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Ah 1996; the year of Tomb Raider, The Fugees, Mario 64 and Trainspotting (or Space Jam for the younger generation). 1996 was also a year that left the majority of English football fans rueing the existence of one Gareth Southgate, however for supporters of Manchester United, 1996 was a great time to be watching the beautiful game.
Alex Ferguson’s side were crowned champions – their third Premier League title in just four years – at the end of the 95/96 campaign. Many fans were left wondering if Fergie had lost the plot less than a year prior to winning the title, after his opening day selection away at Aston Villa in August 1995. After that game, which United lost 3-1, United went on to lift the title, as the ‘Class of 92’ ridiculed Alan Hansen’s unfortunate early season prediction.
Ferguson was becoming increasingly aware that top flight football in England was becoming all the more reliant on strong squads, rather than just an exceptional starting eleven. United had sold fan favourites Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis before the 1995/96 season kicked off, but Fergie stuck to his guns – and United’s youth policy – ultimately creating history by winning the League and FA Cup double for the second time. Eric Cantona was voted the Football Writer’s Player of the Year. Ferguson had proved his point.
The growing reputations of United’s young squad led to the departures of Lee Sharpe, Steve Bruce and Paul Parker before the 1996/97 season kicked off. The difference between these departures, and those of Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis twelve months prior, was that Fergie plunged into the transfer market, buying five players to strengthen his squad. A few were failures, while a few became important players for United. One of course, was to become a legend.
One of the surprise packages of Euro ’96 in England were the Czech Republic, who made it all the way to the final, where they were narrowly beaten by everyone’s favourites Germany. The Czech team had only been together since 1994, after the separation of what was once Czechoslovakia. Poborsky’s performances, and that scooped lob during a match against Portugal, had caused a stir in England. United were the sharpest in the transfer market and signed Poborsky for £3.5 million from Slavia Prague.
United fans were excited about the tricky winger, especially as many felt Andrei Kanchelskis was yet to be adequately replaced. Unfortunately, Poborsky never lived up to the reputation he forged during Euro 96. In his first season, he made just 22 starts in all competitions, scoring four goals in the process.
Despite the occasional flash of brilliance, the Czech Republic international never imposed himself as a match winner, like he had for the national side. Poborsky only lasted until January the following season, before being sold to Portugese side Benfica. He also enjoyed a spell at Lazio, before returning to Czech football with Sparta Prague. He retired in 2007 while playing for his boyhood club České Budějovice.
Cruyff, or Jordi if you believe what it tells you on the back of a shirt, was signed from Barcelona for a fee of £1.5 million, after his daddy was sacked as the Catalan club’s coach. Cruyff actually featured in the 4-0 victory over United in the 1994 Champions League, setting up Hristo Stoitchkov for Barca’s first.
Jordi started his career at United very positively, and lasted a lot longer at the club than Poborsky. He made his debut in the 3-0 win over Wimbledon on the opening day of the 1996/97 campaign. Ironically, it was also the match that propelled David Beckham to super-stardom after his goal from half-way. Beckham’s success in midfield meant that both Cruyff and Poborsky would struggle to maintain a regular place in Fergie’s side.
Cruyff went on to score vital goals in his next two matches against Everton and Blackburn, though this doesn’t always guarantee success – Federico Macheda anyone?
Ferguson thought highly of Cruyff, more so than Brian McClair who had this to say in his book Odd Man Out:
“I’ve been named by Keith Gillespie as the worst at training in the club, but the arrival of Jordi Cruyff looks like depriving me of this honour.”
Cruyff was a regular in Ferguson’s side until injuries began to plague his United career. A knee injury in November 1996 culminated in a struggle to get back into the first team, as did ankle injuries the following year. The Dutchman was sent out on loan to Alaves for the second half of the 1998-99 season, in which United didn’t do too badly without him. His contract expired in June 2000 after a decent return that season of three goals in eight games.
He hung up his boots in 2010 and is currently in the coaching staff of Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.
Raimond van der Gouw.
A £500’000 arrival from Vitesse in his native Holland, Van der Gouw brought a wealth of experience to Old Trafford. Already in his thirties, he was signed primarily as back-up to Peter Schmeichel, especially as Tony Coton had recently left the club.
After a few performances in various domestic matches, Van der Gouw was called upon in his first season for a crucial Champions League match. Schmeichel pulled out of the semi-final with Borussia Dortmund and he didn’t disappoint. A string of saves kept the score in Dortmund down to 1-0, and gave United every chance of progressing to their first ever Champions League final. They didn’t, but that’s not the point.
Ferguson also put his trust in Van der Gouw the following year for the quarter-final against Monaco. Mark Bosnich hadn’t lived up to his reputation so far, so the Dutchman stepped in. Again, United failed to qualify, but no blame could be attached to Van der Gouw. A David Trezeguet thunderbolt was the difference. Not even Schmeichel could have stopped that.
Van der Gouw finally claimed a Premier League winner’s medal in 1999/2000 after playing twenty-two times. His career fizzled out with the arrival of Fabien Barthez the following year, though he was always keen to pass on his wealth of knowledge to the younger players.
He joined up with Roy Keane as goalkeeping coach at Sunderland in 2007; Keane also believed he was a ‘true professional’. He now works at old club Vitesse as a coach.
One of two Norwegians signed in the summer of 1996 – we’ll move onto the other one shortly – Johnsen was signed from Turkish club Beşiktaş for £1.2 million. Brought in primarily as a centre-back in the wake of Steve Bruce’s departure, some of Johnsen’s best performances came whilst playing in central midfield.
Johnsen had to wait a year before his first United goal, scoring in the Charity Shield victory over Chelsea in 1997.
Injury was a constant source of irritation throughout Johnsen’s career, but his intelligent reading of the game ensured that he was a perfect fit in the Manchester United side. He played alongside Roy Keane as United beat Juventus 3-2 in the Stadio Delle Alpi and had the perfect temperament to excel during European matches.
Johnsen won the league four times with United, although in 2000 had to be awarded special dispensation to receive a medal in another injury hit campaign.
Johnsen was capped 62 times for his country, and eventually retired from football in 2008. He originally announced his retirement in 2005, before deciding to continue with Norwegian side Vålerenga – obviously a little something he’d learned from his manager.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
Solskjær was already a firm fan favourite, even before he stuck out his beautiful big toe deep into injury time at the Nou Camp in 1999. While some of his most memorable moments have been off the substitutes bench, it’s easy to forget that in his first season in the Premier League, he was United’s leading scorer with 18 Premier League goals. Ironically, his first United goal, against Blackburn, did come just minutes after he came off the bench.
At just £1.5 million, Solskjær proved incredible value, and he remained at Old Trafford until 2007, when a recurring knee injury forced him to retire.
Solskjær will always be loved for sticking the ball in the German’s net, but his late winner against old rivals Liverpool in the FA Cup was also a key component of United winning the illustrious treble. He also whacked in four goals in ten minutes away at Nottingham Forest, ignoring instructions from United’s Mike Phelan.
Solskjær’s hard-working attitude, professionalism and genuine nature always meant that he was nailed on for fan favourite status, and he is still one of the best finishers that Fergie ever bought.
That winning goal in 1999 however, will ensure that Ole Gunnar Solskjær will always be regarded as a Manchester United legend.