Newcastle lost the 1995/96 Premiership. Everyone knows this. Well, sort of. They might have got away with their incredible collapse were it not for one man…
A few years ago, when football blogging was at its apex, every now and then some edge lord with a Wikipedia page and a YouTube compilation open on their laptop would write a sniffy blog, daringly declaring that Eric Cantona wasn’t all that you know. Look at his record in Europe, what about with France, actually he didn’t score that many goals, yada yada.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so dismissive of people like this. It’s just an opinion, after all. Everyone has them. Broadly speaking that’s a good thing. And those people are still out there, somewhere, possibly with Twitter handles like @MCFC6655477 or @VanDijkology, still insisting that Cantona was wildly overrated. Maybe we shouldn’t really concern ourselves with them. It’s just people on the internet, after all.
But you’re a sensible person, reading this. You know that Cantona was like the Grand Canyon: you could miss the majesty unless you see it up close. Cantona’s appeal was, for a lot of the time, ephemeral and intangible, perhaps the man with the most footballing charisma to ever step foot on a pitch in England, not a player to be judged or measured by statistics. You felt Cantona, rather than just watched and appraised him. He was the sort of player that could convert people football, immediately drawn to this glorious, glowing man, unable to look away, like he was the contents of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase running around on the Old Trafford turf.
Some of his worth, though, you can measure. Like the time he basically won a league title on his own.
The 1995/96 Premier League is typically portrayed as the one Newcastle threw away, ruined by Tino Asprilla or a dodgy defence or Kevin Keegan’s excess of emotion, or whatever reason you what to ascribe it to. But Newcastle didn’t just lose that title. Manchester United won it, too. Or more specifically, Eric Cantona won it. Newcastle essentially imploded over eight games between the end of February and the beginning of April, losing six of the eight games they played and seeing their lead at the top of the table turn to dust. Unfortunately for them, that almost exactly coincided with probably the most decisive run of form by a single player in English top-flight history.
Between the end of January and the start of April, Cantona scored nine goals in ten games as United took 31 points from a possible 33. Six of those goals were the only ones United scored in those games, earning five wins and a 90th minute draw. Another was the opener in a 3-2 win in the Manchester derby. The other two dug them out of a hole as they almost threw away a 2-0 lead against Wimbledon. Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say Cantona won the league on his own, but it’s not much of one. Here’s how Eric Cantona bent the will of Newcastle United over the course of two months in the spring of 1996.
February 21 – West Ham 2-0 Newcastle; Manchester United 2-0 Everton
Upton Park was where Manchester United’s title hopes ended the previous season, but it was where they started this time, as the wobble began for Newcastle. But this game didn’t exactly feel like the start of a collective nerve-failure that would precipitate an abysmal collapse: Newcastle should have won really, as Darren Peacock hit the bar, Les Ferdinand missed by a whisker and Asprilla, making his first start for the club, was firstly denied a clear penalty after being dragged to the floor by Steve Potts, then hit the inside of the post following a delicious shimmy.
Newcastle were much the better team, and if xG was around back then it probably would have shown them well ahead, and they could have just chalked it up as one of those games. But they couldn’t break through, and goals by Danny Williamson and Tony Cottee gave West Ham the win. Up in Manchester, Cantona didn’t score but he did have a significant hand in both goals as United beat Everton 2-0: he set up Roy Keane for the first with a one-two followed by a perfectly-weighted pass, then sent the killer ball down the left wing for Andy Cole to play Ryan Giggs in for the second.
Newcastle’s lead was now down to six points.
February 24 – Manchester City 3-3 Newcastle; February 25 – Bolton 0-6 Manchester United
If you were so inclined, you could identify this pair of games as when the worm really turned for Newcastle. Just from the first goal in their 3-3 draw with Manchester City, when Nigel Clough dragged a shot that was heading well wide, before it hit the heel of Niall Quinn as he tried to get out of the way and went into the bottom corner: this felt like a switch in fortune. But an absurd ding-dong ensued; Asprilla sent a delicious ball over the top that Philippe Albert equally deliciously looped in for an equaliser; Quinn then somehow squeezed a header in from a ludicrous angle, bouncing in off Pavel Srnicek; Asprilla followed up a low Albert shot for his first Newcastle goal; Uwe Rosler appeared at the far post to steer home a Steve Lomas cross-shot; before finally, Albert made it 3-3 with a low effort into the bottom corner.
He's from Latin America, that's the way they are.
Somewhere in among all of that, Asprilla chummed the tabloid water by getting involved in a quite literal tete-a-tete with Keith Curle, for which he was eventually charged but didn’t serve a ban, receiving instead the sniffy and xenophobic opprobrium of the press for his apparent hot-headedness. Not, it has to be said, helped by Kevin Keegan, who noted: “He’s from Latin America, that’s the way they are.” At the time you could either think of this result as a sign that Newcastle were solid, coming back from behind three times, or wobbly, having dropped four points in a week.
No such problems for United though, as they tore Bolton a new one. Cantona’s influence wasn’t particularly decisive in this one, watching on as his colleagues did the heavy lifting for once, the goals shared around in a 6-0 win, the Guardian’s David Lacey noting that: ‘Manchester United’s pursuit of Newcastle at the top of the Premiership broke from a trot to a gallop.’
March 4 – Newcastle 0-1 Manchester United
The game. The one talked about the most, the one where United fully reeled their prey in, the one when Cantona grasped the nettle when his team needed him to, but also the one they were fortunate not to have got absolutely leathered in. Peter Schmeichel’s status as probably the best goalkeeper in the world had been well-established by this point, but it was emphatically emphasised in this game: he produced save after save, two from Les Ferdinand one-on-ones, another from Beardsley. Albert hit the bar with a free-kick and Ferdinand – having a rare off-night – hoofed the rebound into the Gallowgate End.
At half-time, United were punch-drunk. “If you’ve ever seen a team get hammered 0-0 at half-time that was it,” said Keegan, and even Ferguson admitted he couldn’t wait for the break to come. And that’s when he let rip, telling his players in no uncertain terms that more was required.
And more was delivered. Six minutes after half-time Phil Neville got the ball on the left, clipped over a cross and there was Cantona, having deliberately dropped very deep at the back post, to advance and bounce the volley into the bottom corner, via Srnicek’s fingertips.
Afterwards, Keegan attempted to sound a note of his trademark positivity. ”I have told them if we win our game in hand we will be four points clear,” he said. “That is a great position to be in. If they want to know who is the best team in the country they only have to look at the tape of the first half. I did not want half-time to come. I could have watched it for 90 minutes.”
Behind the optimism and the bravado though, there was seemingly some doubt. ‘That was the moment everything started to unravel for Newcastle,’ wrote Keegan in his autobiography. ‘Our lead had already been slashed from twelve points to four. A win would have moved us seven clear, with a game in hand, and within sight of our first league title since George V was on the throne. Now we had Manchester United one point behind us. They were in the ascendancy and, unlike us, had the experience of being in that position before. They were the last side we wanted in our wing-mirrors.’
March 16 – QPR 1-1 Manchester United; March 18 – Newcastle 3-0 West Ham
The great players will often have moments where they simply take charge, as they survey the sea of mediocrity around them and solemnly conclude that, as it turns out, they will have to do this. Or, as Oliver Holt put it in the Times after Cantona salvaged a point for United against QPR: ‘If you want a job done properly, do it yourself.’
The importance of Cantona’s heroic purple patch was made even more important by Andy Cole’s struggles. The £7million signing from Newcastle the previous season was, as we might say now, in a bad moment, scoring a relatively meagre 11 goals that season and generally looking like a little lost child in front of goal. So notorious were his struggles that he was the subject of a Catatonia song, Cerys Matthews rolling her Rs around ‘Do You Believe In Me?’ which started with the line: ‘I’m Andy Cole’s tortured soul, lost out again in front of goal.’
This game in particular was a low-point, as Cole fluffed chance after chance, the gravity of the situation compounded by QPR taking a 63rd minute lead when Denis Irwin desperately tried to head away a Daniele Dichio effort, only succeeding in putting it into his own net. After keeping his patience with Cole’s wayward finishing the first couple of times, Cantona’s reached the end of his wick and bawled out his strike partner on the pitch and then later, as if to prove a point, like an impatient kid wrestling some unfinished lego from a younger sibling, saved United again with an equaliser.
It was the 93rd minute when Giggs crossed from the edge of the area taking out the entire QPR defence and most of the United attack, but there was Cantona in exactly the right spot, to head home. Rather than celebrate a point gained, Cantona furiously grabbed the ball from the net before sprinting back to halfway and slamming the ball down on the centre spot like he was trying to burst it. This, you felt, was as much about desperately trying to win the game as make a point to his inferior teammates that this wasn’t good enough.
That put United top on goal difference, but it didn’t last long as two days later Newcastle enjoyed perhaps their final stress-free fixture of the season, brushing West Ham aside at St James’s Park thanks to a terrific performance from David Ginola. It probably should have been more than 3-0 too, West Ham were saved from abject humiliation by 38-year-old Les Sealey in goal, but he couldn’t stop goals from Albert, Asprilla and Ferdinand.
Gap back to three points.
March 20 – Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal; March 23 – Arsenal 2-0 Newcastle
Arsenal were nowhere in this title race, finishing a relatively distant fifth place as Bruce Rioch’s tenure lurched from mediocrity to mediocrity, not massively helped by the maverick tactic of trying to coach Ian Wright by telling him to be more like John McGinley. But they could have an influence on which other direction the title would go, most notably in this week when they faced the two contenders.
They were six games unbeaten going into the game at Old Trafford, but they hadn’t faced Cantona in any of those games. United weren’t at their best by a long stretch, looking once again to their leader to dig them out of a hole, and dig them out with some panache too. Just after the hour mark David Beckham swung an uncharacteristically aimless cross over from the left, David Seaman came to claim but Martin Keown got there first and headed away, leaving the keeper helplessly out of position and having to scramble back.
Cantona picked up the loose ball, doing a little skip as he brought it down on that massive chest of his, before launching a brilliant dipping volley into the net. “It had to be a special goal, and we got one,” said Ferguson. “The most thrilling part was the way he advanced, it was sheer class – like a ballet dancer.”
Afterwards Gary Neville, only just 20 at this stage, was effusive in his praise: “He’s every player you could wish for. He can be a target man, he can drop off, he can pass, score goals. Eric can do everything. He can play in so many roles. He is an inspiration…you just give him the ball as often as you can and he’ll work wonders with it.”
The most thrilling part was the way he advanced, it was sheer class - like a ballet dancer.
Rioch, despite his unwise choice of role model for strikers, summed it up rather neatly: “It’s not that they expect him to do something special every game…but they know he’s patient, ready to pounce on any mistakes, right up to the last minute. He’s very good at that.”
To the weekend then, as Newcastle visited Highbury. Rioch didn’t really need any Churchillian motivation tactics to win this one, as Newcastle barely showed up, hammering alarm bells about their form and fortitude with colossal mallets. Scott Marshall and Wright scored early and that was it, a 2-0 defeat for Newcastle their third in five as hope began to ebb away.
Even the usually Tiggerish Keegan wasn’t having any of this one. “We can’t be disappointed in the result. We didn’t deserve to win. You can afford to carry one or two players but not five or six. I can give you a list of those who didn’t play well. There was Les Ferdinand, Faustino Asprilla, Rob Lee, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley.”
March 24 – Manchester United 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur; April 3 – Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle
United’s next match was a day after Newcastle’s defeat to Arsenal, but it’s grouped with The Game here because of what they both said about mentality, ticker, bottle, stones, whatever you prefer to call it.
This was the moment when the title was in United’s sights, nearly even their grasp. And this was the moment when it could have slipped away: even remembering Alan Hansen’s proclamation about United’s youth, it is still worth pausing to recall that this team was stuffed with players who hadn’t done this before, who hadn’t won titles and who weren’t the iron-willed men they would go on to be. Luckily Neville, Scholes, Beckham Butt and Neville had Cantona to help them out.
‘Where would United be without Cantona?’ asked Michael Henderson in the Times. ‘Day by day, piece-by-piece, the picture is becoming clearer. When the championship jigsaw is complete, it will surely reveal a central image. Eric Cantona, of course, for the brilliant Frenchman seems determined to bring the trophy back to Old Trafford on his own.’
He won this game on his own with ‘another piece of devilish cunning and exquisite skill’, according to Cynthia Bateman in the Guardian, picking up the ball 40 or so yards from goal and taking advantage of some admittedly lax pressing to advance, and place a low left-footed shot into the corner. “It has been a big week for us,” said Ferguson, “and we showed a few nerves among the younger players. But Eric Cantona is an inspiration. I get tired of saying how magnificent he is.”
To Anfield, then, with Newcastle three points behind but with two games in hand. Keegan instructed his players to stay calm and keep it tight at the back early on. Robbie Fowler gave Liverpool the lead after two minutes.
And we all know what happened next. “In all my time in football, that’s the worst I’ve felt, ever,” Terry McDermott told Martin Hardy for his book ‘Touching Distance.’ Keegan wrote in his autobiography: ‘I can recall being asked afterwards whether I could take solace from the fact we had played so thrillingly. My reply was, ‘I’d like us to play crap and win a game.’’
They were still just three points back with a game in hand, but something died in Newcastle that day. Hope, belief, ticker, whatever it is. The “I would love it” rant was a few weeks away, but essentially Newcastle were gone, and the title was United’s. The interesting question is whether United as a collective would have shown their own spirit and cojones without Cantona. He still had a couple more acts in him.
United three points clear.
April 6 – Newcastle 2-1 QPR; Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United
Of course, while Newcastle may have mentally checked out, United still needed to win the points, and they had a theoretically tough derby against City to face, although it was made slightly easier by Nicky Summerbee completely wiping out Denis Irwin in the seventh minute to concede a penalty. Cantona duly scored, that straight run-up almost impossible for goalkeepers to read, as he sent Eike Immel the wrong way.
Mikhail Kavelashvili equalised, but barely a minute later Cantona exchanged a one-two with Cole, waiting, waiting, waiting for the perfect time to play the return, which he did with the perfect weight and Cole scored his first since the Bolton game, scuffing his shot rather but scuffing it into the corner of the net.
I believe the championships will come down to something unbelievable at the end of the day.
Schmeichel saved from Kavelashvili with his face, but not long afterwards Rosler lashed a brilliant shot into the corner, and things were level again. It looked like it would need something special to win this one, but special things were just around the corner with Cantona. He leapt upon a loose ball as two City defenders stumbled into each other, like two clumsy dog walkers getting tied up in their respective leads, before feeding Giggs who walloped an implausible shot right into the top corner.
Simultaneously, up in Newcastle, Keegan’s boys were wobbling again. 0-0 at home to QPR at half-time, things got even worse when Ian Holloway scored for the visitors, before Peter Beardsley got two in four minutes to give them some hope. “I believe the championship will come down to something unbelievable at the end of the day,” Keegan said. “The final chapter is only just being written.” It makes you want to invent a time machine, just to go back and give him a hug. Or at least to stop setting up his despair so readily.
United still three points ahead.
April 8 – Blackburn 2-1 Newcastle; Manchester United 1-0 Coventry City
‘Inevitably, Eric Cantona won it,’ wrote Rob Hughes in the Times. And it was inevitable, this time a relatively prosaic goal and victory, Cantona showing up unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box to stab home what would be the winner against Coventry. All of which was slightly overshadowed, as this was the game when David Busst suffered that horrific leg break, causing Schmeichel to lose his lunch on the pitch and a delay of nine minutes as the blood was mopped up. But by this point, Cantona’s brilliance had almost become routine, expected, a surprise to nobody.
Later that day, just up the road in Blackburn, Newcastle still had a chance to stay in touch. And everything was going to plan when David Batty, on his return to the club he won the league with a year earlier, surprised everyone by drilling a low effort into the bottom corner. With these three points, and that game still in hand, Newcastle fans could convince themselves that they were still in with a shout. But then one of them went and ruined that.
Graham Fenton had grown up a Newcastle supporter, so it was with some mixed feelings that he emerged from the bench, tasked with scuppering their best chance of winning the title in generations. The first blow came when an Alan Shearer shot was deflected to the back post where Fenton was flamboyantly unmarked, and he forced home. Fenton looked like he had no idea what to do with himself after that, and equally in the very last minute, when a long punt upfield eventually made its way into his path, clean through, and he clipped in.
“I walked into the changing room and Alan [Shearer] burst out laughing at me,” Fenton told Hardy. “I think he was just glad that he hadn’t scored. He said, “What have you done?” What indeed, and it had repercussions: he got a death threat, his parents too, and another family by the name of Fenton from the Wallsend area of Newcastle he hailed from had their window smashed. A short while later there was a poll in the local media for the most hated people in the north-east: Saddam Hussein was first, Adolf Hitler third. Fenton was second.
United six points clear.
But it wasn’t Graham Fenton that lost Newcastle the title in 1995/96. It will might be of no comfort to them now, even a quarter of a century later, but they could console themselves with the fact that, without one of the most astonishing and decisive individual runs of form that English football has ever seen, they might have still won it. Would that United team have come back without Eric Cantona? We’ll never know for sure, but probably not.
“I worked a lot and I was relaxed in those situations,” Cantona said in Andy Mitten’s book ‘Glory Glory’, about United in the 90s. “You have to find the timing when the goalkeeper comes towards you. If he is too close then you don’t have the angle to score a goal. If he is too far then you are too far and you will not be strong enough to be precise. When the goalkeeper is three metres away is good. That’s when you score the goal.
Newcastle won their next three games and drew the last two, ‘I would love it’ coming after a victory against Leeds that was essentially in vain, the jig up after the previous couple of months. ‘Too many players were struggling with the tension,’ wrote Keegan in his autobiography, and therein lies the rub: the Newcastle players couldn’t cope with it, while Cantona thrived on it.
‘In terms of statistics, others have done better, ‘ wrote Phillipe Auclair in ‘The Rebel Who Would Be King’, his biography of Cantona, ‘[but] every single time, his goals proved decisive – in the context not just of the matches themselves, but also of the progress his club made towards the second Double of its existence, and at a time when many of his teammates were experiencing a dip in their own form.’
“The form Eric reached in his comeback may have represented his greatest feat in our colours,” said Ferguson. “[he was] a warrior you could trust with your life.”
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