Retrospective #24: Fergie’s Fledglings take flight against Galatasaray, 1994
It was no more than a year after Manchester United’s visit to Hell, where fans were invited to buy carpets just so they had something to take home with them, that they re-visited the inferno seeking vengeance — but arrived back in Manchester with just a point in a game that ended scoreless. United had found Galatasaray to be a stubborn and worthy match; up to this point, December 7 1994, their last three meetings read: draw, draw, draw. What made this game — the focus of this piece, and the one mentioned earlier that year — different from the infamous encounters of a year ago against the Turkish side was that this was just a group game, with not away goals to worry about, rather the might of stronger teams that would shape fate elsewhere.
To progress, Manchester United had to defeat Galatasaray in the sixth and final round of the group stage; and hope for an already-safe IFK Göteborg to beat Barcelona away from home.
That wasn’t going to happen.
And Alex Ferguson thought as much. Partly because of trademark tinkering and largely with several players missing, the Scot would field an eleven and a bench full of players who practically still had fontanelles. “The restrictions on foreign players are unfair but we can’t hide behind that,” Eric Cantona would say post-match. “We have to develop or buy more English players but we have a good school of young players and they may be the answer.” Cantona was on to something. While this game could simply be dismissed as irrelevant as it did not lead to anything as noted by history, it was significant in that it gave Ferguson the opportunity to trial the best crop of young players in the world — unbeknown to all at the time — against a strong opposition, however beleaguered and exhausted they were after a dismal campaign. They put four past their bogey side. Welcome to Heaven.
The Reds did have reason to expect something favourable over at Camp Nou; IFK were Group A’s best side, in terms of performances isolated to that one group, and had with them a dangerous 20-year-old named Jesper Blomqvist; while the Spaniards in Barcelona’s midfield had to speak to each other — ‘la humiliación,’ they’d probably say — as they could not yet communicate through telepathy, but even still, only in games like these does one team want it more than the other (it ended a goal apiece). United were knocked out of Europe too soon — again — and how they would respond to this failure was unclear; but the young players offered a sort of reassurance as to say that the best solution is not in the transfer window, but closer to home.
Though not everyone was convinced.
As with many youngsters in football, giving them a chance puts you at risk of being deceived. Rob Hughes mentioned this in his column a day later in The Times: “Where do they go from here? Down the years, careers of international schoolboys have been still-born at Old Trafford,” Hughes wrote. “There have been great expectations, a brief flurry in the red shirt, a disappearance and then a traumatic slide down the scale to lesser clubs.” That much was true for Simon Davies, scorer of the night’s first, and impressive throughout. But Davies would go on to make just a handful of first team appearances before barely-notable spells at lower-level sides, ranging from Macclesfield Town to Bangor City to Airbus UK.
If Davies’ performance was impressive, Beckham’s was extraordinary, considering all things. ITV’s Brian Moore opined that “young Beckham has had a superb game on the right of United’s midfield.” Indeed, this sort of praise, to call it ‘superb’, is typically reserved for the untried or the goalscorer. Beckham was both. He would be a constant presence on this, like Davies, his senior début, whether on the flanks or in the box and there were already signs of an understanding, especially with a floppy-haired Gary Neville, a partnership that would gradually become one of the finest of its kind in later years.
United would have four 19-year-olds in Beckham, Neville, Davies and Nicky Butt, who looked as promising as the rest, with a further four players on the bench no older than twenty-two, including Paul Scholes. Neville and Butt were already growing as United players; the former was slowly establishing himself at right-back while Butt, Rob Hughes describes, was “a player of tempestuous attitude, [and] has shown throughout the European campaign that he can live with the pressure.” Ryan Giggs was missing from the action but was by now a first-team player, something for the others to try to emulate.
Davies would open the scoring with a left-footed, angled finish after just two minutes, and then Beckham doubled the lead with a low, drilled shot from outside the area. Moore exclaimed: “First Davies the youngster, second Beckham the youngster … well, the young boys are doing Alex Ferguson proud!” Goals are just goals for players that are expected to carry out other duties, but it is a wonderful method of attention seeking. Beckham would then set up the third; flicking a header from a Cantona cross that Roy Keane, after easing past two defenders, finished smartly. Beckham threatened to score again, Butt, too, but it was Bülent Korkmaz, definitely not an academy graduate of United’s, who added a fourth with an own goal.
Alex Ferguson was full of praise for his young players after the game. “That was the way to do it, just go out and enjoy themselves. They were fantastic and I’m pleased for them.” Simon Davies, who could not have expected his career to go down such a different route to his colleagues, pleaded with the manager to retain faith in youth.
“We hope we’re solving the problem for him,” said Davies. “We were all thrown in the deep end against Galatasaray and we’re all very pleased with ourselves. We didn’t let him down and hopefully we will all get stronger and bigger as the years go on. We’re almost a team in ourselves. We won the Youth Cup together, now we’ve come up through the reserves and won that League together. There’s a great sense of camaraderie.”
Going back to Hughes’ piece, he ended by saying: “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 question was answered a year later. Alan Hansen nor could anyone believe it, but Manchester United had won something with kids. With the power of hindsight, the club and its fans could point to a particular European night, among others, as the starting point for the new success that would continue through the ’90s and beyond.
With thanks to Tr16ia for the newspaper clippings