March 1996

Saturday 2 A glimmer of hope left for Bolton, who win 1-0 at Leeds. "There is still belief that we can stay up," says Colin Todd, chomping on a four leaved clover. Dave Merrington is also feeling chipper – "The spirit in our dressing room is excellent" – despite Southampton slipping into the bottom three after losing 1-0 at Spurs, below Man City who get a late equalizer at home to Blackburn. Forest prepare for Bayern with a 3-1 win at Sheffield Wed who have Steve Nicol in goal for the whole of the second half. The other side making a late bid for relegation, Middlesbrough, suffer their ninth defeat in ten games, 2-0 at home to Everton. Debutant Branco appears for the last ten minutes and nearly scores with a trademark thirty yarder. The First Division continues on its insanely egalitarian course with erstwhile strugglers Sheffield Utd and Wolves winning away to one-time pace setters Birmingham (featuring the 49th and 50th signings of Barry Fry's two-year reign) and Millwall, the latter having Champions League deserter Sergei Yuran sent off just before full-time. What if everyone – barring Derby and Watford, in the clear at either end – were to finish level on points and goals scored and goal difference? Just exactly where would we be then, eh?

Sunday 3 Liverpool disprove the notion that the Championship is a two-horse race with a comprehensive demolition of fourth-placed Aston Villa, scoring all their goals in a 3-0 win in the first eight minutes. "I've had a few kicks up the backside in football and sometimes it's the best thing for you" says Brian Little, smiling through the tears. In Scotland, Rangers go three points clear of Celtic once more after a 2-0 win at Hibs during which goalkeeper Andy Goram is attacked by a home fan.

Monday 4 Newcastle's run of thirteen successive home wins comes to an end with a 1-0 defeat by Man Utd. Newcastle dominate the first half – "If we'd been two or three up at half-time that would have been justice," says KK, but United gain the upper hand in the second half and a Cantona goal settles it (Now Oui Can Do It – Daily Mirror). Unietd are now just a point behind. "I don't how Newcastle will react to it. It's amazing, isn't it," says Alex Ferguson, bouncing around the press room.

Tuesday 5 Forest lose 2-1 away to Bayern in the first leg of their UEFA Cup Quarter-Final tie. Frank Clark pays tribute to Stuart Pearce, returning after injury: "He has a peculiar streak of patriotism running through him and he just reminded the players of a few things before the game" (something to do with world wars and world cups, perhaps). In the League, Arsenal keep up their European hopes with a 3-1 victory over Man City, now a month without a win. In Division One, Derby's draw at Watford takes them further clear of the pack as Charlton crash 3-0 at home to Southend. Palace move into a play-off position after a 5-0 win over fast-fading Grimsby. High excitement as the FA's offices in Lancaster Gate are raided by police. It seems that football manufacturers must pay a levy before their balls are authorised for use in official competition, which is illegal. "I have no idea what this is about," says Terry, so he's in the clear.

Wednesday 6
The trap door is opening under QPR, beaten 2-1 at home by Leeds, Tony Yeboah benefiting from two defensive lapses. After pulling one back, Kevin Gallen misses a second half penalty. "It's looking extremely dodgy now," says Ray Wilkins (Daily Mirror, again). Dutch striker Regi Blinker scores two on his debut for Sheffield Wed, but they still go down 3-2 at Villa, where Savo Milosevic, no less, also gets a couple, Andy Townsend grabbing the winner fifteen minutes from time. In the Champions League Ajax stroll to a 2-0 victory in Dortmund, Real Madrid take a narrow 1-0 lead to Turin, Spartak lose 2-0 in Nantes and Panathinaikos go one better than Blackburn, holding Legia to a 0-0 draw in Warsaw. Troubled times at the FA of Ireland, where an investigation is underway into the disappearance of £110,000 raised through ticket sales for the 1994 World Cup. Four of the FAI's five honorary officers resign in a bid to clear themselves of involvement Last man left, the president, Louis Kilcoyne, is expected to lose a forthcoming vote of no confidence.

Thursday 7 Ilie Dumitrescu and Marc Hottiger finally get their work permits. The DoE have revised their criteria so that players who are current internationals will be allowed one transfer to a new club regardless of the number of first team appearances they've made. Adrian Heath is the new manager of Burnley, filling the vacancy created by Jimmy Mullen who resigned during February after an alleged assault by supporters in a restaurant.

Friday 8 The Spurs v Forest FA Cup Fifth Round tie is finally settled on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Mark Crossley saving three kicks to take Forest through. "It is harsh though I'm sure it makes good TV," says Gerry Francis. The quarter-final tie between Chelsea and Wimbledon finishes 2-2, with controversy surrounding Chelsea's second, from a free kick awarded for a back pass to his goalkeeper by Wimbledon defender, Kenny Cunningham. "The referee has done us no favours," says an unusually restrained Joe Kinnear. In the League, Villa come back from behind to beat QPR 4-2 ("I reckon we need six wins from the remaining eight games," says Ray) and Middlesbrough lose again, this time 2-0 at West Ham, the first goal a gift from keeper Gary Walsh, who cocks up a clearance. In Division One, Sunderland move to within four points of Derby after beating them 3-0 at Roker, while Ipswich stage the come back of the day, drawing 3-3 at Barnsley after being three down with five minutes left. Madder than mad, that division.

Sunday 10 Elland Road witnesses one of the most boring FA Cup ties ever played as Leeds and Liverpool draw 0-0 in their Fifth Round match. Responding to Jimmy Hill's criticism of his team, Howard Wilkinson delves deep into his sarky bag: "At half time I said, 'Let's make this entertaining, let's lie down and let Liverpool score three.'" He should be writing sitcoms. (Well, someone should.)

Monday 11 Man Utd reach the FA Cup Semi Final with a 2-0 win over Southampton, who have a goal contentiously ruled out during the scoreless first half. Eric Cuptona (Daily Mirror), yet to play on the beaten side for Man Utd in an FA Cup tie, gets the first, Lee Sharpe a late second.

Tuesday 12 The FA fails in an appeal against a UEFA Cup place being taken from England as punishment for Spurs and Wimbledon's disinterest in last summer's Inter Toto, so only fifth place will do if the Cup Final is between two of the top four. In the mad division, an Ian Bogie goal after twelve seconds gives Port Vale their first League double over Stoke for seventy years, and moves them out of the bottom three at the expense of Oldham, beaten by Sunderland, now a point behind leaders Derby. At the bottom, Watford come back from two down with five minutes left to draw 4-4 at West Brom. Gasp.

Wednesday 13 Villa beat Forest 1-0 in an FA Cup Quarter-Final, their goal from Franz Carr, starting a game for the first time since joining them eighteen months ago. Liverpool, held 2-2 at home by Wimbledon, are unhappy about having a third goal ruled out for offside. "I'm not ranting or raving but that was one of a few decisions I didn't agree with," says Roy Evans. Arsenal turn down Ian Wright's transfer request, submitted last week, saying they expect him to see out the four years of his contract.

Saturday 16 Eric Cantona's injury time equalizer salvages a point for Man Utd away to QPR. Ray Wilkins is vexed by the amount of time added on: "My team are in a state of anger and depression. The only time I have seen time-keeping like that was at the Super Bowl." (The what?) Liverpool are two points off the lead after beating a Gullit-less Chelsea, 2-0. Bolton are just a point behind QPR after a third successive away win, 2-0 at Coventry. Southampton stay in the bottom three after losing 2-1 at Man City. On the coach home, Matt Le Tissier phones Radio 5's 6.06 show to deny a claim that he is overweight: "In fact," he says, "I weigh less now than when I was banging in twenty goals last season." There's tetchy. In Division One bottom placed Watford are within six minutes of winning at Derby, who snatch a draw from a dubiously awarded penalty, which even surprised Jim Smith: "I've seen the TV replay and there's no way that was a penalty." (Make him Manager of the Month just for that.)

Sunday 17 Rangers stay three points ahead in the Scottish Premier after a 1-1 draw at home with Celtic, who get a late equalizer. Paul Gascoigne doesn't even get booked. Well done Paul. No Italian league games this weekend due to a players' strike, so there's a huge TV audience for live coverage of the Anglo-Italian Cup Final, in which Genoa beat Port Vale 5-2, keeping up Italy's 100% record since the tournament was revived four years ago. Strongest league in the world, eh?

Monday 18 Newcastle are top again after a 3-0 home win over West Ham, down to ten for the final hour after defender Steve Potts is sent off. It would have been 47-0 but for heroics from keeper Les Sealey. "If we keep performing like that I'm sure we'll be great champions of this country," says Kev, chirpy again. Romanian national team coach Anghel Iordanescu resigns in protest at the lack of action being taken over alleged match fixing in domestic league games. He could do a job over here.

Tuesday 19 English participation in Europe this season ends with Forest crashing 5-1 at home to Bayern in their UEFA Cup Quarter-Final. Bayern's first is down to a Mark Crossley error, the others come from counter-attacks, including a couple from Spurs discovery, Jurgen Klinsmann. In the other ties, Bordeaux produce one of the competition's great comebacks, beating AC Milan 3-0 to take the tie on a 3-2 aggregate (the last time Milan lost by three goals in Europe was in 1978 against . . . Man City); Slavia Prague get past Roma on away goals; and Barcelona's away win in Eindhoven takes them through on a 5-4 aggregate. In the world's most exciting competition, Palace are now just four points short of an automatic promotion place after two late goals beat Luton, Ipswich (Ipswich!) move into a play-off spot following a win over Oldham, replacing Huddersfield, beaten 3-0 at Barnsley. Birmingham sack coach Ed Stein following allegations that he'd played cards into the early morning with another coach and a player, believed to be Vinny Samways, before a recent League game, David Sullivan having been awoken by cries of "Snap!"

Wednesday 20 "It was the way he advanced with the ball. He was like a ballet dancer." Alex Ferguson goes into raptures about David May, no, OK, Eric Cantona, whose long-range shot brings Man Utd a 1-0 win over Arsenal, taking them back level with Newcastle. Spurs end the Bolton charge with a 3-2 win at Burnden Park, while Southampton's slide continues with a home defeat by Sheffield Wed. Chelsea score twice in the last ten minutes to beat Wimbledon 3-1 in their FA Cup Quarter-Final replay at Selhurst Park. (Ruud, we imagine, has always had a dream . . .) Liverpool are through, too, 3-0 winners against Leeds, with two from Steve McManaman. In the Champions League, Ajax, Nantes, Panathinaikos and Juventus reach the semis. Grobbelgaate (copyright WSC) re-opens with Bruce, John and Hans at magistrates court for the first day of a hearing which will decide whether they should be sent for trial. In what Labour's transport spokesman describes as "an absurd and offensive decision". Regional Railways North East announce that they will not be actively encouraging football fans to travel on their trains during the European Championships, claiming they do not have enough rolling stock to carry them.

Thursday 21 Another reason for envying the French РParis SG's victory over Parma in the Cup Winners' Cup means that France are the only country with representatives left in all three European competitions. And they make better films, mostly, and they don't have the beef problem. Britain's representatives in the semis are John Toshack's Deportivo La Coruña, who knock out the holders Zaragoza; Rapid Vienna and Feyenoord are also through.

Friday 22
The magistrates decide that Brucie and co are to face trial, charged with conspiring "to give and corruptly accept" money to arrange the outcome of matches. The trial will start in early summer. OJ's defence team fly in next week. Angel Iordanescu withdraws his threat to resign after the Romanian FA promise to look into match fixing. Imagine that – a national team coach resigning as a bluff, knowing he'll be asked back. Couldn't happen here.

Saturday 23 Newcastle's away form is their undoing again, as Arsenal win 2-0 at Highbury, the second from Ian Wright, now apparently less keen to leave. Kev is spurred into stating the obvious, again: "Nobody's going to give you the championship of this country, you've got to go out and win it." Liverpool fail to close the gap, losing to a Steve Stone goal at Forest. Stan Collymore, who claims to have received death threats, is substituted during the second half. Bolton are on another surge, beating Sheffield Wednesday, so QPR, who get a point at Chelsea, drop to the bottom. In Scotland, Rangers' lead is extended to five points as they squeak past Falkirk 3-2 while Celtic are held 0-0 at Motherwell. And there's a cup shock at Hyde where the local team, from the Unibond League, beat runaway Conference leaders Stevenage 3-2 in the FA Trophy Quarter-Finals.

Sunday 24 Villa win the Coca Cola Cup for a record equalling fifth time with a 3-0 stroll against a disjointed Leeds. Savo Milosevic scores a spectacular opening goal, Ian Taylor and Dwight Yorke get the others. Howard Wilkinson is booed off by Leeds fans and says: "It was more than just them showing their disappointment. It was all very personal." Tomas Brolin, on as a late sub, says he'll leave in the Summer. Eric does it again, with the only goal in Man Utd's win over Spurs, from a move beginning with a goalkick that should've been a Spurs corner. "You never get any decisions up here. The referee and the linesman have cost us the game," says Gerry Francis, all hot and bothered.

Monday 25 More fallout from Leeds' disappointing show at Wembley with Carlton Palmer criticizing his teammates: "The lack of effort shown by professional players in as big a game as a League Cup Final was nothing short of disgraceful. I didn't play well but at least I tried." The next training session should be lively. Southampton move out of the bottom three, swapping places with Coventry after beating them 1-0. "In everyone's eyes this result has made us third favourites to go down," says Big Ron. Could he be thinking about a flutter?

Tuesday 26 Les Ferdinand, picked for England in place of the injured Alan Shearer, follows Carlton Palmer in publicly criticizing his own team, with the difference that he blames the manager. Talking about Asprilla's arrival he says: "Nobody at the club was consulted about what Kevin Keegan planned to do. We changed our system of play and the boss just thought we could cope with it." Robbie Fowler's omission from England's starting line-up brings the Sun and the Mirror together, both suggesting that Terry has Mad Fow Disease.

Wednesday 27 A slightly better than expected Wembley crowd of 29,700 sees Les Ferdinand score the only goal against Bulgaria. Terry is only half-pleased: "We needed to be ruthless. We should have been two or three goals up at half-time." England play in a new second strip described as 'indigo and grey' and David Seaman appears to be wearing a sweet wrapper. Bleurghh. Scotland beat Australia 1-0 with a goal from Ally McCoist. Both the Irelands are beaten 2-0 at home, Norway winning in Belfast, Russia in Dublin where Steve Staunton misses a penalty and stand-in captain Roy Keane is sent off, for a change. Doncaster Rovers' owner Ken Richardson is charged with involvement in a fire at the club's ground last year which caused £200,000 worth of damage.

Saturday 30 QPR clamber off the bottom with their first home win in three months, 3-0 over Southampton, swapping places with Bolton who draw 1-1 with Man City, John McGinlay equalizing Niall Quinn's first-minute strike. As ever, Alan Ball is not best pleased: "At times we were atrocious." Wimbledon are nearer safety after a 1-0 win over Forest, but another four figure crowd leaves Joe Kinnear yearning for Dublin: "It's the only future we've got. A 60,000 stadium there. We could become like Rangers or Celtic." (That's Stafford and Stalybridge respectively.) Gary Flitcroft makes a remarkable debut for Blackburn – sent off for a flying elbow after three minutes of their game with Everton, who win 3-0. Gary cost £3.5 million. Gillingham chairman Paul Scally, 41, says he'll play the final fifteen minutes of their last match of the season if they're already up. Ambulance ahoy.

Sunday 31 Liverpool and Man Utd reach the FA Cup Final after semi-final victories over Aston Villa and Chelsea respectively. "The final is probably the match the country wants," says Roy Evans. ('The country' was unavailable for comment.) Robbie Fowler puts Liverpool in front in the first half , adding a second four minutes from time. Jason McAteer gets a third in injury time. The attendance of 39,000 was only four-fifths of Old Trafford's capacity, fans being put off by tickets priced as high as £38. At Villa Park, Ruud Gullit puts Chelsea ahead before the break but Andy Cole and David Beckham strike in the second half to take Utd through – it's their ninth successive FA Cup Semi-Final victory stretching over 26 years.

From WSC 111 May 1996. What was happening this month