Retrospective #14: Was the ’93/94 team Fergie’s best ever?
People talk to me about Barcelona’s current team as the greatest ever. I even hear stories about the Ajax side that had Johan Cruyff. The AC Milan side with the Dutch trio of Riijkaart, Van Basten and Gullit is always mentioned as well. Hell, even United’s 1999 treble team has been dubbed as one of the best. But there was a team that Sir Alex Ferguson built that only played together for the best part of 3 years between 1992 and 1995, with their peak coming during the 1993-1994 season, and that, in my opinion, is not only Fergie’s greatest starting 11, but one of the greatest teams to ever play the game.
Following United’s first title win in 26 years at the end of the 1992-93 season, Ferguson knew he had to bolster up his squad a little bit, especially at the centre of the park where “Captain Marvel” Bryan Robson was on his last legs. In came a then record signing from Nottingham Forest; a skinny Irishman with guts and determination who would become the embodiment of Ferguson’s persona on the field for years to come. Little did we know it at the time, a legend had arrived – Roy Keane.
There was something different about the whole 1993-1994 season. It was the second season of the Premier league era. Players now had fixed numbers and their names at the back of their shirts. Sky’s coverage of games increased and went a little bit more global. There were some new foreign and exotic names in the Premier League. Stadia were beginning to get re-build and expanded if possible. There were more, if not mainly, seated stadiums. It just felt like the Premier League was onto something. Something bigger. Something more global; and at the top of this Premier League machine was a football team that was assembled by Ferguson that would strike fear into most, if not all, their opponents.
This line-up was no ordinary line-up. The starting eleven were a mechanism that depended on one another that combined skill with extreme aggressiveness. There was no hiding place. No room for errors. The men in that team were hard. They all played on average 55-60 games during the season because squads were not as big back then and the Premier League had 22 teams (meaning 42 league games a season). These players all had strong personalities. Nearly every single one of them had a different and difficult background. There was a strong drinking culture behind the Boss’ back, as Roy Keane went on to admit in his autobiography, and yet they were still tireless. The starting eleven contained, almost every single time, the same players:
In goal, the Great Dane, Peter Schmeichel (N.1). Recognised for his shouting and commanding of the penalty area. He was the last line of behind a very strong defence and is considered to be United’s greatest ever ‘keeper. Paul Parker (N.2), at right back, was a very quiet character but a workhorse nonetheless bombing up and down the right flank. Denis Irwin (N.3), at left back, was Mr Reliable. Equally good on both feet and another quiet player on the pitch, he still remains United’s greatest left back. At the center of United’s defence was the ultimate duo which Ferguson has tried to reproduce ever since then, Steve Bruce (N.4 and captain) and Gary Pallister (N.6). Both were never players known for their pace, but their determination and courage always made them very difficult to play against. They formed a formidable partnership which has become the example for most teams when trying to build a strong central defensive link-up – one’s got to be aggressive and the other’s got to be classy on the ball. On the right hand side of the midfield and with his electric speed was the Russian winger Andrei Kanchelskis (N.14). His pace on that wing made him a horrible player to play against — he would just beat defenders with ease. Notably, Kanchelskis had also formed a good relationship with Parker on that side of the pitch.
On the left hand side of the midfield, and still a United player, arguably greatest in their history, there was Ryan Giggs (N.11). That was the season he went from being very good to bloody great. Beating players for fun on the left wing as well as scoring some remarkable goals, the 93-94 remains Giggs’ best season in terms of performances; scoring 17 times in 58 games. In the centre of the park, Ferguson created a solid midfield partnership. Roy Keane (N.16) and Paul Ince (N.8) were both very aggressive players. Neither was talented in terms of skill, but both had a drive that would keep them going from box to box without ever stopping. They were both pretty noisy on the pitch, too. Up front was a partnership made in heaven. The French magician, maverick and the Mad Man, Eric Cantona (N.7), marked his ground at United and obtained a hero’s status with his sublime performances and unbelievable skill while alongside him, Welsh targetman Mark Hughes (N.10), already at the club for nearly a decade (on and off), was still banging in the goals with style and venom. Other members of the squad, who featured time and time again, were Brian McClair (N.9) who could fill in across the midfield and up front, as well as Lee Sharpe (N.5) who became Ryan Giggs’ understudy on the left hand side and of course, Bryan Robson (N.12) in his final swansong at United. All had major roles to play during the season.
This team was so incredibly talented and yet extremely fierce. During that entire season, United only lost only 4 games in the league gathering a massive 92 points on their way to winning it. The goals came from every corner of the pitch. And whenever they had an off-day, which was rare, they were still able to win. The sign of Champions. There was never only one individual who stole the show, but rather the whole team’s efforts that made them look invincible at times. The link up plays between some of the players would make Barcelona’s team of today look on in awe. Sort of. They completed a domestic double when they won the FA Cup with a 4-0 drubbing of Chelsea in the final which included two exquisite Cantona penalties. A domestic treble was almost near, but for the 3-1 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa, which was largely due to the red card received by Kanchelskis.
Here is a video of the team interview following the FA Cup win, and just looking at it, you can see the difference in the men that played the game at the time and what we’re used to today. Even the significance of the FA Cup has changed along the years. These men were true legends. True men. True warriors. True reds:
In the European Cup, however, it was a different matter and it’s this which is the reason why this particular United side is never as talked about as much. The European format at the time was very different to what we’re used to now. There were no group stages. It was just a pure two-legged game with the aggregate score being what counted. Pretty much what we see now in the latter stages of the competition, but it was that way from the start. United, being the Champions of England, started in the second round, and faced Galatasaray. The 1st leg at Old Trafford finished in a 3-3 draw in a eventful match, whereas the second leg in Turkey ended in a 0-0 draw, the “game from hell” as it was dubbed at the time. United were dumped out of Europe. The rules at the time are what I believe affected United. When you think about it, some of the rules were ridiculous: it meant that this great United team that swept pretty much everything in front of them domestically never got the chance to play together in Europe. The rule stated that “teams competing in European competitions could field a maximum of three foreign players”. The impact this had on United was huge because it meant Ferguson had could only pick 3 of the following players to participate whenever United played in Europe: Mark Hughes (Wales), Ryan Giggs (Wales), Denis Irwin (Ireland), Roy Keane (Ireland), Eric Cantona (France), Andrei Kanchelskis (Russia) and Peter Schmeichel (Denmark). The key to this team was its consistency. It was a machine. Remove one part and it would stop functioning in the same manner. England saw the best of this team, but Europe never did. And that is something I’ll always consider a crime when it comes to United in Europe.
All of Ferguson’s sides following this one have been built with the same anatomy in mind. This, Fergie’s system, had worked. Of the teams that followed this one, some of them have succeeded, some have failed. Ferguson may have difficulties naming his best 11 over the past 25 years, but deep down in his heart of hearts, he’ll know that this was his best side…at least, that’s what I’d like to believe.
Here they are in one of the greatest derbies of all-time. For those who don’t know it, the “never-say-die” attitude associated with United that pundits so often talk about was already there, long before the 1999 team came along…and some people forget that. Here’s to my favorite United side of all-time: