After winning the European Cup in 1968, the final of 1999 couldn’t come soon enough for our club and fans. After a storming display in the Champions League, going through the group stages all the way through the semis without a single defeat, confidence was high. We’d won the FA Cup four days prior to the final, the league titles six days before that, and we were ready to claim the Treble, something we’d denied the dominant Liverpool side achieving in 1977.
Whilst immensely excited, there was this niggling feeling that we weren’t going to do it. Both Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were missing through suspension, meaning we would have to play in the European Cup final with a somewhat makeshift midfield.
Nicky Butt, who joined United when he was just 14-years-old, was given a starting place in the centre of the field, playing alongside his childhood team mates, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. Five years after he was embarrassed 4-0 on this ground, an inexperienced kid back then, Butt played for 90 minutes against Bayern Munich, lifting the European Cup at the end of it.
Between 1995 and 2002, Butt never played fewer 35 games for us in a season, proving himself as a valuable member of our squad. However, a change probably started following the summer of 2002, after Butt played for England in the World Cup.
“Butt, I think, is the best player of the tournament, for me,” said Pele. “The player who is so constant, good marking, pressure, is Butt. He’s the best player for me.”
Still, he wasn’t given the starting place for United, fighting out with Keane, Scholes and Veron for appearances. For years he had been rumoured to be on the way out, but the club were keen to cling on to him, even if they weren’t to start him.
“Nicky Butt is perfectly happy here,” said Sir Alex Ferguson in 2000, following reports linking Butt with moves to Sunderland and Everton. “He doesn’t always play but who does always play here at United? There is probably only Roy Keane who is there always playing every game because he is the captain. That is the position Nicky plays in. But, if you look in the record books and see the number of games Nicky has played in the last two or three years, he’s appeared in 35-40 matches a season. He did the same thing again last season and made a great contribution to the club. He always has. Nicky has picked up medals the same as everyone else and has never missed out on a thing. Nicky Butt leaving is just not on.”
Half way through the 2003-2004 season, Butt finally handed in a transfer request. He’d won six Premiership titles, three FA Cups, the League Cup, and the European Cup, but he was keen to establish himself elsewhere.
Since then, his career has slowly dwindled away, reaching embarrassing lows at times. His first season in the North-East was disappointing, consisting of injuries and poor performances. What Butt was lacking in ability before, he made up with his passion and dedication to the club. This other side of him was missing when he first moved.
Newcastle got battered 4-1 in the Cup by United, leading Butt’s new fans to turn on him. His display was lacklustre and was summed up by his mistake which handed United their third goal of the day. The summer came a couple of months later, by which point Newcastle had bought three players for Butt’s position in Amdy Faye, Scott Parker and Emre.
He was shipped off to Birmingham on loan to work with former United team mate, Steve Bruce, but wasn’t much more popular there. He walked out on team before Birmingham’s 3-0 defeat against West Ham, after making the journey down to London and hearing Bruce was player his son, Alex Bruce, in place of Butt. He was fined £80,000 and two months later Birmingham were relegated.
He returned to Newcastle and has finally managed to settle, becoming better liked by the fans and holding the position of vice-captain. However, the club has become a bigger joke than ever before over the past few months, with the rot of Butt’s career after leaving United continuing.
“We are down there and part of the battle at the moment,” Butt said today. “We started the season on a high. The first three games we started well. It is a rollercoaster – as it is every year here. The longer you are in there the more desperate you get.”
Did Butt make a mistake handing in his transfer request?