By now, Manchester United had been firmly established as the best side in England, having won two titles in a row, the second of which was a Double, a feat achieved only three other times previously in the 20th century. While there were significant departures after the 1993/94 season, with Robson, Phelan and Blackmore all leaving, the strength of United’s squad, as well as the quality of the youngsters coming through the academy, meant that this was not met with too much concern. Ferguson brought in David May from Blackburn Rovers as the eventual successor to Bruce; this was his only signing of the close season.
The Fledglings take flight
When Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in 1986, the youth setup at the club was a mess. There had been a chronic lack of investment in the academy, coaching and scouting systems, with the result that even Manchester City had overtaken United as the preferred destination for youngsters in Manchester and its surrounding areas. Ferguson was left bemused when he saw the state of the academy, and within months he had doubled United’s scouting presence in Manchester alone.
He constantly demanded improvements across the board, with the result that United soon had an extremely talented bunch of youngsters coming through the ranks, who had been dubbed the ‘Class of ’92’. They won the FA Youth Cup for the first time since the days of the ‘Busby Babes’ in 1992, and while Ryan Giggs had already established himself as a member of the first-team, the likes of David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt all made debuts during the 1992/93 season. Paul Scholes and Phil Neville would soon follow in their footsteps, and by the time the 1994/95 season came along, all of these players were on the fringes of the first-team.
Ferguson’s handling of these kids deserves praise; he gave them a small taste of first-team action before immediately moving them back to reserve-team football, making them hungry for more. By the end of the season, Gary Neville, Scholes and Butt would all end up with over 20 appearances each for the first-team, as they provided excellent cover and got a large number of games due to injuries to the first-choice players.
Cantona sees red
The season would end up being dominated by one storyline though. United had been erratic throughout the season, going out of the Champions League in December while failing to take multiple opportunities to take the initiative in the title race. However, January 1995 saw Ferguson break the English transfer record to sign Andy Cole from Newcastle in a £7 million deal; £6 million in cash, with £1 million-rated winger Keith Gillespie moving in the opposite direction.
This, along with the fact that a 1-0 win over league leaders Blackburn at Old Trafford had cut their lead over United to just two points, contributed towards a general mood of optimism around the club as they headed to Selhurst Park to play Crystal Palace. However, that night in Selhurst would end up being one of the most infamous in the history of English football.
Eric Cantona had scored in the win over Blackburn, to take his tally of league goals to 12 for that season. He was in good form, and the arrival of Cole was expected to decrease his goalscoring burden, thereby allowing him to take up a more creative role. However, there was to be a twist in the tale; with the game still goalless, Cantona was sent off for kicking out at Palace defender Richard Shaw. This would have been bad enough on its own, but on his way towards the tunnel, the mercurial Frenchman suddenly lunged studs-first at a Palace supporter in the stands, before attempting to punch him.
He had to be dragged away by United coaches and Peter Schmeichel, as a volley of abuse rained down on him and the remaining United players who ran up to confront the fan in question. To this day, it is unclear as to what exactly was said by that fan to provoke Cantona in such a manner. Nevertheless, within 48 hours of the incident, the club had fined Cantona £20,000 and suspended him for the rest of the season.
The FA got involved as well, extending the ban up to eight months and fining him a further £10,000. This meant that United lost the services of their best player for the beginning of the next season as well, while Cantona was vilified in the English press. He lost the captaincy of the French national team, and would never play for France again.
Amid all this, Ferguson was constantly aware that his best player would soon become disillusioned, and in a show of solidarity, the club offered a new contract to him despite the ban. Even after signing the contract, Cantona remained frustrated by the terms of the ban, which prevented him from playing even in friendly matches and put in a request for his contract to be cancelled in August 1995. Ferguson travelled to Paris, and managed to convince Cantona to stay at the club, a decision that would prove vital to United’s hopes in the following seasons.
Fergie Swings The Axe
In the aftermath of the Cantona affair, United had continued to push Blackburn hard at the top of the table. March saw the Red Devils just three points behind Blackburn, having set a record for the biggest victory margin in a Premier League game with a 9-0 win over Ipswich earlier that month. Andy Cole also set the record for most goals by an individual player in a game, scoring five.
However, a goalless draw at home against Tottenham and a first loss to Liverpool in three years meant that United ended the month six points off the top. A slip-up by Blackburn meant that United were only two points behind with two games to go in May; they beat Southampton 2-1 with a late Denis Irwin goal which took the race down to the final game, where United were playing already-relegated West Ham, while Blackburn took on Liverpool at Anfield.
In a shocking finale, United failed to beat the Hammers, only managing a 1-1 draw which secured the title for Blackburn despite them losing 2-1 to Liverpool. The FA Cup final would bring further pain, as United lost to Everton to end up without a major trophy for the first time in six years.
The end of the 1994–95 season saw the demolition of the 30-year-old North Stand at Old Trafford, to make way for a new 26,800-seat stand costing nearly £30 million, which would be fully operational within a year and increase Old Trafford’s capacity to more than 57,000. A similar reconstruction would occur on the pitch, with Ferguson ruthlessly trimming the squad.
Paul Ince was sold to Inter Milan for £7.5 million, and within 24 hours, Mark Hughes left for Chelsea in a £1.5 million deal. Days into the 1995/96 season, Andrei Kanchelskis was sold to Everton for £5 million; thus, three of United’s key players had been sold, and what’s more, Ferguson did not buy a single replacement. Fans and the media were understandably bemused by this, but Ferguson’s plan turned out to be a masterstroke.
“You’ll Never Win Anything With Kids”
Ferguson intended for David Beckham to replace Kanchelskis and Nicky Butt to take Paul Ince’s place, with Andy Cole and Eric Cantona (after his suspension) available to cover for Hughes’ departure. Moreover, Paul Scholes had also come through the ranks superbly as a support striker, while the Neville brothers were ready to slot into the defence. Ferguson recognized that this crop of youngsters was ready to step up, and thus did not make a single signing before the season started.
His faith was severely tested after a 3-1 opening day loss to Aston Villa, which prompted Alan Hansen to make the now-infamous “you’ll never win anything with kids” statement on Match of the Day. However, United and the ‘kids’ hit back, winning their next five games to go into second place behind Newcastle. 1st October saw the return of Cantona from suspension, and he duly scored a penalty to help hold Liverpool to a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.
This would spark an erratic run of form; United went unbeaten in the league for two months, but then went on a five-match winless run which saw Newcastle take a 10-point lead at the top of the table. United struggled to cut down the deficit, almost getting knocked out of the FA Cup as well during this time. However, Cantona’s equalizer against Sunderland forced a replay, where United came from behind to win 2-1. February saw them build up a head of steam, winning all four of their league games which put them only four points behind Newcastle, and with an FA Cup fifth round win over City, another Double was looking like a distinct possibility.
The Red Devils beat Newcastle at St. James’ Park through a solitary Cantona goal at the start of March, and the gap was now down to a single point. A draw against QPR and a win against Arsenal put United top, and they would stay there for the rest of the season.
Ferguson’s ability to draw a reaction from his rivals would now be demonstrated, as Kevin Keegan delivered his infamous “I would love it” rant live on Sky Sports following comments from Ferguson about Nottingham Forest’s perceived lack of effort against the Tynesiders as compared to his side. United went into the final game against Middlesbrough needing only a draw and duly won 3-0 to secure Ferguson’s third title. The icing on the cake would be the FA Cup final against Liverpool, with the ‘Spice Boys’ beaten 1-0 via yet another Cantona goal.
Cantona’s redemption was complete, as he picked up the FWA Player of the Year award, while the kids established themselves completely in the side. Scholes scored 14 goals that season, while Beckham, the Neville brothers and Butt all made over 35 appearances. This core of players would be the cogs in the wheel that would drive United to their greatest ever season.
I know, I know, its been building up a lot now. But the next instalment in Ferguson’s journey will most definitely feature the madness and delirium of the 1999 season…