The Changing Game – Part 9 – 1996/97 – The first two months!

There was so much to comment on that the events of the 1996/97 season will have to be covered in two parts. This will focus solely on the close season and the first two months of the campaign.

It’s been difficult to know where to begin with this piece. Not least because, such was the change in 1996/97, it’s hard to believe that events of 1995/96 took place only a few months earlier. It seemed as though several years worth of change and progress took place in those few months between seasons, not just in football but culturally and politically too.

To compare the final league tables, it wouldn’t look as though much had happened. Manchester United were champions again. Newcastle were runners up again. Arsenal, fifth in 95/96, would finish two places higher, in third, pushing Liverpool and Aston Villa respectively down a place from the season before.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Southampton and Coventry secured their Premier League status on the last day of the season again.

Even around the middle, Leeds, West Ham and Tottenham had finished in similar unthreatened and unthreatening positions they’d occupied the previous year.

The cliché goes that the league table doesn’t lie. In this instance, though, it certainly doesn’t tell the full story.

So why did it feel so different?

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If you want my future, forget my past

We’ll begin where I left off last time, the final of the 1996 European Championships. As Germany were celebrating their golden goal, Terry Venables was handing over the reigns of the England team who’d done him so proud to Chelsea boss Glenn Hoddle, who’s departure from Stamford Bridge would allow Ruud Gullit, after just one year in English football, to step up as player-manager.

Glenn Hoddle was reportedly an admirer of Manchester United’s promising young midfielder David Beckham, and even before the season commenced, Beckham was expected to be name in Hoddle’s first England squad. However, those outside of the club football community, including many of the new fans who’d been so captivated and won-over by Venables’ England and Three Lions during the tournament, wouldn’t have known who David Beckham was as they endured the sort of penalty shoot-out heartbreak that Beckham would be part of in the years to come.

Nor did anybody know who the Spice Girls were, as the calendar turned from June to July the morning after the final. However, by the time the Charity Shield raised the curtain on the new season on August 11, Wannabe had become the soundtrack to the school’s summer holidays, and there wasn’t a person around who wasn’t aware of the Spice Girls.

As for Posh Spice’s future husband, just six weeks after his future England team-mates had to look on with envy as the Euro ’96 final was contested on that same Wembley turf, David Beckham scored during Manchester United’s 4-0 rout of Newcastle. It was a goal of intelligence and finesse, as, with Newcastle already 2-0 down and pressing, he breached their offside trap and chipped the advancing Pavel Srnicek from long range. It was a pre-cursor of what was to come six days later. The attention after this game, though, was all on Newcastle and how outclassed they looked by the team they’d led by 12 points just seven months earlier, even with world-record £15 million man Alan Shearer. Consequently there were no headlines about Beckham’s impressive goal. How that was about to change.

“And Beckham saw Sullivan off his line”

The football on display, the atmosphere, and the adventures of the England team during Euro 96 had created an increased appetite for football. The finals ended in June, and having to wait until the latter half of August only whetted this appetite even more, as did the unprecedented transfer activity during the off-season.

In more recent years, Sky have once again followed the lead of the NFL, this time by having the defending champions open the season, with their game kicking off on a Friday night. Since 2004 there has always been a lunchtime game on the opening Saturday too. However, in August 1996, the only televised Premier League games would take place after everybody else, and so there was no early game to serve as a starter course. Everyone still had to wait until 3pm on the Saturday, when nine matches would kick off simultaneously.

And when 3pm finally came around on Saturday, 17 August 1996, the release of seven weeks of anticipation and excitement burst into a feeding frenzy. And what a feast it was.

Incredibly, for the first five years of Premier League football, the champions’ first game of their title defence would not be a live game. Manchester United’s trip to Selhurst Park, would, however, be the featured game on Match of the Day. It was, of course, the scene of Eric Cantona’s darkest moment, little over 18 months earlier. However, having already come through a return to that ground the previous season, scoring twice in his side’s 4-2 win there, that story had been put to bed, considered ancient history. Yet another example of 1996/97 seeming a lot more distant from the events of the previous campaign.

Anyway, against a backdrop of glorious August sunshine, with Manchester United already 2-0 up with little time remaining, David Beckham received a short pass from Brian McClair on the half-way line, took one touch, looked up and spotted the Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan had advanced from his goal-line (possibly in anticipation of a through-ball, if Wimbledon were pressing high in the hope of getting back into the game). Beckham dispatched a long-range effort of sublime ingenuity, and the accuracy of the shot was such that even if Sullivan had been on his goal-line he’d have been at full-stretch as it dropped just underneath the crossbar and seemed to slide down the back of the net.

It was a glorious moment and one that’s been replayed so many times that it didn’t really require my description.

This was David Beckham’s arrival. This was the moment that made him famous. Seems crazy when he’d made his debut against Brighton in the League Cup almost four years earlier, had scored on his Champions League debut in 1994, and had been a first-team regular the previous campaign in United’s double winning side , producing some key moments including the winner against Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final. And he was already on the radar of the new England boss before a ball had been kicked during his tenure.

But in terms of who knew who David Beckham was on the morning of 17 August 1996, and who knew him the next day, it was overnight fame

And amazingly, it wasn’t even the biggest story that weekend.

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Elsewhere, Alan Shearer made his league debut for Newcastle that same day. He’d famously scored a hat-trick in his first start for Southampton, he scored a brilliant brace on his Blackburn debut, and even scored on his England debut, so expectations were high that he’d keep this up when the Magpies began their campaign at Goodison Park. It didn’t go to plan, Everton running out 2-0 winners, with Gary Speed instead being the one to score on his league debut for the club he’d supported as a boy.

Although Newcastle would beat Wimbledon a few days later, they then lost at home to Sheffield Wednesday – the same fixtures last season had seen Newcastle take all nine points, now they only had three. Combined with their humiliation in the Charity Shield, it was all in all a miserable month for Newcastle and a sign all may not be well under Kevin Keegan.

Newcastle’s loss and Shearer’s disappointing league debut wasn’t the biggest story either. Even the image of Beckham smiling with his arms aloft in celebration was the secondary photo in most Sunday papers. The main image of the day was of a player unidentifiable as his shirt had been pulled over his face.

Golazzo

In my 1992/93 piece, I mentioned Channel 4’s Gazetta Football Italia. Originally chronicling Paul Gascoigne’s time in Italy, the player transferred to Rangers in 1995, and with David Platt and Des Walker also long since returned to British shores, it left Paul Ince as the sole Englishman in Serie A. He too would return to the Premier League the following summer, so 1996/7 would be the last time they could have a regular feature with an English player.

Anyway, in February 1996, around the time Parma’s maverick Columbian Faustino Asprilla was heading to Newcastle, there was some excitement as the show managed to interview both of Juventus’ strikers, Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli, in the same episode.

As much as English football had made progress, there was still a feeling that our league could only dream of attracting players of this calibre. Maybe if the game continued to clean up its act, continued its so far successful commercial activities, continue to boost its revenue streams, maybe if they could continue with the progress made for another six years, they could start to think about bringing in the best from Serie A.

It turns out we only had to wait another six months. If someone had said during that broadcast in February that both these superstars would begin the next season, not only in the Premier League, but playing for teams that would finish the 1995-96 in 11th and 12th place respectively, after they’d both led you Juventus to European Cup glory in May 1996, they’d have been laughed out of the room.

That’s exactly what happened though. Former Serie A star Ruud Gullit signed Vialli on a free transfer, under that new Bosman ruling mentioned last time out, while Middlesbrough, who’d pulled off something of a coup in signing Brazil’s rising star Juninho the previous season, arguably topped that in the summer of 1996 by capturing the £7 million signature of Ravanelli.

The Sky cameras actually chose Chelsea’s trip to Southampton for their first live game that season, presumably to catch the debut of Vialli among a few other high profile overseas signings and sample this exciting new look Chelsea side – the game would be a goalless draw, but even before the game began, they probably already knew they’d picked the wrong Italian debut to showcase after events of the previous day.

While Manchester United’s trip to Wimbledon may have been the main game, the Match of the Day cameras were also at the Cellnet Riverside Stadium on that fateful Saturday August 17. While the viewing public were keen to see the debut of Ravanelli, along with their other high-profile signing, the cultured Brazilian midfielder Emerson, there was just as much excitement about the visitors, Liverpool, FA Cup finalists and on the fringes of the title race the season before, with the talents of Fowler, McManaman and Redknapp still with their best years ahead of them, and now augmented by the arrival of one of the stand out performers of Euro 96, Czech Republic winger Patrik Berger. Coincidentally, his fellow Czech winger, Karel Poborsky, had joined Manchester United, only to find first time opportunities limited by the aforementioned Beckham!

On this day, though, Ravanelli upstaged them all, as it was his trademark celebration of pulling the shirt over the head that the papers featured the next day, a celebration he enacted three times as the man known as The White Feather scoring a hat-trick in a thrilling 3-3 draw.

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“If you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye”

Elsewhere, Arsenal began their season without a manager as Bruce Rioch was dismissed just a few days before the opening day, his deteriorating relationship with then chairman David Dein coming to a head with a dispute over transfer funds. Despite his unpopularity with some of the players, Ian Wright in particular, they’d finished the previous season  in fifth place – just imagine what those players could do with a manager they were more willing to work for.

The appointment of just such a manager took so long that they ended up going through two caretaker managers, as Stewart Houston was offered the permanent managerial post at recently relegated QPR. Pat Rice then stepped in, and would end up being the long term assistant to the new boss. The signings of Remi Garde and Patrick Viera were also made with the prospective manager in mind. That man was Arsene Wenger, who arrived from Japanese outfit Grampus Eight at the end of September.

Co-incidentally, their former manager, George Graham, would also be back in action that same month, his exile from the game ended by Leeds United, who’d dismissed Howard Wilkinson, the last manager to win the old First Division in 1992, replacing him with the one who’d won it the season prior! For both Graham’s old and new clubs, the style of football and the recruitment was to change drastically. Among his coaching staff, Graham recruited his former Arsenal defender David O’Leary as his assistant, inheriting the batch of youngsters that had just won the 1996 FA Youth Cup. The next few years of Leeds United’s story were set into motion.

By the time of this managerial shake-up, England had already played their first World Cup qualifier in Moldova. Unusually, it took place on a Sunday. David Beckham made his debut as England ran out comfortable 3-0 winners, suggesting that Hoddle would have more joy than the last England boss to oversee a qualifying campaign, Graham Taylor, four years earlier.

Before and after this first break, as summer turned to autumn, for all the hype and signings around Manchester United, Newcastle, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Arsenal and Chelsea, the surprise early season pacesetters were Sheffield Wednesday.

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Something changed

While their winning start (including that impressive win at Newcastle) was largely down to the goals of Englishmen Andy Booth, Peter Atherton, Guy Whittingham and Richie Humphries, Wednesday were no strangers to bringing in players from abroad. Most famously Eric Cantona was offered a trial there in early 1992, with Leeds beating them to his signature before he’d even trained outdoors with them! Dan Petrescu actually played there before joining Chelsea, and, in keeping with the Chelsea connection, Ruud Gullit wasn’t the only dreadlocked Dutchman to be plying his trade in the Premier League in 1995/96, as Regi Blinker turned out for Wednesday, who would be joined that summer by compatriot Orlando Trustfull.

In the autumn of 1996 they made perhaps their most extravagant overseas purchase, bringing Benito Carbone from Inter. It was perhaps an early example of the culture shock that would affect some of the foreign imports, as the hard-drinking and comparatively lax attitude to diet and conditioning that had been a staple of the English game was still in evidence at many Premier League teams. When interviewed in 2013, Carbone would say that with hindsight, he should have just gone to the pub with his teammates after training, ordered a soft drink and laughed off whatever jibes came his way about being a lightweight. Easy to say after almost two decades of footballing and life experience have been gained – at the time, being relatively young and in a strange country, his reticent attitude to join in the drinking would sadly see him perceived by some as aloof or a troublemaker.

Similar problems of Serie A alumni struggling to settle to life in England in the 1990s, and being aghast at the inferiority of the training facilities and fitness levels would soon rear its head elsewhere, most notably Middlesbrough. More on that next time.

It wasn’t just the arrival of a few foreign players or their table topping start that gave Sheffield Wednesday a different feel that season. Anyone watching their games couldn’t help but hear the sound of drums and brass instruments throughout, as their band helped introduce a carnival atmosphere to matches, helping promote the family-fun-day match experience that seemed a world removed from the dark days of the recent past. Among Wednesday’s supporters was “Tango Man”, a man known for being shirtless in the stands and enthusiastically leading his fellow fans cheers, seemed to become a role model for other to follow suit.

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Say you’ll be there

While the sale of replica shirts had been part of the merchandising drive for well over a decade, they were largely worn by children, and often when playing football themselves rather than attending a match, when, even if wearing one, it would rarely be displayed anyway, as throughout most of the season it would be covered up by winter clothes. This changed as the decade progressed, adults in the crowd decked out from in club merchandise becoming a matchday feature. The increase in momentum of this shift possibly began during Newcastle’s title charge the previous season. So many of their matches were shown live on Sky, with their production values and eye for drama, their cameras would often focus on their most flamboyant and outlandish spectators – their distinctive barcode replica home shirts, or no shirt at all, seemed to be the uniform, and crying publicly if the team had lost or jumping around wildly and gurning if the team won also seemed to attract the zoom lens of the TV cameras..

The cameras also picked up on fans with face-paints or holding up placards. This would become a vicious circle, as many new fans, especially post Euro ’96, would look to live matches for guidance on match going etiquette – what to wear and how to act – and would consequently attend matches wearing replica shirts and face paint, take said shirts off and twirl them around to celebrate, cry said face paint off when defeated, and generally display exaggerated emotions. More of the new TV audience would see this and do the same, and so the cycle would continue.

Also, in addition to other clubs trying to emulate Sheffield Wednesday’s band over the next couple of seasons, more and more grounds began to play music through their public address system after the home team scored. Giant foam hands were even being introduced, so fans could wave them around or clap along in time to this piped music, like the studio audience of Gladiators. I mentioned the NFL influence earlier, and with these goings on, Premier League games were now resembling American sports events.

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Swing it, shake it, move it, make it

September 1996 was also notable for the absence of the very best teams in the second round of the League Cup. Those in Europe had been given a bye into the third round. The only source I’ve been able to locate as to the reasons for this has been soccer.minstral, who state that it was due to the increased number of matches in Europe,.

However, given that the European calendar wouldn’t increase its number of match-weeks for another three years, my speculation would be that it was more influenced by the increased number of International matches this season, and in particular the introduction of weekend qualifying matches for the home nations.

The second leg of the second round was actually played the same week as the European matches, which led to some interesting contrasts. While Liverpool and Manchester United were winning their European games, their local rivals Everton and Manchester City (by now a second tier club) were being knocked out of the League Cup by York City and Lincoln City respectively.

England’s next qualifier would actually be played on a Wednesday night, so  arguably the League Cup could have stuck to the old format for at least another year. However, other nations were in action the weekend before – for example, in England’s group, Italy played Moldova on the Saturday, so Chelsea among others would have had a somewhat depleted side.

This break also meant Glenn Hoddle had a week and a half to prepare his charges for the home clash with seemingly perennial group opponents Poland, and they scraped a narrow 2-1 victory, arguably against the run of play, thanks to a brace from Alan Shearer, picking up where he’d left off in an England shirt the previous summer.

It was a further indicator that, unlike his predecessor, Hoddle may have luck on his side in the quest for a World Cup place. Meanwhile Alan Shearer’s club had recovered from their shaky start, winning every league game in September to salvage hope of another title charge,

A huge match in this title race took place immediately after this break, as Manchester United hosted Liverpool at Old Trafford. And when I say “immediately”, it kicked off at lunchtime on the Saturday.

The reason given was concerns over crowd trouble, despite the fact that all league clashes between this clubs before this had taken place at the usual time without any incidents that I’m aware of, although maybe the FA Cup Final a few months earlier, and Cantona allegedly being spat on by rival supporters, may have been considered a potential catalyst for further trouble at this match.

I would speculate though that Sky and perhaps the Premier League themselves wanted this game to be shown live, and consideration was given to Manchester United’s tricky trip to Turkey for the away match with Fenerbache the following Wednesday, so rather than be in the usual Sunday 4pm spot, it was brought forward to this time instead.

This was the beginning of a gradual paving of the way for Saturday lunchtime kick-offs to become a regular feature.

When describing the wait for the season to begin, I mentioned Saturday lunchtime matches not being a feature when the season began. Given that I intend to wrap up here, it’s fitting that, it will come full circle, as, in to  being played in this televised slot, the match was  decided with another well struck long range effort from David Beckham.

I will cover the rest of 96/97 at a later date, and will be much more condensed, I promise! It wasn’t until I began writing this that I realised how much change had happened in such a short timeframe.

Less than two months into the season, and already we’ve got:

  • David Beckham becoming a superstar.
  • Alan Shearer joining Newcastle
  • The Americanisation of the match day experience for those attending
  • Weekend internationals during the season.
  • English clubs competing in Europe being given a bye into the League Cup third round.
  • David O’Leary arriving at Leeds, with their emerging young talent
  • Arsene Wenger taking over at Arsenal, who now boasted Patrick Viera in their ranks
  • Arsenal and Chelsea, good cup sides but also rans in the Premier League era so far, both now emerging as a force in the league with their new foreign managers – and players
  • The introduction of lunchtime kick-offs

I said during my last piece that I felt the year from the Bosman ruling of December 1995 really was the one that changed everything – seems I’m finding a lot of evidence for it when recalling just the early weeks of the 1996/97 season.

The Author

David Hardman

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