Football: The team who thrived on the retreat from Europe: As Manchester United celebrate their second championship in a row, Jim White looks back in awe at Old Trafford's class of '94

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The Independent Online
IF I HAD any sense, the moment I should have put money on Manchester United retaining their title was when we stepped off the plane back from Istanbul after their pitiful departure from the European Cup.

It seemed at the time more logical to write them off: the team who couldn't do it, the team who went flat, the team, to paraphrase George Graham on Eric Cantona, of cry babies who let you down at the highest level. And indeed John Sadler, writing in the Sun the next morning, did just that, urging Alex Ferguson immediately to offload our favourite Gallic import - whose petulant display against Galatasaray had summed up the whole sorry expedition - while he still might fetch a bob or two.

Sadler obviously didn't see the players' faces that night. They should have looked like a bunch with the stuffing surgically removed, like an outfit who were going to cry themselves to sleep with the humiliation of it all. Instead, as they gathered around Bryan Robson, mother-henning them through the baggage reclaim ('All right Eric, son?') they looked relaxed, horsing around, happy to be home. They looked a team with perspective, a team who knew there would be another chance. And when that came, they wouldn't let it go.

Another chance arrived three days later: 2-0 down against Manchester City, they played a second half of such sustained high-standard, high-speed aggression that City were lucky to escape from the field without scorch marks. At the centre of everything was Cantona, a footballer the like of which had not worn a red shirt for 25 years. John Sadler, presumably, spent the evening dining on his own prose.

To recover that quickly showed the resilience of champions. It was Alex Ferguson's first priority when he moved south from Aberdeen to instal a backbone into a club who traditionally had the spinal consistency of a jelly fish. He knew from Scotland that you don't win the League by throwing away leads, by flopping against poor sides, by giving up after falling behind, failings ingrained in the United psyche through the Docherty and Atkinson eras.

This determination won him four trophies in as many years, the most important of which was the League in 1993, won despite the morale-sapping failure of the year before. And this determination, allied to the attacking instincts of his assistant Brian Kidd, led to a team who could play football capable of defenestrating the back of your neck, football it has been an honour to watch. Against Sheffield Wednesday when they scored five blistering goals, against Wimbledon in the FA Cup when Denis Irwin completed an 18-pass move with the goal of the season, against Leeds at Elland Road when they destroyed the decade's home-form team. At one point it looked as though they were yomping unstoppably towards a full house of domestic trophies, to make up for the Euro cock-up, a treble to dedicate to the memory of Matt Busby.

And then came the sudden collapse. I went to the FA Cup semi-final with a friend who had last seen them three months previously in their wonder show against Wimbledon. At the end of normal time he said he had never seen such an abject decline in such a short space of time.

That game against Oldham, when they looked incapable of breaking down in tears, never mind demolishing the weakest defence in the division, came at the end of a month in which the determination which Ferguson engenders threatened to boil over into ignominy. Cantona was sent off twice, three others saw red and Roy Keane expended most of his energy apparently trying to join the club.

After months of eulogising, the press, in all its shades turned, wrote them off as the team who jitters, moans and falters. Not just poor form, but poor manners and Blackburn led by that nice boy Shearer, too. 'Blackburn won't crack,' Chris Lightbown predicted in the Sunday Times. 'United will.'

Such coverage merely served to heighten the club's inner determination: when you are led by a man like Ferguson, nothing inspires you more than the world proving that it is indeed against you. So in the final dash for the line, all Ferguson's work in the background, on fitness, on diet, on psychology, gelled nicely with a steely two fingers to the world and Cantona's return from suspension. They suddenly remembered how to play again, just in time for the first Double in the club's history.

Are they great champions? I think they are. They may not yet have achieved Liverpool levels of consistency, but they are right in the best United traditions of playing the beautiful game. And they have something even Kenny Dalglish's Anfield side could not boast: real characters to go with real character. This does not mean, Steve Bruce aside, that they are necessarily people you would choose to have a drink with. But they are people you would choose to spend money to watch.

And United's juggernaut of a commercial operation has taken full advantage of this. This team stuffed with saleable faces are a walking, kicking, posing 24-hour advertisement for Martin Edwards's brand. Sharpe and Giggs have a following almost as fervent as Manchester's other teen idols, Take That. During school holidays, the air at United's Cliff training ground is thick with pheromones as thousands turn out to watch the boys train, to hang around, to get their autographs. Most of them are girls, most of them more interested in the cut of Giggs's sweat pants than his ability to sell a defender a dummy, but all of them, to the perpetual delight of Robin Launders, United's finance director, an eager market for United merchandise.

For the more cerebral, there is Cantona, the man who Denis Law reckons would have had to have been accommodated in the class of '68, at the expense of almost, though presumably not all, others. His flicks, fancy and goals have driven United to moments of the sublime. He has given this team their historical perspective.

But my player of the season is Mark Hughes. Rather than the standard footballer's-issue Robert Ludlum, on away trips Hughes prefers to read heftier tomes, Melvyn Bragg's biography of Richard Burton, for instance. His play is equally discerning. True, at times he rampages like something let loose on the streets of Pamplona, but some of his passing, his control and his shooting have been high art. And he scored, in the FA Cup semi-final, the goal which provided the catharsis of the season. With United playing with leaden legs, less than 30 seconds away from departure from the FA Cup, he suddenly unleashed a volley of venom, an equaliser which was in the Oldham goal before their keeper had moved.

In the United stands the wave of relief was as if a huge and virulent boil had been lanced. It re-ignited United's season, it was a moment of exquisite pleasure. And it was a moment missed by the fan sitting next to me who had left when Oldham scored. He should have known that true champions never finish with FA.

Jim White's story of United's season, 'Are You Watching, Liverpool?', will be published in the autumn.

(Photographs omitted)