Manchester United: 1995/96 Season – 25 years on

Summer 1995 and Britain is in the midst of a cultural change, Britpop and Cool Britannia are sweeping through the country. A new labour Government is on the horizon under Tony Blair and the end of a Conservative rule of the last few decades is almost over.

In football the Premier League was becoming a force and had completely changed the landscape of both television and football in the UK forever, the two became intrinsically linked.

The Premier League had changed football completely, it was a breakaway league but also a chance for rebranding. The 80’s were dark times to be a football fan, going to games where grounds looked to be holding pens to watch football in and hooliganism became synonymous with the game.

Manchester United had dominated the first two Premier League seasons but had lost the 94/95 season to Blackburn Rovers, Sir Alex Ferguson had some big decisions to make after Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis all left the club for Chelsea, Inter and Everton respectively.

This did not go down well with fans, thank god there was no social media back then otherwise there might have been some serious questioning of the manager and his ability to do the job.

United started the season with a very young team, no Cantona being the big miss as he was still serving his 8-month suspension for events at Selhurst Park in the previous season.

United were promptly dispatched on the opening day 3-1 by Aston Villa at Villa Park with a young team being taught a lesson by their experienced counterparts, but that night came a moment that can easily define the next few years of this team.

Alan Hansen was on Match of the Day talking about the match and uttered the now immortal words: “You’ll never win anything with kids.”

“You’ll never win anything with kids”

A line that he would forever be reminded of when some of those kids would go on to be some of the greatest and most decorated players that the English game had seen. But that comment was just echoing what everyone else had been saying both fans and in the media at the time.

Blackburn had won the league the previous year fired to the title with the goals of deadly duo Chris Sutton and Alan Shearer backed by a good supporting cast and Owner Jack Walker’s millions it seemed a challenger had emerged, but the actual challengers came in the shape of Newcastle United.

Under Kevin Keegan, Newcastle had gone from near the bottom of the First Division to being a team who finished 3rd and 6th in their first two seasons, all the while playing some beautiful gung-ho football.

After the opening day defeat to Aston Villa, United won their next five games including a big win at Ewood Park over Blackburn and a win away to Everton with the youngsters Scholes and Beckham particularly making their presence felt.

October 1st was the day all United fans had been waiting for, the return of the King. Eric Cantona was back for a home game against Liverpool, the scenes before the game as he walks out to an almighty roar still give you goosebumps.

The roar of excitement for when he receives the ball to set up Nicky Butt’s opening goal maybe even louder, Robbie Fowler almost spoilt the party with two brilliant goals, but Eric had to have the final word. A through ball from Cantona to Giggs resulted in a penalty and there was only one man to take it, he sent the keeper the wrong way and United got a draw.

This is a big moment in the title race as the team have their talisman back and they are starting to pick up, they need to as Newcastle have stormed out of the blocks only dropping 3 points from their first ten games.

All of United’s defeats in the league this season came away from home to Aston Villa, Southampton, Arsenal, Leeds, Spurs and Liverpool. Only blemish on their record at home was the first leg of the League Cup tie against York City.

Manchester United were in danger of losing sight of leaders Newcastle towards Christmas with United winless in 5 and Newcastle’s lead almost in double digits. On the 27th of December, the two teams met at Old Trafford with goals from ex-Newcastle Striker Andy Cole and Roy Keane in a 2-0 win.

United would go on to lose their next away game to Tottenham to restore Newcastle’s lead at the top but United would slowly turn up the heat by winning 5 and drawing 1 of their next six games to set up a very exciting game on Tyneside.

This game was set up to be huge, Monday night under the light on Tyneside. A draw would keep things as they were in the title race but a win for either could be decisive, Newcastle could have gone 10 points clear with a win and ended the race then and there.

The first half was football’s equivalent of The Alamo with Newcastle relentlessly going for the throat and Peter Schmeichel had one of the nights of his life. Les Ferdinand who had been one of the best players in the league was having his own battle with the Great Dane but Schmeichel came out on top.

Philippe Albert had smashed the bar with a free kick and then Ferdinand blazed over, United had rode their luck but they held firm and in the second half they got their chance. A few minutes into the second half, Andy Cole kept the ball alive near the Newcastle box and played it out to Phil Neville on the left.

His cross to the back post was met by the one person every Manchester United wanted to in the shape of Eric Cantona, even describing it I can still hear the line “Cantona coming in” whenever I think about that goal.

Cantona turned up at the biggest moment as he often did, an 8-month ban had taken away some of his prime, but he seemed on a one-man mission to win the league. A 1-0 win had turned the tide, the Entertainers were starting to really wobble and United had the bit between their teeth.

In the next five games Cantona drove United on, United took 13 out of a possible 15 points over the next month. He scored a goal in every game to cement his vital importance to the team and his case to be the best player in the country.

Sir Alex Ferguson knew the importance of Cantona, persisting with him after his ban and convincing him not to turn his back on the game. His return took the burden off the young players who start to blossom once the Enigmatic Frenchman returned.

As for Newcastle after the defeat to United they lost two out of their next three including a defeat to Arsenal and the now legendary 4-3 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. If ever a match symbolised their title push then this was it, no defending just full throttle attacking from minute one.

Liverpool were also lurking in the background in the title race but slowly fell away after this, this game is remembered for Keegan slumping over the advertising hoarding when Stan Collymore scored the winner however the moment that defined Keegan and the title race was yet to come.

United beat Leeds 1-0 and in his post-match interview Ferguson questioned Leeds’s desire to beat United and wondered if they would put in the same effort when they played Newcastle soon after.

Newcastle beat a very dogged Leeds team 1-0 and when asked in his Post Match interview on Sky Sports Keegan went on his now infamous “I would love it” rant. Keegan had lost it and with this they had lost the edge. They would go on to draw their last two games and Sir Alex did go to Middlesbrough and get something.

Manchester United beat Middlesbrough 3-0 on the final day to clinch the league and prove the doubters wrong, the kids had won something, but this would be the first of many for the Class of 92.

The season was not over, there was the small matter of Liverpool and the Spice Boy’s in the FA Cup final, the only memorable moments of that final are the awful cream suits the Liverpool players wore and the only goal of the game.

A bad clearance by David James from a corner fell to Eric Cantona and the Frenchman duly volleyed it into the net and crowning his season as the stuff of legends. Cantona was the catalyst and driving force for United since his return in October.

Sir Alex Ferguson won Manager of the Year whilst Cantona won the Football Writer’s Player of the year, United had their title back and the kids thrown in at the start of the season had come up trumps.

David Beckham, Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes all justified their managers’ faith but the standout player of this season apart from Cantona was Ryan Giggs. The elder statesman of the Class of 92 having emerged a few years earlier was superb throughout scoring goals and providing assists as well as his dazzling dribbling and his turn of pace the type that gives full backs sleepless nights.

The calculated risk of letting senior players go to be replaced by the youth had seen Ferguson emulate his mentor Sir Matt Busby in playing brilliant football with young talent, he had seen of the previous seasons champion Blackburn Rovers and the challengers in Newcastle United and Liverpool.

Arsene Wenger would join Arsenal a few months after this title win and provide Ferguson with one of his biggest tests in his time at the club, but Fergie had rebuilt his first team and laid the foundations for future glories.

25 years seems like a lifetime ago but this season still conjures up memories that are as clear now as they were then. The Premier League really started to change in this season, Jean Marc Bosman’s court case would change football in December 95 and Euro 96 would rekindle the nations love for the national team.

This season was pivotal for establishing United as the force they became but they were so close to losing it, Newcastle were a beautiful team to watch under Keegan and deserve more plaudits for how good they were but for them it was not to be.

Sometimes nostalgia cloud our judgement and we think the old days were better but in this case you would be right. To see these youngsters coming through must have been so exciting for every United fan, it’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since this memorable season.

This is the first full season I remember being able to remember the matches from so it will always be special to me, but it will always be remembered as the start of the dominance United enjoyed for years to come.

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