Summer 1995 – Alex Ferguson chose to dispose of the influential Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and club legend Mark Hughes. The Manchester Evening News ran a poll in which Manchester United supporters purportedly called for the manager’s job. It was a close-season of chaos in which all but the Scot nearly lost their heads.
The player sales capped a tumultuous season for United, with Ferguson’s side finishing second to Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, losing in the FA Cup Final and Eric Cantona banned for nine months after kung-fu kicking his way round Selhurst Park.
Combined, Jack Walker’s millions, Eric Cantona’s retribution and the FA’s intransigence appeared to threaten a fundamental shift in United’s brief period of English dominance.
Ferguson compounded fans’ anger too with the decision to add just an obscure goalkeeper to the squad that summer despite the influential player sales, with Nick Culkin joining from York City.
On the field United finished the 1995 season potless; off the field mutiny threatened to take over the club.
Fast forward nine years and once again United’s position of superiority was under threat, with Arsenal taking the Premier League in 2004 and the Reds finishing third behind Roman Abramovich’s newly acquired Chelsea. Indeed, Arséne Wenger spoke of the “power shift” to London in English football and away from Ferguson’s team.
The media lapped up Wenger’s every word.
While United’s slide down the table coincided with Rio Ferdinand’s eight month ban for missing a routine drugs test, it also precipitated a remarkably heavy period of spending from Ferguson in response to Chelsea’s takeover and the Wenger threat. Spending that would eventually land United three Premier League titles and the Champions League.
In 2003 United acquired for more than £26 million David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Tim Howard, Kléberson and Cristiano Ronaldo; a year later Wayne Rooney followed in a £27 million deal. In between Louis Saha joined the club for £12 million, Alan Smith for £7 million and Gabriel Heinze for a similar fee.
In reality ’95 and ’04 offer little by way of genuine comparison, except that in two periods of potential transition United, quite fundamentally, approached the challenge in different ways.
In 1995 Ferguson placed his faith – his reputation even – on youth’s emergence. Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and the Neville brothers each forced their way into the first team. He bet on the kids and took the house, proving it possible to win without experience.
United has truly never been the same club since.
Today, the club stands on the precipice of a similar époque, after the the Reds’ surrender of the Premier League title to Chelsea and the big-spending threat from Eastlands emerging. A shift in power is once again the mot du jour.
Stick or twist; Ferguson may not have the funds to choose this time out, even if the Scot consistently maintains otherwise.
Yet, the legendary manager has spent much of his United’s pre-season tour to North America talking up the club’s younger players, with half a dozen under-20s set to figure prominently in the first team squad during the coming season.
The brashness of youth in a tour party shorn of injured and resting players comes strongly to the fore – Danny Welbeck, Federico Macheda, Gabirel Obertan, Tom Cleverley, and the da Silva brothers.
“The history of Manchester United is quite simple. It has always been based on young people and that’s where we’re more comfortable. I think our fans are more comfortable too,” said the 68-year-old Scot this week under questioning about the club’s transfer market hiatus this summer.
“So producing players is a big incentive for us. We know the response we get from supporters when we produce a player through the ranks, through our youth system.
“It’s a fantastically satisfying thing also. At the moment we have a collection of young players who have been growing up at the club. If you don’t give them an opportunity they’re going to stagnate and move to other clubs who’ll get the benefit of the work we’ve done with them.”
It’s a big call from Ferguson.
The previously obscure Chris Smalling and Mexican striker Javier Hernández have joined for little more than the departures of Ben Foster and Zoran Tošić. Indeed, the parallels with ’95 are now stark. Failure on the pitch; mutiny off it.
Yet, Ferguson says that he will not spend again this summer.
The Scot’s bet this time, whether he truly likes it or not, is once again on youth. The odds of success seem longer than fifteen years earlier but United fans can take comfort in this fact: when Ferguson is laying the stakes, it’s normally best to follow suit.