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Premier League flashback - 1995-96 review: King Eric's one man crusade to the championship

The Premier League is 20 years old and has enjoyed plenty of highlights. Here, Total Football continues its new series looking back at some of the highs and lows. 1995-96 will be best remembered for how one man turned the dynamic of the title race.

Eric Cantona (pictured) returned from disgrace and resumed his cult status at Manchester United. He helped the Red Devils close down a 12 point gap in January to pip Newcastle United to the post.

On the other side of Manchester, it was heartbreak for Manchester City, as they were relegated along with QPR and Bolton Wanderers.

CHAMPIONS: Manchester United

RUNNERS-UP: Newcastle United

THIRD PLACE: Liverpool

RELEGATED: Manchester City, QPR, Bolton Wanderers

TOP SCORERS: Alan Shearer (Blackburn Rovers) 31, Robbie Fowler (Liverpool) 28, Les Ferdinand (Newcastle United) 25, Dwight Yorke (Aston Villa) 19, Teddy Sheringham (Tottenham) 16, Andrei Kanchelskis (Everton) 16, Ian Wright (Arsenal) 15, Chris Armstrong (Tottenham) 15, Eric Cantona (Manchester United) 14, Dion Dublin (Coventry City) 14, Stan Collymore (Liverpool) 14, John Spencer (Chelsea) 13, David Hirst (Sheffield Wednesday) 13

BIGGEST WIN: Blackburn Rovers 7-0 Nottingham Forest (18 November 1995)

HIGHEST SCORING GAMES: Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle United (3 April 1996), Sheffield Wednesday 6-2 Leeds United (16 December 1995), Southampton 3-4 Nottingham Forest (19 August 1995)

PFA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Les Ferdinand (Newcastle United)

PFA YOUNG PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Robbie Fowler (Liverpool)

The battle for the 1995-96 FA Carling Premiership turned into an absolute classic between Newcastle United and Manchester United. Ultimately, it turned into a story about the return of the king of Old Trafford.

Eric Cantona had requested a transfer in the summer of 1995, following his lengthy ban for assaulting a Crystal Palace supporter the previous season.

Alex Ferguson tracked him down and talked him out of leaving. When he returned, his crusade on regaining the title for Manchester United was evident, in a battle that went down to the wire.

In the summer, Ferguson did allow Paul Ince to leave, joining Inter Milan for £7m. Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes went to Everton and Chelsea respectively and with no evident replacements, doubts started to creep in about United’s potential.

Domestic transfer business saw Liverpool break the British transfer record to sign Stan Collymore from Nottingham Forest for £8.5m.

Newcastle made two expensive signings, bringing in Les Ferdinand for £6m from QPR and Warren Barton arrived from Wimbledon for £4m, making him Britain’s most expensive defender.

Premier League new boys Middlesbrough broke their club record transfer fee to attract Nick Barmby to the Riverside and Tottenham spent £4m on Chris Armstrong.

The foreign imports also began to arrive, with Glenn Hoddle’s audacious acquisition of Ruud Gullit on a free transfer from Sampdoria.

Bruce Rioch took charge of Arsenal and brought Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt to Highbury and Newcastle paid PSG £2.5m for dashing French winger, David Ginola.

Meanwhile, Premier League champions Blackburn made no impact on the market but Kenny Dalglish decided to move upstairs to a new role as director of football, succeeded by his assistant, Ray Hartford.

‘You can’t win the title with kids’

Despite the departures of Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis, United were still the favourites with many bookmakers but lost 3-1 on the opening day to Aston Villa.

The newspapers had a field day and on BBC’s Match of the Day that night, pundit Alan Hansen famously said ‘You can’t win the title with kids.’ Maybe Alan’s crystal ball wasn’t as accurate as he thought.

Newcastle went top on day one, with a goal from Ferdinand on his debut helping the Magpies to a 3-0 win over Coventry City.

Despite a blip at Southampton in September, Kevin Keegan’s side were almost faultless in the opening months of the campaign and looked hard to catch.

Boosted by their opening day victory over United, Aston Villa made an excellent start under Brian Little. Dwight Yorke scored the quickest goal of the season in September, netting after just 13 seconds of Villa’s 3-0 away win at Coventry.

The result took them second. Nottingham Forest continued where they left off, staying unbeaten in the opening months, despite a sequence of draws.

One team expected to be on the pace but weren’t, were defending champions Blackburn. Alan Shearer’s penalty beat QPR on the opening day but struggles awaited the club.

They lost five of their first eight games and were out of contention before the season kicked into shape. Shearer continued to score goals galore, netting 31 this season and become the first player to score over 30 in three successive seasons but injuries and dreadful away form did for a Blackburn title challenge.

Another side that underperformed during the season was Leeds United. Tony Yeboah started with two contenders for goal of the season, to defeat Liverpool and Wimbledon respectively but once the Ghanaian stopped scoring, Leeds stopped winning and fell away dramatically to ultimately finish 13th after a positive start.

The return of the king

Sunday 1 October 1995 saw the return of the King to Old Trafford. Eric Cantona had served his eight month suspension and his comeback overshadowed the occasion of a grudge match between Manchester United and Liverpool.

He played a part from the start, creating a goal for Nicky Butt inside the opening minute.

Two magnificent strikes from Robbie Fowler cancelled this out but when Jamie Redknapp pulled down Ryan Giggs in the 70th minute, Cantona coolly stepped up to dispatch the penalty and earn a point for the Red Devils.

Despite some stunning football at times, including a 21 pass move, which led to a Paul Scholes goal at Chelsea in October, costly points were being dropped by the title favourites.

They slipped up 1-0 at Arsenal in November, were held by Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday on successive weekends at home in December and another Fowler double consigned Alex Ferguson’s side to defeat at Anfield. By Christmas Day, they were ten points off the pace.

The first head-to-head between the top two came at Old Trafford on 27 December. Andy Cole and Roy Keane scored the goals as Manchester United came out on top comfortably, 2-0.

However, a dreadful 4-1 loss on New Year’s Day at Tottenham and a frustrating goalless stalemate at home to Aston Villa meant on 20 January, a 2-1 victory over Bolton pushed Newcastle 12 points clear of the men from Manchester. Surely the title was heading to Tyneside.

Danger in the drop zone

Premier League newcomers Bolton found the going incredibly tough and spent much of the season at the foot of the table. The only managerial casualty came at Burnden Park in January, when Roy McFarland quit and handed over the reins to his assistant, Colin Todd.

Fellow new boys Middlesbrough were flying early on in the season, bringing in Brazilian star Juninho and reaching the dizzy heights of fourth place.

Then, they went on a cataclysmic run of ten defeats in 11 during the winter months, including a 5-0 mauling at Chelsea in February.

Bryan Robson steadied the ship however and despite just eight away league goals during the season, Boro finished a comfortable 12th.

With Bolton doomed for most of the relegation battle, the other stragglers were QPR, Manchester City, Southampton, Coventry City and a very inconsistent Sheffield Wednesday side.

Manchester City made their worst ever start, going 11 games without a win before a Nicky Summerbee effort defeated Bolton in November. City remained around the drop zone all season.

Following a 1-0 loss at Southampton in March, Coventry were second bottom and time was running out. Manager Ron Atkinson lost his cool with Sky anchor and fellow Sky Blues supporter Richard Keys afterwards, when Keys criticised the team’s lack of effort.

He said: “I’m sorry, you can sit there and play with all your silly little machines as much as you like (referring to Monday Night Football studio graphics). I’m manager of a football side, an experienced manager. Yeah if the boys haven’t done enough, I’ll whip them. I’m not whipping them for that tonight.”

It was too late for QPR, who despite beating West Ham 3-0 on the final Saturday of the season, were relegated by other results. Bolton’s 1-0 home defeat to Southampton on the same day consigned them to the drop too.

Cantona’s crusade begins

By the beginning of March, Manchester United had cut Newcastle’s once healthy advantage to four points, before a showdown meeting on Monday 4 March at St. James’s Park.

Newcastle dominated much of the game, with Peter Schmeichel denying Les Ferdinand twice and a thunderous free kick from Philippe Albert striking the woodwork.

However, it was one goal from Eric Cantona that settled the match in United’s favour. Newcastle’s first home reverse of the season continued a trend of worrying results, which had started the previous month with a 2-0 defeat at West Ham.

The troubles for Kevin Keegan’s boys in the capital continued a fortnight later, as his side were outfought and outclassed by a fairly average Arsenal side.

The 2-0 defeat put Manchester United on top of the table on goal difference. They cemented that advantage 24 hours later, with another critical goal from Cantona, his fourth in a row and some debatable refereeing decisions enough to beat Tottenham.

In early April, Newcastle travelled to championship outsiders Liverpool, to take part in what for me, remains the greatest game in Premier League history. Robbie Fowler, fresh from retaining his PFA Young Player of the Year award, headed the Reds infront inside three minutes.

The Magpies response was magnificent, with strikes from Ferdinand and David Ginola. Fowler cancelled the advantage out at the start of the second half, only for the controversial Faustino Asprilla to restore Newcastle’s lead shortly afterwards.

Step up Stan Collymore, who produced two late blows, with the winner coming in stoppage time. Keegan was devastated as one of the Magpies games in hand had gone. Five nights later, soon to be deposed champions Blackburn produced their own late show.

Second half substitute and local Geordie Graham Fenton scored goals in the 86th and 89th minutes to earn Rovers a 2-1 home win.

It consigned Newcastle to their fourth defeat in seven games and with Cantona having scored in six successive matches, the momentum was firmly now at Old Trafford.

‘I will love it if we beat them, love it!’

A shock 3-1 defeat at Southampton halted Manchester United’s charge, blaming a dreadful first half performance on their horrific grey away strip. It was so bad, they changed kits at half-time but it was to no avail at the Dell.

Following a hard-fought midweek victory over Leeds, Alex Ferguson stepped up the mind games, provoking the Yorkshire’s side lack of effort during the season.

He said; “Why aren’t they in the top six? I can’t understand the Leeds players. I’m absolutely in support of their manager. He doesn’t deserve his players.

“If they had played like that all season, they’d be near top. They raised their game because they were playing Manchester United. You wait and see the difference when Newcastle plays them. I’m sorry to say that but I’m really disappointed in Leeds.”

12 days later, Leeds played Newcastle and played really well, only narrowly being beaten at home by a Keith Gillespie header. Then, the normally easy-going Keegan blew up about Ferguson’s comments live on Sky.

“When you do that with footballers like he said about Leeds and when you do things like that about a man like Stuart Pearce (referring to an upcoming fixture with Nottingham Forest), I’ve kept really quiet but I’ll tell you something, he went down in my estimation when he said that.

“We have not resorted to that but I’ll tell you, you can tell him now, he’ll be watching it. We’re still fighting for this title and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something and I’ll tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!”

Kevin Keegan had just fallen victim to the master of the mind games, Alex Ferguson.

Riverside romp

Three days later, Newcastle played Nottingham Forest at the City Ground with a victory ensuring them and Manchester United would be level on points going into the last day of the season.

Peter Beardsley put the Magpies infront but a mistake from David Batty allowed Ian Woan to smash in a fantastic equaliser with ten minutes left. Forest earnt a 1-1 draw and the faces from manager, players and supporters suggested it was over.

Manchester United needed just a point to wrap up their tenth English league title and they romped to the three points at the Riverside against Middlesbrough.

Goals from David May, Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs sealed an emphatic 3-0 victory and with Newcastle being held by Tottenham 1-1 on Tyneside, Ferguson’s men were champions by four points.

At the foot of the table, Manchester City recovered from a two goal deficit to record a battling home draw with Liverpool but it wasn’t enough for Alan Ball’s side. 0-0 draws against Leeds and Wimbledon respectively kept Coventry and Southampton up on goal difference. Southampton manager Dave Merrington was sacked at the end of the season.

Liverpool came third, ahead of Aston Villa and Arsenal edged out Everton and Blackburn to take the final European place for finishing fifth.

Chelsea had an unspectacular campaign in finishing 11th but Glenn Hoddle was to leave West London and take over as England boss after Euro 96.

1995-96 was the season where Newcastle came so close, yet so far and for Eric Cantona, his comeback into the English game was completed in fitting fashion.

By Simon Wright - Follow me on Twitter @Siwri88

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