Ah, 1992, what a year. George Bush and Boris Yeltsin declared a formal end to the Cold War; the Yugoslav Federation broke up; Los Angeles burned amid the Rodney King riots; the Czechoslovak Parliament – much like Charles and Di’s marriage councillor – approved separation, and Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the United States.
All seismic events for sure, but nowhere near as seismic as the promotion of five young tykes from Manchester United’s youth ranks to Alex Ferguson’s first team squad- at least not if legacy media coverage is anything to go by.
A near quarter of a century later, the one that still commands huge swathes of daily column inches is not the aversion of World War III but rather the promotion of Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes to first team Manchester United duties.
Make no mistake, five youth team players from the same age group going on to make thousands of aggregate first team appearances during the most successful era in the history of one of the most famous football clubs in the world is, without question, a remarkable story. But is it so remarkable that we need to endure near daily reminders of this oh-so-very-well-worn story some 24 years on?
The received wisdom goes something like this: Five world class players emerged from the same group at the same time at one particular club and changed the history of soccer forever, winning everything in sight, conquering all comers. Except, that’s not really true, is it? The decidedly more prosaic truth is more like: one world class player, one dependable full back, one massively overrated fashion model and two bang average squad players emerged from a pool of talent at a time when youth teams were regularly mined for first team material.
Except that narrative doesn’t really sell papers, does it?
Instead we’re force-fed perpetual updates on the status of each member of the ‘Class of ‘92’, as though the latest update will differ vastly from the one we invariably received the previous day. Of course, the reportage of each member cannot, heaven forfend, be as individuals. No, we must be reminded with each and every mention of the quintet that they are, in fact, members of the ‘Class of ‘92’. Is Gary Neville struggling at Valencia? No. But ‘Class of ‘92’s Gary Neville is. Was Nicky Butt appointed head of youth at United this week? No. But ‘Class of ‘92’s Nicky Butt was. Is Paul Scholes a vocal critic of Louis Van Gaal? No. But ‘Class of ‘92’s Paul Scholes is. And on it goes.
The media’s coverage of the ‘Class of ‘92’ is akin to those deluded Facebook narcissists who feel the need to publicly document each and every tedious detail of their tedious day, the only difference being that with the ‘Class of ’92,’ there is no option to ignore. The ‘Class of ‘92’ brand is rammed down our throats. Every. Single. Day.
Want to see what’s happening in the world of sport? No problem, but first navigate past this series of threadbare-worn articles about the latest Earth-shattering updates on the ‘Class of ‘92’. The ‘Class of ‘92’ has become a brand and one that sells, sells, sells; evoking misty-eyed nostalgia in United fans everywhere and particularly those who fondly remember the emergence of these players. And such is the vast number of said misty-eyed ones that the rest of us just simply have to lump it.
The media seem to find it impossible to report on any of the group doing anything at all without regurgitating the same, tired-beyond-clichéd, copy-and-paste ‘Class of ‘92’ articles, firing them out at a frequency that ensures even a goldfish with amnesia who’s taken a recent blow to the head cannot possibly forget about the emergence of these players.
Had the five players involved been bona-fide world beaters, the avalanche of daily updates would be that slight bit more tolerable, but that’s far from the case.
Of the five, only Scholes’ brilliance is beyond debate. One of the finest passers and readers of the game England has ever produced, the ginger one could have walked in to any team of his era and instantly improved it. A rare example of an English footballer with a brain, Scholes is worthy of every last drop of nostalgia.
But what about the other four? While all can point to impressive medal hauls from their Old Trafford careers, the truth is that none of Beckham, Butt or the two Nevilles stood out on the pitch. Yes, Beckham went on to become the most famous footballer on the planet, but little of that owed to his actual ability and almost all of it to his wife’s unquenchable thirst for fame. Slow, one footed, predictable and anonymous in big games, Beckham’s peak lasted a mere two seasons around the turn of the century, the rest of his career playing out like one that would have gone entirely under the radar had it not been for his poster-boy looks earning him a move to Real Madrid, where he sold many a shirt.
Although currently toiling on his maiden managerial voyage, Gary Neville has become the most unlikely success story of the quintet. At one stage worried as to whether he’d make it at all in the game, Neville went on to become a ‘Mr Dependable’, one-club man, winning an eye-watering number of trophies along the way. A solid, if unspectacular, full-back, Neville was a testament to making the most from limited ability, a source of hope for perspiration-over-inspiration types everywhere. But a world class player? Not a chance.
Which leaves us with the runts of the litter, Butt and Neville the younger. Two decent squad players for several years, both Butt and Phil Neville could usually be relied upon to fill in for their more talented team-mates when Ferguson decided to rest his key men against inferior opponents. However neither Butt nor Neville would secure regular first team football until they were sold and found their mid-table level at Newcastle and Everton respectively.
The ‘Class of ‘92’ phenomenon (as so many media outlets have insisted on it becoming) is without question, an era-defining story in the history of Manchester United Football Club. But in a decade when West Ham produced arguably better players in Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick, is the saturation of the entire football media in ‘Class of ‘92’ coverage really justified?
Twenty-four years on from 1992 and the world is staring another Cold War in the face with the prospect of a third global conflict, the most real it has been in decades. Just don’t expect it to get the same level of coverage as the story of five youth players who broke into the Manchester United first team 24 years ago. You might have heard of them, they’re referred to as the ‘Class of ‘92’.
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