty came in and you felt it wasn’t going to happen.”
Week-by-week, Newcastle’s near-insurmountable lead agonisingly crumbled and control of the title race switched to Old Trafford. Victory at Liverpool in April could have returned Keegan’s troops to the summit, but Stan Collymore’s last-minute winner in an iconic 4-3 defeat proved to be an unrecoverable psychological setback.
Holland had a prime spot for a game regarded as arguably the best in the Premier League era.
“To watch that from the dugout was the most amazing thing in the world. The dressing room was dead afterwards – everyone was shocked.
“At that stage of the season it was difficult to get the players back up after that type of game. The experienced players were trying, but it had to affect the lads.”
Crawford concurs: “Things began to get a bit more tense around the place and the players were downhearted when Manchester United kept picking up victories. You got the feeling around the entire city that we were under pressure.”
For lifelong fan Brayson, watching the collapse close-hand was doubly difficult.
“It was horrible, it just seemed to slip away,” he says. “Once we couldn’t mathematically win it, everyone was gutted.”
“Newcastle should never have given away that kind of lead with the players they had,” Huckerby reflects. “The players who were there at the time will always look back at that with regret.”
Shearer’s coming home
After losing out to Manchester United in the title race, meaning Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had claimed four titles in five years, Keegan and chairman Sir John Hall knew it was going to take something extraordinary to shake up English football. It would also be incredibly expensive – £15million in fact – but proved to be an iconic bit of business.
“The first-team had gone away for pre-season, but I stayed behind as I was injured,” Crawford says. “All of a sudden, the medical team were telling the injured players to go home, and you knew something big was happening.
“They were worried that it might leak out that Shearer might be coming.”
“They flew him over to join us on the tour, but he couldn’t play,” laughs Chris Holland, a midfielder compared to Paul Gascoigne by Gazza himself. “It was incredible – we’d just bought the world’s most expensive player and not even insured him!”
If training sessions had been tough for the youngsters before the capture of arguably the world’s best striker, Shearer drove the standard up to almost unobtainable levels.
“When I coach teams now, I always refer to how hard he worked and how much a goal in a training session meant to him,” says Crawford, now manager of the Republic of Ireland Under-21s. “When it came to a Saturday afternoon, scoring goals was second nature to him.”
Holland was equally impressed: “He’d go and play centre-half in a five-a-side and he’d be the best centre-half in the squad, and then he’d do the same on the right wing. He could have played anywhere.”
“I remember rooming with him on an away trip and he was a real prankster,” smiles Brayson. “He did little daft things to me like unscrewing the top off the saltshakers, but he loved the craic.
“We got on well because we were both Geordies, and I looked at him and thought, ‘I’d love to be from Newcastle and be the main striker.’”
However, the arrival of Shearer had consequences. With a £15million deficit on the club’s balance sheet, finances had to be raised – and quickly. Holland and Huckerby were the first to be sacrificed.
“Between Darren and I, the club got a couple of million. It wasn’t like Kevin wanted to do it, but we were the easiest lads to get rid of,” says a diplomatic Holland. “He wanted Alan Shearer, which was fair enough – I’d have done the same thing.
“Even if we were missing two central midfielders, he’d pull Ginola into the middle of the park, and when you start doing that, you know you’re not even fourth choice.
“I initially went down to Birmingham City to get some games in my system and hopefully come back, but they wanted to sign me. Keegan was honest enough to tell me that if I wanted to play football, I was best staying down there.”
Huckerby, meanwhile, was happy for a fresh start at Coventry City.
“Newcastle made a £700,000 profit on someone who’d played twice, so it was a good deal for them, but the pressure was on me – I wasn’t just a kid from Lincoln anymore, I was a £1million player from Newcastle.”
Two months later, Huckerby left Keegan ruing his decision. Playing like someone with a chip on his shoulder, he scored once and assisted another to hand his new employers victory at the Magpies’ expense.
“I was just looking to score my first goal and luckily it was against Newcastle,” he says. “I still had a lot of things to work on but pace kills defenders, and I knew if I was racing Phillippe Albert, there was only going to be one winner.
“After the game, I went onto the bus to see the lads and Ginola said to me, ‘Now you’ve played in the Premier League, don’t start spending stupid money buying stupid cars!’”
The emotional damage from the previous season’s collapse undoubtedly affected Keegan. His resignation was rejected in the summer, but he couldn’t rediscover his trademark effervescence.
A row with the authorities saw him churlishly scrap his reserve team, ensuring opportunities for unestablished players became virtually impossible, especially considering that in the 31 games he managed during 1996-97, he made the maximum three substitutions only four times – and on seven occasions didn’t make any.
Crawford was an unused sub 16 times at Newcastle. “I was on the bench when we were 7-0 up against Tottenham,” he says. “It would have been great to get on for 15 minutes to be a part of it, but it didn’t happen (Keegan made just one sub that day).
“I think he wanted to win 10-0! Experience is great for players; if the game is over you can empty the bench to boost morale, and make people feel part of that particular victory.”
Even though their relationship was strained, it was still almost impossible to think of Keegan and his beloved Newcastle ever parting ways. However, the unthinkable happened.
In January 1997, Tyneside was rocked by the news that the Entertainers’ ringleader had quit, and the city was left in a state of mourning.
“It came out of the blue,” says Brayson. “I remember we played Charlton away and I was in the first-team squad, which wasn’t long after I’d signed a pro contract.
“I felt that if I was going to get my chance, it would have been under Kevin. I remember going to the training ground the Monday after and he wasn’t there, and when I got home, I found out that he had resigned.”
“I could sense it was coming,” says Crawford. “I was disappointed because I liked him as a person and he was a very good manager, but things weren’t working out at that particular time. There was a lot of deflation amongst the lads.”
Lightning strikes twice
As well as the end an era, it was the end of the Entertainers too, but the show had to go on. Kenny Dalglish was hastily shepherded in as Keegan’s replacement – a proven winner but with a more pragmatic approach that flew in the face of the gung-ho style favoured by his predecessor.
Taking stock of his new squad, Dalglish finally handed Crawford a belated Premier League debut on what proved to be another incredible night at Anfield in March 1997.
“Kenny was an icon for me growing up, so to play under him was a huge privilege – I loved him,” Crawford says. “We were 3-0 down at Liverpool and Kenny sent me on. It could have been 6-0 at that stage, but we stayed in it and all of a sudden it was 3-3.
“It was such a magical feeling when Warren Barton scored the equaliser. I couldn’t stop screaming, even though I had nothing to do with the comeback!
“I had been on the bench thinking we were in trouble, and then suddenly I’m on as a sub and we were about to nick an unbelievable point. When they scored again, I was devastated. You could have heard a pin drop in the dressing room.”
Five days later, Crawford came on as a sub again with his team cruising to victory against Huckerby’s Coventry.
“When the final whistle went, I made sure I was waving to my friends in the crowd, and it was a lovely moment because it was a proper league game on a Saturday afternoon, and we sent the Geordies home happy. That’ll live with me forever.”
Little did Crawford know, but he was also waving goodbye to first-team football at St James’ Park.
‘I just loved the club and didn’t want to leave’
As Dalglish swept the decks, Crawford and Brayson were left clinging onto whatever precious memories they could glean before they got the dreaded call.
The Irishman netted a poignant goal in a pre-season tournament in his native Dublin, his only Newcastle goal, while Brayson made a second, albeit fleeting, appearance in a League Cup tie against Hull City. Both experienced magical Champions League nights from the bench, but in March 1998 came the crushing reality that their dreams were over.
“I was supposed to play in a reserve game, but then a triallist started in front of me,” Brayson says. “I was confused, but I knew it couldn’t be good. The week after, Kenny told me that he was going to accept a bid from Reading for me.
“I didn’t have any time to make my mind up as it was approaching deadline day. I spoke to Reading and agreed to sign, so I never returned to the training ground to say my goodbyes. Not long after they signed Paul Dalglish, and I was like, ‘Oh, right…’”
However, Brayson wouldn’t be making the move to Berkshire alone, as Crawford followed him to the Madejski Stadium.
“I was training with the first team and I’d been on the bench a lot, so I was wondering if there was a way in,” Crawford says. “If I take a step back now, I’d be the first to say I was wasting my time, but as foolish as it sounds, I just loved the club and I didn’t want to leave.
“One day, Kenny brought me into his office and said, ‘Look, Jim, it’s not going to happen for you here.’ If Kenny hadn’t opened my eyes and told me I needed to get out, I’d probably still be at Newcastle now!”
While the four players amassed just 11 appearances between them in black and white, they’ll forever remain a footnote in Newcastle United folklore, part of a select group who can call themselves an Entertainer.
“I had the best four years of my life at Newcastle,” says Holland, who now juggles working in construction with his role as assistant manager at sixth-tier side Guiseley. “When I sit back and think about all the people in the world who would have loved to be in my shoes, it’s something to be proud of.”
“I’ll never forget having 3,000 fans breathing down my neck while I was doing shooting practice,” Crawford chuckles. “The number of competitive minutes I had isn’t worth talking about, but I appreciated every moment on the pitch, in those training sessions or being around the town meeting fantastic people.”
“Despite me only playing two games people remember them, which is crazy seeing as it was 25 years ago,” says Norwich City ambassador Huckerby. “The Newcastle fans only saw a little glimpse of the player I could have been, but the amount of love they have for their club is incredible.”
“It was right place, wrong time for me,” admits Brayson, who is still playing into his forties at local league outfit Newcastle Benfield. “However, that was the best time to be a Newcastle player – being a part of The Entertainers.
“How many people want to say they played at St James’ in front of a capacity crowd for their hometown team at that time? It was a dream come true.”