During the summer of 1995, Sir Alex Ferguson showed his ruthless streak in the most brutal and to many fans and experts alike also surprising way when he got rid of three of his most important players from the previous season — Mark Hughes, the club icon educated in the club’s own academy, Paul Ince, the combative midfield warrior, and Andrei Kanchelskis, the speedy Ukrainian winger who had just ended the previous season as Manchester United’s top scorer.
The rest is history, as we used to say. On the first match day of the 1995/1996 season, Manchester United lost 3:1 to Aston Villa away from home. As replacements for the discarded stars, Ferguson had brought in youngsters such as Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham. Beckham scored United’s consolation goal, but the loss made the former Liverpool defender now TV pundit Alan Hansen say the famous line “You’ll never win anything with kids.” Alex Ferguson and Manchester United went on to win the Premier League that same season, and the team went on to dominate the league for years.
But if Manchester United fans believed that Sir Alex was only following in the footsteps of his compatriot Sir Matt Busby, the Scottish manager who led Manchester United into Europe and modernity in the 1950s and 1960s through a commitment to youth, Ferguson was also inspired by someone else – someone further away geographically, but closer historically.
In May 1995, Louis van Gaal had sensationally led Ajax to triumph in the European Champions League beating mighty AC Milan 1:0 in the final. The victory was sensational not only because it was David’s fight against Goliath, but also – and especially – because Van Gaal’s Ajax team had an average age of 23. Dominating the team were young players such as Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, and Patrick Kluivert, the 18-year old match winner in the final.
Alex Ferguson has often spoken about the legacy of Matt Busby and Manchester United’s tradition of youth, but he has also admitted that part of the inspiration behind trusting the Class of ’92 came from Van Gaal’s success with his kids in May 1995.
During the summers of 2014 and 2015, Manchester United could be said to have abandoned the long-standing tradition of youth by spending close to £300 million, mostly on established stars such as Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, and Juan Mata, and most people, fans and experts alike, probably even Van Gaal himself, still believe it absolutely necessary to secure a world-class center back and a proven or very talented striker. Perhaps a goalkeeper, too.