Ferguson wins the generation game

The United manager's faith in his young charges (above) has been lavishly repaid. Guy Hodgson reports
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There have been some lavish compliments heading in Alex Ferguson's direction this week that have included conferring greatness on the Manchester United manager. But then there has been some serious sucking up to do.

Most of it has come from journalists who, nine months ago, were questioning Ferguson's reasons when he let Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince go, although more than one supporter should be contrite. If there are no red faces in Manchester this week, then there ought to be.

Last August a telephone poll in the Manchester Evening News voted that Ferguson should either jump or be pushed from his job. "City fans making trouble," was his terse observation, but it hurt, nevertheless. After all, he had only brought nine trophies to Old Trafford at a rate of one a year.

The opprobrium heaped on Ferguson's head last summer was provoked by what many considered to be his stubborn faith in youngsters. "You don't win anything with kids" is a comment that Alan Hansen will have thrown in his face for a long, long time, but he was not alone in his sentiments.

Which has made this a particularly sweet week for Ferguson. On Sunday he clinched his third championship in four years and, on Saturday, he hopes to complete a second double out of three against Liverpool at Wembley. Not bad for a man who was considered to be losing his grip.

"There was a feeling that things were falling apart," said Richard Kurt, who was then acting as spokesman for the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association and rivalling the Princess of Wales for column inches. "It wasn't so much what was done but the way it was done."

Hughes' going they understood, and Kanchelskis was clearly hell bent on leaving Old Trafford. It was the departure of Ince that mystified. "He is the best Englishman in his position," Kurt said, "and until everything about the transfer came out it seemed United had pushed him out. To be honest, most United supporters thought we would be lucky to qualify for Europe, never mind win the championship."

It is the young players who have astounded both United's supporters and their opponents. The two Nevilles, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, all fringe players this time last year, have blossomed at a colossal rate.

Mature beyond their years (none is older than 21), they have belied the theory that youngsters are neither consistent nor durable enough to win championships. In addition, there is no hint of the conceit or tantrums that Ince and Kanchelskis were said to be prone to. From FA Youth Cup winners in 1992, they have graduated to the championship, a phenomenal rise given the fall-out rate in young footballers.

Hughes, now at Chelsea, said everyone was aware that the youngsters were distinct. "They're a special group," he said. "They all caught everyone's eye in the senior squad as soon as they joined the club. We knew they were a top-notch group of players and United were very grateful they all came through at the same time.

"One of their biggest assets, apart from their natural skill, was there was never any fear in them. When players are young you always worry they can't cope with the fact they are out on the field with 30,000 people watching them. But I've never seen any fear in this crop of kids. Nothing seems to bother them."

Brian McClair, a player who has been eased out of the first team by the coming generation, concurs: "They are all level-headed, with a good belief in their own ability," he said. "They're all willing to learn and listen to all the senior players and the coaching staff. With that good attitude, things should only improve for them.

"Maybe it's easier for young players to come into a team like Manchester United. Nobody knows anything about them, they are there to make their name. Whereas sometimes people have come in with a high reputation and the crowd expects much more. The kids have nothing to prove other than they can play."

Ferguson put his money where his mouth was in more ways than letting Hughes et al go. During the close season Paul Gascoigne intimated he wanted to come to Old Trafford, and would have provided just the sort of extravagant buy that would have assuaged the fans.

Gascoigne is described by Ferguson as the best English player he has seen since his move from Aberdeen in 1986, and he must have been tempted. "I had just said that Nicky Butt was the future as far as this club was concerned," the manager said. "It wouldn't have been fair to the boy to suddenly bring in another player."

Ferguson was rewarded by a compelling season from Butt, who has filled the Roy Keane role in midfield as the Irishman has moved up to become the senior partner. At the back, Gary Neville has become England's full- back but not necessarily United's as his brother, Phil, now gets the choice when everyone is fit, while Beckham has proved a quick-witted, if not as quick-footed, replacement for Kanchelskis.

"When the manager sold the three in the summer," Phil Neville said, "it spurred everyone on in the reserves and youth team. I thought: 'He must be going to try the young lads'. I know I tried that little bit harder."

Nine months on and Ferguson has made it up with his critics, including the Independent Supporters' Association, who he addressed at a meeting last month. "A lot of United fans were upset that Ince was sold," Kurt said, "but once the season started they got behind the team, particularly the kids. They're young and you'll forgive a young player anything.

"Only twice this season, away to Liverpool and Leeds, have they been found out in high-pressure matches. Apart from that they have thrived. You saw that when United went to Newcastle. They showed they had learned."

And how. Eighteen months ago Port Vale reported United to the Football League for fielding a weakened side in the Coca-Cola Cup. Seven of that team won the championship on Sunday.

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