When it comes to the Premier League, history is written by the victors and nowhere is that truer than when assessing Newcastle United’s 1995/96 campaign.
Some would have you believe Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers endured the most calamitous title collapse in Premier League history.
But to suggest so does a major disservice to the feats of Manchester United in 2011/12 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in stunning style.
Trouble on Tyneside
The most commonly trotted out statistic concerning King Kev’s Newcastle United is that, with 15 games to go, the Magpies were 12 points clear of Manchester United. But that ignores the fact United had a game in hand on Newcastle – which they won – meaning the gap was actually nine.
A nine-point gap over 15 games is nothing, particularly in comparison to Manchester United in 2011/12, who led Manchester City by eight points with six games left.
Newcastle’s title capitulation was hardly a massive shock either. The Magpies had started the 1994/95 campaign in similarly imperious form, winning their first six games and going top before running out of steam as the campaign progressed.
Keegan’s swashbuckling style just didn’t have the legs to go a whole season and, in truth, their 1995/96 title challenge was boosted by the fact the club wasn’t in Europe and had exited the FA Cup early.
Inexperienced and ill-equipped to the demands of a Premier League campaign, Newcastle were simply no match for a United side who had either won or challenged of the title in each of the previous four seasons.
Worse than a Shetland Pony
Like the Leicester side of 2015/16, Newcastle were buoyed by momentum and a run of form that saw them lose just once at home all season – 1-0 to a resurgent Manchester United in March with the only goal coming from the returning Eric Cantona.
It couldn’t and didn’t last, but Newcastle only lost four other games over the second half of the season against decent opposition in the form of Arsenal, reigning champions Blackburn, Liverpool and a West Ham side that had curtailed United’s title hopes on the final day the previous campaign.
Manchester United’s title capitulation in 2011/12 was, by contrast, far more spectacular and, to borrow horse racing parlance, came with the final few hurdles in sight. The kind of hurdles even a Shetland Pony could probably clear.
On a run of 13 games without defeat, United travelled to Wigan for the first of their final six league games looking to extend their run of 14 consecutive wins over the Latics. Yet the reigning champions’ imperious form deserted them at the worst possible moment with Wigan dominating Fergie’s side in a 1-0 win at the DW Stadium that actually flattered the Reds.
To paraphrase the old Ferguson adage, it was squeaky bum time only this time it was United, rather than City, who were beginning to squirm.
A couple of weeks later, the gap was cut further in astonishing circumstances after Manchester United contrived to throw a 4-2 lead away with seven minutes remaining at home to Everton to draw 4-4.
Ferguson’s team had beaten Everton on each of their previous five visits to Old Trafford but were suddenly starting to resemble Keegan’s Newcastle, shipping three or more goals for a seventh time that season. They would finish the season having conceded 33 goals in 38 games – just four fewer than King Kev’s Entertainers, no less.
That result set up a winner-takes-all clash against Manchester City at the Etihad, with Roberto Mancini’s reinvigorated side triumphing 1-0, on their way to a title success sealed in the most dramatic of fashions via Sergio Aguero on the final day.
That narrative proved a blessing in disguise for United, though, with the Reds’ epic title collapse lost in the furore that greeted City’s last-gasp win over QPR and first Premier League title success.
In any case, Fergie wasn’t about to make it his lasting legacy, postponing his retirement for another year in order to ensure he went out on a high with one more Premier League crown.
The worst collapse ever?
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Newcastle haven’t been quite so lucky. Though the Magpies went into the final day with hopes of title success in 1996, Manchester United’s routine 3-0 win over Middlesbrough coupled with Newcastle’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham left a four-point gap between first and second.
A 5-0 win over United at St James Park the following season helped exercise some of those demons, but an even more dramatic drop-off in form followed for the Toon with Keegan departing soon after.
Newcastle never returned to the summit, never challenged for a title again and probably never will again, but Toon fans can be sure of one thing: it could have been a lot worse. Honest.
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