1995-1996: Fergie’s mind games win the day

Champions Manchester United Biggest Win Blackburn Rovers 7-0 Nottingham Forest
Runners-Up Newcastle United Highest Scoring Game Sheffield Wednesday 6-2 Leeds United
Third Place Liverpool FC Top Goalscorer Alan Shearer (31)
Relegated Manchester City, QPR, Bolton Wanderers Goals Scored 988

The 1995-1996 season can be remembered from two standpoints. Did Manchester United make a sensational comeback? Or did Newcastle United throw away their best-ever shot at becoming champions? Either way, the Red Devils ended four points clear after 38 matches to regain their place as kings of the Premier League.

It had begun without much promise for Alex Ferguson either. Experience in Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes was sold in the summer as he decided to trust his youngsters. A tepid display at Villa Park on the opening weekend saw United lose 3-1 and prompted BBC pundit Alan Hansen to utter the famous words; “You can’t win anything with kids.”

The Red Devils did improve but had a bad December and January, losing to Liverpool FC, Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur in quick succession. On January 19, Newcastle beat Bolton Wanderers 2-1 to install a 12-point cushion at the top of the table. Surely, Kevin Keegan’s side had it as well as won.

When the Magpies needed form though, they didn’t produce it. Miserable trips to the capital saw 2-0 defeats to West Ham United and Arsenal. However, there were two major turning points. The first came in early March when Manchester United came to Tyneside, withstood early pressure and then struck the winning goal through Eric Cantona. One month later, Newcastle travelled to Anfield for a match still fondly remembered as one of the greatest in Premier League history.

Both sides produced sizzling attacking football in a gripping end-to-end duel. The lead changed hands and the scoreline was 3-3 when in stoppage time, Stan Collymore delivered the winning goal for Liverpool FC. Keegan slumped over the advertising hoardings. Perhaps he knew then that the title was leaving Ewood Park but not for St James’ Park, it was heading back to Old Trafford instead.

After narrowly beating Leeds 1-0 in mid-April, Ferguson started to play mind games. He accused Leeds of “cheating their manager” and “playing well against Manchester United because it means more than against any other side.” A fortnight later, Newcastle won by the same scoreline against Leeds but they were severely tested. Keegan took exemption to Ferguson’s comments and lost his cool live on Sky Sports, ranting: “I will love it if we beat them, love it!”

They didn’t though. Ian Woan struck an equaliser for Nottingham Forest three days later to ensure Newcastle dropped more points at the City Ground. Manchester United wrapped the title up with a 3-0 rout of Middlesbrough on the final day of the season. For his talismanic contribution, Cantona was awarded the Football Writers’ Award.

Elsewhere, Liverpool FC finished a gallant third ahead of a much-improved Aston Villa and Arsenal. This was the season where Dennis Bergkamp arrived in English football. Blackburn never threatened to retain their title and languished in 7th spot, but Alan Shearer still struck 31 goals to win the Golden Boot. At the bottom, it was misery for Manchester City, QPR and Bolton Wanderers, who were all relegated.

In 1995-1996, Manchester United proved you could win silverware with kids.