Perhaps it’s a little spoilt to refer to a final day defeat to the league Championship as a disappointment but all things taken in their relative perspective, by the time the 1995/96 season kicked off Manchester United supporters were not only still struggling to accept their anguish from losing the league title on the last day of the last season, but also a below par defeat in the FA Cup Final, the loss of three senior players and the suspension of another until October.
Eric Cantona had been suspended since January so his absence was hardly news, but the transfers of Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis was met with disbelief while Mark Hughes’ departure stunned United fans to their core. Alex Ferguson had grown tired of the ego of Ince and the problems he encountered when negotiating with Kanchelskis’ entourage but Mark Hughes’ free transfer to Chelsea left supporters gobsmacked considering they’d watched him apparently sign a new contract on the pitch before a league game the previous season.
Doubts surfaced with criticism coming at the club through both the board and the manager; the Evening News ran a poll where the majority of fans said they wanted Ferguson to resign while Martin Edwards had to fend off criticism that the £13m raised from the sales of Ince and Kanchelskis would offset some of the £28m cost of redeveloping Old Trafford. Edwards went public in an attempt to calm fan, “We have known for some time that Mark wanted to leave. He has been a great servant and we wish him all the best. As for Paul Ince, we had an offer for him at the end of the season and I put this to the manager. He is responsible for his squad, he is the one who decides who he wants next season. He decided that we have enough cover in midfield and accepted the offer. Only time will tell if it proves to be good business or bad. The manager of Manchester United decides on the squad he wants. All I would say to the fans is that after all the success he has had, we have to have some confidence in the manager’s ability. If we were to lift a trophy, people would say it was not so bad after all. If however things turn sour they will point to this particular issue as being the start of it.”
Hughes’ decision to leave might not have been an internal surprise and Ince’s transfer to Inter Milan (a club record sale of £7m) might well have been Ferguson’s decision but the Kanchelskis move was more complicated. Kanchelskis was hankering for a move or a bumper new contract after two fine seasons and United were hardly well stocked; they had let Keith Gillespie leave in the Andy Cole transfer in January and although David Beckham was breaking through, he had played just four league games for the club. United’s hand was forced and Kanchelskis signed for Everton; Ferguson made a move for the highly rated Darren Anderton but was unable to convince Tottenham to sell.
To compound United’s woes, Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole and Steve Bruce were missing from the first game through injury; Ferguson lined up at Villa Park for the opening game in an unfamiliar system and their hosts absolutely tore them apart, storming into a 3-0 lead. David Beckham’s stunning late effort might have been an indicator of things to come but a 3-1 defeat gave no consolation to the team or the fans. The knives were out and Alan Hansen famously laid into United – who had started with both Nevilles, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes with Beckham and O’Kane coming from the bench – saying “You can’t win anything with kids”.
Faced with a tough run of fixtures, United responded with great character – though if their younger players thought they might get an easy introduction to life in the top league, they were given a rude awakening when in the first home game, West Ham’s Marco Boogers launched into a reckless challenge on young full back Gary Neville. United were able to record a win and followed that up with a 3-1 defeat of Wimbledon – but the big tests were to follow as trips to the sides who had inflicted last season’s pain on them were to follow.
David Beckham’s marvellous goal helped United record an unlikely win at the Champions as Blackburn succumbed to a 2-1 defeat (even more unlikely as Roy Keane had been sent off after scoring himself); and the Reds gained some revenge for their FA Cup Final defeat to Everton with a fine 3-2 victory at Goodison Park (where goalscorer Lee Sharpe accidentally injured Kanchelskis, putting the former United winger out of action for several weeks). The results gave the youngsters confidence and that all came out in a fantastic 3-0 win over neighbours Bolton Wanderers, with Terry Cooke in particularly fine form.
It would be naive to suggest the new crop of players, “Fergie’s fledglings” could cope long term without Eric Cantona and this was proven in Europe as United were eliminated on away goals against little known Rotor Volgograd. The Russian outfit had taken a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford after a goalless first leg and although the Reds’ efforts were ultimately in vain, they were able to save a little face at least when goalkeeper Schmeichel scored a last minute equaliser to preserve the clubs’ unbeaten home record in Europe. Further embarrassment was to follow as United were hammered by York City at home in a stunning 3-0 defeat in the League Cup.
Cantona returned to much fanfare against Liverpool – thanks to television scheduling, the game had been moved to Sunday 1st October 1995, much the Scousers’ annoyance. The French forward’s suspension expired on 30th September and he returned amid a frenzied atmosphere. Nobody knew quite what to expect after his time out of the game; would he be fit enough? How was his mental state? Cantona answered those questions emphatically to the delight of United fans; playing a part in Nicky Butt’s goal in the first minute before converting a penalty in the second half to rescue a 2-2 draw.
Eric was back; his return sparked a run of 10 games where United were defeated just once in the league but it was the last three of those games that caused concern; three consecutive draws threatened to pull United into a rut as Newcastle United stormed into a lead at the top of the table. Pre-Christmas defeats at bitter rivals Liverpool and Leeds suggested that United were a little too lightweight; and though the Reds recorded a great win over Newcastle, they were brought back down to Earth with a bang on New Years’ Day as Tottenham scored four past them in a performance best remembered for an injury to Schmeichel and a horror show from triallist William Prunier.
Unwilling to rely on the youngster Kevin Pilkington as an understudy to the off-key Schmeichel, Ferguson made a move into the transfer market to sign experienced goalkeeper Tony Coton from Manchester City. Coton would never play a single minute for United but the transfer was an inspired piece of business as it provoked a significant upturn in form from Schmeichel; and in mid January, the rest of the team joined in, inspired from a late winner from the under-fire Andy Cole in a third round FA Cup replay at Sunderland. That win was the first of eight straight wins in league and Cup as United chopped away at Newcastle’s lead ahead of a title deciding clash at St. James’ Park on March 4th.
So maybe “title deciding” was too defining for a clash so early in the season yet United knew they had to capitalise on the momentum they had generated; they went to Newcastle on the back of a thumping 6-0 win at Bolton, and Ferguson cranked up the “mind games” after the result at Burnden Park. “There’s a lot of important games to come up, you cannot place one in front of another,” said Fergie. “We have to win our games now and we are aware of that. If we win them then that might do the trick. Being there for the last four seasons must give us an advantage.”
Such words were probably just as much to calm his own players down and downplay the significance of the game at Newcastle; yet they had some truth to them. United’s experience allowed them to see the bigger picture whereas the Magpies bad run of form – which had coincided with their signing of Faustino Asprilla in an attempt to guarantee the title – had led them to focus their attentions on this clash, in the hope that taking three points could finally see the Red Devils off.
Their eagerness was plain to see as they came out of the blocks, bombarding the United goal with a peppering of shots. Schmeichel was in inspired form with saves from Asprilla and Les Ferdinand as he almost single handedly kept his team in it in the first half. United hit the classic sucker punch early in the second period, with Cantona scoring on the volley – Newcastle couldn’t respond and United had struck a vital blow in the title race.
Ferguson’s team routinely saw off Southampton in the FA Cup quarter final and realistic talk began for the first time of United’s chances of winning another double, just two years after they had done it for the first time and now with a new look team. March was Cantona’s month; a late equaliser at Loftus Road was followed by goals in 1-0 wins over Arsenal and Tottenham at Old Trafford in a matter of days. In the FA Cup semi final against Chelsea on the last day of March, only Andy Cole’s goalline conversion to Eric’s goal-bound effort prevented Le Roi from scoring in every round of the Cup; but anyone in doubt about the number 7’s contribution to the team as a whole were proven wrong as Cantona’s goalline clearance prevented Ruud Gullit from scoring for Chelsea.
United were through to their third consecutive Cup Final but Eric’s work wasn’t done, as he scored in a win at Manchester City and then the winner in a 1-0 at home to Coventry which was probably best remembered for a horrific injury suffered by the Sky Blue’s Dave Busst. Defeat at the Dell on April 13th gave Newcastle the advantage again but United’s afternoon at Southampton was the source of much embarrassment; Ferguson decided that his team should change strips at half time as their grey strips apparently blended in with the crowd and was a defining factor in a 3-0 deficit. Perhaps he had a point after all; United didn’t concede again, and even scored a late goal through Giggs.
Ferguson might privately have noted a concern that his young team might be struggling under such pressure with glory so close and understandably sought every conceivable advantage; after a laborious win over Leeds, the manager went public with comments praising Leeds’ performance in the knowledge they were due to take on Newcastle. “I am saying this in support of their manager because he doesn’t deserve that result,” explained Ferguson. “What they have been doing for the rest of the season God knows. It will be interesting to see how they perform against Newcastle.”
Magpies boss Kevin Keegan had showed visible signs of suffering under the strain; his flummoxed expression after defeat in a thrilling 4-3 defeat at Anfield was followed by a defiance that it would be “my way or the highway”. Keegan’s passion was again on show after Newcastle defeated Leeds in a narrow 1-0 win of their own where he declared on television that Ferguson had “gone down in his estimation” and that he would “love it, just love it” if his side won the title.
In reality the destiny of the title was slipping out of his side’s hands; as it stood, United’s superior goal difference gave them the advantage and they added to that with an emphatic 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest. This was a celebration of Ferguson’s faith; he had made the decision to go with Paul Scholes ahead of Andy Cole and Scholes was among the scorers; that fellow youth products Ryan Giggs and David Beckham were also on the scoresheet was just further vindication for the Scottish manager.
Newcastle could only draw in their last away game against Nottingham Forest and so went into the final game two points behind United; the Reds knew that victory in their first visit to Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough’s new Riverside Stadium would secure their third title in four years. Any thought of nerves were quickly dispelled as David May scored early on to settle United down. May was in the side ahead of Steve Bruce who had announced he was to leave the club to join Birmingham City and justified that inclusion; Scholes was replaced early in the second half by Cole, who answered back to the doubters (who may have included his manager) with a hooked goal with his first touch to all but secure the title.
It was a fine moment for Cole; his failure to put the ball past Ludo Miklosko in the West Ham goal on the final day of the 94/95 season had haunted him and he was finally able to rid himself of those demons. Newcastle were struggling in their own game against Tottenham but they were finally forced to accept their fate when Ryan Giggs scored a third goal for United to well and truly seal the result.
Martin Edwards was quick to go on record to voice his own delight, saying, “It was a tense afternoon.. slightly different to last year where we went into the game knowing that if Blackburn won we couldn’t win. Today it was in our own hands… once we got the second goal it became comfortable. Today was so good because we were under pressure. At the beginning of the season, having let three very experienced players go, everybody wondered how the youngsters would do. I think that is what is so pleasing about today. They told us we would win nothing with kids… I wonder what they are saying now?”.
Cantona might not have scored in that final day victory but this was, of course, a man who wrote his own scripts and starred in his own productions. Since the turn of the year he had scored the only goal in five 1-0 wins in United’s favour, and also registered in every round in the Cup aside from the semi final; his contribution through the month of March was almost immeasurable.
Liverpool were the opponents in the FA Cup Final on May 11th; and after a dour 85 minutes, Cantona proved the difference again – volleying in a half hearted clearance through a sea of players to decide the final in the most dramatic fashion.
Ferguson – who later agreed a four year deal that doubled his salary – was gushing in his praise for his star man. “It was a quite magnificent goal. Eric showed great composure and such accuracy with the shot… it couldn’t have come at a better time. Eric Cantona makes the difference. Even when he has a quiet day, as he did in this match, there is always something left in the tank. He doesn’t sprint the games, he conserves energy so well. I don’t know many players who could have hit the ball the way he did for the goal, away from the keeper. His contribution is often his mere presence… but what an impact. He won the Cup for us.”
Cantona was naturally delighted but was keen to point out how pleased he was to have been supported through some tough times. “This is a great moment… I have the highest regard for Alex Ferguson as a man and as a manager. What can I say about the fans? I respect them and I love them and I try to give them the pleasure they need to receive. While I was banned they remembered me during every game even if it was just for 15 seconds. I will never forget that. I am settled in England and will certainly be staying here for the next two years of my contract, even longer than that, who knows?”
Sadly Cantona’s words would prove to be inaccurate as just one year later he announced his retirement but no-one could be in any doubt about his relationship with Manchester United and its supporters; he had well and truly cemented his place as one of the most important players in the clubs’ history.
1995/96 Results :
|Date||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|19 August 1995||Aston Villa||A||1 – 3||Beckham 84′||34,655||19th|
|23 August 1995||West Ham United||H||2 – 1||Scholes 50′, Keane 68′||31,966||5th|
|26 August 1995||Wimbledon||H||3 – 1||Keane (2) 28′, 80′, Cole 60′||32,226||4th|
|28 August 1995||Blackburn Rovers||A||2 – 1||Sharpe 46′, Beckham 67′||29,843||2nd|
|9 September 1995||Everton||A||3 – 2||Sharpe (2) 3′, 49′, Giggs 74′||39,496||2nd|
|16 September 1995||Bolton Wanderers||H||3 – 0||Scholes (2) 18′, 86′, Giggs 34′||32,812||1st|
|23 September 1995||Sheffield Wednesday||A||0 – 0||34,101||3rd|
|1 October 1995||Liverpool||H||2 – 2||Butt 2′, Cantona 71′ (pen.)||34,934||3rd|
|14 October 1995||Manchester City||H||1 – 0||Scholes 5′||35,707||2nd|
|21 October 1995||Chelsea||A||4 – 1||Scholes (2) 4′, 10′, Giggs 78′, McClair 85′||31,019||2nd|
|28 October 1995||Middlesbrough||H||2 – 0||Pallister 44′, Cole 88′||36,580||2nd|
|4 November 1995||Arsenal||A||0 – 1||38,317||2nd|
|18 November 1995||Southampton||H||4 – 1||Giggs (2) 1′, 4′, Scholes 9′, Cole 69′||39,301||2nd|
|22 November 1995||Coventry City||A||4 – 0||Irwin 28′, McClair (2) 48′, 76′, Beckham 58′||23,400||2nd|
|27 November 1995||Nottingham Forest||A||1 – 1||Cantona 67′ (pen.)||29,263||2nd|
|2 December 1995||Chelsea||H||1 – 1||Beckham 61′||42,019||2nd|
|9 December 1995||Sheffield Wednesday||H||2 – 2||Cantona (2) 18′, 84′||41,849||2nd|
|17 December 1995||Liverpool||A||0 – 2||40,546||2nd|
|24 December 1995||Leeds United||A||1 – 3||Cole 30′||39,801||2nd|
|27 December 1995||Newcastle United||H||2 – 0||Cole 6′, Keane 53′||42,024||2nd|
|30 December 1995||Queens Park Rangers||H||2 – 1||Cole 45′, Giggs 52′||41,890||2nd|
|1 January 1996||Tottenham Hotspur||A||1 – 4||Cole 36′||32,852||2nd|
|13 January 1996||Aston Villa||H||0 – 0||42,667||3rd|
|22 January 1996||West Ham United||A||1 – 0||Cantona 9′||24,197||2nd|
|3 February 1996||Wimbledon||A||4 – 2||Cole 41′, Perry 45′ (o.g.), Cantona (2) 71′, 81′ (pen.)||25,380||2nd|
|10 February 1996||Blackburn Rovers||H||1 – 0||Sharpe 15′||42,681||2nd|
|21 February 1996||Everton||H||2 – 0||Keane 30′, Giggs 82′||42,459||2nd|
|25 February 1996||Bolton Wanderers||A||6 – 0||Beckham 5′, Bruce 15′, Cole 70′, Scholes (2) 76′, 79′, Butt 90′||21,381||2nd|
|4 March 1996||Newcastle United||A||1 – 0||Cantona 52′||36,584||2nd|
|16 March 1996||Queens Park Rangers||A||1 – 1||Cantona 90′||18,817||2nd|
|20 March 1996||Arsenal||H||1 – 0||Cantona 65′||50,028||1st|
|24 March 1996||Tottenham Hotspur||H||1 – 0||Cantona 51′||50,157||1st|
|6 April 1996||Manchester City||A||3 – 2||Cantona 7′ (pen.), Cole 42′, Giggs 78′||29,668||1st|
|8 April 1996||Coventry City||H||1 – 0||Cantona 47′||50,332||1st|
|13 April 1996||Southampton||A||1 – 3||Giggs 89′||15,262||1st|
|17 April 1996||Leeds United||H||1 – 0||Keane 72′||48,382||1st|
|28 April 1996||Nottingham Forest||H||5 – 0||Scholes 42′, Beckham (2) 45′, 55′, Giggs 70′, Cantona 90′||53,926||1st|
|5 May 1996||Middlesbrough||A||3 – 0||May 14′, Cole 54′, Giggs 81′||29,921||1st|
FA Cup results :
|Date||Round||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|6 January 1996||Round 3||Sunderland||H||2 – 2||Butt 13′, Cantona 80′||41,563|
|16 January 1996||Round 3
|Sunderland||A||2 – 1||Scholes 70′, Cole 90′||21,378|
|27 January 1996||Round 4||Reading||A||3 – 0||Giggs 37′, Parker 57′, Cantona 90′||14,780|
|18 February 1996||Round 5||Manchester City||H||2 – 1||Cantona 39′ (pen.), Sharpe 78′||42,692|
|11 March 1996||Round 6||Southampton||H||2 – 0||Cantona 49′, Sharpe 90′||45,446|
|31 March 1996||Semi-final||Chelsea||N||2 – 1||Cole 55′, Beckham 59′||38,421|
|11 May 1996||Final||Liverpool||N||1 – 0||Cantona 86′||79,007|
Squad Statistics :
|No.||Pos.||Name||League||FA Cup||League Cup||Europe||Total|
|4||DF||Steve Bruce (c)||30||1||5||0||1(1)||0||2||0||38(1)||1|
Thanks as always to Dan – @Luzhniki2008 on Twitter – for his memorabilia images.
Season review video :