“The first time I played with them,” said Bryan Robson of Manchester United’s Class of ’92. “You’re thinking ‘right, I’m gonna have to look after a couple of them.’ Well, I think it was in the first five minutes, Scholesy smashes one of their centre-halves, then you’ve got Gary Neville belting their winger all over the place [and] we get a free-kick from about 20 yards out and Becks goes ‘er, Robbo, I take these.’”
This was truly a special bunch, as United’s then captain had quickly found out. Indeed, so special were they that Robson’s recollection of these players some two decades later featured in a video tribute, shown on the night they, and those that helped mould them, were handed a PFA merit award. Just in case this accolade, to go along with several career trophies, doesn’t do the six famous academy graduates justice – they are, if you’ve somehow forgotten, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Phil and Gary Neville – there is also a film.
Apprehension is to be expected when telling a story that’s been told plenty, but it’s not so much a problem for something like The Class of ’92, because, quite simply, people like to hear about it no matter how often they’ve actually heard about it. And yet, even without the pressure of having to find a fresh angle, they do anyway, achieving full access with the players – and those that didn’t quite cut it at United – that goes well beyond talking heads. This is where the documentary’s lasting appeal is found: they use these personalities remarkably well. The action is secondary, not supported but used to support. It’s the story of six working-class lads united by their having of the same things and their wanting of the same things. And it’s pretty great to watch.
Having failed to get past the group stages of 1994′s Champions League, there was much for United to lament. But there was also a lot to look forward to: a 4-0 win to round off a mixed campaign over bogey-team Galatasaray was impressive on its own, but more so because United had turned to youth. “We have to develop or buy more English players,” Eric Cantona cooed post-match, addressing the restriction on foreign players that existed then. “But we have a good school of young players and they may be the answer.” Cantona had clearly seen something in a game where 19-year-olds Beckham, Butt and Gary Neville had started, the former making his début and scoring. The following morning, Rob Hughes of the Times was still unsure, posing a legitimate question: “We have enjoyed a glimpse of United’s future. It is full of promise of youth, but when will we see it reach manhood?”
That maturity process is key to the film, to their story. The 1992 Youth Cup triumph represented a lot – especially to Nicky Butt, who puts it “on par” with everything else he’s won – but there was still much to do, Beckham asserting that one trophy is “never enough”. Raphael Burke, supposedly as good as anyone else in that set but failing to make it any further, remarked of the “sacrifice” the six players had made. Gary Neville left his friends behind completely, a career at United more important. It clearly did something, since Neville, at one point, “was nowhere near as talented – technically – as all the other boys”, according to Eric Harrison. It is perhaps the most extreme example, but recognised that before a Treble could be won, or an appearance in Europe could be made, only putting in more than enough was enough.
Gary Neville, it should be said, didn’t exactly have little go his way: he was still the “leader” of the group, a future Manchester United captain for all to see. Phil, with slightly more natural ability, shared his older brother’s dedication (and his tendency to keep talking – and was why Jaap Stam affectionately referred to them as “busy c-nts” in his autobiography). David Beckham, the one from London, didn’t have to worry about adjusting because his obvious talent had seen him through; Ryan Giggs was a “down-to-earth superstar”, Phil Neville thought, and Scholes was just Scholes. Introducing him to Harrison, as noted in Ian Marshall’s book, Brian Kidd told him: “He’s only tiny; he’s got ginger hair – you’ll probably have a bit of a laugh. But he can’t half play.” Scholes emerges as the star of the feature: there is the impression that he’d rather be elsewhere, but he’s still got a lot to say. Having to collect his Champions League winners’ medal in a suit, he spoke of the embarrassment he felt, admitting he’d “rather just gone in the dressing room and waited, really.”
While logic dictates most praise should go to Giggs, Beckham or Scholes, it’s distributed as evenly as can serve the story. The audience can rank for themselves: in the end, the most important thing is the Class. “Everyone looked after each other,” Butt points out. The midfielder is given his dues, and it’s one of the things the film doesn’t necessarily have to do, but does it so well. Butt’s contribution cannot be forgotten, especially in ’98/99, where he was something of a Big Game Player, Alex Ferguson often preferring him to Scholes. His exit in 2004 was notable for the way it was handled compared to those other high-profile footballers: “Nicky has given Manchester United great service,” was the manager’s response to a transfer request. On that note, it’s a shame Ferguson didn’t make an appearance beyond archived footage.
The appreciation of the other’s achievements is best shown when the players get together and simply reminisce. They provide commentary on the pivotal moments in 1999: the “turning point” that was the turnaround at home to Liverpool in the FA Cup, the final league game against Spurs and then Bayern Munich. It’s the bouncing off of each other, the quiet reflection, the laughter that meets the anecdotes about Ferguson that makes this particularly pleasant. They were teammates, but also, and still are, just friends.
These friends didn’t just prosper by themselves, and it’s great that the film doesn’t build to something false. Fergie was the person who put it all into place, United’s scouting system three times bigger within a month at his command. Once the players arrived, coaches Kidd and Harrison helped guide them. “The standard of coaching we’d receive was out of this world for fourteen-year-old kids,” wrote Gary Neville in Red. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Giggs gives Harrison much credit: “It was built in us from Eric Harrison that you practise, practise, practise. My crossing was crap when I was younger. I wanted to improve my crossing.” And when United won the Double in the 1995/96 season, it was, says Scholes, mostly down to the senior players. “We had all these top players who got the young lads through it.” Zinedine Zidane, who makes an appearance, praised this potent mix of youth and experience, seeing it first hand in Turin, April ’99.
If there is one misstep, it’s in the eagerness to create social and cultural parallels. It’s done well, mainly; Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and Mani from the Stone Roses are useful in providing context, the former noting how Manchester took government disinterest to reinvent itself, and how United were a “symbol” of that. Mani, meanwhile, is good comic relief. The problem exists with the third non-footballing person to chime in. For something that’s focus is the years 1992-1999, it’s difficult to ignore Tony Blair, but they should have done anyway. New Labour, essentially repackaged Thatcherism, was hardly an example of a change taking place: and, in the end, represented very little for a lot of people. Blair is given a halo only briefly, however, and, that being about the only blemish, the film gets back to fulfilling its purpose.
That purpose is to show the great camaraderie which gave birth to a timeless modern football story: something to tell and retell. Eric Cantona glows in his praise of the “perfect script” – with a cast just as perfect to boot.
5/5 - It’s amazing how merely the sight of the word ‘Aeroflot’ in a shot of the Holy Trinity statue could lead to such longing.
Wrath: Wanting to confront Dante.
Ferguson’s bloody hell, 1988
When people would speak about Alex Ferguson the football manager, their words would come off as nothing more than the old platitudes we could all do without. “Ferguson sets high standards” – well, who doesn’t? But perhaps it isn’t as empty and banal as we think. His standards were pretty high. In This is the One, Daniel Taylor writes of the time a Rio Ferdinand error in a game’s dying moments prompted Ferguson to rush “out of his seat, throwing his arms in the air and furiously swearing.” What makes this particular tale delightful, and what made Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs collapse into “giggles in the next row,” was that Manchester United had come to White Hart Lane and scored four against Tottenham without reply. The win saw United go six points clear in the 2006/07 season; no wonder Ferguson was seen “laughing and joking in the dugout, totally relaxed” moments before.
Back when things were a whole lot less serious, United went to play Hartlepool United in what Iain McCartney’s Forgotten Fixtures says was “classed as a reserve team friendly.” It was hardly that. “The names of Turner, Anderson, Duxbury, McGrath and Whiteside all appeared on the team sheet,” McCartney wrote, this seemingly an attempt to raise match sharpness with the new season a few days away. But, despite the difference in quality and status, United were blown away. ”We were 5-0 down at half-time,” Viv Anderson told the Sun. “And that was the first time I’d really had the hairdryer.”
Nobody wants to see their side concede five goals in 45 minutes to a fourth division outfit, even in a pre-season friendly, but the response at half-time in the dressing-room was distinctly Ferguson. “There’s a table in the dressing room with water, tea and orange juice on it,” Anderson recalled. “He comes in and knocks everything off – hot tea and everything is flying into people’s faces. Then he goes round individually: ‘You fucking think you’re a Manchester United player?’ Every single player. The veins in his neck are standing out. You know he is deadly serious. He didn’t do it all the time. He chose his moments. You can’t do it all the time or it loses its effect. But 5-0 down at Hartlepool is the right time.”
Ferguson was so annoyed that he cancelled the players’ day off, according to McCartney, “furious at them for allowing themselves to be overrun by such lowly opposition.” 6-0 was the final score.
“I let my anger show in the right places,” Ferguson said post-match.
Forlan — wait for it — gets the boot, 2004
It had only been 18 months since football boots figured some way in a Manchester United player’s exit, but it was one Diego Forlan couldn’t say wasn’t coming. Forlan was no David Beckham in terms of impact at the club – and least that’s what it looked like – and his departure, though in circumstances that could easily have been avoided (of course!), was exactly what the Uruguayan needed in his eventual conversion from hapless striker to one of the best in his position.
His last United appearance came from the bench, replacing Eric Djemba-Djemba – those were the days – in the first game of the 2004/05 season, where an early Eidur Gudjohnsen goal had been enough for Chelsea and new manager Jose Mourinho. Forlan’s days by then had looked numbered, but an act of defiance against Alex Ferguson might have helped speed up the process.
“Ferguson wanted me to play with long studs,” Forlan revealed five years later, in 2009. “The interchangeable ones that suit wet pitches, but I feel more comfortable in short ones. I agreed to change but I didn’t and, against Chelsea, I slipped in front of goal and wasted a chance.”
Forlan’s attempts at a cover-up proved fatal. “Afterwards, I rushed to the dressing room to change boots but Ferguson caught me. He grabbed the boots and threw them. That was my last game for United.”
Rooney gets angry and scores, 2005
People are always told to channel their anger in a positive way, but few ever do; anger, says one amateur psychologist, isn’t quite that simple to negotiate with. Just ask Alex Stepney, if he’s taking your calls. The Manchester United goalkeeper, who starred through the ‘60s and ‘70s, once bizarrely dislocated his own jaw in a Division Two game. He had barked orders at his beleaguered defence (they call it “the Docherty years”) with too much force for his own good. That’s how not to be angry.
When Wayne Rooney was one day angry on a football pitch – this apparently happens a lot – he was able to find a positive outlet. Trailing 1-0 to Newcastle United, Rooney, wandering up the field, multi-tasked: he was both watching the game and arguing with Neale Barry, the referee. Then, as the ball hung in the air from a defensive clearance, the referee that irritated him so no longer mattered. He hit the sweetest of volleys and everything was good again. To be fair, it was pretty special.
Even for a scorer of great goals, this one was right up there, and always will be. The context made it better: United struggled up until then, as did Rooney. He had also been booked for a belated challenge on James Milner and, says one amateur body language expert, looked like he would soon be sent off. This is not to forget that he was set to be replaced because of a niggling injury anyway. As it went, they kept him on and he helped his team to a 2-1 win.
A lot of things have happened with Rooney since then that is seems a little regrettable, in hindsight, for this moment to feel so bittersweet. It was enjoyable beyond its aesthetics because it was, quintessentially, a Wayne Rooney goal. A young and unpredictable Wayne Rooney, whose whatever-it-was burning inside of him so often had the potential to swing a football match.
Neville learns a lesson, 2007
“If the coach has no control, he will not last.” In 2012, the Harvard Business Review looked for some words of wisdom from Alex Ferguson and found them. ”If the day came that the manager of Manchester United was controlled by the players – if the players decided how the training should be, what days they should have off, what the discipline should be, and what the tactics should be – then Manchester United would not be the Manchester United we know. You have to achieve a position of comprehensive control. Players must recognise that as the manager you have the status to control events. I wasn’t going to allow anyone to be stronger than I was.”
In a Champions League knockout tie at Lille in 2007, Ryan Giggs took a free-kick quickly while the opposition were still trying to assemble a wall and scored. It stood, and Lille walked off in disgust. Multiple narratives were being formed. Gary Neville recounts in Red: “‘Come on, get on with the fucking game,’ I said to their captain, following him towards the side of the pitch. The next thing I knew the manager was charging down the touchline shouting at me. ‘Neville, what are you doing? Get back on!’ He had really snapped. As far as I was concerned I’d been doing the sensible thing … so I snapped back – ‘Fuck off’ – and walked away.” He’d never told the manager that before.
Neville dreaded facing up to the Scot – and quite rightly, because Ferguson was never one for lenience. He always had to achieve a position of comprehensive control. Called into his office, Neville received a “bollocking” and was fined a week’s wages. It didn’t end there. The right-back was dropped for the following game against Fulham in favour of Wes Brown, reasoned with the aerial threat they posed. “Imagine how chuffed I was when we got down there and they had Alexei Smertin on the left flank, all four foot six inches of him, or whatever he is,” Neville wrote. “‘I could have played you after all,’ the manager said in the dressing room, looking at their teamsheet. He was laughing.” It still didn’t end there.
He’d be taken down for the next game at Reading – and miss that, too. “The trip was a total waste of time, but the boss had asserted his authority. I wouldn’t be swearing at him again.”
Cantona was just being Cantona, 1995
Everyone knows everything they need to know about that incident with Roy Keane and Alf-Inge Haaland. They know that line from Keane’s autobiography. Some may have forgotten – it’s conceivable, in a way. It goes like this: “I’d waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you cunt. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.” They know of Keane’s many rants, of Big Time Charlies, and of flying boots (though nobody can quite decide on whether it was thrown or kicked). Some of Manchester United’s wrath is so well-documented that there’s no need revisiting it, because it’s been discussed as often as prawn sandwiches have been eaten.
There’s all of that and so much more, and then there’s what Eric Cantona did one evening at Selhurst Park. It can’t be ignored. That’s wrath. A sending-off – a kick out at a Crystal Palace defender – and an hour-long battle with the referee saw a man full of rage but composed in walking off anyway, only to be pushed over the edge at the sight of a home fan, foaming with obscenities. In a revealing interview with Darren Tullett of the Observer, Cantona gave an insight into his mind. “There was a barrier between us so I had to jump over it,” he said. “That’s all, otherwise I might have just steamed in with my fists. You know, you meet thousands of people like him [Matthew Simmons]. And how things turn out can hinge on the precise moment you run into them. If I’d met that guy on another day, things may have happened very differently even if he had said exactly the same things. Life is weird like that. You’re on a tightrope every day.”
It might seem unfortunate that this particularly dark moment in Cantona’s career – though celebrated nevertheless – is what the casual football fan remembers most, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Cantona has probably only ever fly kicked a mouthy spectator once in his career, and yet, for some, it’s a moment as Cantona-like as a delicate chip: both instances allow those to understand this man, even if one is more favourable than the other. The Frenchman would also come to recognise how much his kick resonated. (It’s easy to feel inclined to him: the forward’s biographer Philippe Auclair noted that Simmons was a “BNP and National Front sympathiser”, something that adds up when taking into what he may or may not — witness accounts differ — have said.) ”It’s like a dream for some, you know sometimes to kick these kind of people,” supposed Cantona in 2011. “So I did it for [the fans]. So they are happy. It’s a kind of freedom for them.”
So while it is what the casual football fan ‘remembers most’, it is surely not all that person knows. You can’t see an image of an athlete with his studs wedged in another person’s chest and leave it at that: it’s an Eric Cantona gateway. You’ll want to learn more; first the context of the kick, then of the man. Cantona, someone whose football hinged on his character, whose character hinged on his football.
Back to the Observer interview. Cantona continues: “The most important thing for me is that I was who I was. I was myself!”
Well, this was fun. The other six can be found here. There’ll probably be an ebook soon, with extras. Look out for that.
Lust: Lust isn’t just a sin limited to the tabloid tales of Ryan Giggs, The Doc and anything vaguely linked to Dwight Yorke. It could be something better, something enjoyable (or none of those, but that is very much the aim). Looking and scrolling through various dictionary websites to numbers 4, 5, 6 and 27, it’s been decided that ‘Lust’ can indeed be kept clean (and unintentionally prudish): any examples of love for the club, yearning (trophies!), craving (money! power!), pleasure (the various successes of a great football club, duh!) and relish (mmm, relish) all apparently constitute lust. Read on Mr and Mrs Lovejoy.
Lust: Wanting Dante.
But Stam, why are you so mad? 2001
Retirement is just about the only way a high-profile footballer can leave a big club feeling happy and satisfied. In Red, the happy and satisfied Gary Neville recalls the moment he caught Jaap Stam emerging from Sir Alex Ferguson’s office in a ‘state of shock’. “I’m out of here,” Stam would tell him. “I’m flying to Rome to sign for Lazio tonight.” How did it get so bad, so quickly for the Dutchman? Stam was only a United player for three years but, Rob Smyth writes, “had the enduring impact of a one-club man.” Indeed, Ferguson has spoken openly about Stam in the past, wishing he had stayed longer.
(The Neville and Stam exchange, as written in the former’s book: “You’re under contract. You can stay.” “No, he wants me out. There’s no point staying where I’m not wanted.”).
Has Ferguson been honest about why he’d let him go? There was his age (and the money Lazio were prepared to pay in relation to that), his fitness and also Head to Head, Stam’s very own book. Nobody but the Scot is certain of the impact the autobiography had on Stam’s United career, but it can’t have helped, even as nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. The serialisation of Stam’s book in the Daily Mirror – then edited by a gleeful Piers Morgan – caught everyone’s attention: he had alleged that Ferguson approached him at PSV without the club’s permission and that, apparently, the manager encouraged going to ground easily in order to win a penalty. David Beckham, he wrote, would never “be asked to take a turn in the black chair of Mastermind,” while the Neville brothers were known as ”busy c-nts … for their endless grumbling.”
Though Gary Neville was not pleased it made the papers, he knew it was “meant affectionately.” You simply had to read on to find that out: ”Gary’s desire to chatter actually turns into a benefit for the team,” Stam wrote. “Before we take to the pitch he’s always discussing how the particular game should be played … he’s impressed me so much that I’d even stick my neck out and say he’d make a good manager.” Beckham, meanwhile, is ”not thick, he’s just a normal guy having to put up with a lot of shit thrown at him by people who don’t even know his true personality.” And when Simon Kuper interviewed Stam just weeks before it all went to pot, he noted that the player ”worshipped Alex Ferguson.” Stam’s book was written with good intentions. And he loved United. He just had a funny way of saying it.
Neville and Blackmore 4eva, 1991
It might have been the frequent hairstyles or simply the dearth of handsome faces in the United dressing room, but, in the early Nineties, Clayton Blackmore was, in Gary Neville’s own words, the team’s “pin-up defender.” It was perhaps why his team-mates stuck a life-size picture of the Welshman that young apprentices were forced to make love to, as part of their initiation. Neville recalls: “… as Barry White music played, whichever unlucky apprentice had been chosen would have to dance around the table and pretend to get off with Wales’ right-back. I can’t tell you how excruciating that is for a 16-year-old in front of heroes like Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson.” This would happen as Blackmore watched on “pissing himself with laughter like the rest of the first-teamers.”
“Refuse to make love to Clayton properly and a second-year apprentice would smash you over the head with a ball wrapped up in a towel,” Neville continued. “God it hurt.”
Best’s greatest game, 1966
Matt Busby’s reputation is as a coach who had won things, rather than a coach who had done things. History would argue that he was no tactician; instead, like many others at the time, he was handy at man-management, a true motivator who helped inspire the most symbolic European Cup win in the game’s history. For us, his response to a straightforward question — “How do we play, Boss?” — sums him up best: “We play football.” There are apparently many variations to this exchange with full-back Noel Cantwell; indeed, it may never have even happened. But, crucially, it sounds as if it could be true. None of this is supposed to reflect badly on Busby; his true genius can be found in the big results he managed and the big crowds they drew in. And even Busby must have known that to simply ‘play’ was not always so wise: the opposition would not always be a Leicester City, or a Northampton Town.
The one team United certainly could not afford to ‘play’ against — that is, hope the quality of their players alone could overwhelm the opposition — was a side with similar aspirations, one they would jostle with two years later for the boast of being Europe’s best. Benfica did not have George Best, Denis Law or Bobby Charlton, but a fan of the Portuguese outfit might have pointed out that Manchester United did not have Eusebio, Jose Torres or Antonio Simoes. These players, writes Joe Lovejoy in his biography of George Best, formed a “trinity of their own [just] as revered”. With a 3-2 aggregate lead over Benfica coming into the second-leg, Busby ordered his players to keep it tight. “It was one England’s champions seemed destined to fail,” Lovejoy said. “A fragile one-goal lead was unlikely to be enough in one of the great cathedrals of the game, where Benfica had never lost a European tie.” To play it safe was the logical thing to do.
Manchester United, as underdogs, went on to win 5-1. Busby would not have expected such a margin of victory, but could still feel slightly vindicated: it was clear that his philosophy — an expressive playing style all the best sides possessed — was all his players were really familiar with. “We didn’t know how to keep a game tight,” George Best would later say. “We just knew how to batter teams, which is what we did.” If Busby, by default, had some responsibility for the win, then the rest would go to Best. It was said to be his finest hour in a red shirt, where he ignored the instructions of his manager because he envisaged so much more than everyone else. This lust was typical of Best (as well as many other kinds): good players are naturally confident, but Best took it further. He would recall the game in his autobiography Blessed, stating that he could barely remember half-time, perhaps “because I was so wrapped up in my performance.” He had scored twice early on, stunning the hosts into inaction. Lovejoy wrote that “Benfica were nonplussed. Briefed to expect opponents in backs-to-the-wall defensive mode, they were still trying to adjust when their tormentor-in-chief laid on the third, for John Connelly.”
“I told them to play it tight for a while, for 20 minutes or so until we got their measure, but George just went out and destroyed them,” said Busby, proudly. “[Benfica] were also prepared to play it tight for a while – that is what always happens in European games. Then out comes this kid, as if he’s never heard of tradition, and starts running at them, turning them inside out. I ought to have shouted at him for not following instructions, but what could you say? He was a law unto himself. He always was.” Technically, there was no sin. Not yet, anyway. Best lusted after glory, and got it. Nobody could resent him for that.
The Portuguese paper A Bola declared the next day: ‘A Beatle called Best smashes Benfica’. Bobby Charlton thought it was “probably George’s best game”. Denis Law, too, saying it was “the start of all the hype.” Best started to believe that hype, according to Lovejoy. “The morning after found the man of the moment feted like John, Paul, George and Ringo rolled into one. Playing up to the El Beatle image, Best went out and bought the biggest sombrero he could find. He was still wearing it when he got back to Manchester, a heaven-sent picture for the phalanx of photographers awaiting him on his return. A star was born.
“It was post-Benfica that George Best’s popularity mushroomed to pop star heights, unprecedented for a footballer.” The sinning would soon start.
Sir, I want some more, 2002
Sir Alex Ferguson first announced his retirement in 2001 and eventually walked away in 2013. He had done it all in 1999 and actually thought as much: until he realised he could probably do more. So he decided to stay put in 2002. The Glazer family took full control of the club in 2005 and Ferguson won more, and was happy to back them in face of protest from fans because they allowed Manchester United to win more. He desired a second European Cup and got that in 2008. He wanted to knock Liverpool off their perch and did that officially in 2009. And he won some more trophies after that. He would do things out-of-character in order to win, even if didn’t always work out that way; he was happy to break up a midfield four of Beckham, Scholes, Keane and Giggs when he signed Juan Sebastian Veron, hoping to bring his side in line with others on the continent. It didn’t work and £28.1m Veron left in 2003. But he tried. When United lost 6-1 to Manchester City in 2012, Ferguson described the performance as “suicidal”. United, a man short, kept going forward. “We should have just said: ‘We’ve had our day’.” Later that season, with United closing in on the league, they surrendered a 4-2 lead against Everton. They lusted after a bigger margin but instead went on to concede two late goals.
And so because City had won the title, Ferguson bought the country’s top scorer, Robin van Persie, despite already having a number of attacking players at his disposal. Van Persie was not cheap and, at 29, was considerably older than the other players United usually look at. Still, it worked a treat — Ferguson soon had another trophy. He left the job as football’s greatest winner, even taking delight at having surprised so many with another promise of retirement, this time for real.
Billy Meredith wants player power, 1907-9
Two Germans once envisaged a workers’ revolution in the West that would shape the 20th century. Neither envisaged it not happening, nor the diluted form that favoured reform that took its place. But, hey, one of them hasn’t got a frighteningly large sculpture of his head for no reason. A consciousness was developed and it spread to all the places where the worker felt alienated: even football.
This was the early 1900s, and football was slightly different then. There was a maximum wage of £4 (“why don’t soldiers and nurses earn that sort of money?”) and the Manchester clubs did not hate each others’ guts quite as much, united by shared experiences and their hatred of the southern-based Football Association. If there’s one thing that’s stayed the same through time, and not just in football, it’s the widely-held contempt for those in charge. Billy Meredith, who played for both City and United, was one of the first to challenge the FA.
Meredith was quite the footballer: those who spoke about football spoke of Meredith. In 1935, Sir Frederick Wall wrote vividly of the “football prince … Meredith the magnificent” in his book 50 Years of Football. “Of the back-heel pass he was a ready exponent and he remains the only man I have ever seen chewing a quill toothpick while playing in the hardest of matches.” Meredith sounds like an early-day Eric Cantona (whose toothpick was his open collar); the best and most expressive player on the field who liked to do things on his own terms, regardless of who it upset.
Meredith’s transfer to United came only after the destruction of his all-conquering City side — in which he played a large part. In a tell-all, he admitted to bribery charges but claimed he was not alone in the act, and put the success of a working-class club like City (which the FA were apparently so perplexed by they went to investigate) down to the fact that players were mostly paid above the maximum wage. In breach of the rules, many were ordered to leave City at once. “The team delivered the goods, the club paid for the goods delivered and both sides were satisfied,” Meredith said, describing what must have seemed like a football-utopia. And not just to him: the FA, as we know, would only kill the maximum wage in 1961. Meredith didn’t know.
The desire for player power consumed Meredith. He told a popular union paper in 1909 that working-class professionals have, for too long, “put up with indifferences and injustices of many kinds”, it is only now that they have realised the extent of it. The biggest injustice — “the rank injustice” — was the £4 maximum wage. The Players’ Union, set up by Meredith and team-mate Charlie Roberts, sought to end put an end to it.
The FA initially played along to the union before deciding, in 1909, to have nothing to do with it. The wage ceiling would stay forever, and failure to resign from the union would put careers at risk. How lovely. Inevitably, many left (only Manchester United refused to back down, and were suspended, though temporarily). Meredith saw class traitors: “The unfortunate thing is that so many players … do just what they are told … instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class.” While he continued to dazzle on the field, and find great success from it, Meredith could never quite put this behind him. He would later tell a Players’ Union secretary to “always remind your members that caps and medals didn’t look after me in my old age.”
References/further reading: John Simkin’s biography of Meredith on Spartacus Educational; Ian King on the maximum wage and Gavin Saxton on the fall of Manchester City, both on twohundred-percent.net; Ian McMillan’s report on ‘Outcast FC’ in the Guardian. With thanks to Paul and Greg Johnson for their help and Miguel Delaney for providing George Best material.
PROLOGUE: As Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson can boast a shedload of Premier League titles, a bucketload of FA Cups, and far too many League Cups, Champions Leagues, Charity Shields and individual awards to just store away somewhere sensible. How do you, then, write about a man who has accomplished so much? The task sounds daunting, but some were about to do it justice (recommended, though it’s been a while: this one, this one and this one).
In one of the many great tribute pieces, the Guardian‘s Daniel Harris had written the following:
We’re obsessed by stories, and we’re obsessed by happiness, and Alex Ferguson has provided indecent amounts of both, such that listing the bare facts of his achievements, however impressive they are, would be completely to miss his measure. The numbers are simply an aspect of the attributes that make him such a compelling and extraordinary character.
Harris says that Ferguson’s departure would be such a significant loss to the sport that even United’s “greatest rivals will feel differently in his absence.” It is by being an imperfect and complex character that Ferguson has been able to either earn the full respect of many, primarily fans of United and Aberdeen, or the begrudging respect of the rest. Success accounts for a lot of that, but there is more to say about the Scot than just how many trophies he has won. This is important, and if we were to take Harris’ idea further, that to simply list his achievements would be to “miss his measure”, Ferguson’s success — which translates to ‘titles’ — has also created shortcuts when discussing on-the-pitch matters. It’s acknowledged that he has won titles, but the whys and hows should also be considered because it helps to distinguish this individual from football’s other winners.
The shock of a benched Wayne Rooney in what would later turn out to be Ferguson’s last chance to win another European Cup — only his third — was understandable: who wasn’t just a little surprised? After all, here was a man so desperate to win the most coveted trophy in club football that he cared little about who knew; the frequency and depth to his expressions of regret was almost uncharacteristic of someone who would, at the same time, speak proudly of all his players and all he has achieved with them. Had Ferguson not been so close in 2009 and 2011, the dramatic shootout victory of 2008 might have seemed recent enough for him to be content. Alas, no; he acknowledged the popular retort to any Ferguson praise — “he’s only won it twice in 26 years” — and, regardless of whether it was fair or not, regardless of whether it took into account just how difficult a thing winning in Europe is, he seemed to agree with it. By dropping Rooney, some got the impression he wanted to extend it to 27 years. And yet, despite all this, it was a classic Ferguson move. He wanted his third.
A Champions League final at Wembley — that being the scene of his very first triumph — would have been a perfect way for Ferguson to bow out, with the manager’s first and last pieces of silverware creating a sort of bookend. The significance of that FA Cup win in 1990 should not be downplayed. Ferguson wrote in his very first programme notes four years previous that “success has a snowball effect.” Little did he know it would lead to a start of a dynasty.
Even though Ferguson maintains that he would have kept his job even had his side lost to Crystal Palace in the final, it felt as if time had been running out. If not now, then soon. However, as if unaware, Ferguson made the biggest decision of his career yet. He dropped goalkeeper Jim Leighton after United drew 3-3 with Palace and opted instead to select Les Sealey for the replay. It was the first real example of Ferguson’s notorious ruthlessness, a decision made more amazing when you consider that Sealey was only at the club on loan and making his third appearance of the season. Leighton was punished for a poor performance and Sealey, of course, would go on to be the star, making a series of outstanding saves fitting for any ‘keeper of Manchester United. (Leighton, meanwhile, the Rooney in goal, was later offered the medal by the fans’ new, sympathetic favourite.) Sealey would help Alex Ferguson win his first trophy … and an equally-heroic display against Barcelona in the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later allowed him to win a second.
But goalkeepers, ambiguous as they are, are better suited to the background. Eric Cantona is often credited with United’s upward movement but perhaps not even Ferguson could have envisaged the impact he would have had. He underestimated him and later told Philippe Auclair that he was one of those players “who do what can’t be taught, who, in fact, teach you something you didn’t know about football, and can’t be learnt, because you had no idea it existed before they did it.” With Cantona, United went from tenth to eighth in November and then higher than they’d ever been with Ferguson: to first place. There were other signings designed to do exactly the same thing: namely Andy Cole, who with Dwight Yorke created the most satisfying strike partnership on these and any shores, and, most recently, Robin van Persie.
A masterful Roy Keane display in 1994′s cup final might have been another occasion when Ferguson felt most vindicated, a record-signing who looked a bargain within his first season. But Keane’s talent was obvious; there have been others that Ferguson has been able to turn into winners where it has been less clear. The Scot’s faith in Danny Welbeck this season was not misplaced, but not widely understood, either. Welbeck was United’s best player over two legs against Real Madrid and had largely done his job — to “choke” Xabi Alonso — and was hailed by the Spanish press in the first at Bernabeu as “the star, involved in all Manchester’s best plays.” Ferguson would come out the loser, but it didn’t feel that way. Phil Jones looked like a natural midfielder and David de Gea’s display was a testament to all the good work United have done with the player in little time.
With Darren Fletcher — not unlike the appointment of David Moyes — a cynic would often say that Ferguson’s admiration came first from the fact that they were both Scottish. But ‘Fergie’s son’ — as his critics, Roy Keane and practically everyone else, would later find out — was a good player anyway, and if there was any favouritism shown to him by the manager, it did not do the club much harm. The midfielder was a true product of Ferguson’s latter-day Manchester United (this is a good thing): an important player without any special or distinctive features, but capable of many things. John O’Shea was another.
There was also the transformation of Park ji-Sung into a player that would play in the biggest of games and the brief revival of Wes Brown in 2007/08 where he looked like the defender Ferguson always wanted him to be. In 2001, he believed that Brown was the best natural defender in the country, “better than Sol Campbell … [and] Rio Ferdinand,” and, in 2009, maintained that he indeed still was, if injury-free. That double-winning season saw Ferguson get the very best out of his players; he successfully managed to serve the interests of all of Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and, in the Champions League final, Owen Hargreaves had one of his finer performances on the right in a move designed to give United a third midfield option and allow Ronaldo the freedom he desired. (Another small victory: Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia were not replacements for Ronaldo and Tevez when they’d left, and yet a change of style — or lack of it — to something more pragmatic, still saw United to their 18th.)
When United put four past Schalke at Old Trafford in the same competition in 2010/11, a watching Pep Guardiola, envious of perhaps the one thing his all-conquering Barcelona team did not have — depth — said afterwards that they “played a Champions League semi-final with a team full of reserves and won 4-1 – that says everything you need to know about the quality they have.” A lot of things have happened since then, but Fergie’s emphasis on a big squad remains the same, as obvious a thing as that sounds. He believes his 1999 squad was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today,” and that has shown; other teams could provide an eleven that look better on paper, but United, who have had 20 different goalscorers, have been able to churn out points at a rate where their challengers couldn’t, even throwing a few away for fun for the sake of a 5-5.
What else? Federico Macheda recalls Ferguson’s promise of a place on the first-team bench if he could get a goal against Newcastle for the reserves. “Can you imagine the excitement?” Macheda said. “Then I went and scored a hat-trick.” Then he went and scored the title-winning goals against Aston Villa and Sunderland in the following weeks. While it’d be reaching too far to give Ferguson credit for goals he could never have expected, it fits with his great management of youth. The Class of ’92 and their subsequent rise must be Ferguson’s biggest source of pride, and, according to Phil Neville in 1997, “the boss paved the way” for his generation to become everything they wanted to be: league and FA Cup winners, England internationals and whatever they were after the treble success. This great believer in youth, however, in his last game, shunned the chance to officially promote another youngster, Adnan Januzaj, preferring Rio Ferdinand to put a lid on United’s own defensive implosion. He wanted to win above all.
Someone, naming no names, wrote this about Antonio Valencia in April 2012:
They tell you that football is a game played by eleven, not one, but what is this sport, like the chocolate selection box you feel guilty for constantly treating yourself to, if you haven’t got your favourites? Valencia is the caramel hazelnut.
Things have changed. The caramel hazelnut that tasted so good has mysteriously disappeared; the wrapper*, of some sort of green-y, blue colour, is the same, but the contents are different. Some factory negligence or something.
When you look past the silverware and the guard of honours (i.e the important stuff (also: topical)), your favourites alone can make football worthwhile. It’s soppy, but true. It’s what makes a live game a little more enjoyable and your own sense of nostalgia feel unique and personal. Valencia could have confidently called himself a favourite of many not long ago, but, like life, extended chocolate metaphors and ’90s boybands, things invariably turn ugly. Fine, except it’s happened too soon. Valencia was better when he was one of the favourites. The Rafaels, De Geas and the Welbecks remain the milk ganaches, praline truffles and tangy oranges, but Valencia, this champagne-coffee-coconut-strawberry treat, is no longer among them.
Anything can be made to look better — or worse — when you have something to compare it to. Antonio Valencia has not had a good season. Put it next to the one before that and it’s been close to terrible. And, when you consider the expectation a player of his/at this level carries, ‘close to terrible’ still stands even if you were to completely isolate this season.
What’s more worrying is that it’s difficult to pin down why. For a player to become worse is expected; heck, Valencia is like any other winger, cursed from birth, but from one season to another and by this much? At 27? For such a superior United side? Is Garth Crooks more entertaining than he is thick? To simply put it down to confidence seems lazy, regardless if true, because it’s not really known how much confidence affects a player and then, if so, why it has such an impact. Does it suddenly erase natural ability? It could all just be a coincidence; that instead of having five or six forgettable games like he had last season, he’s had 25 or 26 out of his 30-odd this time around. What about the change of shirt numb- no.
In reality, it might be that United have set up differently in a way that hasn’t favoured the Ecuadorian. Sir Alex Ferguson has been bold with selection and constant with his changes: happy times for the wide-men in this joyful season where, at times, the manager has played just one or none at all (Valencia, though, has made as many league appearances as he had in his award-winning year). But it still doesn’t completely explain Valencia’s profligacy throughout, where, with the ball, he’s stumbled and stuttered (and not in the Valencia way of ’11, where his Garrincha stutter was his chief weapon), been matched by defenders he would usually get the better of and produced balls so unworthy of its homonym in the shadow cabinet. His struggles and the lack of answers for it suggests that football is a game better left alone, where all attempts at analysis are futile. Perhaps he was never that good at footb- no.
It’s hard being hard on Valencia, but ultimately justified. Singling him out makes sense because, one, he’s played the most games of all the wingers, and, two, because his descent is the most surprising.
All of this is less a criticism of the player than it is an expression of disappointment in a season largely lacking in these. It’s what makes you say ‘close to terrible’ instead of just ‘terrible’.
How sad. And, anyway, his best performance? The title-winning game against Aston Villa, perhaps, and in those around it up to the 1-1 draw at Arsenal on Sunday, but there’s little about a slight improvement to be enthusiastic about. There was also Chelsea in a cup replay — where he played at right-back, of course.
*Well, the non-bourgeois chocolate selection boxes contain wrapped chocolates.
Ashley Young had one of his finest games in a red shirt — opposition and definition of finest considered — in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Manchester City earlier this season. Good things barely repeat themselves, however, and so Monday’s reverse fixture was slightly different. Indeed, it was exactly that: a reversal of all the good we saw in December, where United — again, opposition considered — had looked like a team worthy of all of football’s best silver. Months later, reverse! Young played badly; the forwards frustrated; on this occasion, the midfield battle was lost and Phil Jones’ gurns officially went from amusing to disturbing.
United’s great lead, the one positive that would always have been regardless of the result, means they should get that silver, but what happened at Old Trafford yesterday cannot possibly be ignored. At least, it could, if it was a one-off. It wasn’t. Since the second leg defeat to Real Madrid last month, United have been unconvincing for five straight games.
This is a really strong United team. Not Sir Alex Ferguson’s best, but a capable team nevertheless. And what’s better than a strong, capable team? A strong, capable squad, which United have. The one of 1999, according to Ferguson, was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today.” It remains clear which is the better team but he feels this one has a greater number of options.
Which meant it was a shame that it wasn’t utilised as well as we might expect from Ferguson.
We saw it against Madrid; to respond well to Nani’s red card was always going to be difficult, but United had options on the bench they (a) either didn’t use or (b) or used too late (Shinji Kagawa and Wayne Rooney). This was just a one-off, so excusable. And, in the manager’s defence, United had both matched Madrid for sixty minutes and then found their options limited with a man short. But none of those can be used as defence here. It took 80 minutes for a substitute, and that was when the amnesiac Antonio Valencia had replaced Danny Welbeck. There was a second in the 85th minute, Javier Hernandez, and a third two minutes into stoppage time. That was Shinji Kagawa, a man whose velvet boots can find life where there isn’t any and change a game. Except he didn’t have any time to touch the ball.
What was also jarring was seeing an exhausted Ryan Giggs play 90 minutes in central midfield. The decision to start him was fine, but whatever you do with him, he’s still a 39-year-old. Back in December, United were able to keep Yaya Toure quiet at the Etihad with a two man midfield of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley. It didn’t matter so much that the opposition players were (arguably) better as individuals, or had outnumbered them. The visitors were set up to attack and the partnership worked with that in mind. They gave that impression again with a few early, sweeping moves but Giggs and Carrick do not complement each other as well and that was soon realised, with Gareth Barry (exclamations!) performing well for City. Giggs has been wonderful to watch this season, but mainly because he’s been rationed and used properly. He played 30 minutes too many.
Meanwhile, Patrice Evra, Rafael and Young were not much better, Welbeck was a lot of things and Robin van Persie only really looked like Robin van Persie with the assist for the equaliser. Jones in central defence was United’s best player, but, in truth, there were so few candidates anyway. Rooney showed promise in the first half, and was kept on despite a sharp decline in the second, perhaps for his unique ability to have an impact even when not playing well.
It is tempting to conclude on a positive note. Just “12 points” and leave it at that. Because it was that sort of game, a depressing one … opposition considered.
Creators of television series are pretentious enough to describe their shows as like a ‘book’; an episode is essentially a chapter. They mostly frown on critics for this very reason. The superb Boardwalk Empire‘s recent third season was its best despite the fact that the first half of the 13 episodes were average. (Not all relevant but) In the end, the plotlines in the average ‘chapters’ grew in importance and became more enjoyable as the season progressed – and so the pay-off was extremely satisfying. It’s a clunky metaphor for the football, in a way. The parts you’d rather forget do not have to be as troubling as they were in real time when you begin to consider the whole thing. If United go on and win the title in May, it may very well be like that. There’s this game and the last month or so, but then there’s everything before it.
“Good things barely repeat themselves”? Not true. It only feels like that in bad times.
Observers will point to an uninspiring 1-0 home win over Reading last Saturday as proof of the weakest Manchester United side since that other time they were just as dire. It’s almost an extension of last year’s criticisms: why watch, analyse and conclude when there’s a way to do none of that? Good point. Leave it at that.
15 (fifteen) points suggests something else entirely. But, then again, maybe not. United should have won the title last year and this new lead might just be like the other. There are no assurances. But how much does that matter right now? Sir Alex Ferguson did not want to dwell so much on the Reading game, saying “it wasn’t a great performance but where we are now is not down to today, but the last six months.”
And, for now, where United end up in May is less relevant. There’s no good predicting — though it should happen — when United’s present situation gives the best indication of where this team is. Do they deserve to have such a lead? Almost certainly.
A long time ago, a good side was exactly that and few would argue otherwise — partialities rarely ever clouded judgement, it was that easy to see. This season, public enemy or not, some have found it difficult to acknowledge just how good this team is, or can be. The truth is they’re harder than you think.
- To hell with some, though. On closer inspection, you’d be able to see why this team are at the top. In an interview with Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs admitted that the 3-2 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid left him “disappointed”, and plainly said that he hadn’t felt that way for a “long, long time.” Disappointed because of a referee’s game-changing call? Perhaps, partly. Disappointed because United just didn’t match Madrid over 180 minutes, because they fell to defeat in much the same way they did to another Spanish side, a mid-table one, in Europe the year previous? Not close. “But … there are so many positives as well,” Giggs said. “Because I think that we performed so well, we made Real Madrid look ordinary at times. And it was a proper European performance.” It might have promised more than it actually did, but United’s very admirable 180 minutes told us what we needed to know.
- What of football’s fascination with The Paper? Teams that look stronger ‘on paper’ are among the best ones, but don’t necessarily have to be the best one. The Paper states that there are countless sides United’s superior — but top-tier football is not Top Trumps. It might have been enough for Manchester City last year, it might even be this year (just because, you know) but it isn’t fair on players that have the misfortune to remain unappreciated, or on managers that value team chemistry as much as anything else. Those such as Rafael da Silva or Jonny Evans would not have to worry so much about what’s being said if a round piece of silver for the summer was promised, but it’d still be nice if they could have it their way. (As an aside, those two may just be examples, but very fine ones at that. It almost feels like an extension of last year’s crit-oh, see how that works.)
- It is possible for a good United side and a weaker league to co-exist. Even – even – if the Premier League is no longer in line with the very best in Europe, 15 points between last year’s runners-up and champions remains an incredible lead, and 29 games is an appropriate enough scope to say such a thing. If you weigh these two arguments up against each other, the lead surely says more — being a fact — than a theory about the state of the league, no matter how obvious it may be. It’s also worth noting the leads Barcelona and Bayern Munich boast at this moment; if these two teams are so far ahead in their leagues, does that give anyone justification to dismiss the rest? Not when the rest include Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. That’s not equating them, but there are clear parallels to be had that might say more than a typically Anglo-centric view about the best-suddenly-not-so-great league. Agree for agreement’s sake that the quality has waned, and 15 points is still very good.
(As a further aside, it could be argued that the nature of knockout football means this year’s Champions League doesn’t actually say anything about where English football is right now; certainly, all eight of those teams, of course, are not the best eight in Europe.)
- The Real Madrid game is worth going back to. Here’s a rough list of players whose performances in either leg were well-received: Danny Welbeck, Rio Ferdinand, David de Gea, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Evans. Throw in Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Giggs, Welbeck again, Ferdinand again and even Rafael for a much-improved 2nd leg. Some of these players don’t play every game. Where United have been particularly successful, above everyone else, is their level of depth. Ferguson went as far to say that the treble-winning squad of ’99 was “not nearly as strong as the squad I have got today.” The 1999 squad was complete: but complete in terms of the level of its core players, and where they had gone and where they could go. Literally, not so much. “When we went to the Champions League final in 1999, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury,” Ferguson said. “I had to pull in a player, Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice in the first team. He got a medal for being on the bench. That gives you an idea of the strength of the squad. Now I could change a whole team.”
Depth is a tricky one. Having depth is what some mistook Arsenal for having when they fielded a weakened side against Blackburn Rovers in an FA Cup game. A bench featuring Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere is pretty useful, except it’s simply not an indication of anything. Leaving your first-team players on the bench is not a sign of good depth, regardless of whether Arsenal have it or not. A better example, conveniently, would be United’s 18 against Madrid. The big games are the best sign of depth. On the bench, even if you discount Rooney from the second leg as he’s a proper starter, they had Evans, Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez. That’s depth.
- The team’s one big problem, central midfield, has not even been that this season. While Paul Pogba continues to be the subject of envy over at Juventus, the truth is that United are not missing him so much (in the same way they don’t have to miss someone like Gerard Pique). Michael Carrick continues to be magnificent and the side look most comfortable with his presence, Tom Cleverley has had a good season while Phil Jones could feature more regularly in that position in the future. But even when it hasn’t worked so well, which it has a few times (especially with Anderson), United have managed. Lately, less goals are being conceded while goals are still being scored. Whether the theory that improvements at the back since the turn of the year have hindered Van Persie lately hold up or not, the team still remain a threat. Again, United have so far been able to manage with the squad they have.
- March saw United’s first defeat of the year, but that was to Madrid, where United, as cheesy as it sounds, lost with pride intact. There was also the near-collapse at Chelsea, where the hosts squandered a 2-0 lead in the FA Cup, but a dismal 45 might not prove anything at all, especially when Manchester United could relate to their renascent opposition It was almost inevitable that Chelsea would lead a second half charge, as most good teams in that position do. United’s biggest regrets was their failure to keep possession or to kill off the game, but those “six months” that Ferguson spoke of means it is dangerous to dwell on, and then to make conclusions from, just from that (though, at the same time, it is worth remembering). As Sean Ingle wrote, “we forget that the 1998-99 treble-winners, arguably Ferguson’s greatest side, had their struggles.” Nostalgia certainly obscures things — United won that title by just a single point (though, amusingly, the next one by 18). Hindsight, if all goes to plan by May, would inevitably alter perceptions on this team somewhat.
- The 2-0 win over Everton in early February is a good example of when United get it absolutely right. Even with the biggest game of the season to date not far away, the Reds managed to assert their dominance, and, in the process, prevented Everton from getting a goal, with a satisfying and efficient performance. United’s control of the game meant they could have scored more, but what was impressive was that when they eased off, with Madrid in mind, they still didn’t look like conceding. Above luck and refereeing decisions, they have won games through their own hard graft.
- The remaining nine games could possibly see that 15 point lead cut with City, Arsenal and Chelsea to come. At the start of the season, United would have been second favourites against City; but an away win in the winter perhaps hints at yet another shift in power. Indeed, one great indication of a much-improved United is how they have played against the biggest teams. So far this season, they’ve beaten Arsenal once, Chelsea (and City, as mentioned) as visitors and Liverpool, so often a difficult game, twice. No prediction for what’ll come, but it’s not false that United are better placed to win those games now than they were in 2011/12 or even at the start of this campaign.
If you’re one of the two to have noticed, apologies for the lack of posts. If you think about it, this is like three pieces in one.