Ahead of what should be a fascinating Carabao Cup clash at St James' Park later this month, we revisit a game that had a bit of everything from 1996 as struggling City took on title-chasing Newcastle United at Maine Road...

"I knew Asprilla had a suspect temperament, so I was in his face from the moment we kicked-off..."
City skipper Keith Curle

Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United – dubbed ‘The Entertainers’ by the media - rolled into Maine Road with most of the nation willing them to keep winning games in order to stay ahead of Manchester United in the race for the Premiership title.

In the build up to the game, United supporters were under the impression that their beloved neighbours would be only too keen to help the Geordies in their quest, but, of course, this would be anything but the case, as ensuing events would prove.

In fact, history has shown that whenever the Reds needed a favour from City, for some reason, the Blues always seemed to deliver!

While Keegan's side had started 1996 with five successive wins, and their magnificent opening to the campaign of nine wins from the first 10 matches had given them a healthy advantage over the Reds.

But Alex Ferguson's side had been crowned champions twice in the previous three years and had chipped away at Newcastle's lead. With only 12 games remaining, victory at Maine Road would see the Magpies go six points clear with a game in hand.

Their next game was also a colossal clash with the Reds on Tyneside, so beating both Manchester sides would give Newcastle a nine-point advantage - potentially 12 if they won their game in hand - with nine games remaining. If that happened, a first league title for 69 years would be achieved.

But the cracks were beginning to appear...

A midweek 2-0 defeat at West Ham had cranked up the pressure on Keegan's men, with expectation levels at unchartered heights for Magpies fans.

Dropping points against third from bottom City was not an option. But the Blues were also desperate for points and with just two wins in the previous 10 league games, Alan Ball's team were in a precarious position.

There was so much at stake, emotions were high and the pressure levels off the scale.

Skipper Keith Curle had an inkling it was going to be a lively afternoon...

"Even though our league position was poor, we still felt confident that we could pull away from the bottom three – we just felt we needed that one performance, that one result to kick-start a run of good form because we’d been competitive in most of the games we’d played that season but were just on the wrong end of scorelines," recalled Curle.

"I can assure you that there was nothing in our minds about helping Manchester United out as an added incentive or helping Newcastle out – that’s something that would never happen. We were just focused on our own results and we were in desperate need of points.

"I have to give credit to the Newcastle fans on the day – they always follow their team in good numbers and are always very vocal – and they certainly were that day."

It was a crisp and sunny February afternoon as Ball’s men kicked-off a game they were expected to lose.

With 14 defeats from 26 league matches to date, plus failing to score in almost half of those games, it’s understandable why few of the capacity 31,115 crowd that day could have envisaged the football feast about to unfurl before their eyes.

City were still struggling to recover from an awful start to the season during which we'd failed to win any of the first 11 Premiership games. In that same period, Newcastle had opened up a huge lead at the top.

Yet this match was to prove that there wasn’t a great deal between the two teams when the Blues actually fulfilled the potential the squad clearly contained. City, robbed of the several key first-teamers including Garry Flitcroft, Peter Beagrie, Richard Edghill, Terry Phelan and Ian Brightwell through either injury or suspension and had fullback Scott Hiley making his debut.

But if City were going down, it wasn't going to be without a fight - but few realised what a brutal battle this would be - if only between Newcastle United striker Faustino Asprilla and City skipper Curle...

"It was my first game against Faustino Asprilla but I knew he’d been winning plenty of praise for his performances," recalled Curle. "He was unpredictable with stacks of ability, but I also knew he had a suspect temperament and he could be rattled.

"Knowing that, in the first five minutes we were involved in a challenge and I got up close and personal to him – and he didn’t like it. I could tell by his reaction of pushing me away with his arm and I just thought, the next time I go in for a challenge he was going to know that I was going to do it again – I was like, ‘Well, you’re gonna get this all day, mate.’

"There were one two off-the-ball incidents that weren’t picked up by the cameras and had they been picked up, I’d have been in trouble, and vice-versa. I knew where the ref was and where the linesman was so it was just what you could get away with.

Every time, I got a reaction and I just knew it was going to be a tough, physical confrontation all afternoon. I didn’t mind that at all."
Keith Curle

It was soon clear from the opening exchanges that City were up for the challenge with Georgi Kinkladze in majestic form. As the two success-starved giants threw gentle jabs at each other, it was City who deservedly took the lead on 16 minutes. Hiley made an impressive run down the wing and cut the ball back to Nigel Clough whose vicious low drive clipped Niall Quinn’s heel and the ball spun over the stranded Pavel Srnicek in goal. There was a moment’s silence and then a deafening roar as the ball nestled in the back of the net sending the packed Maine Road wild with delight.

Kinkladze was masterful, causing endless problems for the visitors and the Magpies could do little to stop him in this mood. Yet, despite the Blues' dominance, City failed to add to the 1-0 lead and paid the price on 44 minutes when Belgian centre-half Philippe Albert volleyed home a cracking drive from ten yards.

The second half was 15 minutes old when the battle between the volatile Asprilla and City skipper Curle finally boiled over. Asprilla’s blatant elbow caught Curle full in the face but the referee either didn’t see it or buckled under pressure and ignored it.

"My initial reaction to getting his elbow flush in my face was, ‘Well, that hurt!’ and I went down on my haunches, but I didn’t go down.," smiled Curle.

"My next thought was the next time he goes for the ball, I’m going to end his afternoon for him. I was going to level him no matter what. Had the elbow been seen properly by the officials, it was a red card all day long – but they hadn’t – so I was going to take matters into my own hands.

"After that, he was mindful of what was going to happen next and was selective in the balls he did and didn’t go for. It's just as well because I would have cleaned him out if he had!"

Two minutes later, justice was seen to be done.

Kinkladze was at the heart of City’s second on 62 minutes as he weaved in and out of cha;;enges, mesmerising the visitors' defence before whipping in a low shot that Srnicek did well to keep out.

Kinky then gathered the rebound and chipped the ball perfectly to the far post for Quinn to gleefully head home his fifth of the season and second of the game.

City tried to kill the game off with a quick third, but an irrepressible Newcastle side were soon back on level terms. Philippe Albert, at his elegant, masterful best, pinged in low cross-shot that Eike Immel could only parry allowing Asprilla – who should have been having enjoying an early bath – to screw the ball home from a tight angle for 2-2. It was a bitter pill for Curle, the players and fans to swallow.

Back came City again in a game that was quickly resembling two heavyweight boxers exchanging blow after blow.

The Blues had scored more than one goal in only two matches all season in the league, but Ball's side would soon score a third - and against a side who had only conceded three once that campaign.

Steve Lomas, all energy and industry, crossed from the right wing and it was Uwe Rosler who steered home to give City the lead for the third time.

It was the German's sixth of the campaign with only 13 minutes to go and Maine Road once more erupted.

Could City hang on?

The answer was , sadly, no.

The defensive frailties that had haunted Ball’s team all season would resurface when, just five minutes later, the Magpies made it 3-3.

Newcastle’s man-of-the-match, Belgian 'defender' Albert, drilled a low drive in which deflected off Quinn and into the net for his second of the game. Ironically, Quinn had deflected City's first of the afternoon and now he had deflected in the sixth goal of an ethralling contest

Both teams had chances to win the game in the time that remained, but overall, a draw was felt like a fair result on a day when Kinkladze and Albert lifted those assembled to a higher plain.

But the drama wasn't quite over...

As the Curle and Asprilla went for a ball deep into added time, the Colombian's short fuse again blew and as he and the City skipper squared up, Asprilla clearly butted Curle with the linesman almost stood in-between.

"When he headbutted me on the final whistle, again, I couldn’t believe he had got away with it and hadn’t been shown a red card," said Curle.

"The worst thing was, we were both later charged by the FA! He got a £10,000 fine and I was let off with a warning for adopting an aggressive attitude which, given that I’d been elbowed and headbutted, was ridiculous – who wouldn’t adopt an aggressive attitude after that?"

But while the duel was a fascinating sideshow, there was also true beauty in Kinkladze's performance - perhaps his best in a City shirt.

Curle: "I’ve said this before that Georgi Kinkladze was ahead of the rest of the team in regard to what he could do. That’s not to the detriment of the rest of the players, he was just on another plain at times and what we couldn’t do as a team, was cover up any of his deficiencies. That was no fault of Georgi.

I’ve always thought had Eric Cantona come to us that season instead of United, and Georgi had gone to United, I don’t think Eric would have been doing adverts today or people talking about fish following trawlers!
Keith Curle

"Put Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Paul Scholes around Georgi Kinkladze would have gone on to have a much more successful top level career. Had we stayed up, I think he would have got better and better the more his fitness improved, but of course, it wouldn't pan out that way..."

As for Newcastle, as well as being pegged back by City, they would lose four of the next six games with Alex Ferguson's mind games undoubtedly getting to Keegan and his players who cracked under the pressure.

Keegan, who would later manage City, would famously give his famous, "I would love it, love it," rant in the final weeks of the season as his team faltered and it would be Manchester United who eventually took the title.

The Blues would manage just three wins in the 11 games that remained and were relegated om the final day against Liverpool, with many wondering how the team that had gone toe-to-toe with the league leaders could have lost their top flight status.

David Clayton