“You don’t win anything with kids” was Alan Hansen’s infamous assertion about Man United’s class of ’95. He was talking about the likes of David Beckham, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Winning the FA Youth Cup in 1992, they came of age in the 1995/1996 season to overhaul a 10-point deficit at Christmas and steal the League title from the clutches of Newcastle. I think Ferguson was thinking something like, “Hansen, put that in your pipe and smoke it!”
You all know the rest of the story. United with their young, talented and home-grown stars dominated the League for the rest of the 90s and have been one of the dominant forces ever since. Of course, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. There have been glitches and challengers along the way. Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, during the latter part of the ’90s and early 2000s, and the Roman Abramovich (Chelsea’s Russian oligarch owner) era of Chelsea have since been Man United’s greatest rivals. Until now, that is.
Like a snarling, lager-drinking, cigarette-smoking rock star, Manchester City has announced themselves to the world. Full of swagger and verve, defying anyone to go toe-to-toe with them and stare them in the eye while then nonchalantly flicking their two-fingers up as they bedazzle and kill off all before them.
It’s strange to imagine that as United were winning the League in 95/96, City was being relegated from it; never to return to the ‘Promised Land’ properly until 2001/2002. Forever in their neighbours’ shadow, the laughing stock, they were the perennial underachievers of football. August 2008 changed that, however, when the Abu Dhabi United Group, led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, purchased the club bringing with him extreme wealth, dreams and promises. He was the genie to Manchester City’s aladdin and would grant them any wish they so desired. They had one: World domination — to collect a team full of superstars and to dominate Europe and the World for the foreseeable future. Oh, of course, the fans wouldn’t mind seeing Man United relegated but that’s a different story.
This season has been one like no other. Both teams have led, both teams have conceded points; both teams have had controversial moments, both teams have had controversial players; both teams have excited, both teams have flattered to deceive; both teams have lost important matches, both teams have won them; but, only one team have won the two games which really matter: Manchester City came out top in both Manchester derbies.
The 6-1 win earlier in the season was emphatic. It proved to the world that Man City was a force to be reckoned with; not just a team of hastely assembled mercenaries. Their 1-0 victory at the Etihad was no less impressive. They nullified United. Smothered them, and reduced them to a Sunday League team playing on the Hackney Marshes.
Man United’s no-shots on goal during the match tells the story. The ageing Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were ineffectual against the younger, fitter and more powerful City midfield. Wayne Rooney was left isolated upfront on his own, and just when they needed it most, their nerve was lost on them. They had lost the biggest game of the season.
As this Premier League season comes to it’s pinnacle and looks in all certainty to be settled on goal difference in City’s favour, does it represent a seismic power shift in Manchester, or is this just a blip? Is Manchester turning from red to blue? Is this Ferguson’s biggest test yet?
City is sure to strengthen during the Summer, adding to their already bulging squad of star names and United have to helplessly keep up. In the likes of David De Gea, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling they have the nucleus of the team for years to come. Add Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick to the equation then a very good team starts to emerge.
Next season is a bigger test for Manchester United, but with the youngsters another year older and wiser, a few key signings may just earn them the Manchester bragging rights once again.
Can this class do what the class of ’95 did? Possibly. So cheer up United fans, it ‘ain’t that bad.