Simon Barnes, The Times. August 23rd 1995.
Throughout the summer, it seemed that the FA Carling Premiership was suffering from a collective bout of insanity, the main symptom of which was the furious, compulsive spending of sums that would make a lottery winner bleed with envy.
The we noticed that Manchester United were taking the opposite course. Not buying but selling: not building but dismantling. Were they the only sane club left? Or were they the loonies?
United won successive league championships, and came close enough to a third last season. They did so with a team that combined flashing wing play with a line of hardness that ran right through the middle of the team, from the goalkeeper to the front line.
But Alex Ferguson, the United manager, has got rid of two essential vertebrae in this spine of toughness, with the sale of Paul Ince and Mark Hughes. He also lost the better, or at least the more complete of the wings, Andrei Kanchelskis.
Even without such sales, he would clearly be able to buy any player he wanted – witness his £7m purchase of Andy Cole last season. But he has not spent a cent during the close season.
It was hard to understand this wilful perversity, but a single word has perhaps provided the key. The word is ‘babes.’ This is a word forever associated – in football at any rate – with one man. This is Sir Matt Busbym the legendary ‘father’ of United: Busby’s Babes, and all that.
“If they’re good enough, they’re old enough,” Sir Matt said, flinging precocious talents into the front line and letting them strut their stuff. Home-grown talent, identified early, managed by someone who understood them, trusted them, and had the courage to unleash them.
Is this, then, why Ferguson is not buying players, but promoting his own home-grown young talent? Is the team no longer Manchester United, but Fergie’s Babes? Perhaps Ferguson no longer seeks to be a great manager. He wants to be a legend.
It is a dangerous path that he is treading. Nostalgia is sport’s eternal self-indulgence, but if anyone ever takes it seriously, to the point of believing it, he is distinctly foolish. In fact, his name is probably Trueman. If anyone actively involved in sport believes it, one is entitled to suspect that he is crazy to the point of self-destruction.
Sport forever changes, and not slowly either. Will anyone ever play cricket for England football for Arsenal, as Denis Compton did? Or go the whole hog and be a double international? Will a cricketer ever again hold the world long-jump record, like C.B. Fry? Will any athlete hold a proper job and win an Olympic gold medal at a real sport?
For this is what Ferguson is attempting to do with his Babes Scenario. Can a team of young men really hold their own in a game that is not faster, harder, more physically and mentally demanding than ever before? Well, what happens to the players who leap boyishly into big-time football?
Think of a young man of matchless talent: a talent, it seems, to grace the game for years. Is it possible such a player, destined to be the greatest in his generation, should fade before he has grown into his full strength, drained by the ever-increasing physical and emotional demands of his trade. Yes, a name does spring to mind: Ryan Giggs, of Manchester United.
It is the disease that Americans call the Sophomore Jinx: that terrible realisation that mere talent is not enough. If it can happen to the nonpareil Giggs, then it can happen – perhaps these days it must happen – to any babe that ever kicked a football.
But then what else should Ferguson try and do? A few years ago, he was a man with a high and distant ambition. He wanted to restore United to their former glory. Alas, he has no fulfilled his highest hopes.
He has made his place in the club’s history. Double championship? Been there, done that. Why, he even made Eric Cantona a club man: a triumph of man-management if ever there was one. What remains?
The thin face remains as careworn as ever, the defensive mannerisms as awkward. But, as he attempts to step from excellence to legendary greatness, do we detect a stumble?
Kenny Dalglish became Liverpool’s manager, but found following a legend – or series of legends – too much for him. Thus the club had a kind of collective nervous breakdown, abandoning its own principles and traditions. Only now is the club getting back on track.
At the moment, it seems that United are following the same course. There seems to be some deep trouble there, some affliction of the heart and of the mind. This is a club, and an individual, that has found its heart’s desire. And, in doing so, has found despair.