1996-1997: Cantona signs off in style

Champions Manchester United Biggest Win Everton 7-1 Southampton
Runners-Up Newcastle United Highest Scoring Game Southampton 6-3 Manchester United
Third Place Arsenal Top Goalscorer Alan Shearer (25)
Relegated Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest Goals Scored 970

Mighty Manchester United continued their domination on the Premier League in 1996-1997, racking up their fourth title in five seasons. They lost only five times in the entire campaign and it was a fitting way for the talismanic Eric Cantona to sign off. United’s iconic French striker announced his retirement from football a week after the league was shown off again at Old Trafford.

There was plenty of drama throughout the season. Newcastle United broke the world transfer record in pre-season to bring local hero Alan Shearer back to Tyneside in a £15m deal from Blackburn Rovers. They produced a memorable afternoon in October to destroy Manchester United 5-0 at St James’ Park. However, inconsistencies dogged their challenge and Kevin Keegan abruptly resigned in early January to the shock of all. Kenny Dalglish came in and guided the club to a second successive runners-up spot.

The relatively unknown Arsene Wenger arrived in English football in October 1996 from Japan. He was the new manager at Arsenal and immediately changed a lot of aspects at the club, from training methods to player diets. They finished third and only below Newcastle on goal difference. A poor disciplinary record was their major letdown.

Liverpool FC headed into the New Year with a handy five-point lead at the top of the table but inexperience at fighting for a title would cost them. Goalkeeper David James made a series of costly errors and the Reds’ finished a disappointing fourth. They did however launch the young talent that was Michael Owen onto the Premier League stage. He scored on his debut in a late-season defeat to Wimbledon.

Chelsea went continental as Ruud Gullit made the move into management, succeeding the England-bound Glenn Hoddle. Gullit immediately added the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Franck Leboeuf and Roberto di Matteo to his squad. In November, Gianfranco Zola arrived too and his dazzling skills won the acclaim of the Football Writers’, who gave him that prestigious award despite his late season arrival. Chelsea’s reward was a top-six finish and an FA Cup victory over Middlesbrough.

Expectations were high at Middlesbrough for the season after recruiting Emerson and Fabrizio Ravanelli in pre-season. Ravanelli scored plenty, including an opening day hat-trick against Liverpool FC. However, injuries and lack of form played its part in Boro’s struggles. In December, they postponed a fixture at Blackburn because 21 first-team players were either injured or ill. Blackburn were incensed at the late postponement at 24 hours’ notice and the FA found Middlesbrough guilty of failing to fulfil a fixture. The club were deducted three points.

Despite Juninho’s best efforts, a draw on the final day at Elland Road was not enough to save them. Two cup finals and relegation in the same season. Nottingham Forest went down too, as did Sunderland who were beaten on the final day by Wimbledon. This meant Coventry City escaped relegation again on the final day after a surprising 2-1 triumph against Tottenham Hotspur.

It was becoming more difficult to knock Manchester United off their perch. They had their wobbles in 1996-1997, including a 6-3 loss to Southampton. However, they were still the team to beat.