The “double double” was as much a success for United’s youth products as it was for the enigmatic Eric Cantona and the in-form Peter Schmeichel – if the year of 1995/96 is most remembered for Cantona’s heroics, though, then the Premier League triumph of 96/97 owed much to the coming of age of “Fergie’s Fledglings”.
Yet the fine success of the previous year had not convinced Alex Ferguson to keep faith in those players – he made a major splurge in the summer of 1996, adding no less than five players to his squad. Tony Coton had moved on to Sunderland after just six months at Old Trafford (though he was to return in the summer of 1997 as a goalkeeping coach) and Fergie moved for Raimond van der Gouw, who resembled Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow far more than a Premier League football; that was until he proved himself an able deputy.
United had been involved in a chase for a top striker all summer; Brazilian striker Ronaldo moved to Barcelona while the availability of Alan Shearer – England’s top scorer in the European Championship – had once again stirred Ferguson’s interest. Shearer declined United’s advances for the second time to sign for Newcastle in a world record £15m transfer.
Instead, Ferguson opted for the far less known Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from Molde for just £1.5m – and added to this with £3.5m Czech star Karel Poborsky who had scored one of the goals of the tournament in the summer, as well as Jordi Cruyff (son of Johann) and Norwegian utility player Ronnie Johnsen. Lee Sharpe made way in the squad, leaving to join Leeds United.
United stayed loyal to the side that had brought them success the previous season as they visited Wembley for the traditional curtain raiser in the Charity Shield. Their opponents were Newcastle, whose supporters took great delight in donning thousands of Alan Shearer masks to rub the Reds’ faces in it.
By the end of the 90 minutes they were using the masks to hide their disappointment – Cantona and Nicky Butt scored first half goals, and David Beckham hit a fantastic goal before Roy Keane rounded off the scoring at 4-0 to provoke chants of “Cheer up Alan Shearer” to the tune of Daydream Believer. Beckham had proved the star of the show, creating the first half goals, but less than a week later he would be catapulted into superstardom.
￼Eric Cantona had opened the scoring with a fierce strike at Wimbledon on the opening day and Denis Irwin had converted a cool second but in the dying moments, David Beckham hit an outrageous shot from just inside his own half which went over goalkeeper Neil Sullivan and into the goal. Even Sullivan could do nothing but applaud the goal, saying, “What can you say? He beat me fair and square? I didn’t think I was too far out… the lads were good about it afterwards. They accepted it was a moment of magic.” They might have only been 90 minutes into the season but Sullivan was in no doubt who would win the title. “I can’t see anyone beating United to the title. Some of their players thought they performed below their best, but I couldn’t see any faults.”
Newcomer Johnsen had watched from the bench but was in awe of his young teammate. “David is a star in the making. He reminds me so much of a young Cantona – he even wears his collar up the same way! It’s the best goal I’ve seen. David is very very, talented… you need confidence in this game and that goal showed it. He is definitelyone of the best young footballers I have seen.”
Sullivan’s comments were perhaps the most intriguing; an internal concern about form might well have exposed itself in a little inconsistency; United drew their next three games – the second of which, an otherwise unremarkable draw with Blackburn, saw a debut goal for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who hadn’t been expected to play in the first team until the New Year but had impressed so well in training and practice games that he couldn’t be left out.
Beckham hit another screamer in the third of those draws, a 1-1 at Derby, before four goal hammerings of Leeds and Forest sandwiched something of a European comedown. Four youth products took to the field at Juventus as United trialled a 4-3-3 formation but it proved disastrous; Cantona couldn’t get a kick, and the Italians used all of their fantastic experience to comfortably win the game 1-0.
United registered a 2-0 win over Spurs with two Solskjaer goals before another thunderbolt from Beckham saw off Liverpool – David May gave arguably his best performance in an underwhelming show from United, after which Cantona lamented that “he forgot he could play so badly”.
The Reds travelled to Turkey to face Fenerbahce and came away with a 2-0 win – Cantona giving himself retribution by scoring. The storms were gathering though and United hit a particularly rough patch of form in October – a 5-0 defeat at Newcastle was their first in the league and some payback for the Charity Shield. The Express described the game as “sweet revenge for all the pain inflicted on Tyneside by Manchester United over the years”. The Times were more balanced, suggesting “Manchester were weary almost before the kick off. You could see it in the slumped shoulders of Pallister, whose sciatica problem can scarcely take two games in a week, never mind the harrowing experience of the Bosphorus, after which the players touched down in England at 4am on Thursday.”
United had no excuse at the Dell – they couldn’t even blame kits! – the following week as they succumbed to a 6-3 loss against Southampton, though more balanced (or should that be optimistic) Reds insisted United had simply been losers of the frenetic pace, remarking that on another day the scoreline could have been reversed. Perhaps United’s younger players were struggling with the demands of the league – the likes of Gary Neville, David Beckham and Nicky Butt had played in almost every game in the league and Europe and were maybe beginning to feel the effects.
Ferguson might have seen a run of four home games in a row as an opportunity to get that confidence flowing, but their confidence was not helped at all by defeat in the first – a first ever home defeat in Europe, a record that had stood for forty years, to the unfancied Fenerbahce. Worse was to follow as Chelsea came to Old Trafford and took all three points in a 2-1 win – what had started as a concern was well and truly a blip, with The Mirror going even further, “It started as a blip but by 4.45pm it was definitely a Manchester United crisis.” The Sunday Times said “In many ways, the performance was the most worrying yet.”
Perhaps United had missed the thrusting penetration of Giggs; his return certainly coincided with an upturn in form, helping the Reds get their first league win in four with a narrow victory over Arsenal. Yet even that was followed by disappointment, when Juventus won at Old Trafford, making it two consecutive home defeats in Europe. United could point to an unlucky second half where they seemed to shrug off the restraints of continental pressures and played their natural game; yet the overriding memory was of the wrong Frenchman having illuminated the Manchester pitch. Not for the first time, Zinedine Zidane had a quite marvellous game while Cantona struggled to inspire his own team-mates.
A trip to the Riverside saw May score again, just as he did on the last day of the previous season. United could only draw 2-2 but May continued his own good form, as one of the few players to come out of the terrible run with credit. Defeat in the League Cup against Leicester was followed by a win over the same opponents just 3 days later – and Ferguson’s team were finally able to get their season back on track.
It would be March until United lost in the league again and they even overcame that tumultuous spell in Europe to qualify for the quarter finals with a win in Rapid Vienna thanks to goals from Cantona, Giggs and an out of this world save by Peter Schmeichel.
Perhaps Cantona’s own confidence – never an attribute you would ever consider a concern – had improved too, as he put in great performances over the Christmas period. Beckham and Scholes scored brilliant goals in draws at West Ham and Sheffield Wednesday but it was Cantona’s second effort against Sunderland – a chip after some beautiful body movement – that really stood out. The Observer described it, “Seemingly in a midfield culd-de-sac, Cantona performed a mesmeric turn that left two men trailing. He then spun away, exchanged a sharp wall pass with McClair and was suddenly in the Sunderland area. Looking up, Cantona saw Perez off his line and chipped the ball over him instantly; it went in off a post.”
Beckham was not in any mood to be overawed by the Frenchman and seemed almost determined to better that skill; he scored a lovely goal against Forest on Boxing Day but Cantona once again stood out – performing an outrageous juggling trick and lobbing the goalkeeper, only to be denied by the crossbar. The shot was converted by Solskjaer, who had now scored eight times for the club in 11 starts and 5 substitute appearances. An early Cantona penalty saw off Leeds as United went into the New Year in second place, two points behind Liverpool.
A double header against Tottenham in early January saw Beckham at his best – a free kick to seal an FA Cup tie was bettered by a thunderbolt of an effort from 30 yards at White Hart Lane in the league to decide the game. United went into another run of games with one opponent when they faced Wimbledon in the Cup and League in quick succession; they thought they had won the Cup tie when Scholes scored to make it 1-0 in the 89th minute, but Wimbledon some how equalised and then even went onto win the replay – United were eliminated in the fourth round, failing to qualify for a Cup Final for the first time since 1993, despite Peter Schmeichel’s late bicycle kick goal that was disallowed for offside.
Cantona had scored a late winner against Southampton in the league but was suspended for the away game against Arsenal on February 19th – the new look front pair of Cole and Solskjaer clicked, with both scoring in the first half an hour to seal the game early on, prompting the Independent to ask “Who needs Cantona?”. The game was shrouded in controversy; Ian Wright had accused Peter Schmeichel of racially abusing him in the clash between the two sides in November, and though this was denied and never actually seriously raised by Wright, the Arsenal forward let his bad blood be publicly known when he lunged, two footed, at the United keeper. He wasn’t sent off; Schmeichel was fuming, and the two had to separated going into the tunnel. United continued to play without Eric in London and earned a draw at Chelsea when another spectacular Beckham goal cancelled out an early strike from Zola.
Despite the criticism he had faced for not hitting the standards he had set a year ago; Cantona was more likely just struggling to find his own place after performing his job so well. Cantona was not only a key performer for United but a key individual in the development of the likes of Beckham, Scholes and the maturity of Giggs. He was able to see his arrogance and confidence reflected in the performance and contribution of Beckham, the rise of his team-mates to be as pivotal to winning games as he himself had been twelve months ago. Yet among all that introspection Cantona could have seen a role for him when United absolutely destroyed Porto in the first leg of the Champions League Quarter final – scoring and creating in a memorable 4-0 win. Though Ryan Giggs was arguably the star of the show in a performance Paddy Crerand referred to as “With skill and pride, we played them off the park. That was Matt’s way and Alex should be proud’, Cantona had arguably his own finest performance in Europe for United – his influence was important in the second leg as United maintained their composure to progress.
And Cantona scored in three consecutive games as United turned up the pressure domestically – a goal in the 2-0 win at Everton and one in the win at Blackburn on March 12th (his last for the club) were important strikes. A 3-1 win at Liverpool saw United enter May five points clear of Liverpool with a game in hand and just three left to play for the Scousers – supporters sang “We won the League again, this time at Merseyside”, but four days later they were left to reflect on a below par performance against Borussia Dortmund – with Giggs and Irwin on the bench, no Roy Keane, United battled to overturn a first leg deficit but it was to no avail. Losing 1-0 from the first game in Germany, they suffered a body blow of an early goal conceded in just the eighth minute. Looking to Beckham and Cantona for inspiration, neither were able to provide it and the Reds missed a glut of chances, twenty one in all, without being able to notch a single goal. Ferguson refused to accept that his team had underperformed, saying, “I don’t have any criticism of my players. They gave everything and I couldn’t have asked for more – apart from a few goals!”.
Draws over Mayday weekend with Leicester and Middlesbrough suggested that United were suffering from a post-European hangover, but their opponents – as had been the case throughout the season – failed to capitalise on United’s poor spell. Liverpool and Newcastle both had trips to the capital to play Wimbledon and West Ham respectively; neither were able to win, and United had mathematically sealed the title again.
Newcastle visited Old Trafford on Thursday 8th May in a game that could have been a title decider; as a dead rubber, it was played out as such, and a 0-0 scoreline failed to thrill anyone. Ferguson had half expected it to pan out as such. “I had a feeling that they were going to be two difficult games – I thought one of them would have some damage done to them. It’s fantastic for us. There’s no doubt it gets better each season. Everybody talks about now going on to win the European Cup, but all I will say is that there is more to come from this side.”
United closed the season with a 2-0 win over West Ham – Peter Schmeichel begging Ferguson to allow him to play upfront in the last few minutes, but the manager refused out of respect to his opponents. The Reds ultimately won the league by 7 points, and United also won their leagues at Reserve, A and B team level – by the end of the 1996/97, a phenomenal 17 former apprenticeships had senior squad numbers. Proving the unity, Gary Neville shared that he and best friend David Beckham had watched the moment United sealed the title round at team-mate Ben Thornley’s house. “We watched the Newcastle game at Ben’s house but as time went on it became unbearable. David and I went out for a walk about quarter of an hour before the end because we could not bear it any longer. When we learned Liverpool had scored (a consolation in a 2-1 defeat), that was it, we just had to go out. When we came back there was just one minute to go at Upton Park, the Liverpool game had finished and it was just the best feeling in the world. This is even better than last year because that is forgotten about now and I think I have probably enjoyed it more this year than last.” Neville and Beckham had gone one further than the manager who quipped, “I can never watch games on TV. Why put yourself through all that torture!”
This was a repeat success for even players so young but there were some enjoying it for the first time; Norwegian players Johnsen and Solskjaer had won the league in their first season, with both playing vital parts. “I called Ole straight away and we were just screaming down the phone,” said Johnsen. “It was crazy. I am the happiest man in the world. I have never won anything as a player and I can’t win anything bigger than the Championship with Manchester United.” Solskjaer concurred, “To win the league with Man Utd is the biggest thing in my life.”
Thoughts turned to the future, and inevitably, speculation surrounded the future of Cantona. In October he was reported as saying “There is something wrong with me and I don’t know what it is. I can’t get to the bottom of it. I can’t understand why I am playing so poorly”. Cantona’s performance hadn’t dropped so significantly to justify that self criticism but perhaps in acknowledging the improvement of the players which he had been so instrumental, he recognised that his own importance had diminished – a natural consequence of that improvement, and not necessarily an indicator of his own regression. Nonetheless, his feeling didn’t improve throughout the season and at 3.40pm on Sunday May 18th 1997 in the Europa League at Old Trafford, the club publicly made clear what the player had previously told Ferguson in private – Eric Cantona was to retire from football with immediate effect.
Ferguson reminisced over that meeting, “When he came to see me on Wednesday (after the defeat to Dortmund) I knew his position was unequivocal. I knew deep down that, no matter the things I was saying to him, he wasn’t prepared to take them on board. Whereas the previous time when he needed help I managed to him around, Eric basically believes he must go out at the top. Now he’s gone I don’t feel let down – there can’t be any recriminations in my part.”
In tribute to his star man, Ferguson said “Eric has helped to give us six trophies in four and a half years. And it’s all for one million pounds. That puts his value in perspective. It’s a sad day because he’s been such a fantastic player for the last four and a half years. That represents a third of Eric’s career and the longest he’s ever been at one club. We’ve had some great players at this club and when the end has come we just have to get on with life.
“The fans are going to have great memories of him and so will I. Eric’s influence has been absolutely marvellous. He came to us at the right time to give us his vision. The years of Eric Cantona have been great for all of us. He has had a huge impact on the development of our younger players. Eric has been a model professional and he has been a joy to manage. He’s certainly one of the most gifted and dedicated players that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Whenever fans discuss United’s greatest ever side, you can be sure that for many, Eric’s name will be very high on the list. He leaves with our best wishes and he will always be welcome at Old Trafford. He has left us with so many wonderful memories.”
Former United player Paddy Crerand gave his opinion, “My whole family is totally stunned and I can’t believe it. But Eric’s that type of person – if he feels it has to be done he’ll do it.”
Cantona himself was typically enigmatic, “I am in love with United. It’s like having a wife who has given me a perfect marriage. Leaving the club is like leaving a woman. When you have nothing left to say, you go. I can never swear eternal fidelity but as long as we stay together I am convinced we could move mountains. At the end of the day, I am a footballer first and not a pop star. If I’d really wanted all this attention for myself I would have played singles tennis. I am just an ordinary guy.”
Anything but, Eric.
Match worn shirts
Pre-season and friendlies
|27 July 1996||Portadown||A||5–0||Scholes (3) 17′, 19′, 44′, Keane 29′, Beckham 34′||6,100|
|28 July 1996||League of Ireland XI||N||4–1||Sharpe 22′, Pallister 26′, Scholes 41′, Cantona 44′||7,720|
|31 July 1996||Internazionale||A||0–3||33,578|
|3 August 1996||Ajax||N||1–2||McClair 81′||27,427|
|4 August 1996||Nottingham Forest||A||3–1||Beckham 80′, McClair 83′, P. Neville 88′||21,760|
|13 August 1996||Internazionale||H||0–1||30,266|
|15 April 1997||Celtic||H||1–2||Keane 44′||43,743|
|16 May 1997||Coventry City XI||A||2–2||Cantona (2) 69′ (pen.), 86′||23,325|
FA Charity Shield
|11 August 1996||Newcastle United||N||4–0||Cantona 25′, Butt 30′, Beckham 86′, Keane 88′||73,214|
FA Premier League
|17 August 1996||Wimbledon||A||3–0||Cantona 25′, Irwin 57′, Beckham 87′||25,786||1st|
|21 August 1996||Everton||H||2–2||Cruyff 70′, Unsworth 82′ (o.g.)||54,943||9th|
|25 August 1996||Blackburn Rovers||H||2–2||Cruyff 38′, Solskjær 69′||54,178||5th|
|4 September 1996||Derby County||A||1–1||Beckham 38′||18,026||4th|
|7 September 1996||Leeds United||A||4–0||Martyn 3′ (o.g.), Butt 49′, Poborský 76′, Cantona 90′||39,694||5th|
|14 September 1996||Nottingham Forest||H||4–1||Solskjær 22′, Giggs 41′, Cantona (2) 82′, 90′ (pen.)||54,984||1st|
|21 September 1996||Aston Villa||A||0–0||39,339||4th|
|29 September 1996||Tottenham Hotspur||H||2–0||Solskjær (2) 38′, 57′||54,943||3rd|
|12 October 1996||Liverpool||H||1–0||Beckham 23′||55,128||4th|
|20 October 1996||Newcastle United||A||0–5||35,579||5th|
|26 October 1996||Southampton||A||3–6||Beckham 42′, May 56′, Scholes 89′||15,253||5th|
|2 November 1996||Chelsea||H||1–2||May 81′||55,198||6th|
|16 November 1996||Arsenal||H||1–0||Winterburn 62′ (o.g.)||55,210||6th|
|23 November 1996||Middlesbrough||A||2–2||Keane 17′, May 73′||30,063||7th|
|30 November 1996||Leicester City||H||3–1||Butt (2) 76′, 87′, Solskjær 85′||55,196||5th|
|8 December 1996||West Ham United||A||2–2||Solskjær 54′, Beckham 75′||25,045||6th|
|18 December 1996||Sheffield Wednesday||A||1–1||Scholes 61′||37,671||5th|
|21 December 1996||Sunderland||H||5–0||Solskjær (2) 36′, 48′, Cantona (2) 43′ (pen.), 79′, Butt 58′||55,081||3rd|
|26 December 1996||Nottingham Forest||A||4–0||Beckham 24′, Butt 44′, Solskjær 67′, Cole 76′||29,032||3rd|
|28 December 1996||Leeds United||H||1–0||Cantona 9′ (pen.)||55,256||2nd|
|1 January 1997||Aston Villa||H||0–0||55,133||3rd|
|12 January 1997||Tottenham Hotspur||A||2–1||Solskjær 23′, Beckham 76′||33,026||3rd|
|18 January 1997||Coventry City||A||2–0||Giggs 61′, Solskjær 80′||23,085||2nd|
|29 January 1997||Wimbledon||H||2–1||Giggs 75′, Cole 82′||55,314||2nd|
|1 February 1997||Southampton||H||2–1||Pallister 19′, Cantona 79′||55,269||1st|
|19 February 1997||Arsenal||A||2–1||Cole 18′, Solskjær 32′||38,172||1st|
|22 February 1997||Chelsea||A||1–1||Beckham 68′||28,336||1st|
|1 March 1997||Coventry City||H||3–1||Breen 4′ (o.g.), Jess 5′ (o.g.), Poborský 47′||55,230||1st|
|8 March 1997||Sunderland||A||1–2||Melville 77′ (o.g.)||22,225||1st|
|15 March 1997||Sheffield Wednesday||H||2–0||Cole 19′, Poborský 60′||55,267||1st|
|22 March 1997||Everton||A||2–0||Solskjær 35′, Cantona 79′||40,079||1st|
|5 April 1997||Derby County||H||2–3||Cantona 47′, Solskjær 76′||55,243||1st|
|12 April 1997||Blackburn Rovers||A||3–2||Cole 32′, Scholes 42′, Cantona 79′||30,476||1st|
|19 April 1997||Liverpool||A||3–1||Pallister (2) 13′, 42′, Cole 63′||40,892||1st|
|3 May 1997||Leicester City||A||2–2||Solskjær (2) 45′, 52′||21,068||1st|
|5 May 1997||Middlesbrough||H||3–3||Keane 34′, G. Neville 42′, Solskjær 67′||54,489||1st|
|8 May 1997||Newcastle United||H||0–0||55,236||1st|
|11 May 1997||West Ham United||H||2–0||Solskjær 12′, Cruyff 84′||55,249||1st|
Pld = Matches played; W = Matches won; D = Matches drawn; L = Matches lost; GF = Goals for; GA = Goals against; GD = Goal difference; Pts = Points
|5 January 1997||Round 3||Tottenham Hotspur||H||2–0||Scholes 51′, Beckham 82′||52,445|
|25 January 1997||Round 4||Wimbledon||H||1–1||Scholes 89′||53,342|
|4 February 1997||Round 4Replay||Wimbledon||A||0–1||25,601|
|23 October 1996||Round 3||Swindon Town||H||2–1||Poborský 20′, Scholes 72′||49,305|
|27 November 1996||Round 4||Leicester City||A||0–2||20,428|
UEFA Champions League
|11 September 1996||Juventus||A||0–1||54,000||4th|
|25 September 1996||Rapid Wien||H||2–0||Solskjær 20′, Beckham 27′||51,831||2nd|
|16 October 1996||Fenerbahçe||A||2–0||Beckham 55′, Cantona 60′||26,200||2nd|
|30 October 1996||Fenerbahçe||H||0–1||53,297||2nd|
|20 November 1996||Juventus||H||0–1||53,529||3rd|
|4 December 1996||Rapid Wien||A||2–0||Giggs 24′, Cantona 72′||45,000||2nd|
|5 March 1997||Quarter-finalFirst leg||Porto||H||4–0||May 22′, Cantona 34′, Giggs 60′, Cole 80′||53,425|
|19 March 1997||Quarter-finalSecond leg||Porto||A||0–0||40,000|
|9 April 1997||Semi-finalFirst leg||Borussia Dortmund||A||0–1||48,500|
|23 April 1997||Semi-finalSecond leg||Borussia Dortmund||H||0–1||53,606|
|No.||Pos.||Name||League||FA Cup||Coca-Cola Cup||Europe||Other||Total|
|7||FW||Eric Cantona (c)||36||11||3||0||0||0||10||3||1||1||50||15|
|17||GK||Raimond van der Gouw||2||0||0||0||2||0||1||0||0||0||5||0|
|20||FW||Ole Gunnar Solskjær||25(8)||18||0(3)||0||0||0||8(2)||1||0||0||33(13)||19|