If there were to be one phrase that summed up Newcastle United’s 1995/96 season , it would definitely be ‘so near and yet so far’.
It was undoubtedly their best season in Premier League history and their best season in the top-flight since last winning the First Division title way back in 1927.
Manchester United had been dominating the English game since the Premier League was formed in 1992, winning the first two League titles (92/93 and 93/94) and winning the FA Cup to complete a League and Cup Double in 1994.
In the 1994/95 season however, things took a turn for the worst for the Manchester club and they didn’t win a trophy! Blackburn Rovers (funded heavily by chairman Jack Walker) took the League title from Old Trafford on the last day of the season and Everton beat United in the FA Cup Final.
Newcastle had been promoted to the Premiership in 1993 and had performed very well in their first season in the Premiership, finishing the campaign in third place in the League.
They fared worse in the 1994/95 season, finishing in a slightly underwhelming sixth position in the league, but they had sold Andy Cole, their leading goalscorer to Manchester United midway through the season.
New boys in Toon!
The squad needed strengthening and the powers-that-be gave manager Kevin Keegan the funds he needed to bring in several players over the summer of 1995 to hopefully mount a challenge for the League title.
Les Ferdinand was the most expensive United’s summer signings, joining from QPR for £8.5m. Ferdinand was a direct replacement for Andy Cole who left Tyneside for Manchester the previous season.
David Batty signed from champions Blackburn Rovers for £4.5 million to add some midfield steel. This was probably the most surprising signing of the summer as he had left champions Blackburn for a team who had finished the season in sixth.
David Ginola was brought in from French side Paris Saint-Germain for a bargain at £2.5 million. Ginola would provide some much-needed flair to the team.
Warren Barton and goalkeeper Shaka Hislop who joined from Wimbledon and Reading respectively.
A great start
Newcastle started the season in fine form, winning their first four games. A rare slip-up at Southampton saw them lose 1-0 in their fifth game of the campaign, but they came back from this defeat in style by winning the next five games in a row.
A draw at Spurs was followed up with their first real tests of the season with two home games against Liverpool, who finished fourth the previous campaign and the champions Blackburn at the start of November.
Keegan’s men were more than up to the challenge, beating Liverpool 2-1 and four days later Rob Lee scored the winner against Blackburn.
Things were certainly looking bright for Newcastle but the real crunch test awaited them two days after Christmas as they faced Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Despite only losing twice in their first 20 League games, this was the match that mattered. If they could grind out a result against Alex Ferguson’s men, this would not only prove to other teams that they could win the league, but they would prove it to themselves.
The fairytale result didn’t come along and Manchester United won the game 2-0. Newcastle still ended 1995 top of the Premiership table and all was looking well in the world for Toon Army fans everywhere.
Arsenal were the visitors to St James’s Park in the first match of 1996. Newcastle won 2-0 with goals from two of the summer signings David Ginola and Les Ferdinand. They would go on to win the next four games, the fourth of which was away to local rivals Middlesbrough.
A big-name signing joins the ranks
The Middlesbrough game marked the debut of Faustino Asprilla, who signed from Parma for around £7.5 million.
The signing of Asprilla was a bit of a strange signing as the team had been working so well with Les Ferdinand partnering Peter Beardsley up front with David Ginola on the left wing and Keith Gillespie on the right.
Although Asprilla weighed in with three goals before the season ended, it is surely not coincidental that United’s fortunes changed on the pitch for the worse after his arrival.
There is a lot to be said for not changing a winning team and that is exactly what Kevin Keegan did. He used Asprilla as Les Ferdinand’s new striking partner, dropped Keith Gillespie and put Peter Beardsley out on the right wing.
Before the Colombian striker arrived in Tyneside, Newcastle had amassed a fantastic 57 points from the first 24 games. With Asprilla amongst the ranks, Newcastle could only pick up 21 points from their remaining 14 games.
The pressure begins to show
Following the win at Middlesbrough game on 10th February, they would lose five of their next eight games, one of those crucially in the Manchester United return game at St James’s Park.
Eric Cantona scored the only goal of the game for Manchester United but still Newcastle held on to the top spot in the League.
Despite beating West Ham United 3-0 in the next game, Newcastle would go down 2-0 to Arsenal at Highbury on 23rd March. This result knocked Newcastle off the top of the table for the first time of the season.
It was crucial for Newcastle to follow up the defeat at Arsenal with a win at Anfield, where they faced Liverpool in a crunch match.
The game ended 4-3 and was voted one of the greatest matches in Premier League history, but that would mean nothing for the Newcastle fans who had to endure a last-gasp winner from Liverpool’s Stan Collymore
Newcastle kept up the pressure on Manchester United who were now at the top of the table. What could well have been the deciding factor in the last few games of the season was that Manchester United had won two league titles before and Newcastle hadn’t.
“I’d love it if we beat them, love it!”
The pressure showed in the most amazing way when manager Kevin Keegan reacted angrily to a line of questioning from Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys.
In a post-match interview after the Newcastle’s had beaten Leeds United 1-0, Keegan went into meltdown mode in front of millions of viewers!
He was riled when Richard Keys asked him about a throw away comment Alex Ferguson had made.
The Manchester United boss had said that Leeds and Nottingham Forest (Newcastle’s next opponents) might not try so hard against Newcastle and might even let them win.
It was clearly an early example of Ferguson’s mind games. Keegan, an emotional man at the best of times took the bait and his mood changed immediately in front of the cameras.
“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 if you’re watching it, we’re still fighting for this title, and he’s got to go to Middlesbrough and get something, and… and… I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them, love it!”
Newcastle drew 1-1 at Nottingham Forest, all but throwing away the chance of winning the league. Whether Ferguson’s words and Keegan’s wobble in front of the Sky cameras had anything to do with it is up for discussion, but it became a defining moment in Premier League history.
Manchester United got the win they needed at Middlesbrough to secure the League title. Newcastle could only muster a 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham on the final day, finishing the season four points behind Ferguson’s men.
Looking back at the League table from that season, it is obvious that Newcastle had their main problems away from home.
Their home record was phenomenal, winning 17 of their 19 games, the only defeat being to the champions Manchester United.
However, their away form was much worse with seven wins, five draws and seven defeats. A team that wins the title must have consistency and their away form was not great at all.
It is worth noting here that Manchester United lost six away games that season and they won the league with quite a low final points tally of 78.
This was the best chance that Newcastle had of winning their first League title in 69 years and they didn’t quite manage it. They definitely played some wonderful football along the way though.