Among the homegrown players, there was a mental toughness and an appreciation. The Neville brothers, dubbed the Nervous Brothers by Scholes, doubted themselves and devoted their lives accordingly, and though Giggs and Beckham were always going to make it, both suffered formative and exceptional adversity; not just the most fortunate natural talents of their generation, but also the most determined.
Younger men than would usually appear in such a successful team, in strictly football terms they were adults, used to performing under pressure and practised in rebounding from thrashings and disappointments. And they experienced all these things together, developing as individuals within a co-operative, ticking off rites of passage: away trips with the first team, first-team debut, first-team squad, appearances on the bench, and then shared pride as each became a staple.
Nor were they shy of men from whom to learn; serious, focused winners like Hughes and Robson. Robson would indoctrinate them weekly regarding what it meant to be a United player, and, most particularly, that whenever any one of them were threatened, they must all be on the scene to intervene and avenge. Also influential was Cantona, and not just because he was an exponent of the peculiar European art of practice. “A lot of the flair you see in the team today is down to him,” Schmeichel observed prior to the final league game. “The young players used to look at him and say, ‘I wasn’t taught that in soccer school or in the FA curriculum.'”
“It’s a Manchester United legacy,” says Gary Neville, “that this is a club that can be the biggest football club in the world, yet can bring through young players. There’s no excuse for any other club not to follow this. The best teams that have ever been produced, produce their own players more often than not, because they have that ingrained loyalty and desire to play for that club, to do everything that matters, no matter what it takes, and that is Manchester United’s legacy, it’s not the class of ’92’s legacy, it’s the manager, it’s Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s Sir Matt Busby, we’re just players that have come through it because they have had the courage to actually implement that system.”
In October of the previous season, United beat Barnsley 7–0. But what gave Neville the most pleasure was the composition of the team: a back four including him, his brother and John Curtis, and a midfield of Beckham, Butt, Scholes and Giggs, with Ronnie Wallwork on the subs’ bench.
“Everything we did, we were together,” recalls Butt. “We trained together, we got changed together, we ate together. Obviously Eric and the coaches there made us know that we’re all in it together, it’s not an individual thing, because we’d never have got anywhere without our team-mates.”
And this transmitted to the terraces, supporters first investing in their potential before harvesting the kinetic. The buzz of their buzz was special enough, but it was more personal than that, their experiences so easily relatable. Playing in a team of mates as opposed to a team of other people is a decision that bothers most Sunday league types at one time or another, and here they were, having their red velvet cake and guzzling it. But more generally, the empathy, connection and experience shared with them by virtue of loving United, of United being an intrinsic part of life and memory, something inculcated from an early age and always there, is a special thing. And more generally still, the empathy, connection and experience shared with them, in simply the being of friends.
Just after Scholes announced his second retirement, he was interviewed by Gary Neville, who asked what motivated his comeback. “I decided,” he said. “Well, I spoke to you and your Phil.” And their bond is evident whenever they appear together. Giggs is meant to have a dry sense of humour, but in hundreds of “just use my experience” interviews, it has emerged only once – when talking to Neville following the 2013 title win. His ability to reveal them and get them to reveal themselves is far removed from the top man, great friend of the show knee-slapping, phony couch-cliche, rather the warmth that comes with being part of something real.
“They form the core of the team, on and off the field,” wrote Keane in his autobiography, before adding with typical morbidity, “and are bonded in a way that excludes the rest of us.” But crucially, he knew this was to the benefit of everyone. “At the heart of our club there is something solid, something real, something identifiably Mancunian, an attitude created by the Six Amigos, that is fundamental to the team and its success. When players join United, however much they cost, wherever they come from, it is this attitude they must plug into.”
Follow the author @DanielHarris on Twitter.
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