I recently delved into the archives from generations back and found a particular apt quote taken from a Manchester United official matchday programme from 1937. It read the following: “As for United, they stand for something more than any other person, any player, any supporter. They are the soul of a sporting organisation which goes on from year to year, making history all the time. They remain a club with a rich vein of character and faith. Because of that they have no fear of the morrow.”
We know all too well how last season ended, but after a barren 2012 for Manchester United fans, many restless fans, after just one season of having to remove an area of dust from the trophy cabinet, have called for Sir Alex Ferguson to evolve with the times and spend vast quantities on star-studded talent to whet the fans’ appetite.
The logic surrounding this point would be to look back to last season, we saw Sheikh Mansour’s and Roman Abramovich’s millions secure the Premier League and Champions League respectively (both for the first time); therefore many ascertain that United should isolate themselves from their old romantic ways and get to grips with the modern day inclination of cheque-book trophy winning.
There was a time not so long ago when people saw youngsters going on a pre-season tour, and there would be general excitement and encouragement. However pessimistic fans and cynics see teenagers through a half-empty glass, many see this as a sign of weakness, a lack of strength in depth and a signal of Manchester United’s lack of activity in the transfer market. Since United’s fledglings secured the Youth Cup in 2011, three stalwarts of that side have since left for pastures; Zeki Fryers, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba. These three will be mentioned in greater detail later in the piece, but for whatever reason, it has been asked ‘is the United philosophy is dying out?’
But as we saw in United’s first pre-season friendly exploits, the youth players showed brief flickers of their undoubted promise. These tour matches will be the acid test to determine whether the young fish can hack it in the big, United pond of superstars. In relation to the three departures, the modern era of so-called flashy, brash young generation are caveat to one particular class. But before I introduce this class, examine this quote from our previous No.2- “I signed a contract at 16 which promised me £20.75 a week, so I didn’t come into this for money. I came here because I loved playing football and I loved United”. This was and still should be the definition of what a ‘Manchester United’ player is.
Enter the ‘Class of ’92’ and firstly, Gary Neville, Mr. Manchester United. Neville was by no means the most naturally gifted footballer that came through the ranks at Old Trafford; however his exceptionally sheer will and fortitude meant that he was predestined for greatness. After Captaining the Class of ’92 to FA Youth Cup success he became a first team regular at right-back for club and country for the best part of 15 years. Along the way he won 8 League Titles, 3 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, a Champions League, an Intercontinental Cup and a World Club Cup. He is now the voice of Sky Sports punditry and is an occassional co-commentator. He cost United nothing and he never once asked for a pay rise or a move away from Old Trafford.
Lee Sharpe tells a story, going back to his days at Manchester United, of sitting in the canteen one day and hearing a dull, repetitive thud outside. Eventually he went out to investigate and was bemused to find Gary Neville, on his own, throwing a ball against the gym wall. “As hard as he could, over and over again,” Sharpe recalls. “Practising long throws, Gary Neville’s idea of fun.”
Another time, Sharpe remembers Neville abandoning a night out after his team-mates suggested they went to a nightclub. “He said he didn’t like nightclubs. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Run that past me again, Gary. You don’t like nightclubs? In nightclubs there’s beer, decent music, women, what exactly is there not to like?’ But he was insistent: ‘No, I don’t like nightclubs, they’re not my scene.’ And off he toddled.” It is easy to mock, or demean, but only if you want to overlook the fact it was this form of dedication and stauchness that helped Neville make almost 600 appearances for the club, as well as winning 85 England caps.
In football, as Neville always appreciated, it needs more than just talent to sustain a career at the top. Neville had to make sacrifices to survive the revolving Sir Alex Ferguson axe, he started off in midfield but after the emergence of Beckham, Scholes, Butt et al he dropped back. But even then there were no guarantees- not the biggest of statures, youth-team coach Eric Harrison famously told Neville ‘if you’re going to be a defender, you’d better start tackling’. Neville himself recognises the hard yards he had to put in, speaking in his autobiography he says, ‘teams wanted me; they begged to have Phil’. Neville was born to play for Manchester United, his passion for the club still runs large today, despite the transition to punditry, and his attitude and desire is lost on many players today.
Neville formed a telepathic rapport with the icon that is David Beckham for almost a decade. There are no surprises that their outlook on life at Manchester United and their ethos towards football served them in good stead in forging the careers they did. Here are Beckham’s thoughts about wearing United colours- “The thought of pulling on any shirt other than the red one of United just doesn’t appeal to me. There’s no bigger club in the world than United so why should I want to leave? I want to stay at Manchester United, become captain and be the best player in the world.”
David Beckham became a regular for Manchester United the hard way after his meagre frame hampered his chances of playing in the first team. A young Beckham was sent out on loan to Preston North End in an attempt to beef up. Before he became United’s next legendary number seven, he had to prove himself in the lower leagues and then the reserves. He was described by Alex Ferguson as his most fervent and enthusiastic trainer, often stopping late, long after most players had left, after training sessions to perfect his skills. Despite preferring to play in centre of midfield, he fashioned his whole career playing on the right wing for United, becoming the world’s best crosser of the ball in the process. He won every major honour with United and continued his success with Real Madrid. He is now a Hollywood star, the world’s most famous footballer and the world’s richest footballer. He cost United nothing and he never once asked for a pay rise or a move from Old Trafford.
Paul Scholes is continuously raved about by his footballing counterparts all over Europe. Zinedine Zidane, Xavi, Iniesta, Henry and Vieira all drew wide smiles when Scholesy incorrectly called it quits, but more importantly have all queued up to praise the ‘Ginger Prince’ with each player stating that Scholesy was undeniably the best player that they have ever played against. A man of few words, you have to leave it up to those who have seen him action. United’s own Bobby Charlton stated “I have no hesitation in putting a name to the embodiment of all that I think is best about football. It’s Paul Scholes”. The United midfielder’s shunning of the limelight and laid back demeanour made him the most liked footballer off the field as well as on it. Quite simply, he was the best midfielder of his generation. Again, he cost nothing and United was the only place he wanted to call ‘home’: “I am not a man of many words but I can honestly say that playing football is all I have ever wanted to do and to have had such a long and successful career at Manchester United has been a real honour.”
The ‘class of 92’ were in a league of their own, but many thoroughbreds of the beautiful game consider Manchester United to be extremely unfortunate that all these proteges came through together all at the same time. What was unquestionably fortunate was the fact that all of that class had a burning, sole desire of making it to the top with Manchester United. It does not matter how much talent you have, if the desire is not there, then there is no hope. Ravel Morrison is the perfect case study to examine concerning that.
The importance of developing youth talent cannot be disputed. The great Sir Matt Busby was wise in words when he said ‘if you want football’s finest fruit, then you grow your own’. Another key lesson from Busby was regarding finances, “You don’t have to chase money at this club, because if you play for Manchester United money will find you”. Nowadays, people are preferring the ‘get rich quick’ scheme, by seeking big paydays before making it professionally. This label should not sit too far away from rebel Paul Pogba. The class of 92 knew if they were patient and stuck it out at United, the incentive of playing football was the primary factor, money came second. Those who survived the Fergie cull have gone on to become mega-earners and dignitaries in the game.
So hereby this is the definition of the ‘Manchester United player’. When you hear Sir Alex say ‘He’s a Manchester United player’ about a footballer, the saying has deeper, more meaningful connotations than simply having ability. The key definition is having the will and innate passion to play for Manchester United. The willingness to give your all for the club and your team-mates in all situations.
Pobga, Morrison and Fryers may not become world stars, but the important thing to note is for all their god-given capabilities, they are simply not ‘Manchester United players’, because they do not want to play for the club. They are not of the typical United mould and Fergie does not bend over backwards to retain the greedy and the ‘get rich quick’ variety.
This is why the class of 2012, some twenty years on from Fergie’s finest fledglings may just be the perfect remedy for the concerning trend of departing youth. We saw encouraging performances from prodigies Scott Wootton, Tyler Blackett, Davide Petrucci, Robbie Brady, Ryan Tunnicliffe and most notably Jesse Lingard against Amazulu in our first pre-season exert. There seems to be a steely hunger from these youngsters, the likely lads trying to catch Sir Alex’s attention. Most of these players’ long-term futures are secure with decent contract lengths and terms, and it seems that youth is the way forward.
One cannot begrudge this philosophy, as it is a Ferguson trademark which has proved to be more than successful, particularly with the stringent financial situation in modern times. There is a saying conveying the essential meaning behind Fergie’s transfer strategy in recent times, ‘United don’t buy superstars, we make them’. We have had the opportunity to invest in these so-called superstars, but they have preferred the quick fix of vast salaries and immediate income over status and become iconic figures. Therein lies the difference in classes, it is hunger vs greed.
However Fergie’s staunch stance on market value is not a new revelation at Manchester United and it has always been their philosophy. United have always wanted players with the desire to play for Manchester United rather than the desire for money. It is a primary feature and significant asset that United and Ferguson crave the most when seeking fresh faces. The most recent saga, Eden Hazard, showed that greed talks louder than hunger and desire.
Going back, two Englishmen who regret not putting pen to paper with United also showed their lacking: Paul Gascoigne was nailed on to join United, until the glitz and glamour of London and the role of his agent in securing him and his parent’s a house there swung it in Tottenham’s favour. Alan Shearer chose Blackburn and Newcastle riches over more sustained success with United, a decision he has openly regretted. The repercussions of this transfer were not costly, we bought a young, unproven Norwegian who had a hunger to wear United Red. In all, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won six league titles, two FA Cups and a Champions League, and there is a song mocking Shearer’s snub and lauding Solskjaer has a United legend.
The boss’s keen nature to invest in youth has left fans disillusioned, fans want proven talent which brings immediate success. Buying young potential such as Nick Powell dis not as attractive as it used to be seemingly. Wayne Rooney had the stereotypical tag of being overpriced ‘because he was English’ when United bought him in 2005. He is now the best English player of his generation, and closing in on every Manchester United scoring record. Cristiano Ronaldo was too fancy and not certain to succeed in England. He was the butt of the jokes for many anti-United fans for first couple of years of his career and his signing was questioned. A few years later he became United’s fourth Ballon d’Or winner after Best, Law and Charlton and is now regarded as the only competitor to Leo Messi as the best player on the planet.
So losing the Premier League on goal difference to a team that spent over 900 million to achieve it and finishing 25 points ahead of the Champions League winners whilst scoring the second most goals in United’s Premier League history does not mean that United must enforce drastic changes in the transfer viewpoint. Chelsea and City spent billions to be like us. We should not spend billions to be like them. Fergie is trying to build a lasting legacy for long after he has gone by investing in youth.
City, with their half-empty stadium, Chelsea, with their Russian dictatorship, do not even come close to matching United’s pedigree and history. They can spend as much as they wish at their ‘projects’, but that’s all they are… projects. We do it our way, the right way.
We have built our success through nurturing and developing youngsters and turning them into world-beaters. The hub of the United class of 92 masterminded the Treble season, which was unprecedented at the time. Youth has always been at the forefront of Manchester United’s raison d’etre, and none of these reasons are because we have had a rich owner pumping money into the club or because we have spent billions on overpriced players who only want to play for the money.
So we don’t need the sort who are looking for a quick payday, those who show passion and are willing to commit everything to the United cause will go far. This is why so many are striving to create their own class of 92. Their blueprint is a lasting legacy which the modern era would do well to look at.