Best Premier League performances: No 1, Peter Schmeichel for Manchester United v Newcastle
To celebrate 30 years of the Premier League, The Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here — as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.
Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you won’t agree with the order. They didn’t. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.
Every game was the same. When Peter Schmeichel pulled on his gloves, there was a voice inside his head telling him he could not be beaten. Every goal that went past Manchester United’s goalkeeper was a personal affront. His mindset never changed. He always believed the opposition could not get past him.
“This might sound incredibly arrogant, but I was like that every game,” he says. ”Even when I conceded goals, I was still thinking that way. I had to be like that. I had to put myself in that frame of mind. I had to feel invincible, that I could not be beaten.”
The night of March 4, 1996, was one such occasion. Newcastle United versus Manchester United, under the floodlights at St James’ Park, with millions watching at home. The Premier League title was on the line, or so it felt, and it was Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle — the Entertainers, as they were called — who had the crowd behind them.
“What a wonderful team they had,” Schmeichel recalls over a quarter of a century later. “Tino Asprilla had joined them. Peter Beardsley, Les Ferdinand, David Ginola… oh my God, he was in great form. They had all these incredible players and Keegan had them playing incredibly well. But the team we were, we relished that kind of challenge.
“Ferdinand had three big chances in the first five minutes. Beardsley had a couple of shots. There was one I remember in particular, he hit it with his left foot. It came from my left and it hit the ground just in front of me. I held on to it and in that moment, I was thinking, ‘They’re never going to score, this team will never score’. They had already had a couple of chances and, inside, I knew it.”
What a performance to finish The Athletic’s Golden Games series. Schmeichel smiles appreciatively when he is told, in effect, it is rated as the outstanding individual display of the Premier League era. Maybe it is not the terminology he would choose himself (Schmeichel mentions it only passingly in his latest autobiography), but he is fully aware of the importance of that night and what it meant to the story of the epic 1995-96 season.
People still stop him in the street to talk about it. “The Geordies are always very respectful,” he says. They recognise greatness in Newcastle, that’s why. They appreciate that what happened that night was one of the goalkeeping performances of all time. Maybe that offers some consolation, bearing in mind the 1-0 defeat Newcastle suffered that night was when it became clear that Keegan’s team was unravelling.
At one stage, their lead at the top of the table was 12 points. It was down to four when Sir Alex Ferguson’s team arrived on Tyneside. There were still two months of the season to play but, realistically, a home win would have set up Newcastle for their first league championship since 1927.
Everything changed that night. Newcastle, peering nervously into their wing mirrors as Manchester United’s headlights got brighter and brighter, felt the pressure. The gap was whittled down. Soon, it was Ferguson’s men enjoying the view from the top of the league and a frazzled Keegan letting everyone know how much it had got to him with his “love it” diatribe into the Sky Sports cameras.
Eight weeks after Schmeichel’s heroics, the championship trophy obediently returned to Old Trafford, as it often did in those days.
Schmeichel is speaking to The Athletic via Zoom from Denmark and leans back in his chair with a contented smile. “You can argue Newcastle were a better team than we were,” he says. “But we, mentally, were the stronger team.”
The following season, it was a very different outcome. Newcastle won the corresponding fixture 5-0 and, at the end of the night, the losing players traipsed past Keegan on the steps outside St James’ Park.
One by one, they headed to the bus that was taking them back to Manchester. But the final player in the line stopped to look Keegan in the eye — and that was the moment Newcastle’s manager realised Eric Cantona spoke much better English than he had realised.
“Fucking good team you have here,” said the Frenchman. Six words — and then he was gone.
Keegan would probably like to think the same could have been said about Newcastle the previous year, too.
“We played out of our skins but you could have chucked a handful of rice at Peter Schmeichel that night and he would have kept out every grain,” says Keegan. “It was the greatest goalkeeping performance I had ever witnessed.”
Keegan later became manager of Manchester City and persuaded Schmeichel to join him at Maine Road. He never forgot what Schmeichel at his peak was capable of — and neither had Steve Howey, the former Newcastle defender who signed to play in City’s defence.
Howey remembers his first conversation with Schmeichel after they became team-mates. “We’d finished training and it was only me and him in the dressing room. He was looking at me and I just glanced across and said, ‘I’m not fucking talking about it, so you can piss off’.
“He said, ‘Come on, just me and you, let’s have a chat’. We’d had a shower and we were both sitting there in our towels. I said, ‘Your dressing room must have been absolutely buzzing afterwards’, and he said, ‘We were, but at the same time we were actually in disbelief at how we’d got away with anything, let alone three points.’
“Really, it should have been the same score as the 5-0. It has to go down as one of the outstanding goalkeeping performances of the era. ‘You know what I’m like,’ Pete said. ‘I just like to spread myself and I was making contact with everything. You could have played until midnight and you wouldn’t have scored — I was just having one of those games’.”
There was more to it than that, of course. Ferguson had a team of serial champions, bristling with title-winning know-how. Newcastle, in contrast, were the new kids on the block. It was part of their charm, one of the reasons so many people liked to watch them play. But Keegan also made the point some years later that his team lacked one key player: an exceptional goalkeeper. They didn’t have Peter Boleslaw Schmeichel.
“We absolutely battered them but we just couldn’t get past Schmeichel,” says Howey. “Les Ferdinand must have had at least three or four one-on-ones. We had other chances and couldn’t score, and basically, they just went down the pitch and caught us on the break. You could see Bez (John Beresford) trying to get back into position because we’d all been bombing forward and Cantona basically hits it into the ground.
“If you look at Man United towards the end of that season, they were winning games 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and it was often in the last couple of minutes they’d get a goal. Peter would be pulling saves out of his arse, whereas we were having people scoring worldies against us. Ian Woan at Nottingham Forest. Graham Fenton, a massive Newcastle fan (for Blackburn Rovers). It kind of knocked us.”
A lot of former pros find it hard to remember the precise details of games from the past. The dates get blurry, the details haze over. A lot of the action from game to game can merge into one.
Not this game, though. Schmeichel is reminded about it so often that he can recall even the smaller details. He remembers the wind, the rain, and the fact the pitch was so bad. With just a touch of exaggeration, he “had to go to the centre circle to get one strand of grass”.
He also remembers that Ferguson’s team, deposed as champions by Blackburn Rovers the previous season, were missing key players. Gary Pallister was one, which meant Gary Neville played in the centre of defence. Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe were on the wings, which intrigues Schmeichel because Ferguson rarely chose them both for the big occasions. “It shows you where we were in terms of players being available because he (Ferguson) would never do that.”
More than anything, Schmeichel remembers the pressure on the away team and the suffocating feeling that they dare not lose. The tension was their fuel. Very often with Ferguson’s teams, it was the fear of failure that drove them on.
“In many ways, Newcastle were the darlings of the Premier League,” says Schmeichel. “Kevin Keegan was so incredibly popular, the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. He had put this incredible team together. People loved that.
“We were on the back foot. Right from the beginning, I was under bombardment. The first 10 to 12 minutes, it was non-stop. You don’t have time to think about it. You just have to deal with whatever comes at you.”
In Ferguson’s 1999 autobiography, he describes it as “almost a miracle” that Newcastle did not score in that early blitz.
“Peter was unbelievable as he thwarted Newcastle time and again,” writes Ferguson. “Our first concerted attack did not come until just before the interval. It was a relief to gather in the dressing room and take stock of our position.”
Neville remembers it as a “personal nightmare” playing against Asprilla and Ferdinand. “We got battered — at least I did. I kicked fresh air once in the first half as Asprilla tormented me. At half-time, the manager was on turbo-charge: ‘Asprilla is beating you on the ground, he’s beating you in the air. What’s going on? Play like that second half and you’ve cost us the title’.”
Fortunately for Neville, Newcastle had to get past a goalkeeper who had the competitive courage and battle-hardened mentality that Ferguson wanted from all his players.
Schmeichel was 33 at the time, at the peak of his game, a formidable presence in the penalty area, staring down his opponents. “I remember speaking to Gary for some television work and he said, ‘Pete, you were incredibly tense to be around’,” he says. “I get that — but that was how it worked for me. That is what enabled me to go on the pitch and play under that pressure.”
It was the beat-me-if-you-can bravado that helped Schmeichel win five Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a Champions League, 129 caps for Denmark and all sorts of others trophies and individual prizes. This, ultimately, is why he will be remembered as one of the greats of his profession — and why his masterclass against Newcastle puts him No 1 in this series.
“Just think about it (the pressure) properly,” he says. “If you play for Manchester United, you’re supposed to win the Premier League every year. You’re supposed to win every game and that’s just the starting point.
“Here, though, you’ve been 12 points behind. So, straight away, you kinda messed up.
“You’re up against a team that is flying, playing incredibly well and very entertaining. And then you claw it back. You grind them down. That can happen only if, inside of you, there is something different. We defended well, cleared everything and Eric popped up with a winner.
“And, in this game, it was me, too. They were never going to score.”
(Top photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)