19 Aug Aston Villa 3 Man Utd 1 Newcastle 3 Coventry 0
Opening day, the only day of the season when everyone can dream. Except at Old Trafford where optimism is in short supply. After the summer sales of Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes there is discontent in the air and some supporters even suggest Alex Ferguson should go.
The mood deepens when, 45 minutes into the new season, Manchester United are three down to an Aston Villa side fresh from narrowly escaping relegation.
The visitors are unrecognisable, and not just because they are wearing grey. They are also fielding a number of teenagers and playing the in- vogue five at the back.
At half-time Ferguson bins the new formation (the kit is to last a few months longer). They pull back a goal and, more importantly, recover confidence.
On Tyneside pre-season prayers are gloriously realised. Suggestions that Les Ferdinand and the rest of Kevin Keegan's pounds 14m investment may take time to settle look foolish as Newcastle win handsomely. Ferdinand opens his account with the well-taken third. 1 Oct CANTONA RETURNS TO ACTION Everton 1 Newcastle 3 Man Utd 2 Liverpool 2
Ferdinand, having continued to score through September, notches his 10th goal in nine games as Newcastle go four points clear with a win at Goodison. It is their third away win in four attempts, no signs of travel sickness so far.
But they are overshadowed by events at Old Trafford a few hours later as Eric Cantona makes his long-awaited return. He has a quiet match and seems about to be upstaged by Robbie Fowler's stunning brace when he coolly converts a controversial penalty.
In Cantona's absence Manchester United have recovered well from the opening day debacle but, even with him, they are unable to overturn a shock 3- 0 home defeat by York City in the Coca-Cola Cup. York will end the season fighting relegation to the Third Division.
TOP FOUR: Newcastle P 8 Pts 21; Aston Villa 8-17; Manchester Utd 8-17; Liverpool 8-16. 27 Dec NEWCASTLE MISS THEIR LIONS Man Utd 2 Newcastle 0
As autumn has turned to winter Newcastle have gone from gliding through away games to grinding them out but they still arrive at Old Trafford beaten twice in 23 games and with a 10-point lead. Ruel Fox has gone, to Spurs, but Philippe Albert is back from injury.
Manchester United have shone at Chelsea, where Newcastle lost, but gone down at Arsenal and Anfield. The youngsters are showing signs of strain and Alan Hansen's assessment, "you'll never win anything with kids", is looking valid.
Yet Newcastle are brushed aside, with Roy Keane outstanding. He scores the second, having been beautifully picked out by the emerging Phil Neville. The first is a rare goal from Andy Cole.
Cole's goal, driven in on the run, is part of a four-game scoring streak - otherwise he fails to strike even in consecutive League matches. Newcastle's gloom is deepened when the Keith Gillespie ruptures a thigh tendon.
"The circus came to town but the lions and tigers did not turn up," Keegan said. "You have to earn the right to be champions," said Ferguson, firing the first shot of the psychological battle.
The odds still favour Keegan, the last six New Year's Eve leaders have become champions and, when Manchester United go down 4-1 at Spurs on New Years' Day, it looks as if Newcastle will be the seventh.
TOP FOUR: Newcastle 20-45; Manchester Utd 20-38; Tottenham 20-35; Liverpool 19-34. 20 Jan SIGHTS FIXED ON LEAGUE Newcastle 2 Bolton 1
Newcastle's 1996 has started badly. They have gone out of the FA Cup on penalties to Chelsea at St James' Park, and were beaten in the Coca- Cola Cup by Arsenal in a fractious tie at Highbury. David Ginola was sent off for retaliation and police had to intervene in a touchline row between Terry McDermott and Bruce Rioch.
However, as the pundits say, it does leave them free to concentrate on the League and victory over Bolton secures a 12-point lead with 15 games left.
Manchester United play on Monday and gain three points at West Ham. Cantona is regaining form and fitness but he impresses by acting as peacemaker after Julian Dicks' foul on Andy Cole starts a row. Butt is sent off.
TOP FOUR: Newcastle 23-54; Liverpool 23-42; Manchester Utd 23-42; Tottenham 23-41. 10 Feb ASPRILLA'S PERFECT FIT Man Utd 1 Blackburn 0 Middlesbrough 1 Newcastle 2
Newcastle have not lost in the League since Old Trafford but Keegan is not convinced. He wants to make sure and, after weeks of "Will he? Won't he?" signs Faustino Asprilla for pounds 7.5m. No doubts about his ability, just his temperament. While stories about his gun conviction and alleged ex-porn model girlfriend fill the tabloids the broadsheets ask, how will he fit in?
The answer seems to be "perfectly". He goes from the airport arrivals to the substitutes bench before coming on and winning a derby Newcastle seemed about to lose. Manchester United's dull win is notable only for underlining the decline of the current champions.
TOP FOUR: Newcastle 25-60; Manchester Utd 26-51; Liverpool 25-46; Aston Villa 25-45. 4 Mar HOME COMFORTS Newcastle Utd 0 Man Utd 1
By being beaten at West Ham, and held at Manchester City (literally, in the case of Asprilla who takes exception to Keith Curle's grappling), Newcastle have seen the lead cut to four points.
But, however worrying their struggles on the road they have been able to count on maximum points at home and they welcome Manchester United backed by the record: played 13, won 13. The visitors are equally confident after winning eight straight but are subjected to a stunning barrage of pressure. Asprilla is untouchable as he creates chance after chance for Ferdinand. Peter Schmeichel saves them all and, as Newcastle's hurricane blows itself out Cantona sneaks in at his favourite far post to steal the winner. The result also opens the door for Liverpool who ended Villa's challenge, and underlined their own, with an eight-minute demolition the previous day.
TOP FOUR: Newcastle 28-61; Manchester Utd 29-60; Liverpool 28-55; Aston Villa 28-49. 16 Mar IT'S ALL FAIR AND SQUARE QPR 1 Man Utd 1
After six months of chasing, Manchester United finally catch up with Newcastle. It takes a very late goal from - who else? - Cantona and a generous measure of injury time to do it.
Two days later Newcastle respond in style, ripping West Ham apart to regain the lead. Asprilla is in rich form but, not for the first time, chances go begging.
TOP THREE: Manchester Utd 30-61; Newcastle 28-61; Liverpool 30-59. 3 April HEARTBREAK AT ANFIELD Liverpool 4 Newcastle 3
The game of the season, and perhaps the one that breaks Newcastle. While Manchester United pause for breath, having sealed a place in the FA Cup final, their rivals go head-to-head.
Liverpool lead inside two minutes through Fowler but Newcastle take up the gauntlet, responding through Ferdinand and Ginola. Fowler levels, but Asprilla restores the lead. Newcastle have chances to seal it but waste them. Stan Collymore then scores twice, the second in injury time, to win it for the Reds - both of them.
It is Keegan's turn to be questioned. Dissenting voices are heard on Tyneside, echoing the short-sighted doubters of Old Trafford's pre-season. For the first time the title is Manchester United's to lose, as well as Newcastle's.
TOP THREE: Manchester Utd 32-67 (+29); Newcastle 31-64 (+26); Liverpool 32-62 (+34). 29 Apr GREY DAY AT THE DELL Southampton 3 Man Utd 1
With the spotlight on them Manchester United wither in its glare. Call it superstition or call it, as United try to, a technical problem with picking each other out. Whatever, the half-time shirt-change at The Dell speaks as loudly as the grey performance about the strain of being favourites.
The following day Newcastle, who had suffered Easter heartbreak when Graham Fenton stole three points from his heroes at Blackburn, edge past Villa and the race is on again.
Liverpool, having lost at Coventry, have finally bowed out.
TOP THREE: Manchester Utd 35-73 (+29); Newcastle 33-67 (+26); Liverpool 34-65 (+35). 29 Apr PRESSURE BEGINS TO TELL Leeds United 0 Newcastle United 1
Manchester United have demolished Nottingham Forest, Ferguson finally biting the bullet and dropping Cole. The five-goal reward has put their goal difference beyond reach and the pressure back on Newcastle.
The players cope with it, aided by the belated return to the ranks of Gillespie and Lady Luck, but the manager does not. After his team have beaten a hyped-up Leeds Keegan explodes on television. With moist eyes and jabbing finger he accuses Ferguson, not without justification, of doing the hyping. His players, depending on their nature, think "good on yer, boss" or "oh God, the gaffer's lost it".
Ferguson himself falls silent, the job done.
TOP TWO: Manchester Utd 37-79 (+35); Newcastle 36-76 (+29).
Newcastle were held 1-1 by another pumped-up team, Nottingham Forest. A bad result, but, generally, not a bad performance.
This is of little consolation to them, Keegan or the Toon Army whose 10-month odyssey now looks like ending in failure.
However, after such a season as this, few would suggest there might not be another twist in the title tale.Reuse content