It is England v Scotland on Friday night in this, the 20th anniversary year of one of the more joyous occasions at Wembley, so nostalgia is perfectly permissible for Euro 96, when the hosts’ brand of uninhibited football was bettered only by some even less inhibited goal celebrations.
Yet 1996 ought to be remembered for much more than Gazza and the dentist’s chair routine. It was a momentous year in domestic football too, quite possibly the point at which the still new Premier League stopped resembling the old Division One and began to morph into the multinational, money-no-object form of entertainment we know today. You will have to make your own mind up about whether that was a good thing or not, but the calendar year of 1996 contained several notable moments and developments that are still talked about today.
The arrival of the foreign managers, for a start. Arsène Wenger may not have been the very first overseas coach to take charge of a top-flight English team, brief cameos from Ossie Ardiles and Dr Josef Venglos preceded him at Newcastle and Aston Villa respectively and Ruud Gullit was made Chelsea player-manager in 1996, though the new Arsenal manager was certainly the first to win the double in his first full season and prove successful enough to stick around for the next 20 years.
Look at the present Premier League table and you will find nine of the top 10 teams under foreign coaches, with Burnley’s Sean Dyche the only Englishman getting a look-in. No one considers this unusual any more, though in 1996, when Wenger moved to Arsenal from Japan, it was the first time a club had deliberately looked abroad to bring in new ideas. Gullit was already at Chelsea in a playing capacity, and was chosen to represent consistency when Glenn Hoddle left for England in May 1996, and though the FA Cup in 1997 was a significant achievement the Dutchman only lasted one more year. Hoddle took over a Chelsea previously overseen by John Hollins, Bobby Campbell, Ian Porterfield and David Webb. After his departure for the national team he has been followed by an unbroken line of 14 overseas appointments.
The most successful manager in 1996 was not English either, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United would win a third title in four seasons after Blackburn’s rise to the top of the league in 1995 proved short-lived, though 1996 did feature that rarest of events from a modern perspective – an English manager making a serious bid for the title. Newcastle United under Kevin Keegan were widely expected to win the league after staying on top for the first half of the season and building up a 12 point lead over Manchester United by January. Famously they did not manage it, and Keegan now has to be content with being the last English manager to guide a side to runners-up spot in Premier League history.
You read that right – since Newcastle’s dramatic 1995-96 season no English manager has even finished second. Newcastle were runners-up again in 1997, though by that time Kenny Dalglish had taken over. As Howard Wilkinson’s success with Leeds had come in 1992, the year before the Premier League started, the sad fact is that no English manager to date has ever won the Premier League and only two have managed to come second. Feel a quick quiz question coming on? Ron Atkinson was the other, taking Aston Villa to runners-up spot in 1992-93, the first Premier League season.
Other joys of the second half of the 1995-96 season in the north-east included the famous 4-3 defeat at Anfield, complete with pictures of blubbing Newcastle fans sent round the world at the end, and Keegan’s even more emotional rant when he convinced himself that Ferguson was trying to wind him up. This was the apotheosis of the Manchester United manager as master of mind games, yet in all probability the episode probably said more about Keegan’s reaction to pressure than his rival’s. Ferguson’s team had already overhauled Newcastle in the table in mid-April when they were made to work hard at Old Trafford by a 10-man Leeds United side.
The Leeds goalkeeper Mark Beeney had been sent off early in the game, yet even with defender Lucas Radebe in goal the visitors played with great application and Manchester United had to grind out a 1-0 victory. Wilkinson was coming to the end of his Leeds tenure by then and struggling in the bottom half of the table. In a spirit of sympathy with his friend Ferguson remarked in his post-match press conference that if Leeds showed the same spirit in their next games they would soon be out of trouble, and hoped that they would. He never mentioned Keegan or Newcastle, but as the Toon were due at Elland Road 12 days later the message filtered through to the north-east that Ferguson was asking Leeds for a favour.
Cue Keegan meltdown on live television: “I’d love it,” etc etc. There is little doubt that Ferguson quite liked the idea that he was now capable of out-psyching his opponents before matches had even been played, though he was honest about the incident in his autobiography. “My remarks were aimed entirely at Howard’s players, but Kevin took them personally and exploded in front of the cameras after his team had beat Leeds,” he said. “At first I felt a bit guilty, but then I thought to myself I had done nothing wrong. I was a little disappointed when he attacked me, I had always got on well with Kevin, but I just put it down to pressure. I have a feeling our 5-0 hammering of Nottingham Forest the day before had pushed him to the limit. It perhaps made him realise the championship was within our grasp.”
So it proved. Keegan either lost the most intense battle of his managerial career in front of the television cameras at Leeds, or he lost it a year earlier when selling Andy Cole to his immediate rivals. Cole was not an immediate success at Manchester United, though he went on to enjoy an immensely successful career, and scored the first goal when his new club beat his old club at Old Trafford. What Newcastle might have achieved had Cole stayed will never be known, but Keegan attempted to make up for the disappointment of losing out to Manchester United in the title race by signing Alan Shearer for a world record £15m.
Ferguson also wanted Shearer, he was even prepared to offer Cole to Blackburn as a makeweight, but Keegan got his man and 20,000 geordies turned out to welcome him. “We are the biggest-thinking club in Europe now,” Keegan said, not realising that he would not see out the season. Dalglish was in by January 1997, and despite some notable successes in Europe, Newcastle were never quite the same again. But they did think big. No club since has broken the world transfer record to sign an English player.
To be strictly accurate, no club in the previous 45 years had ever done that either. Yet even as Newcastle celebrated a homecoming, Fabrizio Ravanelli of Juventus was joining Middlesbrough, Frank Leboeuf, Roberto Di Matteo and Gianluca Vialli arriving at Chelsea, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Karel Poborsky fetching up at Manchester United and a whole host of French players joining Wenger at Arsenal. Like Newcastle, the Premier League has never been quite the same since. For better or worse, 1996 was a turning point.
The Guardian Sport