Newcastle United famously led the Premier League by 12 clear points during the February of the 1995/96 season. They had failed to win a title for 70 years but everything pointed to them securing the crown this time around. It has been said by many that Manchester United did not win the title in the 1996 season, but Newcastle lost it.
Arguments have swayed between both camps. But whatever you think, when the two sides played in March 1996, Manchester United started a run of superb football blended with decisive results, and for Newcastle their ship sprung a leak to the point it became totally irreparable.
Les Ferdinand found himself in all the right positions and angles during the game. He did not get on the scoresheet. Instead, he pushed Peter Schmeichel into producing several world class saves. In United folklore, Schmeichel is a unique figure. Bought for next to nothing from Brondby in his native Denmark, his imposing figure combined with his fiery on-field characterisation of personality, meant he pervaded control of both his own defenders and the opposition’s attackers.
The goalkeeper is an outside figure in football. Only in recent years have they become significantly more involved in the pattern of play. The back pass law change at the start of the Premier League’s inception became the catalyst for goalkeepers to become more skilled and technical with their feet. Schmeichel’s ability with his feet has been questioned in the past. His poor kicking has, on occasion, led to conceding avoidable goals.
Schmeichel has been described as a handball player disguised as a football goalkeeper. His unique star jump became an effective technique never before seen between the posts on a football pitch. His son, Kasper, has also successfully adopted the technique. He became the first counter attacking goalkeeper in English football history. Manchester United regularly found themselves in goalscoring positions after Schmeichel had caught and distributed the ball with his enormous and accurate overarm throw.
The technique of his footwork is similar to how a boxer manoeuvres into position. Slight adjustments of body posture and angles all spawned from a mesmerising combination of anticipation and instinct. At times, Schmeichel looked unbeatable, especially in one on one situations. He made many different types of saves over his career and went against textbook goalkeeping. His sheer athleticism gave him an edge few goalkeepers have been able to replicate or eclipse.
In the opening five minutes of this particular game, Ferdinand got behind the United defence but could not find a way past Schmeichel. It has been said a good goalkeeper can earn a team up to 15 points a season. Around the mid-90s at his peak, Schmeichel earned closer to 30 points a season for United. At times his style trod along the fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness. But his mindset and core principles and values of goalkeeping more than made up for this. His bravery and quick reflexes merged with incredible focus to do whatever it took to keep the ball out of the net, not only kept United in the match against Newcastle, but also the title race that season, and the seasons after.
At the other end of the field United possessed a player of equal, and arguably superior influence. Schmeichel gave United the confidence that if they made a mistake they had the fail safe of the best goalkeeper in the world. But that alone is not enough to win games.
Five months previous to the Newcastle game, Eric Cantona returned to football from his ban. He finished the 1996 season as United’s top scorer with 19 goals. In this game, Newcastle dominated the first half. United regrouped at half time and came out the stronger side in the second 45 minutes. Cantona finished off a sublime move in the 52nd minute to volley United into the lead and give them victory.
It became a goal that started a run for Cantona of scoring in six consecutive league games. In five of them he scored the only goal, and in four of those five, his goals secured 1-0 victories.
Cantona went against the archetype of football captain in England. He spoke quietly and infrequently. Rather than assuming control on the field and barking constant orders, he demonstrated leadership through performance. He became a cultural architect. With his own performance, Cantona could change the mindset of those around him. He transmitted his own self assuredness and confidence to others. He became a father figure to the members of Fergie’s Fledglings and articulated his vision for football and success with the way he carried himself and performed on the pitch.
His goals inspired others; the sublime chip against Sunderland, the power of his strike against Wimbledon, a header from an impossible angle against Blackburn Rovers, a late winning volley in the FA Cup Final against Liverpool – the list goes on. His audacious flicks to assist teammates gave them belief he could create something out of nothing. And so he did.
On the 4th March 1996, United put together a string of decisive passes leading to Phil Neville clipping the ball into Newcastle’s penalty area. Out of nowhere at the back post, Eric Cantona ghosted into the path of the ball and lashed a volley home. United went on to overhaul Newcastle’s lead and win the Premier League crown.
They still sing his name and wave flags with his image on. The Old Trafford faithful know whichever megastars the club sign in the future, there will only be one King, as his name is Eric.