Howay the entertainers: Reliving Newcastle's 1995/96 title challenge, by the players
Newcastle United 0-1 Manchester United
St James’ Park, March 4, 1996
Popular myth has it that beginning with their defeat to closest rivals Manchester United in March, Keegan’s team capitulated
Time can do funny things to the memory. Popular myth has it that beginning with their defeat to closest rivals Manchester United in March, Keegan’s team capitulated; their naïve football and lack of trophy-winning nous finally catching up with them. In fact, a loss and a draw going into the top-two clash had seen a lead that was once 12 points cut to only four, but the Premier League title was still very much in Newcastle’s hands. “I knew that if we played our best, we could beat anyone,” says defender John Beresford. “It’s a great feeling to have, going into a game. And for the first 45 minutes we absolutely battered them.”
Indeed they did. Twice Ferdinand was foiled by Peter Schmeichel, while Albert’s free-kick rattled the crossbar and Faustino Asprilla fired over from the rebound with the goal at his mercy. The visitors didn’t land a meaningful blow. As Keegan said afterwards: “If ever a team has been hammered 0-0 at half-time, that was it.” At the interval he’d encouraged his team to “just do the same again”.
But early in the second half, Newcastle were hit with a sucker punch. “I remember getting dragged infield, and when they dinked the ball to the back post, I thought: ‘Oh s**t’,” recalls Beresford. “And when the ball came to [Eric] Cantona I threw everything in the way. If he had caught the ball properly, it would have smashed straight into me and probably rebounded out for a throw-in or a corner, but he scuffed it into the ground and it went under me and into the far corner of the net. There are certain moments in every player’s career that you replay in your head, and that’s one of mine, but it’s one of those things – I’m not still having therapy or anything!
“What I remember just as clearly, though, is a chance I had in the first half, but I overran the ball and Schmeichel gathered it. I remember David Batty turned to me and said: ‘You had a chance to nail him there’, and he was right. I should’ve just left my foot in on Schmeichel and taken a booking. I know it sounds cynical but he was ridiculously good that season – even better than Cantona – and in that game especially. There are certain players you need to stop from having influence any way you can. He’s a lot bigger than me, mind, so I’d have had to get in there quick and then piss off!”
Shell-shocked from Cantona’s goal, the Toon were a shadow of their first-half selves and Ferguson’s side ran out comfortable winners (albeit by a single goal). Just one point now separated the two teams. “There was an eerie silence in the changing room afterwards,” says Beresford. “Keegan said: ‘Look, we’ve played well – don’t get down about it. Let’s go again.’”
And go again they did, winning their next game 3-0 against West Ham. Beresford continues: “It’s a misconception that it all fell apart after that game, and I still find that frustrating now. Two seasons later, Manchester United were miles ahead of Arsenal [leading by 11 points in March] but nobody accused them of throwing it away. But because of the way we played, nobody gave Manchester United credit for playing better in the second half of the season. I don’t look back on that game and think: ‘That was when we lost the league’ – although it certainly didn’t help.”