As a break from a staggeringly tedious update to my professional website, I’ve been amusing myself by trying to work out which was the greatest Manchester United side of the Premiership era. The task has proven trickier than I expected.
For one thing, common sense would dictate ruling out the post-Beckham, post-Stam side. They just haven’t been as good.. have they? I’ll return to them in a moment.
I see three distinct United phases in the Premiership. There’s the Cantona side, 1992- 1995, who were essentially dismantled overnight after the twin defeats of May 1995 – to Blackburn in the league, and Everton in the FA Cup. They are followed, with famous abruptness, by the “Kids”, who continue more or less unaltered until the achievement of the treble in 1999. I’d distinguish the post-treble “Kids” from the earlier variety, although the significant arrivals – Stam, Van Nistelrooy, Veron – trickle in either side of Barcelona. And then.. post-Beckham, since whose departure United have won no titles – or come close, it has to be said.
One of the more bizarre interludes of my career was when I was asked to hypnotise Jim White of the Telegraph. The idea was that I’d make him think he was Jose Mourinho, and then he’d replay the Champions League Semi-Final defeat to Liverpool on Championship Manager on a screen the size of the wall to see if he could alter the course of history. I don’t know whether Jim hated the idea more than I did, and the shameful episode was never screened. (He did beat Liverpool, though). Anyway, I spoke to Jim by telephone a day or two beforehand, so I could get the measure of him and find out something about where he was coming from, football-wise. In the course of the conversation, this issue – which was the best United side – came up, and he plumped for the Kids, a team, he said, that knew the meaning of the word more than any other he’d ever seen.
My own gut choice is the earlier, Hughes/Ince/Kanchelskis/Bruce/Sharpie/Giggs team. The sheer physical presence, the speed of their play, the monstrous destructiveness they could unleash onto opponents who couldn’t cope.. and I’m borne out by statistics. I think.. the 92 points garnered in 1993-4 wasn’t matched by any of the later sides, and only the post-treble team came close, with 91 in 1999-2000. And that early team scored 80 goals in the season twice on the trot.
It isn’t the whole story, though, is it? That early team had decent opposition in only one season, Blackburn in 1994-5. At that time, a curse operated over anyone who challenged United for the title – Leeds and Blackburn were both quickly relegated, Aston Villa disappeared from contention; even Arsene Wenger found retention of the title impossible. Wenger’s first side – that of the young Vieira and Petit – didn’t emerge until 1997, not getting into gear until ’98, by which time we’re almost halfway through our period. And it was in the presence of Wenger’s team that the post-treble team scored 97 goals in 1999-2000, 79 the year later, and 87 the year after that.
These might have been great deeds, but were accompanied by a great sense of anti-climax and disappointment. United’s assured fate was to repeat the Champions League triumph, to rule Europe in the noughties as they had England in the nineties.. and their failure to do this, to come close indeed to Real Madrid as the galacticos swept all before them, is what’s remembered now. And those 87 goals… were scored in the inexplicable absence of Jaap Stam, and United actually finished third that year. One last meaningless title, in the worst season of the Premiership’s history (United won with 83 points, by no means their worst, but only 74 goals. The Kids first title came with 82 points and 73 goals, but those came with hope and promise; the 2002-3 title was won on plastic.) Then Beckham left.
But in defence of the early side, it could be argued that their lack of European impact was entirely down to the foreign players rule (you were limited in your ability to field players of foreign nationality, and back then, Scotland, Wales and Ireland counted as foreign, something that would have crippled the Liverpool and Forest teams of the seventies, although not, probably, the Kids. And the break-up of the team was provoked by a season in which they scored 88 points and 80 goals yet contrived to come second, and also reached the FA Cup Final. Such underachievement required harsh measures, naturally.
So they remain my top United side of recent years.. but I said I’d come back to the side United have now – call it the Rooney team. Last season, they finished second, with 83 points and 72 goals. For a brief moment, it looked as though Chelsea could be caught – for a brief moment, I said. In the period under consideration – fourteen years – United have exceeded that points total only four times. They’ve scored more goals on 8 occasions, which is why the Manchester United Encyclopedia has a special section entitled We Often Score Six. Last season’s performance would have won seven titles of the previous fourteen. Only, it was done, this time, without a midfield. (United’s midfield last season is arguably the worst amongst the sides avoiding relegation last term). And the players who were there, spent the year being called out for lack of effort. Not a great team, then… but a mysteriously great final score at the end of the season. How did they do it? And what will they do if a midfield does materialise in the autumn?