This is the fourth in a series of ten articles, released weekly, counting down the ten greatest teams in the history of football. The teams were selected based on the trophies they won, the cultures they created, and the effect they had on the game of football.
Manchester United 1995 - 2003
“You’ll never win anything with kids…”
In the two-decade purple patch of arguably the greatest club in English history, determining the peak of their success proves challenging. Based on trophies, players, and legacy, the seven years from 1995 to 2001 are tough to beat.
Yes, in 2003, United signed Ronaldo and in 2004 they signed Rooney. The two forwards led the charge for a new United that saw the emergence of club legends Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Nani, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, and Edwin Van der Sar. This new generation, however, came about in an era of Arsenal’s “invincibles” and Abramovich’s Chelsea. Manchester United was no longer alone at the top of English football.
In years leading to the new millennium, however, the Class of 92’ graduated to United’s starting 11, Alex Ferguson received his “Sir,” and the modern Manchester United was established.
Before Ferguson and United could secure their grip on English football, however, they had to withstand a period of peaks and troughs that plagued their form with inconsistency.
In 1990, three seasons after his appointment as manager, Sir Alex Ferguson’s won his first trophy for the club. After an ‘89-’90 season that Ferguson refers to as “the darkest period [he] ever suffered in the game,” it was a 1-0 FA Cup Final victory against Crystal Palace proved the Scot’s ability to win. More importantly, the trophy gave United access to the European Cup Winners Cup after the consequences of the Heysel Disaster 5 years earlier banned English teams from competing in Europe.
An impressive run in the tournament ended in victory after Mark Hughes put two goals past his former club, Barcelona, to finish the match 2-1.
United was finally back to the heights of their post-war glory.
Or so it seemed.
In 1992, after blowing the league to an overperforming Leed’s side – United had little to cheer for. The one positive from that season came in the transfer of Leed’s striker Eric Cantona. Cantona pumped magic and enthusiasm back into Old Trafford becoming a fan favorite in no time. His 18 goals would carry United to their first league title in 26 years the following season.
The ’93-’94 league title was complemented by victory in the FA Cup after a 4-0 trouncing of Chelsea.
Ultimately, In United’s decade of dominance, it was the disastrous end to the ’94-’95 season that catalyzed their success.
The ’94-’95 season exposed the flaws of a successful, but weak side. Cantona received an 8-month ban after making the brilliant decision to scissor kick a Crystal Palace supporter. Their dulled attack cost them by the end of the season as they lost the league to Blackburn Rovers by a single point.
Problems in defense, particularly a Steve Bruce injury, increased their troubles, helping Everton beat United in the FA Cup 1-0.
The 1995 summer transfer window was sure to be productive for the Reds who desperately needed to shore up their back line and reinvigorate their attack. To add to their struggles, the Reds sold Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, and Andrei Kanchelskis – integral players in Ferguson’s first two championship-winning seasons.
Alex Ferguson, however, had other plans. In a shocking decision, the Manchester United manager did not buy a single player.
Instead, Ferguson chose to put his faith in a group of youth players who had recently won the Youth FA Cup.
Who were these players? The class of 92’ of course.
These players included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Gary, and Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes.
The moment Ferguson decided to let this group of unproven teenagers into his first 11, he laid the base for one of the greatest sides in football history.
Their future dominance, however, began with a stuttering 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa. After the match, broadcasting to the nation on “Match of the Day,” pundit Alan Hansen ripped into Ferguson with what must be one of the coldest, most damning takes in sports commentary history: “You won’t win anything with kids.”
Spoiler: He was wrong.
Cantona’s return from suspension gave the young midfield of Giggs, Keane, Scholes, and Beckham a target up front. The side that grew together on the youth training pitch brought their tough, technical play into the premier league.
Ferguson’s conservative but extremely developed 4-4-2 combined leadership with pace, discipline with pinpoint crossing, and an incredible vision with an unbelievable work-rate in attack and defense. Ferguson has since credited the work ethic of the young squad for the team and the success of individual players: “During my time at Manchester United, I was lucky enough to have a lot of people who put in countless extra hours to get better. Gary Neville turned himself from an average footballer into a wonderful one because of his work ethic, as did David Beckham.”
Ferguson has also mentioned that Eric Cantona’s influence was crucial to the development of the young squad: “I remember Eric’s first day, and after the training session had finished he asked for a goalkeeper, two players from the junior team who were still there, and a few footballs. When word got back to the other players, one or two more turned up the next day for an extra session, and the number grew. That was all because of Cantona’s work ethic and influence.”
The French skipper’s influence paid off in the ’95-’96 season when he led United to the league title after a tight battle with runners-up Newcastle. United also made up for the previous season’s let down in the FA Cup when, in the 86th minute of the final, Cantona struck a tremendous volley into the back of the net.
The following season, Cantona led the club to their 4th league title of the decade. For the class of ’92, the trophy solidified their place in the United 11 and propelled them to the top of European football. For Cantona, the ‘96-’97 league trophy was his last.
In the summer before the ’97-’98 season, at the young age of 31 and with another year remaining on his contract, Eric Cantona announced his retirement from football.
“I was very passionate about the game, and I always said that when I lost that passion, I’d retire. Of course, nobody believed me, but when I lost that passion I retired,” said Cantona.
That “passion” finally departed the Frenchman following consecutive 1-0 defeats over the two legs of the Champions League Semi-Final against Dortmund. Cantona approached Ferguson and revealed his intention to retire. Though Ferguson pleaded with him to reconsider and at least stay at the club until the end of his contract, Cantona stood firm.
After four and a half short years, 185 appearances, and 82 goals, Cantona departed Old Trafford as one of the greatest players to ever call himself a “red.”
Cantona’s departure had an effect that mirrored his 8-month absence in the ’93-’94 season. In ’97-’98 United went without a single trophy. The watched from the sidelines as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, which featured the likes of Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp, won both the league and the FA Cup.
The Champions Shield matchup in August of 1998 between Manchester United and Arsenal foreshadowed the thrilling season that followed. Arsenal trounced United 3-0 with goals from Marc Overmars, Christopher Wreh, and Nicolas Anelka. Though a mere friendly in spirit, the community shield set the tone for the intense battle between two red sides from opposite ends of the country.
Preparing to correct the disappointment of the previous season, United spent more than £28 Million on Dwight Yorke, Jaap Stam, and Jesper Blomquist. Yorke proved a critical signing, taking up the onus of goalscorer that Cantona had left behind after his retirement. Yorke scored 18 goals and ended the season in a three-way tie for the top goal scorer. United’s signings prepared their squad for the greatest season in the club’s history.
The 100th season of top-flight football would be a two club shootout of epic proportions. At one point late in the season, Arsenal looked certain victors. Following a 3-1 victory to North London rivals Tottenham, Arsenal’s good fortune continued when Liverpool forced a 2-2 draw against United at Anfield. Arsenal, however, in the second to last match of the season, let complacency get the best of them in a 1-0 defeat to Leeds. Pouncing on an opportunity to take back 1st place, United came from behind to beat Tottenham 2-1 thanks to goals from David Beckham and Andy Cole.
A week later, Manchester United was crowned champions of England. United won the league by a single point that gave them 79 points to Arsenal’s 78 – the same number that won them the league the previous season.
United’s season did not end there. In a replay of the FA Cup Semi-Final, Ryan Giggs scored an incredible goal against Arsenal to send United to the final. In a squad built on teamwork, passing, and crossing, Giggs forgot his instincts and decided to take on Arsenal by himself.
Intercepting the ball behind the halfway line, Giggs strolled through the Arsenal defense, broke into the box, and fired a zooming effort into the roof of the net. Giggs’ Maradona impression sent United to the final where they never looked like losing. United completed the double on May 22nd, 1999 beating Newcastle 2-0 in front of an 80,000 strong crowd at Wembley.
If the FA Cup and the Premier League showcased the greatness of this particular United side, it was the Champions League that cemented their legacy.
In the second leg of the Semi-Final against Juventus in Turin, United looked shattered, conceding two Inzaghi goals. Roy Keane, however, pulled United from the brink of collapse, scoring the first in their 3 goal comeback. After Andy Cole sealed the match in the 84th minute, United traveled to the Camp Nou to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final.
Before the match, Ferguson received intense criticism over his failure to succeed in the European Cup. Though he had won everything available to win domestically, his teams had never reached similar heights in Europe. Following a reporter questioning if he could stomach another European Cup exit, Ferguson replied candidly: “My lack of vanity precludes me being gutted about it. I think that what I’ve achieved stands for itself and I’m lucky to be able to say that. So, why should Iook upon the failure to win a European Cup as a tragedy for me? It would be a terrible disappointment – I’ll be gutted because I think we have a great, great chance tomorrow.”
Whatever greatness the United manager foresaw in his team’s performance never arrived. The game was practically over after just 4 minutes when Bayern striker Carsten Jancker was chopped down by Ronny Johnsen on the edge of the box. After loitering around the spot of the kick, the German’s executed a tricky piece of training ground tactics when Mario Basler’s low free-kick darted just beyond the right side of United’s long wall, into the space that had opened when two Bayern players dragged their defenders out of position. The ball tumbled into the bottom right corner of the net, past a frozen Peter Schmeichel.
Lothar Matthaüs, Germany’s dominant sweeper, said of the 85 minutes following Bayern’s goal, “We dominated the first 89 minutes. It was one-way traffic. It’s very rare for a team to lose a Champions League final so undeservedly.”
Matthaüs refers to the plethora of chances Bayern had to put two, three, four, or five goals past a United side that were struggling to hold on. Munich came closest to putting the match away late in the second half when a chipped attempt from Bayern’s Mehmet Scholl sailed over Peter Schmeichel and struck flat against the far post.
Schmeichel says of the incident, “When the chip hit the bar, I didn’t turn around at first because I knew that was 2-0. When the chip hit the bar and came straight back to me, I knew we were going to win. I knew at least we were not going to concede any more goal. That’s the kind of feeling you have.
Schmeichel was right in his prediction. United kept Bayern out of their net for the remainder of the match. Bayern, confidence decreasing with every missed opportunity, handed United their golden chance in the 80th minute, substituting Lothar Matthaüs.
“I was exhausted and signaled to come off. The fact that I was substituted maybe signaled to our opponents that by replacing a personality like myself, they gained in confidence and lost any respect for us,” says Matthaüs. He maintains, however, that “there was nothing to suggest that Manchester United would score. What followed was unbelievable. What followed was like watching a horror film.”
In the 91st minute, United took a corner from the right side of the goal. The ball was swung into a sea of grey and red jerseys as well as the neon green jersey of Peter Schmeichel. The ball rebounded to Ryan Giggs on the edge of the box whose resulting attempt dribbled through the Bayern defense and onto the right foot of Teddy Sheringham.
United was level.
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, substituted barely 10 minutes before Sheringham’s goal was thrilled. He had been given more time to play in the final: “When Teddy scored I can only remember shouting for joy. I was thrilled to get to play an extra 30 minutes in a Champions League Final. I was going to learn from that experience. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and I have only myself to blame for that.”
In the 93rd minute, United’s unexpected comeback became incredible. Another Beckham corner sailed into the box and onto the head of Teddy Sheringham. Sheringham’s flicked shot sailed to the right of the post destined to go out for a goal kick. Ole Gunnar Solskjaers surged into the path of the shot and, flinging his toes onto the ball, careened it into the back of the net.
Solksjaer would not get to play an extra 30 minutes in the European Competition. He had just crowned Manchester United Kings of Europe. Manchester United ended the millennium on top of the world.
United won a third successive title in the ’00-’01 season becoming the first team since Liverpool in 1984 to win three straight league titles. In the summer of 2002, Manchester United signed Rio Ferdinand from Leeds for £30 million. Ferdinand helped United reclaim the title but revealed the coming of a new generation. Beckham would depart for Real Madrid the following season amongst rumors of Ferguson’s impending retirement.
Though United maintained their grip on English football, a rejuvenated Arsenal and a brand new Chelsea became threats the league had yet to see. Since then, the league has resembled a financial shootout with clubs funding new stadiums, record transfers, and eccentric managers.
United’s six seasons from 1995 until 2001 yielded five titles, two FA Cups, and the infamous “night in Barcelona” that secured the treble in 1999. Though in recent years they have found themselves struggling to recover their identity and bring championships back to Old Trafford, Manchester United’s stranglehold on English football remains through the legacy of the Class of 92, the ’99 Champions League Final, and Sir Alex Ferguson.