The Changing Game Part 10 – 1996/97, the last six months

In November 1996, much fuss was made of it being Alex Ferguson’s tenth anniversary as Manchester United manager. Little did anybody know that he was just getting started.

Although they made hard work of it (losing their unbeaten home record in the process), Manchester United successfully navigated their Champions League group stage. This was as big a sign of change as anything – the glass ceiling had finally been breached. For the first time since before the ban, an English club had reached the last eight of Europe’s biggest competition.

Also in November, Emerson failed to return to Middlesbrough after travelling home to Brazil during the International break. While he would eventually return and play again, the Teeside club’s problems were mounting. After being as high as fourth in mid-September after a victory at Goodison Park, they wouldn’t win again until the reverse fixture on Boxing Day, by which time they were hovering around the relegation zone.

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The previous weekend, they’d been due to play Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. In addition to a catalogue of injuries, a flu bug then ran through the club in the days leading up to the scheduled fixture, leaving them with only nine available outfield players. Bryan Robson would later say that Middlesbrough’s legal department had thoroughly read through the league’s rulebook, and while these rules were from the Football League’s formation in 1888, they could see nothing about there being a punishment for unilaterally postponing a fixture. At worst, they may be liable for Blackburn’s matchday expenses.

With this in mind, and unable to field a side unless they used a goalkeeper as an outfield player, they took the decision to postpone the game.

While the extra week’s rest seemed to initially help them as they finally won again in their next match, they failed to build on that victory and were propping up the table by mid-January. A few days later, the decision was made to deduct three points for failing to fulfil that fixture at Blackburn the previous month, meaning they were now adrift at the bottom.

While Juninho was adapting to his new surroundings and was a hit on the pitch, his compatriot, Branco, signed during the previous season, failed to make the same impact. Emerson’s homesickness has already been mentioned.

Fabrizio Ravenelli, meanwhile, would be quite outspoken about his dissatisfaction with life in Middlesbrough and also about the poor training facilities and even approach to training from others at his club. Supporters have since also been critical of his chastisement of team-mates on the pitch at times. While his approach could have been more diplomatic, one can’t help but wonder how much of this criticism was born out of the fact that the team were doing so poorly.

Peter Schmeichel, for example, would often scream at his team mates on the pitch, seemingly getting into heated debates with his centre-backs. Instead of being criticised for it, it was seen as keeping focused, keeping his team-mates on their toes.

One also can’t help feeling that if a Patrick Vieira or Stuart Pearce or, dare I say, Roy Keane had made the same comments about the facilities and training, they’d be praised for being a perfectionist and wanting the best and having a winning mentality.

If Middlesbrough had been winning, Ravanelli’s comments may well have been treated with a similar positive spin, that he’d experienced the best facilities around when playing in Italy and wanting the same standards for his new club. However, with the team struggling, it was seen as disruptive behaviour.

Middlesbrough weren’t the only ones finding issues when experimenting with foreign imports. West Ham’s side that season featured several foreign players, and Harry Redknapp would say when interviewed the following year that he’d “had a few foreigners, had a few disasters”. This may seem harsh as some of these players held their own or even excelled. It can’t be denied, though, that without the mid-season signings of British strikers John Hartson and Paul Kitson (both now surplus to requirements at Arsenal and Newcastle respectively), the Hammers may well have been relegated in 1997.

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No such problems at Chelsea. While in the north of London, Arsene Wenger is rightly acclaimed for revolutionising the English game, I don’t feel Ruud Gullit receives the correct credit for what he did during his 18 months at the helm in West London.

He showed that one could have a very cosmopolitan side while keeping the team spirit intact, and without losing any of the essence or identity of the club.

Gullit also introduced the concept of squad rotation to the English game. Something he’d experienced (and often been on the wrong end of!) during his time with AC Milan. It was unheard of in the English game though. Even Manchester United, the best English side and richest and most well run team and club of the last five years, didn’t have enough personnel to constitute a squad. Their fringe players were better than most, but for the most part, if injuries hit, it was a question of recalling some of the “old guard” – players still remaining from the earlier part of the decade, who would be either about to retire or be on the move if first team football was offered.

By 1995/96, all of these older players had now gone, so they had to resort to playing people out of position. With Bruce and Pallister injured for much of the previous campaign, and David May the only senior cover at centre-back, and often injured himself, Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Paul Parker would find themselves filling in there. Flamboyant winger Lee Sharpe would sometimes substitute at left back. It makes their double success in 1995/96 all the more phenomenal.

Within a couple of years, though, all the best teams, or those hoping to become one of the best, would have strength in depth, to such an extent that having four quality strikers to choose from was seen as a must if one wanted to compete at the top. Players were more understanding if they were left out of the starting line-up, knowing that they were still part of the overall set-up. It also helped that the number of substitutes had increased from three to five for the Premier League and FA Cup, making game time more likely for everyone! But the concept and understanding of the squad game was all started by Gullit introducing this at Chelsea.

In popular culture, football was continuing to gain attention. During his election campaign Tony Blair would use football to boost his popularity among working class voters, filmed playing head tennis with Kevin Keegan and talking about how he used to “sit” in the Gallowgate End watching Jackie Milburn play. That the Gallowgate End would have been all standing back then makes this memory questionable, but his latching on to football, in addition to inviting many of the  acts from the Britpop era mentioned in one of my earlier piece….in all likelihood Labour would have won even without this, but it certainly didn’t do any harm to their landslide victory.

And all my focus on the influx of foreign talent in 1996/97 isn’t just done with the gift of hindsight – during the season, The Harry Enfield Show introduced the character Julio Geordio, who would speak in post-match interviews, flitting between a strong European accent and north-east dialect.

Anyone who caught Fabrizio Ravanelli’s interview after the League Cup final could have been mistaken for thinking they were listening to Paul Whitehouse’s impression!

That game finished 1-1 after extra time, resulting in what would be the last ever Final replay. It took place at Hillbrough, 10 days after the Wembley final, with Leicester City winning 1-0. Martin O’Neill’s newly promoted side had been favourites for relegation at the start of the season, with O’Neill himself favourite to be the first manager to be dismissed. How wrong the bookmakers were, as Leicester would finish ninth, and this trophy a tangible reward for their efforts.

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Channel 5 launched in the spring of 1997, and the new channel hoped to make a splash by acquiring the rights to England’s crucial World Cup qualifier in Poland at the end of May. The following season they would also have the rights to some UEFA Cup games, back when it was a Tuesday night affair, Jonathan Pearce’s often overenthusiastic commentary being a distinctive feature of their coverage. His screeching “Ready, Steady, Teddy” when Sheringham made the result safe for England in injury time in Poland setting the standard.

The first season of the home nations now playing qualifiers at the weekend, and something of a haphazard one, with no fewer than six international breaks, seven if you include the weekend of December 14th, when Wales and Northern Ireland played qualifying matches, causing several Premier League games that weekend to be rearranged.

It reached its most farcical at the end of March though, when, for the first time since the season extended into the spring, there was no top flight football played during the Easter weekend, because of these Internationals. It was made all the more frustrating because England weren’t even playing in a qualifying match, they were playing a friendly to a half-empty Wembley stadium, with an experimental line-up that effectively made it a B International.

This would also cause a log-jam of fixtures in the closing weeks of the season, as two rounds of matches were scheduled to take place mid-week in April because of there being no Easter football. Commitments in the cups and in Europe, though, meant that Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Newcastle would see some of their April fixtures re-scheduled, but with only one week of the season available after this, they would all have to play four matches during that final week of the season.

To their credit, the authorities seemed to quickly make arrangements to prevent a repeat. The scrapping of League Cup replays perhaps being one of them, the Easter double-header was restored for the next few years, and if it was known that a side would still be in Europe in the new year and the European schedule clashed with the Easter weekend, their Easter Monday game could be brought forward to be played mid-week in winter before Europe re-convened.

In 1997 though, Alex Ferguson requested the season to be extended, as many at Manchester United cite similar fixture congestion in 1992 as the reason they lost out in the title race then. The request was denied. Arsene Wenger (who’s side were serious title contenders for much of the season) was critical of the request. Ferguson hit back that Wenger should instead have something to say about Ian Wright’s overzealous tackles on Schmeichel (a flashpoint when the two sides met in November and February), and so the war of words and managerial mind-games between these two great sparring partners was born.

As mentioned at earlier, this would be the last season of League Cup replays (including the Finals). The first two rounds and the semi-finals would continue to be two-legged affairs, all the other rounds decided on the night by extra time and penalties if required.

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Speaking of two-legged ties, this would be the last season in which the UEFA Cup final would be decided over two legs. It would henceforth fall in line with the other two competitions, with a one off final taking place at a venue determined in advance. Although just two years later, things would change dramatically anyway, with the UEFA Cup becoming one of only two competitions in Europe and its format changing accordingly – the seeds of which were sown in 1997 as the runners up in England and other top European leagues would enter the preliminary round of the Champions League.

Back to domestic matters, and the building of new stadiums continued apace, making it the last season for the historic grounds of Roker Park, The Baseball Ground and Burnden Park. While Sunderland would have to open the Stadium of Light as a second tier club, Derby County enjoyed a solid mid-table season in 1996/97 to welcome Premier League football to Pride Park, while Bolton won the second tier at a canter in 1996/97 and so would be back in the big time in time for their move to the Reebok Stadium.

1996/97 would also be the last season of Wimbledon surprising everyone – after losing their first 3 matches of what was an admittedly difficult start (two of the games mentioned last time out, against Manchester United and Newcastle), they embarked on a winning streak that lasted until late October and wouldn’t lose again until Christmas, by which time they were on the cusp of the title race, and in the new year they managed to reach the semi-finals of both cup competitions, meaning they had Europe in their sights on three fronts.

Sadly they lost both these semi-finals and had fallen away in the league, but still finishing in a respectable 8th position. And they still had a very big say in the final week of the season. Their result at the City Ground on the penultimate weekend confirmed Nottingham Forest’s relegation, and their victory a few days later over Liverpool mathematically ended their opponents’ title hopes, a game best remembered for Liverpool’s consolation goal, when 17-year-old Michael Owen came off the bench and scored in his first senior appearance. In fact, West Ham holding Newcastle to a draw with that same evening meant the title race was over and Manchester United were champions again.

And still Wimbledon weren’t done, as they faced Sunderland on the last day of the season, who needed points to ensure their Premier League status.

The race is on to get out of the bottom

Forgive yet another Spice Girls sub-heading, I promise it will be the last one! It’s also worth noting that in March, Posh Spice and Sporty Spice were guests at Old Trafford for Manchester United’s match against Sheffield Wednesday (who had become top half also-rans by this stage after their electric start to the season). Beckham met Victoria that day, and the two very quickly became an item (see, I resisted the urge to use “Two Become One”!).

Anyway, with the title race already decided, Sky decided to put their multi-sports-channels to use at the other end of the table, showing the aforementioned Wimbledon-Sunderland match on one and Middlesbrough’s trip to Leeds on the other. It was billed as “Survival Sunday”.

Actually, Sky Sports 3 had by now been launched, which would keep their tradition of showing the champions’ last game and trophy presentation, a dead rubber game between Manchester United and the already safe West Ham.

Wimbledon ended their season on a high, beating Sunderland, which, combined with Coventry’s unexpected victory at White Hart Lane, saw the Mackems relegated after just one season. There had actually been a TV camera crew with Sunderland throughout the latter half of the season, focusing on all aspects from the dressing room to the treatment room to the boardroom and also featured regular talking heads from a selection of their fans. The final cut was shown as a six-part fly-on-the-wall documentary, Premier Passions, in early 1998, some 20 years before the modern day streaming services started to produce similar programmes.

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Meanwhile, despite being the first team to score in the league at Elland Road since Boxing Day, Middlesbrough could only draw and were also relegated, joining Sunderland and Nottingham Forest in the second tier the following season.

This decision to deduct three points, rejected on appeal in March, had ended up costing them their place in the league. I can only imagine what they thought a couple of years ago when the Omicron variant gave clubs a licence to postpone matches at short notice with no consequences, especially since injuries and even players being on international duty were also cited as reason for the postponements.

At the time of writing, Nottingham Forest and Everton have been docked points for breaches to FFP, which could cost one or both clubs their Premier League status, the prolonged nature of the decisions and appeals process and the secrecy of the hearings only adding to the frustration, it’s worth keeping in mind Middlesbrough chair Steve Gibson’s words post-match – “we’ve been relegated today not because of what’s happened on the football pitch, but because of a decision made by grey men in grey suits behind closed doors”.

From this, Middlesbrough had to pick themselves up for the FA Cup Final against Chelsea, which proved to be a tale of two young player-managers bringing in talent from abroad. One feature writer even ran the headline “Why Gullit’s got it so right and Robson’s got it so wrong”, when contrasting their respective recruitments.

Sadly, Middlesbrough couldn’t silence their critics on the day, losing 2-0, and facing an uphill task after less than a minute when Roberto Di Matteo scored what was then the fastest ever goal in FA Cup Final history.

The first of many trophies for Chelsea over the coming years, and bear in mind this is still over six years before Roman Abramovich brings his chequebook to Stamford Bridge.

It’s also worth bearing in mind Ruud Gullit only took charge when he did at Chelsea because Glenn Hoddle was offered the England job, despite not being among the front-runners for it in January 1996 when Terry Venables announced he’d be stepping down after the Euros.

Ironically, the favourite to take over was Bryan Robson, who had been part of Venables’ coaching staff. While the England job was often considered a poisoned chalice, it actually proved this time to be a curse on the other managers who were linked with the job. Middlesbrough found themselves in freefall in the early part of 1996, dropping from fourth to eventually finish twelfth, and as already detailed in this piece, that would only be the beginning of Robson’s problems.

Meanwhile, people’s choice Kevin Keegan would see his Newcastle United side lose the 12 point lead they held in January 1996 to concede the title. Keegan himself would resign in January 1997. Frank Clark left Nottingham Forest a few weeks earlier, with the team bottom of the table and without a win since the opening day of the season, just 18 months after finishing third. Clark would endure further woes with Manchester City in 1997 before being dismissed from there in February 1998, ironically replaced by another English manager who was riding high in January 1996, Joe Royle, who left Everton in March 1997 in the sort of dismal form they’d been in when he was appointed in 1994. Gerry Francis took charge at Tottenham around that time and similarly stabilised the club to find himself on a list of potential England candidates – he would also find himself out of a job before 1997 was over.

And although he was finding the step up to the number one position at Blackburn a challenge, Ray Hartford was a well respected coach who had helped many of England’s now senior players when they were with his under-21s earlier in the decade, and with Blackburn seemingly turning things around by January 1996, he could have been another candidate. Instead, Blackburn fell apart again after the departure of Shearer, and Hartford was out of a job before 1996 ended.

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Riding in on the tidal wave of Euro ’96 fever, and surging from the rule changes in Europe, and anticipating the tail wind of the Champions League about to expand, football was accelerating towards the new millennium. That Arsenal and Chelsea suddenly found themselves back among the top clubs, while those expected to do well in 1996/97, the historically big clubs of Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur (two of which had won English football’s two biggest honours just a year earlier), suddenly found themselves faltering – it was as if the hand of fate was deciding that these clubs would not form part of this new order, while Arsenal and Chelsea would be thrust into this new elite. 

Yes, Newcastle finished as league runners-up and Aston Villa completed the 1996/97 season above Chelsea, in fifth place. Despite the promising future, though, it would all be downhill from here for these two contenders. Aston Villa, second on their return to the top flight in 1989/90 to be the first English side in admitted to the UEFA Cup after the ban, they would also take the runners-up spot in the Premier League’s inaugural season, 1992/93, and after a couple of wayward years, would finish fourth in 1996, winning two League Cups along the way – they would quickly enter a pattern, under Brian Little and then John Gregory, of showing promise to be title challengers before falling away to scrapping for that last UEFA Cup place. They’d continue this pattern a few years later under Randy Lerner’s ownership and the management of the aforementioned Martin O’Neill. However, they have now reached the promised land of the expanded Champions League.

Newcastle actually entered the first iteration of the expanded Champions League in 1997 when Kenny Dalglish picked up the reigns of their wayward title bid and steered them to a second successive second place finish. Astonishingly, they would find themselves adrift in mid-table for the next few years, before enjoying a renaissance under Bobby Robson shortly after the turn of the millennium and be part of the top four again – but again, this would only be for a couple of fleeting seasons. Leeds United, champions in 1992, would also re-emerge at the turn of the century and briefly fly, it would turn out, too close to the sun.

There was only room for four clubs at this top table, and Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United were to become the “Sky Four”. While not an official moniker, it stuck, and the broadcasters seemed to revel in it, to the extent that, on weekends when they’d all be scheduled to face each other (which improbably seemed to happen most seasons), Sky would bill it as “Grand Slam Sunday”. 1996/97 was the beginning of it all. It set the standard for the next 15 years.

Think I’m exaggerating? That 1996 Charity Shield that I mentioned in my last piece, featuring Newcastle United – it would be the last time for 12 years in which both clubs involved (the previous season’s Champions and FA cup winners or league runners-up) wouldn’t be two from Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

Portsmouth finally bucked this trend when they won the FA Cup in 2008, but even after this it would be Manchester United and Chelsea for the next couple of years, until 2011, when Manchester City, with their unspeakable wealth, made themselves a regular fixture at this celebration of success.

1996 truly was the year that changed everything, and the beginning of the modern era.

The Author

David Hardman

One thought on “The Changing Game Part 10 – 1996/97, the last six months

  1. With the UEFA Cup becoming one of only two tournaments in Europe and its format changing accordingly as the tournaments will enter the Champions League preliminary round, fans have to look forward to its organization.

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