1995/96: No Champions League, Cantona returns and kids do well

Eric Cantona scores against Arsenal in 1995/96
Eric Cantona scores again in yet another 1-0 victory against Arsenal back in 1996.

The good times appear to be back at Old Trafford following a disastrous post-Ferguson campaign that saw the legendary manager’s successor dismissed ten months into a six year contract. The club have taken the well received decision of appointing Louis van Gaal, a world class manager who has won titles in numerous countries and lifted the Champions League trophy with Ajax.

The Dutchman’s triumph in Vienna with an youthful side consisting of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and eighteen year old Patrick Kluivert is one of the tournament’s finest, which actually fell on Eric Cantona’s birthday. The Frenchman was half way through his eight month ban for his kung-fu kick on an abusive Crystal Palace fan and the club had missed out on Champions League football having finished second to Blackburn Rovers in 1994/95. It is the only time since Manchester United have failed to qualify for Europe’s elite competition – until last season.

With no Champions League football this season, van Gaal can focus solely on challenging for the Premier League title and re-establish the club domestically. It is nearly twenty years since the summer of 1995 that saw Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince leave the club to be replaced by a batch of inexperienced youngsters. Alex Ferguson chased Eric Cantona around the streets of Paris on a scooter and everyone had written United’s chance off before the season had even begun.

You can’t win anything with kids

Those immortal words. Its an incident that allows you to look back with a vast amount of smugness. Your eternal belief in a club, regardless of form, being written off within ninety minutes from a pundit who made over six hundred appearances for old enemy – of course he would never be let forget it. But Alan Hansen’s words indeed helped to spur the team on, clawing back a twelve point gap that Newcastle United had gained.

Hansen has since argued that was merely stating that managers always opt for experience over youth – a statement that both Neville brothers have suggested is the correct methodology and with the elder of the two claiming that United needed the likes of Steve Bruce, Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona help the side over the line in the final months of the season. But it was still an incredibly short sighted opinion, considering the fact that United were without Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole, Steve Bruce and Eric Cantona in the opening 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa.

The ex-Liverpool captain would have surely felt that Ferguson would have gone out and bought big to try and replace the three hugely important footballers that had since departed. Ferguson didn’t and stood by the batch of players he had (only Tony Coton would join from Manchester City as goalkeeper cover along with youngster Nick Culkin from York City) and United won the double, the first team ever to win a double double (lifting the title and FA Cup in 1994 was the first time the club had done so). I blame the grey shirts.

The kids
All of the kids, only just, have since retired from playing the game they once graced. Ryan Giggs, who was the elder statesmen of the youngsters at the age of 21, has only hung up his boots and has taken the role of Manchester United assistant manager. Giggs, the most decorated player in the club’s history, had only scored four goals in the 1994/95 campaign (having netted 17 the season before in what was his best every return) having picked up a hamstring injury, which restricted his playing time in the 95/96 season.

Paul Scholes would go on to be, probably, the best of the bunch – helping United to two Champions League triumphs, countless Premier League titles and winning accolades from the likes of Xavi and Zidane on the way. Gary Neville, the fifth most capped Manchester United player of all time, became captain of the club and was forever present on the right hand side of the pitch behind David Beckham and later Cristiano Ronaldo.

David Beckham would make his name twelve months later with that spectacular goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon. Before he became a global superstar, adored by nearly everyone – many United fans would associated the young Beckham with a 4-0 win, in which he scored, over Galatasaray in the winter of 1994. He netted an important goal in the semi-final of the FA Cup against Chelsea – but he was far from the established player United fans witnessed in the 98/99 season – where he finished runner up to Rivaldo for World Players Of The Year.

Nicky Butt had already established himself, making thirty five appearances, the season previous and was also on the pitch when Mark Hughes scored that superb volley against Oldham in the dying minutes of the 1994 FA Cup semi-final. Butt was an exceptional player who was a tough tackler and arrived late in the box to score his fare share of goals for the club. It was Butt who would get on the end of an Eric Cantona cross against Liverpool upon the Frenchman’s return before slotting neat finish past David James.

Phil Neville, who was eighteen when he lined up in the 3-1 defeat at Villa on that opening day, would play 21 times in the double winning season of 95/96 and start in the FA Cup final against Liverpool. Although Neville was mainly deployed as a full back and scored more goals than his older brother, he would later play for United, and subsequently Everton, in the centre of midfield with his stand out performance in a 2-0 win over Arsenal that kept captain Patrick Vieira very quiet. Neville went on to make nearly four hundred appearances for the club.

These were the kids that helped United retain the Premier League title from Blackburn Rovers and overcome a rampant Newcastle United, who had the firepower of Les Ferdinand, Peter Beardsley and Fastino Asprilla up top.

No Champions League football

With United failing to beat West Ham on the final day of the 1994/95 season, United were reduced to play in the UEFA Cup the following season. The club were drawn against Rotor Volgograd and United drew 0-0 in Russia. Many fans used to feel that a 0-0 draw away in the first leg was always deemed a ‘good result’ as you’d expect the club to do the business in the home leg. As United found out a few years later against Monaco in the Champions League, the away goals rule is such a disappointing way to go out of the tournament.

Following a Steve Bruce mistake, the club found themselves behind and heading for their first European defeat at home in forty years of football, (that defeat would eventually come a year later against the Turkish club Fenerbahce). Paul Scholes had scored and the score was 2-1 going into the final minutes of the game. A Ryan Giggs corner was swung in and Peter Schmeichel, in quite a stiff unorthodox fashion, headed home to level the tie. United would go out and not play in Europe’s secondary competition again, until the 2011/12 season.

Newcastle United 0-1 Manchester United, 4th March 1996

It shouldn’t happen. In a parallel universe somewhere, the record books show “Newcastle United 6-1 Manchester United, 4th March 1996”. The first half saw Newcastle United bombard Peter Schmeichel’s goal, with the Dane stopping everything in his path. Gary Neville was in at centre half to replace the injured Gary Pallister, whilst Ryan Giggs was on one flank and Lee Sharpe the other. There is no sugar coating it, United were absolutely hanging on in that first half.

The immensely gifted Colombian Asprilla wasted chances, whilst Peter Beardsley and Les Ferdinand – who couldn’t stop scoring – suddenly, stopped scoring. With United’s nose bloody and eye wounded, the half time whistle allowed a much needed respite for the players to catch their breath following a battering, that had somehow remained 0-0. The second half started and United were better, with Newcastle not getting anywhere near the amount of chances they had wasted in the first forty five. Former Newcastle number nine, Andy Cole worked some space before sending the ball out to the left flank, for Phil Neville to drift in a left footed cross to the back post. There, Eric Cantona – unmarked, unleashed a right footed volley past goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek for United fans to go wild.

The Frenchman was jumped upon by his team mates before he let an almighty roar to the heavens, perhaps an outpouring of his frustration and desire for redemption. It wasn’t the first, or last time – Cantona would be the saviour for the club that season. Whilst Cantona was scoring them, Schmeichel was saving them.

A dire final lifted by a moment of magic

It was supposed to be one of the best finals of all time. The two clubs had last competed in football’s oldest domestic tournament in the 1976/77 final with Liverpool heavy favourites. Stuart Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff scored two goals in between a goal for Liverpool by Jimmy Case and United, in red, were victorious over Liverpool, who were in their white away strip.

Fast forward nineteen years and Liverpool were back at Wembley in white, this time with a quite shocking pre-match white suit. You wouldn’t even get away with it on your wedding day in the Bahamas, let alone in the final fixture of the English league season. United were up against a Liverpool side who finished nine point off the top of the table and finished the season in third. A 21 year old Robbie Fowler was second top goalscorer, behind Alan Shearer, in the Premier League and United were no doubt wary of Liverpool’s number nine, considering he had scored in both fixtures against United in the season.

The final was poor. Neither side had any noticeable chances, until the final five minutes of the game. Sir Alex Ferguson has stated that he was going to haul David Beckham off if he delivered one more corner that was caught by David James. Sure enough, Beckham deliver a corner that was too close to the keeper – who then proceeded to fumble it. Ian Rush, making his last appearance for the club, couldn’t clear it and Eric Cantona – who was lurking at the edge of the penalty area – struck a half volley that found its way through around five players before hitting the back of the net. The Frenchman had been pivotal in the club’s attempt to win back the Premier League title and here he was, eighteen months after being sent off against Crystal Palace – helping his side to a double double.

When the final whistle was sounded, the player ran towards Cantona in what was a display of acknowledgement of United’s number seven’s role.

The return of the king

You couldn’t have written in. Eric Cantona was surely supposed to have left in the summer of 1995, along with the other three stars. Disgraced and hounded by the press, you wouldn’t have been surprised had he opted to move to Inter Milan, who he heavily linked to at the time. Alex Ferguson, a few years away from being a Knight of the realm, was adamant that he was to keep his most prized asset following that night at Selhurst Park, speeded around the streets of Paris on a scooter chasing Cantona into the warm night sky. He succeeded in keeping his man, but no one expected what was to follow.

Cantona’s return game came against Liverpool on October 1st 1995 and found some space on the left flank within the opening minutes. He placed a left footed cross for the on rushing Nicky Butt to hit home. He’d setup a goal within minutes of his return. Fowler netted two goals, beating Schmeichel on his near post for the first and elegant chip having outmuscled Gary Neville for the second. It was down to Ryan to drive at Liverpool through the centre, before being hauled down by Jamie Redknapp. It was Cantona’s time. The Frenchman duly stood up, took the penalty and sent David James the wrong way. Eric Cantona, jumping behind the goal in the glorious sunshine is one of the most iconic images for United fans.

The early part of the 95/96 season didn’t see Cantona have the influence he once had, or would later command, with a number of quieter performances. Of course there was the 4-1 victory over Chelsea, where Paul Scholes scored a brace and the Frenchman nutmegged Ruud Gullit quite brilliantly, and the late goal against Sheffield United at home, but it was a slow start for a player trying to get his match fitness and sharpness back.

It was following the 4-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on New Years Day 1996 that things really started to take shape. Cantona wasn’t the all action hero. His type of player can go eighty minutes without having any significant impact on a tight match, before demonstrating a moment of pure genius to make the difference. The winter/spring of 1996 saw Cantona score the winners in1-0 victories over West Ham United, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Coventry City and netting the last gasp equaliser at Loftus road against QPR. The volley against Arsenal was the best of the bunch and as Newcastle faltered, United kept winning.

His crowning moment came in the FA Cup final when he score, yet again, the only goal of the game. A legend of Old Trafford was now immortalised. There have been players, before and after Cantona, that could be considered more important, even more talented – but for that time between October 1st 1995 and May 11th 1996, it was quite brilliant.

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