Imperfect match – Manchester Utd 95-96

Joyce Woolridge offers a view of the 1996 Championship race from an Old Trafford perspective

In 1994 there was a general expectation that the Premiership would go to Old Trafford. This year Manchester United fans with any sense have been asking themselves how on earth the team has ended up with one major trophy, let alone two.

A parallel can be found way back in the 1951-52 season. An aging United team had finished runners-up four times in the previous five years and it was confidently expected that Arsenal would be champions. However, the first two of what were later to be called the Babes, Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne, made their debuts and the team believed to be on the wane won the league. The next few years were the tricky ones as the spine of the old team was pulled apart and new replacements drafted in.

Though there are significant differences from 1952, it’s hardly necessary to repeat the factors which, at the beginning of the season led the optimistic to mutter about “consolidation” and the pessimistic to prophesy disaster. Two “essential” players were sold – the self-styled Guvnor and the player now only referred to by Man U supporters as “The Russian” (rather like thespians referring to Macbeth as “The Scottish Play” to ward off ill omen) – and my own personal favourite, Mark Hughes.

Cantona’s ban was still not yet served and his return in October divided opinion: this was between those who bemoaned his loss for the opening games, and those who thought that he would last two matches at the most before the taunts of away crowds would lead the man described by Brian Glanville as a “psychopath” to go ape. No players were bought as replacements; and then “the kids” were drafted in.

No-one would guess that Eric Cantona would become an honorary Englishman and occupy the front pages of tabloids and broadsheets because those dastardly froggie selectors had the gall to snub “notre genius”. Youth had its day, Keano discovered the trick of how to stay on the pitch for the whole ninety minutes, but the mystery still remains.

Monsieur Prunier went back to France after the Christmas debacle, but his departure doesn’t explain why the crumbling defence tightened up and why United began to win. Before every match the conversation went something like, “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this one, this is the one where we really get slaughtered”: but that only happened once, against Southampton.

There are those who might advance the simple explanations that United didn’t win it, Newcastle (and even Liverpool) lost it. It’s certainly the case that for the past few months a seemingly endless queue of well-wishers have been expressing their hopes for a Newcastle victory in the Premiership. Fenton and Woan apologized profusely for scoring against “The People’s Champions”, Wimbledon’s Leonardsen had previously sent his telegram. If Mother Theresa, the Queen Mum, Nelson Mandela and the Pope had all appeared on the front page of the Sun in black and white replica strips, declaring themselves born-again Geordies we would hardly have been surprised. (A “reliable source” claims that in December St James’ Park put in a bulk order for greeting cards featuring the Premiership trophy.)

Perhaps the combined weight of that goodwill broke the nerve of the team and forced Kevin Keegan to maintain his commitment to flair by purchasing Faustino Asprilla and David Batty. Newcastle fans also had to shoulder the burden of being the current favourite symbols of the blighted post-industrial North. As the cameras zoomed in on their tear-streaked facepaint, smearing beneath two-tone wigs, perfectly normal feelings of disappointment were transformed patronizingly into the grieving of simple folk for whom the championship would be the first good thing to happen to them since the Jarrow March.

Do we really believe that Keegan was out-psyched by the “master of the mind games”? The Guardian elevated Alex Ferguson into the status of the greatest psychologist since Freud by chronicling his wily, yet ungentlemanly pronouncements. I may be missing something here, but there seems to be nothing particularly psychologically skilled about suggesting that Leeds might not try particularly hard against Newcastle.

Managers today can be roughly divided into three categories, The Dours (like Alex), The Humbles (best typified by David Pleat, who virtually apologizes for his team winning as their opponents have played as well) and The Characters. Kevin is more a Character than a Humble and it would do his blood pressure a lot of good if he admitted it As an astute self-publicist he has realized that you look and sound best on television if you are gracious, but his true bent is towards a more combative approach.

Keegan’s greatest coup has been to make a virtue out of disorganized defending at crucial points, almost as if it’s unsporting to try to stop the other team scoring. But only a Dour could leave out the team’s Captains Marvel and Courageous in two finals because “it made sense”, not give a toss about whether people like me thought it a bit mean that, as in his other controversial decision, he be proved right.

In truth Newcastle and United are not much different but, strangely for a side with at least five youngsters,United have come to be depicted as a dour team who grind out results, contrasting sharply with the dashing flair of Newcastle.

This image reached new heights of silliness in the Cup Final where Liverpool became the swashbucklers parading around in their cream foppery while United were the men in black, coldly and unsportingly refusing (according to Richard Williams in the Guardian, still dazzled by Keegan’s Corinthianism) to throw their match plan, and caution, to the winds.

As the outcome of the Premiership was once again decided by the outcome of a few games, the single saviour explanation loomed large. Who you nominated depends on whether you think Cantona or Schmeichel are most responsible for United’s one nil wins.

Conspiracy theorists preferred to talk of the favour of referees and linemen, citing the intimidating passion of Old Trafford as the deciding factor. Yet so many United fans have complained that the enlarged stadium has a frightening lack of atmosphere it makes you wonder what the team will be able to do when the crowd do get round to making some noise.

So we’re left with the rather prosaic explanation that you don’t need to be a particularly great side at the moment to win the double. A quick exit from European competition obviously helps because you have far fewer games to play, which poses a problem for the Reds now they have been seeded for the Champions League.

(I’m not one for the “our destiny lies in Europe” line and am more of the opinion that in England we ought to accept that currently our teams occupy roughly the same position in football as we do in the Eurovision Song contest.)

As I write this I’ve just heard that Steve Bruce has left the club. This won’t set off the same shockwaves as last year, but whatever happens I don’t think there will be a phone-in poll demanding that the manager must go, because this season has shown that he should pick the team, not us.

From WSC 113 July 1996. What was happening this month