The 1996 FA Cup Final was the 51st to be held at Wembley Stadium after the Second World War and was held between two of the biggest rivals in English football, Manchester United and Liverpool.
A few days before the final, Manchester United had secured their third league title in four years (1992–93, 1993–94 and 1995–96, coming second in 1994–95). The final was also their third in three seasons, having beaten Chelsea 4–0 in 1994 and lost 1–0 to Everton in 1995.
Liverpool, on the other hand, were going through a barren spell in terms of trophies, having not won the league title since 1989–90 or an FA Cup since 1992, although they had tasted success in the League Cup in 1995.
Liverpool and Manchester United were the two top scoring sides in the FA Premier League in this season, and entered the game as the most attacking sides in English football, with Liverpool winning their last meeting 2–0 at Anfield, and United equalising at Old Trafford to get a 2–2 draw in the reverse fixture, with Robbie Fowler scoring all four of Liverpool's goals against United in both meetings.
The match, despite the rivalry between the two teams, was a fairly unmemorable game, rarely sparking into life, with playmakers Eric Cantona and Steve McManaman, marked and closed out by Jamie Redknapp and John Barnes and Roy Keane and Nicky Butt respectively. Keane went on to stop virtually every attack the Liverpool midfield threw at United, and covering as commentator Peter Brackley described, "every blade of grass", to win the man of the match award.
The game started with a frenetic pace and Manchester United started with several positive chances before Liverpool came back into the game, but chances at either end were limited. Neither goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel for United and David James for Liverpool, was seriously tested throughout the majority of the game. However, with just five minutes remaining on the clock, David James tried to punch a corner clear. The ball landed just outside the penalty area, at the feet of United captain Eric Cantona, who had scored in his comeback game after a seven-month suspension at Old Trafford against Liverpool earlier that season in a game that ended 2–2. Cantona hit his shot goalwards, through the crowded penalty area and the ball nestled in the back of the goal, winning the game for United. Cantona had been marked out of the game, but true to his form all season, popped up with yet another magical moment.
The win was United's third FA Cup win under Alex Ferguson, having also won in 1990 and 1994. They became the first club to win the competition nine times, and also became the first club to win the league championship and FA Cup double on two occasions.
Two notable absences from the Manchester United side were the club's two longest serving players Steve Bruce and Brian McClair, who were dropped in favour of younger players and missed out on a chance to add to their impressive list of honours at the club. Bruce never played for United again, as he was transferred to Birmingham City 11 days later, while McClair remained at the club for a further two seasons and added another league title to his personal honours.
For Liverpool, the match was perhaps most notable for being the final appearance of goalscoring legend Ian Rush, who had scored 346 goals for the club since joining them in 1980 (sandwiched by a one-season spell at Juventus in the late 1980s) and left at the end of the season to sign for Leeds United.
The only Manchester United player whose involvement with the club ended with this game was unused substitute Lee Sharpe, who joined Rush at Leeds United just before the 1996–97 season began, after eight years at Old Trafford.
The match was also notable for a non-football reason, having been picked up by the British tabloids for its pre-match formalities because the Liverpool team turned up in Emporio Armani cream-coloured suits, outlandish, striped ties, and white Gucci shoes, causing much press conjecture to follow regarding the side's "Spice Boys" image, which began shortly after Liverpool were defeated in this game.