Saturday 19th August 1995, 5:00 p.m., and the football scores have already filtered through from that afternoon’s opening games. In the Premier League, champions Manchester United have just been soundly beaten 3-1 at the hands of Aston Villa.
A sunny afternoon in Birmingham had given way to a grey day for United. Gone was the immortal black and gold Umbro kit that had produced back-to-back 2-1 victories. United took to the field in the grey kit that would end up binned after 45 infamous “grey” minutes at The Dell. A look at the line-up, showed United taking to the field as ‘Champions’ in name only.
United had been without Cole, Giggs, and the suspended Cantona. Of course, that summer had also seen a “fire sale” within Old Trafford. The like of which, none of the traveling reds had ever seen before. Andrei Kanchelskis, the flying winger from Ukraine; sold. Paul Ince, infamous for a leaked photo in a United shirt, whilst still a (un)happy Hammer; sold. Mark Hughes, the Wembley warrior, sold in ’86 to Barcelona (against his wishes), and now deemed surplus to requirements again; and sold. This time to boyhood club, Chelsea.
Money was exchanging hands, it just wasn’t leaving the Old Trafford till. United acquired almost £18 million all told, from the sale of Hughes, Kanchelskis, and Ince. Three of United’s most important players since the dawn of the Premier League era. Three fans’ favourites, all now free to ply their trade elsewhere. In the modern era, the closest we have seen is the replacement of Cristiano Ronaldo with Owen, Obertan, and Valencia. With all due respect to them, they were never going to cut the mustard of the departing Portuguese winger. All United had to show for it, was ex-Man City goalkeeper Tony Coton. And an unknown central defender from France, famous only for being a mate of the maverick, Cantona.
“You look at that line-up of Manchester United today and quarter-past two, when they get the team sheet it’s just gonna give them a lift and it’ll happen every time he plays the kids. He’s got to buy players.”
But back to United. Half-time and United were losing 3-0, thanks to goals from Ian Taylor, Mark Draper, and Dwight Yorke. The 3-5-2 system that United employed, to mask the lack of a recognised striker, was misfiring.
United took to the field for the second half with the Fergie hairdryer still ringing in their ears. Phil Neville got the hook from Fergie. Replaced by another youngster, David Beckham. The Match of the Day cameras did at least show some chances that fell United’s way. In truth, on another day, the reds might well have come away with a point or a late win.
Bosnich repelled two great headers from Roy Keane. Whilst McClair almost chipped the former United goalkeeper. In the last ten minutes, David Beckham drilled a shot into the top corner via a slight deflection, to make the score 3-1 to Villa. It was a fine effort and it wouldn’t be the last time Beckham would score that kind of goal. But it was scant consolation for the Champions.
Later that night, Match of the Day chewed over the highlights. Des Lynam, posed the question of “what’s going on?” to former Liverpool defender, Alan Hansen, who wasted no time in sticking the knife in. Hansen replied with his “you’ll never win anything with kids” remark, no doubt to the delight of everyone with Anfield connections. Hindsight is an incredible thing, especially the 20/20 variety. But the remark would go down in United folklore.
Criminally, what Hansen the pundit, had managed to overlook, was the experience that the likes of the Nevilles, Scholes, Beckham, and Butt had already acquired, in a relatively short period.
Gary Neville already had one FA Cup final under his belt. Younger brother Phil’s first league start, came earlier in 1995, in a Maine Road derby. Nicky Butt had played a pivotal role in Mark Hughes’ famous Wembley goal against Oldham. Meanwhile, Scholes had already managed to notch five league goals AND upset a Staffordshire MP, all in his debut season. United’s sole goalscorer at Villa Park, David Beckham, had scored on his Champions League debut at the Stretford End.
Hansen would soon be proved wrong, despite that opening day defeat. United did not lose again in the league until a November loss at Arsenal. The return of Cantona gave United the belief and experience they needed. The Frenchman helped himself to goals in four games that would secure three 1-0 wins and a draw. It was a run of games, that would prove pivotal in the title race. United reeled in Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, who had raced into a 10-point Christmas lead. It was one of THE great title races. To add injury to Hansens’ insult, the “kids” of United, beat Liverpool in the cup final, to claim another double.
The United squad had an average age of just over 26, with six players involved in 10 or more games under the age of 23. The Neville brothers made 55 Premier League appearances between them. While Butt (32 apps), Giggs (33), Scholes (26) and Beckham (33) all played a big part in United’s success.
In taking the bold step to replace Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis, Ferguson had shown unreal shrewdness in the transfer market. United fans hadn’t been happy with the news. But Fergie had successfully closed the book on one great United side. #
The preface to a new younger, hungrier United side was only just beginning…