Fergie out to regain spirit of nineties
THERE WILL always be a fondness for '90s nostalgia in Manchester. Walk around the city centre, transformed by the facelift that followed the IRA bomb of 1996, and you will see it is a place that was reshaped by that decade, whether in an architectural, cultural, musical or a spiritual sense.
That nostalgia is to be found everywhere you go in Manchester, not least at Old Trafford, where Manchester United, like the city itself, found their lost swagger. Ask any United supporter to name the club's greatest moments in modern times and they came then: the 1992-93 league title, which ended a 26-year wait; the 1996 FA Cup Final, when Eric Cantona's late goal vanquished Liverpool; the glorious night in Barcelona, where the crowning glory came with the most dramatic of victories over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final.
The most fascinating aspect of this '90s nostalgia is that Alex Ferguson basks in it like everybody else. Last May, with United on the brink of a third successive Premier League title and still the European and world champions, he was asked to name his favourite team and he opted, as he always does, for the 1993-94 vintage, going dewy-eyed at the thought of such fearsome characters as Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona in the same combustible dressing room.
For Ferguson, that remains the yardstick against which all other United teams fall short. Never mind that they were routinely embarrassed in the Champions League (hamstrung by the limitations on foreign players, yes, but also guilty of great naivety against more experienced European campaigners) or that the late-'90s team -- in which Ryan Giggs was joined by Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes -- achieved more. The class of 1993-94, for Ferguson, remains the epitome of what a United team should be.
The modern United side do not seem to inspire anything like the same affection, whether from Ferguson or from those players who span the generations. When Scholes was asked last year to name the greatest XI of the players he had played alongside at Old Trafford, there was no Nemanja Vidic, no Patrice Evra, no Wayne Rooney and no Cristiano Ronaldo. In their places were Wes Brown, Denis Irwin, David Beckham and Teddy Sheringham. (Cantona, curiously, was not named in the XI or among the seven substitutes.) While Scholes's choices were typically homespun, Giggs's XI (again no Vidic, Evra or Ronaldo) was strikingly similar.
If the United of last season failed to inspire affection, while winning a third consecutive Premier League title and cruising to the Champions League final before losing to Barcelona, there seemed little hope for the class of 2009-10, who lost six league matches by mid-February and, with Ronaldo now at Real Madrid, have at times looked like a pale imitation of some of their more illustrious predecessors.
They are a team that lack the flair or the cavalier spirit that is more readily associated with the great United sides, yet they have managed to score 72 goals in 31 league matches, four more than they managed in the 38-game campaign last season. At times they have appeared to lack authority and steel, yet they have dug in to record victories in the biggest matches, when the stakes have been highest. Even their hunger has occasionally been called into question, but they, like all the great United sides, appear to be running into championship form at the right time.
This might not, on paper, be a great United team -- and it's quite feasible, at this stage of the campaign, that they will end the season empty-handed -- but in some ways this is beginning to look like the most admirable of all Ferguson's sides. There are perhaps fewer world-class players than in any of his successful teams -- Rooney certainly, Evra probably, Vidic and Rio Ferdinand theoretically but with question marks over their fitness -- yet it is slowly proving to be greater than the sum of its parts, epitomised by Darren Fletcher, once an ugly duckling of a footballer, now beginning to fancy himself as the cock of the north.
And even some of the more problematic parts, such as Nani and Dimitar Berbatov, have begun to fit into place; their combination for the third goal in the 4-0 victory away to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday was something to behold.
Three games in eight days -- away to Bayern tomorrow, at home to Chelsea in the Premier League on Saturday and at home to Bayern a week on Wednesday -- will go a long way towards determining what kind of United team this is. In many ways they are the antithesis of the 1993-94 side so beloved of Ferguson -- mild-mannered and at times lacking the character, as much as the physique, to stamp their authority on opponents -- but the resolve that characterises all his teams has certainly been in evidence recently. It will never be anything like the 1990s again, but, in Manchester, it can often seem like nothing will.