Watching football, and United in particular, is a visceral experience, a sharp, intense mess of bodies, noise and smells. So it’s not surprising that the majority of fan favourites are linked by a single trait: they are men with whom it is deeply unwise to fuck. In my own lifetime, that includes Remi Moses, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Wes Brown, Ruud van Nistelrooy – sadly, in theory only – Nemanja Vidic, and though, Rojo shows promise, none of the current ponces.
It’s probably fair to say that Nicky Butt was never quite a favourite, but he nonetheless contributed plenty of fearless hardness, and in a manner that reeked of both Manchester and United. If his mates were in a ruck, he was there, if he was in a ruck, his mates were there, if someone needed telling or doing, he was there, and he just fancied it for his own entertainment, he was there. He never took a backwards step, physically outmatched or not, nor was there any demonstration or ostentation; he was a scrapper not a fighter, asserting himself with economy and tenacity.
He was also a pretty handy footballer. The second Class of 92 member to establish himself, he was instrumental in facilitating Hughes’ volley against Oldham in 1994, and he fought with distinction through the second half of the following season, scoring his first United goal in a New Year’s Eve gale at The Dell.
By 1995-96, he was more or less a regular, most notably supplying an excellent take and finish to ensure that Eric’s comeback game began correctly. His contributions, though, are better measured, not in moments, but momentousness; the teams he played for achieved unprecedented glory and success, in the United style. And within them, he competed as we all say we would, but most probably wouldn’t.
As a kid, he and Paul Scholes had bullied the brothers Neville when Boundary Park Juniors met Bury Juniors, but at Old Trafford, when Scholes relocated to midfield, the two were, more often than not, competing for a place. And, though Scholes was the superior footballer, Butt was often preferred on the biggest occasions. In United’s greatest ever season, he started both games with Leeds and Chelsea and all four with Arsenal, as well as away at Juventus – United’s greatest ever performance.
His display in the first of those Leeds games, capped but not defined by a brilliant winning goal, suggested he was ready to ascend a level. That never quite happened, but he remained reliable and likeable, playing a key role in the doomed but thrilling revival of 2001-02, the ballast that facilitated the artistry; or, put another way, he’d swagger into the current team, after tenderising the various shins and ankles on the training ground.
Though he was the first of his cohort to leave United, he harbours not a single regret. However hard he’s pressed, and however that pressing is formulated, he feels only pride and pleasure in his six league titles, three FA Cups and one European Cup. He also hated Dennis Wise, was respected by Roy Keane, and scalded Schmeichel’s scrotum with a burning teaspoon, and there can be few more auspicious recommendations than that.
ALL-TIME ACADEMY XI: John O’Shea, Gary Neville, Duncan Edwards, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne, Norman Whiteside, Paul Scholes, Bobby Charlton, Ryan GiggS, Mark Hughes, George Best
This article was taken from Made in Manchester