Football almost came home in the summer of 1996 as England reached the semi-finals of the European Championships on home soil. An infamous Gareth Southgate penalty crushed the Three Lions’ hopes of landing a first trophy since 1996 and sending the nation into delirium. However, the public did receive the now-iconic Three Lions song from comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel and the anthem soon became the de-facto anthem for England football fans.
The era of Britpop and football optimism, combined with the growing popularity of Tony Blair’s New Labour movement, made 1996 one of the most memorable years in modern English football. The big transfer saga of the summer saw the much sought-after Alan Shearer complete a world record £15 million transfer to boyhood club Newcastle United. The Magpies had heartbreakingly missed out on the title in 95/96 and the Toon Army were hoping that Shearer would be the missing link between them and glory.
Other notable transfers included Middlesborough’s purchase of Fabrizio Ravanelli and Arsenal’s signing of French midfielder Patrick Viera. Ravanelli had just helped Juventus to Champions League victory whilst Viera was a relatively unknown player whose £3.5 million fee left plenty scratching their heads. Patrik Berger moved to Liverpool whilst the legendary Ian Rush departed for Leeds.
Middlesbrough’s lavish spending spree led many of their fans hoping for a European finish. However, they’d face stiff competition as Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea were looking promising. Southampton and Coventry were hoping to keep their Premier League status after poor campaigns the previous season, whilst Nottingham Forest aimed to improve upon their 9th-placed finish in 95/96.
The 1996/97 Season Summary
Newcastle United proved to be the early pacesetters as, despite losing twice in their first three games, they embarked on a six-game winning streak. On 20 October, the Magpies welcomed Manchester United at St James’ Park in a game that would decide who would have the upper hand going into Christmas.
Most expected a close encounter considering the strength of both teams and the emotional stakes at hand. However, Newcastle demolished the Red Devils 5-0 in what was, and remains, the heaviest Premier League defeat ever inflicted on Manchester United during Ferguson’s reign. Goals from Darren Peacock, David Ginola, Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, and Phillipe Albert gave Newcastle a famous win and reminded the rest of the league of their title credentials.
Manchester United travelled to The Dell the next week and lost 6-3 before losing to Chelsea at home. For a while, it seemed that the Premier League was Newcastle’s to lose so long as they avoided capitulation similar to the one they experienced last season and the teams around them continued to drop points. Could Kevin Keegan finally deliver a league title to Tyneside?
Manchester United Fight Back
The poor form of Man United came to an end after the Chelsea defeat as they defeated Arsenal 1-0 and handed new manager Arsene Wenger his first defeat in English football. The Red Devils went on a 16-game unbeaten run to regain their momentum in the title fight. A 5-0 win over Sunderland was capped off with a stunning chip by Eric Cantona - a goal that wasn’t dissimilar to the one Philiipe Albert had scored against them a few months before.
Liverpool put themselves in title contention with the fine form of Robbie Fowler and emergence of promising 17-year-old striker Michael Owen. The Reds lost just three games before Christmas and, for a brief period, it looked like there’d be three teams fighting for the title in the springtime.
Stuttering form at the turn of the year, though, allowed archrivals Man United to pull clear.
Newcastle were once again the architects of their own downfall and a seven-match winless run saw Keegan’s men plummet to sixth place. In January 1997, Kevin Keegan shockingly departed St James’ Park and handed the reins to former Premier League-winning manager Kenny Dalglish.
Though Newcastle’s form improved, the managerial change was too little, too late as Manchester United lost only twice after Christmas. The Red Devils would win the 1996/97 Premier League with just 75 points, the lowest winning total in Premier League history.
Fabrizio Ravanelli proved to be an inspired signing as the Italian racked up 31 goals in all competitions as Middlesborough reached the finals of both cup competitions. They would lose both, and a three-point deduction for failing to fulfill an earlier game put them in serious danger of going down. A dramatic 1-1 draw against Leeds United saw Boro relegated whilst Coventry stayed up.
Nottingham Forest finished 9th the season before but the club managed only 6 wins all season and finished the campaign in 20th place. Sunderland finished in 19th in their final season at Roker Park, meaning that their new stadium would be hosting First Division games in 1997/98.
Juninho won the Premier League Player of the Season award despite being relegated with Boro. David Beckham, who had scored an iconic opening day goal against Wimbledon from inside his own half, picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year award whilst Alan Shearer won his third and final Golden Boot award.
With Kevin Keegan gone from English football, many wondered who the next manager to take Alex Ferguson on would be. As you’ll find out in the next chapter, opposition came from an unlikely source.
Season Statistics (Team)
Champions - Manchester United (75 points)
Runners-up - Newcastle United (68 points)*
Third-place - Liverpool (68 points)*
*Newcastle United finished above Liverpool due to a superior goal difference
Season Statistics (Individual)
Golden Boot - Alan Shearer (Newcastle United, 25 goals)
Most Assists - Eric Cantona (Manchester United, 12 assists)
PFA Player of the Year - Alan Shearer
PFA Young Player of the Year - David Beckham (Manchester United)
Premier League Player of the Season - Juninho (Middlesborough)
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