Results: Coventry City 2-2 West Ham United, Leeds United 0-1 Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City 1-1 Blackburn Rovers, Middlesbrough 0-2 Everton, Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday 1-3 Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 Southampton, Wimbledon 1-1 Chelsea, Liverpool FC 3-0 Aston Villa, Newcastle United 0-1 Manchester United
Just over six weeks earlier, Newcastle United had established a 12-point lead at the top of the Premier League table. Kevin Keegan’s side looked to be virtually uncatchable. Then, the jitters started to hit his team.
Defeat at West Ham United, followed by a 3-3 draw at relegation-haunted Manchester City meant their lead had been chopped to just four points by Manchester United, who were running into form at just the right time. The Red Devils had won their last five Premier League matches and they were heading to St. James’ Park with the momentum. The eyes of the footballing world were on Tyneside for a Monday Night encounter on 4th March 1996.
Newcastle made the brighter start and should have led by half-time. Peter Schmeichel had to deny Les Ferdinand twice from close-range before Philippe Albert’s free-kick hit the crossbar with the Danish goalkeeper beaten. The visitors had survived the onslaught and scored crucially six minutes into the second half. Eric Cantona peeled away on the back post and met Phil Neville’s cross with a clean strike which defeated Pavel Srnicek and gave Alex Ferguson’s side a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the match. Newcastle still had a one-point lead but their first home loss of the Premier League season prompted the bookmakers to make the Red Devils the new title favourites.
Liverpool FC couldn’t be ruled out though. They were just six points off the top spot after tearing Aston Villa apart 24 hours earlier. They scored three goals in the first eight minutes to register a 3-0 victory. Roy Evans’ side were now unbeaten in 13 top-flight matches after this clinical display. Steve McManaman scored inside the first 60 seconds and Robbie Fowler added two more goals to his growing tally. It was only Aston Villa’s second league reverse of 1996 and they’d both come at the hands of Liverpool FC. Their outside title challenge had been destroyed on Merseyside.
Whilst the top four were playing against each other, Tottenham Hotspur continued their strong season under the guidance of Gerry Francis. Jason Dozzell’s 64th minute goal was enough to defeat Southampton 1-0 at White Hart Lane and drop Southampton into the bottom three. Manchester City climbed out of the relegation places after a late equaliser to draw 1-1 with defending champions Blackburn Rovers, who were mired in mid-table. Blackburn’s home form was strong all season but away from home was a different story. They’d recorded just one away victory to this point in their title defence.
Bottom of the table were Bolton Wanderers but they gave their faint survival hopes a real boost with a surprising 1-0 win at Elland Road over Leeds United. Gudni Bergsson scored the only goal of the game as they made it back-to-back victories on their travels. Leeds had now lost their last four games and seemed to be in no form whatsoever with a League Cup final date with Aston Villa looming.
Elsewhere, Nottingham Forest returned to winning ways with a 3-1 success at Hillsborough over Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry’s 2-2 draw with West Ham United kept them clear of the bottom three for now.
What else happened in March 1996?
- 16 school pupils and one teacher are killed in a massacre at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland. The gunman, an unemployed former shopkeeper commits suicide.
- The European Union prohibits exports of British beef as a result of the BSE crisis.
- Nelson Mandela is granted a divorce from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
- Braveheart wins Best Picture at the 68th Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
- John Howard defeats Paul Keating in federal elections to become the new Australian Prime Minister.
- Chechen rebels attack the Russian government headquarters in Grozny. 200 people are killed.
- Sri Lanka defeat Australia to win the 1996 Cricket World Cup.