‘You punch like a p***y’: The savage sledge that sparked football’s ugliest brawl
My teenage son loves football, but takes in football like most teenagers do.
Watches the biggest games, with most of his knowledge based on highlights packages and Instagram clips. And most of this quick-fire knowledge is based on current events. There is very little data about events prior to his June 2005 birth.
Hopefully a deeper understanding will come, but who can blame him. More important things to do as a kid.
Bring the cinema experience home with new movies and old favourites. No installation. No lock-in contract.
Anyway, earlier this week I was reminded of one of the most incredible moments in the history of my club, Newcastle United. Lee Bowyer fighting Keiron Dyer in a Premier League game.
“Can you do a few words on it,” I’m asked. Sure. Most history worth reading about isn’t happy history.
I tell my son at breakfast of my assignment.
“What’s it about?” he asks, probably just out of politeness. He has home schooling then NBA 2K to conquer.
“Heard of Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer?”
“Oh yeah, the fight!!”
Wow, he actually knows a bit of football history from before his birth. Impressive.
April 2, 2005 should be a day of insignificance for Newcastle United. Just another game along the path to extremely moderate success – a top half finish – or failure. Probably the latter.
For an Australian-based Newcastle fan, it was just another long Saturday night into Sunday morning. Awake and hopeful, though tiredness and deflation lurked for when the sun rose.
April 3, 2005 was different. Not tired and deflated, but very tired and extremely pissed off. Not a great combination. Heavily pregnant wife carrying our first born son and she had to put up with this clown all upset about a football match. Again.
The anger, I would argue, was well-founded. Two talented footballers forgot who, or where they were for a moment, took all the privilege and respect heaped upon them, and flushed it down the toilet by imitating two drunken lost souls fighting in a sewer.
“Oh yeah, the fight!”
‘I DON’T GIVE A F***’:
D-DAY IS HERE:
Watching an average Aston Villa side play us – Newcastle – off the park in a dark living room at 2am was bad enough, but seeing black and white shirt ripped to shreds, figuratively and literally, made me question life choices.
The always brilliant match reports on fans website nufc.com summed it up perfectly:
“But while Norman Mailer is probably penning a blow-by-blow account of the bout and a screenplay of is doubtless in preparation (may we suggest ‘When we were Pricks’) we find ourselves with not much else to add to the ‘debate’, except our continuing disgust at what went on in front of us.”
Anger has lifted 15 years on, replaced by an incredulity that will always be there. Understanding of the events of that day is a little easier without the mist of fury.
Steven Taylor still rumbles with passion when talking of the club he supported as a boy and grew up to play over 200 times for. In his wonderfully unique way, he took bullets for the Newcastle United cause
The 2004-05 campaign was his first full season as a professional. Nineteen and eager as they get. The Frenchman, Laurent Robert, was as flaky as the lightest croissant in terms of consistency, but one thing Monsieur Rob-aiiirr could rely on was a left foot of mass destruction on free kicks. For Taylor, this presented opportunity.
“I loved getting hit by the ball. I’d stand in the wall and say to Laurent Robert, go on, smash the ball as hard as you can, I loved getting hit in the face and the body, because then I got the respect from the players. And it toughens you up as a person.”
April 2, 2005 was meant to be another step towards gaining respect for Taylor. With Villa dominating, he came on at right back to replace Andy O’Brien, who was, put nicely, better off on the bench. Yet Taylor’s afternoon only lasted 20 minutes.
In the 73rd minute Villa’s Darius Vassell rounded ‘keeper Shay Given, but Taylor sprinted back to the goal line. Vassell shot, Taylor threw himself – and an outstretched hand – at the ball. Thinking the referee was further away, Taylor flung himself down as if paralysed by a sniper. The act failed. Penalty. Red Card.
“Obviously did the Platoon act, didn’t realise how close the referee was, and that’s what got me,” Taylor recalls for the millionth time.
“Even to this day when I come over to Sydney and meet with the supporters they mention it, they say ‘how didn’t you snap your back?’ They absolutely loved it.
“(But) Red card, and 52,000 gives us a standing ovation but I’m thinking no, surely not! Get back in the dressing room, have a shower, get the suit on and sitting there thinking I’m going to get absolutely dismantled by (manager) Graeme Souness and Alan Shearer.”
Yet as he sat alone in the bowels of St James’ Park, what came next had everyone watching – from those at the ground to those 12,000 kilometres away in a dark living room, trying to stay quiet to not wake a sleeping pregnant wife carrying a son, who will one day know of this moment – in utter disbelief.
It had been brewing between Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer, millionaire footballers with undoubted talent: at the time, both thought his talent was better than the others. Even though Newcastle had not lost a game for two months, and had an FA Cup Semi-Final and UEFA Cup Quarter Final around the corner, the two had been into each other at training the day before the Villa game, each annoyed for avoiding the other with passes.
And it spilt into the game. Got worse as Villa got better and Newcastle got worse, without luck. Newcastle had three shouts for penalties denied. Villa had two shouts, and got both, including the Platoon act from Private Taylor.
Bowyer and Dyer yelled at each other through the second half, until the 82nd minute, as Dyer explained in his book.
“I’ve turned around (to Bowyer) and said, ‘The reason why I don’t pass you the ball is because you’re f****** s**t!’ As soon as I said that, something just switched. He had a short fuse. His eyes were bulging.”
The fists came next, Bowyer landing one, missing with a few before Dyer had a belated swing. They were separated, shown straight reds and marched off under the gaze of millions of eyeballs wide-open in disbelief, staring like one might at a tap-dancing elephant in a tutu, or a similar scene of unparalleled eccentric behaviour.
Taylor, at this stage, was still contemplating the king-sized verbal assault he was about to receive, which of course changed the moment the wannabe Ali and Frazier joined him in the sheds.
“It was actually our two masseurs who brought them in, one of them was a prison officer, and one had Dyer one had Bowyer,” Taylor recalls.
“Until I hear Dyer say to Bowyer, ‘ah you punch like a p***y’, I thought what the hell? I went into the players’ lounge to see on the TV, and I thought there is a God!
“I went back in, thought stay quiet, let them two have it out, arguing, then after the game Shearer came in and said you two ***** go and explain yourself to the press and Souness came in, went absolutely ballistic and said the same thing.
“Soon after I remember I said to Shearer, because I sat next to him, I said sorry (about the handball send-off) and he said don’t worry about that.
“I thought happy days, I’ll take that all day!!”
As a relieved Taylor avoided any scrutiny, Bowyer and Dyer were shoved in front of the press, explained themselves, and as Dyer explained in his book, Bowyer actually called him that evening. “I’m so sorry, I lost my head, I should never have done it. It was my fault”.
As you’d imagine, especially in a city infected with football like Newcastle, debate raged. Sack them! Jail them!
Inside the four walls of the football club, the fallout couldn’t have been more different.
“I remember coming in for breakfast,” Taylor remembers, “and everyone was like oh man what’s it going to be like, but we get in and Kieron and Lee Bowyer are having breakfast together! And you’re thinking, f****** hell! But they admitted it the next day, it was just heat of the moment.
“They obviously knew together, the s**t was going to hit the fan, but Souness backed them. Wanted them to explain themselves to the press, which everyone wanted to see.
“But the next day it was like, right, everyone’s against us, we’ll have to deal with what’s coming our way until the next game, just don’t feel sorry for yourself. He always said that – if you’re going to feel sorry for yourself, don’t bother playing. Just stay at home.”
As a fan, now, you can understand Souness’ perspective. He couldn’t stop and partake in a long consideration. Time would not stop whittling away before the next game.
Those in love with the club had a different take. We felt sorry for the club. Sympathy for Bowyer and Dyer was, and still is, harder to find than a vaccine in a pandemic. All fans only see the end product on the pitch, and base judgment around that. We don’t know some players stand in walls to take bullets from teammates, or about the arguments at training or cosy breakfasts the day after a disastrous loss.
Newcastle went on a three-game losing run in the Premier League, crashed out of the UEFA Cup and got trounced by Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final.
A forgettable period in a forgettable season which showed promise, amid a forgettable era.
Unforgettable, though, for one reason. The fight.
Always remembered by those who saw it, and even by a few who didn’t.