The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. This time out we’re looking at the 1995/96 season, and when great escapes go wrong.
All eyes at the beginning of the 1995/96 season were cast on the North of England, as Manchester United looked to regain their Premier League crown from 94/95 champions Blackburn Rovers, while Liverpool splashed out on Nottingham Forest’s Stan Collymore, and Newcastle United spent a cool £14m bringing in Les Ferdinand, Warren Barton, David Ginola and Shaka Hislop. The top of the league was dominated by the Uniteds – Newcastle sprinting out of the traps to open up a twelve point lead come the new year (though Manchester United had games in hand), and subsequently ceding the lead to a Manchester side given an injection of impetus from the returning Eric Cantona. The title race of 95/96 has gone down in folklore as one of the greatest the Premier League has ever seen, but its worth noting that the dogfight at the other end of the table was also keenly contested that season.
Newly promoted Bolton Wanderers found life in the top flight difficult, and despite rallying under the stewardship of Colin Todd after Roy McFarland’s New Year sacking, the Trotters quickly fell out of the Premier League at the first attempt, relegated after a 3-0 defeat to Everton in early April. Queens Park Rangers had spent the season relying on young striker Danny Dichio having sold their talisman Ferdinand to Newcastle. Despite Dichio’s ten goals, QPR’s defeat at Coventry City on 13th April consigned them to their first relegation in fifteen years. The third spot was left to be filled on the final day, as perennial strugglers Southampton and Coventry vied for safety against Manchester City.
Having just scraped survival at the end of the 94/95 season, City owner Francis Lee decided it was time for a change, and Brian Horton was shown the door. Having been impressed by the turnaround in Southampton’s fortunes, Lee was quick to appoint his former England teammate Alan Ball. The decision wasn’t universally popular, as Southampton fans felt betrayed by Ball’s defection, and City fans felt the Chairman had plumped for a big name over any tangible coaching acumen. Ball’s success at Southampton spoke for itself, however, having turned a team fighting relegation into comfortable mid-table finishers despite his tactics solely consisting of ‘give the ball to Matt Le Tissier’, and Lee had hoped that the squeaky voiced World Cup winner could work the same magic at Maine Road.
City suffered what you might call a slow start – they went eleven games without a win, taking two points from thirty-three and were subjected to an absolute rinsing at Anfield. Liverpool’s 6-0 victory put down at the time as a bad day at the office, but it would prove a significant moment come the end of the season. That defeat heralded a change in fortunes for Ball’s team as five games unbeaten followed, including four wins, to lift the Citizens out of the bottom three. Consistency was an alien concept at Maine Road, however, and their inability to turn draws into wins, particularly in consecutive games against Coventry and Southampton meant that when Manchester United visited at the beginning of April for the derby, City were still embroiled in a dogfight. Despite equalisers from Kavelashvili and Rosler, a 77th minute winner from Ryan Giggs left Ball’s men a point ahead of Coventry in the relegation zone, having played a game more. Conversely the win for Alex Ferguson’s men kept Newcastle at arms-length. Two wins in late April against Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa gave City a fighting chance, but they headed into the final game of the season knowing they had to better either Coventry or Southampton’s results to stay up.
In a twist of fate, all three teams had home fixtures on the final day, with Southampton facing Wimbledon and Coventry hosting Leeds United – both teams with nothing to play for, who had endured mediocre seasons. Manchester City drew the short straw as they entertained a Liverpool side that were cemented in third but gearing up for an FA Cup final against their hosts neighbours. Despite the six goal shellacking they had suffered earlier in the season, City could have been forgiven for heading into the game in confident mood. Their record against Liverpool at Maine Road was decent, having only lost one of the previous five meetings at home, and knowing that at least half an eye would be on the cup final. So the sight of Steve Lomas poking Steve McManaman’s cross past Eike Immel and into his own goal in the sixth minute was met with a sense of dread. Having rallied so well in the final weeks of the season, it would be typical of City to collapse at the last chance saloon. And when Ian Rush’s 40th minute strike doubled the lead the nails in Manchester City’s Premier League coffin looked to have been well and truly hammered.
Those listening to transistor radios in the stands will have heard that it was goalless at both The Dell and Highfield Road – useless to City, and it looked for all the world that, barring a miracle, the Maine Road faithful would be watching first division football the following season.
But then? But then. On 71 minutes City were awarded a soft penalty, and top-scorer Uwe Rosler, who had missed a golden chance in the first half, stepped up to halve the deficit. Six minutes later, Kit Symons was on hand to steer Nicky Summerbee’s cross into the top corner. 2-2. Bedlam. City knew that another goal would all but guarantee their Premier League survival. They poured forward in waves trying to find a winner, but then a message came from the bench. Wimbledon had scored at The Dell. Southampton were losing. As things stood, City were safe. Alan Ball directed Lomas into the corner. As long as Liverpool didn’t score, City would survive. The clocked ticked over 90 minutes.
And then? And then. The bizarre sight of Niall Quinn, having been substituted earlier, sprinting down the line to give Lomas instructions. Wimbledon hadn’t scored. It was still goalless at The Dell, and City still needed a third. Quickly the ball was launched into the box, but having dropped into consolidation mode Ball’s players were unable to fashion an opening. The final whistle blew, and Manchester City were relegated. Southampton and Coventry both survived on goal difference – those eight goals shipped against Liverpool had cost City dearly.
Alan Ball was sacked a month into the following season, and aside from a brief stint in charge at Portsmouth in the late ‘90s, he never managed again. Manchester City struggled in the First Division, and in 1998 they were relegated for a second time, down to Division Two. An incredible play-off win against Gillingham the following season was the catalyst for their revival, and after yo-yoing between the Premier League and Division One at the turn of the century, City established themselves as a Premier League club once again. Around the time of this revival Coventry City were relegated from the Premier League and are yet to return, while Southampton took their own trip down the City highway, but have themselves been resurrected as top division mainstays.
The 1995/96 season was packed with drama, iconic moments, and heartbreaking memories. Newcastle United, the bookies favourites for the title and everyone’s second favourite team eventually lost out to a ruthless Manchester United side who won all but three games after the turn of the year. The influence of Eric Cantona couldn’t be overstated, and his goal in a 1-0 win at St James Park in March turned out to be the defining moment of the season. But it was their neighbours, typical old Manchester City, that provided the strangest and darkest moment of comedy the Premier League had ever seen.