Manchester United in the ’90s: You can’t win anything with kids

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Despite winning the first two league titles of the Premier League era, the 1994/95 season was disastrous for Manchester United based on the standards set in the two preceding campaigns. United lost their title to Blackburn Rovers on the last day of the season after failing to beat West Ham at Upton Park, a depression exacerbated by defeat to Everton at Wembley in the FA Cup final just six days later. Later that summer key players Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, and Andrei Kanchelskis – who made 126 appearances between them across all competitions during their final season – left for pastures new. Eric Cantona’s lengthy ban – handed down after he leapt into the stand and kung-fu kicked Matthew Simmons at Selhurst Park in January 1995 – would see him miss the start of the following season. There were real concerns that the progress Ferguson’s United had made over the previous nine years was unravelling. In reality, it was just the beginning of a new era.

Without a major summer reinforcement to appease transfer-hungry fans, United travelled to Villa Park on the opening day of the 1995/96 season with four academy products in the starting XI: Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes. Two more, David Beckham and John O’Kane, would come off the bench, and Beckham would grab the consolation goal in a 3-1 defeat. That evening, on Match of the Day, dour Scot and former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen famously uttered “you can’t win anything with kids”. The rest, as they say, is history and United’s lack of summer transfer dealings, whilst initially seen as the foreboding of doom, proved to be a blessing in disguise. The club would begin a period of domination of English football that has continued almost unabated to this day.

Prodigious young players – such as Lionel Messi – often force their way into the team, whilst others seize opportunities offered due to injury, suspension, or player sales. The academy players debuting that day at Villa Park may well have forced their way into the team regardless, but the sales of Ince, Hughes, and Kanchelskis, as well as the unavailability of the talismanic Cantona, certainly smoothed their path into the first team. Ferguson may have known just how talented this group of players were and whilst everyone was panicking about the departures in 1995, he may have been quietly confident the team would indeed be stronger.

This crop of players, who won the FA Youth Cup together in 1992, hence the tag of the Class of ’92, is the clubs most successful single output of young players. Ryan Giggs, Scholes, and Gary Neville make up three of the club’s top five all-time record appearances, with almost 2,300 appearances between them. Beckham, vilified by fans and media alike after World Cup ’98, would go on to captain his country and become a national treasure as well as a true global brand. All of the Class of ’92 are prominent in the media nowadays and control business interests in and out of football.

It has often been said that United were lucky that these players emerged just at the right time, as the Premier League came into force in 1992, and that this luck enabled the club to capitalise on the untold riches coming into the game. However, it is not as cut and dried as that. Internally, it’s clear to see that Ferguson made a huge difference to the club following his arrival from north of the border in November 1986. The tough Glaswegian transformed the club from top to bottom, building on the work of his predecessors and turning a “cup team” into one that was built for prolonged, sustained league campaigns. He cleaned up what was described as a “drinking culture” within the club and most importantly overhauled the youth set-up that despite a great reputation had flattered to deceive in previous years. In his first autobiography, Managing My Life, Ferguson remarked: “My worry was compounded by the glaring inadequacies of the scouting system and the absence of a comprehensive and carefully-structured youth policy”. This overhauling began to bear fruit six years after his arrival when Eric Harrison guided United’s youth team to victory in the 1992 FA Youth Cup. This group of players were given the name “Fergie’s Fledglings”, a name which was a clear nod to Busby’s youthful side half a century earlier.

United’s popularity pre-dates Ferguson and the Premier League. Due to sympathy following the Munich Air Disaster, and the crossover appeal of George Best amongst other factors, the club were popular worldwide long before the internet and far-flung pre-season tours made the world a smaller place. During the mid-1980s United regularly topped the average attendance charts in the top flight, even though at this stage two decades had passed since the club won a league title. This contradicts the oft-used insult that the club’s fan base is made up of glory hunters from London.

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United’s insistence on youth also pre-dates Ferguson and the Premier League. The club is currently on an enviable and unparalleled run, naming at least one youth academy named in each first-team matchday squad since October 1937. There are nine of the club’s youth products in the English football Hall of Fame: Duncan Edwards, Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, Nobby Stiles, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Johnny Giles. Statistically United also have the best FA Youth Cup record, winning the trophy on ten occasions out of 14 final appearances. Seven of those appearances came before the advent of the Premier League, and six before Ferguson’s tenure, showing that the youth set-up has always run through the veins of the club.

However, it would be foolish to ignore the external forces which have helped to shape United into a worldwide behemoth. The club’s rise under Ferguson coincided with the inception of the Premier League in 1992, a move which transformed the English game irrevocably. Following England’s performance in World Cup Italia ’90, and the success of Euro ’96 hosted on home soil, the English game blew up considerably, throwing off the depressing shackles of the 1970s and 1980s which were characterised by crumbling stadia and hooliganism. All of a sudden the middle classes were interested in football, and the shiny, safe all-seater arenas were more appealing to families. The advent of the internet, and the arrival of a plethora of foreign superstars to our shores, and slick marketing made the Premier League a bona fide worldwide brand, and Manchester United rode this wave with the skills of a championship surfer.

It’s impossible to say how the football landscape would look today had Ferguson’s appointment occurred in another era. Liverpool dominated English football in the 1970s and 1980s, winning 18 domestic trophies, and the continent as well where they bagged two UEFA Cups and four European Cups. Had the Premier League began in 1972 or 1982 we may be talking today about Liverpool’s position as an unrivalled world power but unfortunately for them by the time the Premier League party had begun they were on a downward slide. In a parallel that would probably depress many of the red half of Merseyside, United’s rise coincided with their decline: Liverpool have still not won a league since 1990, the same year Ferguson collected his first United trophy by beating Crystal Palace at Wembley in the FA Cup final. Liverpool have won major trophies since 1990, including the famous 2005 European Cup triumph, yet they are still seen as unable to compete financially with the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea despite their illustrious history.

Everton are another club who may be aggrieved that they missed the boat of Premier League riches. In the mid-1980s the Toffees experienced somewhat of a purple patch, winning the FA Cup in 1983/84 and following it up a year later with the First Division title and a Cup Winners’ Cup triumph. However, Everton were hit particularly hard following the Heysel Stadium Disaster of 1985 which prevented English clubs competing in Europe for five years. Even though they subsequently won another league title in 1986-87 the successful squad began to break up, and even manager Howard Kendall was tempted abroad, leaving for Bilbao’s Athletic Club in 1987. Football is full of these “sliding doors” moments, and again it’s easy to imagine how successful Everton could be today had history dealt them a more favourable card. Everton, like their rivals across Stanley Park, have never reached those heights scaled in the 1980s.

Arsenal are perhaps the one anomaly, a club that has taken its pre-1992 tradition into the new era and still managed to attain a certain level of success. The Gunners won the league title in 1989 and 1991, and took that form into the Premier League. During the inaugural season they won a domestic cup double, which was followed up a year later when they lifted the Cup Winner’s Cup. Under Arsene Wenger, a period of dominance began when the league title was won in 1997/98, and over the subsequent seven years Arsenal would win two more league titles and three FA Cups. This Arsenal managed to combine the steel of George Graham’s side with flair players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, and Marc Overmars.

In 2006 Arsenal left their historic Highbury home to move to a brand new, 60,000 capacity stadium. The club won successive FA Cups in 2014 and 2015 but a perceived lack of success since making the move to the new arena is beginning to anger large swathes of the support, turning them against arguably the best manager in their history. Arsenal said there would be an initial period following the stadium move where they wouldn’t be able to compete, but that excuse is now wearing thin. In some quarters it is thought that the club does indeed have the spending power yet the current management regime are reluctant to spend, doing just enough to ensure the wheels turn without threatening to turn into title contenders.

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One of the accusations levelled at Manchester United is that the academy has failed to replicate the success of the Class of ’92. Perhaps if you compare each subsequent product with a member of that crop, yes, but if we look at the players on their own merits there is much to celebrate. Wesley Brown picked up two European Cup medals during fifteen years at the club, and has only just recently retired following five years at Sunderland. John O’Shea was in imperious form during his breakthrough season of 2002-03, famously nutmegging Figo against Real Madrid, and spent 12 years at the club. He still plays in the Premier League and is now the captain of Sunderland. Darren Fletcher emerged in 2003 and would spend 12 years at Old Trafford before staying in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion. Many thought his career was over following a debilitating bout of ulcerative colitis, but he’s regained his fitness and has been the picture of consistency at The Hawthorns. Brown, O’Shea, and Fletcher were all part of the match day squad when United won the European Cup in 2008 and while the latter two were unused subs, Brown played 120 mins of the match. Jonny Evans spent nine years at United and now plays alongside Fletcher in a strong West Brom side.

More recently, Longsight lad Danny Welbeck played 142 times for United, netting 29 goals in the process, before moving to Arsenal in 2014. His career there has yet to take off due to injury and inconsistency but there is no denying he’s a talented player. Louis Van Gaal gave debuts to both Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford during his troubled tenure and both are key members of incumbent manager Jose Mourinho’s squad. Both would also be named in Gareth Southgate’s England squad in March 2017, showing that there is still life in the old Manchester United academy dog yet.

Scratch beneath the surface and we can see further evidence of the success of United’s youth set up. Leicester City’s improbable championship-winning squad of 2015-16 contained three players who came through the ranks at United, or spent time there as a youngster: Danny Drinkwater, Ritchie De Laet, and Danny Simpson. As well as John O’Shea, Sunderland’s squad this season also contains Paddy McNair, Donald Love, Adnan Januzaj and Darren Gibson. Januzaj, given his debut by maligned former manager David Moyes, became the 100th academy product to be capped at international level when he represented Belgium for the first time in May 2014. Ryan Shawcross and Phil Bardsley are vital cogs in Mark Hughes’ Stoke side, as are Craig Cathcart at Watford and Michael Keane & Tom Heaton at Burnley. In fact, throughout the football league you’ll see ex-United youth products plying their trade with varying degrees of success and it’s no fluke.

It can be argued that Manchester United were fortunate with the emergence of the Class of ’92 just as the riches of Premier League were flooding into English football. Yet the club’s history, popularity, and propensity towards youth football pre-dates 1992, and Ferguson’s overhauling of the youth set-up upon his arrival was design, not luck. Other clubs may do better to look internally at their own mismanagement rather than lamenting their position in 1992 for today’s woes, after all, it was 25 years ago.

Although United haven’t come close to repeating the crop of young players that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 it’s incorrect and perhaps unfair to criticise the club’s academy as failing. Yes, there have been internal struggles in recent years, and the emergence of noisy neighbours Manchester City as a player on the local youth scene has further muddied the waters. Yet if you look at the United academy prospects representing the club currently, and former trainees playing professionally elsewhere, there is much to be proud of.

First published in The Football Pink Issue 16. Issue 19 out now!

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