Football: The Treble - Long learning curve led United to the summit

Champions worked hard to acquire Continental touch

THE JOURNEY that ended with Peter Schmeichel and Alex Ferguson lifting the European Cup in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night began in Budapest in 15 September 1993.

That was the night Ferguson's Manchester United took their first faltering steps in the quest to emulate Sir Matt Busby's legendary team after years of exile from the Continent's premier club competition.

United beat Kispest Honved 3-2 that night, Eric Cantona scoring the first goal, but tumbled out in the next qualifying round, against Galatasaray. This was the infamous tie when they let slip a two-goal lead at home, drawing 3-3, then, after failing to score in the return in Istanbul, had Cantona sent off.

The following year they made the league stage but again fell by the Bosphorus. Then came defeats in the post-Christmas knock-out stages. All the time the ignominies piled up: Paul Ince sent off in Gothenburg; thrashed 4- 0 in Barcelona; outplayed by Juventus; outwitted by Monaco; beaten at home by Fenerbahce and Borussia Dortmund. But, as many a coach is fond of saying, you learn more from defeat than victory and Ferguson and his United players learned well.

They also had the benefit of changes in the way the game is played and administered. The foreign player restrictions that hampered their early challenges proved a boon in the long-term as United were forced to blood many of their younger players earlier than they would have wished. In addition, the influx of foreign players into the English game has changed the nature of Premiership football, with few teams now practising the long ball game that was so prevalent in the 1980s and early 90s.

Mark Hughes, a core player in United's early European campaigns, believes this domestic change has helped the team's European development.

"European nights had always had a different atmosphere," he said, "but part of that was the fear of the unknown. We were not used to playing these sides and they presented you with new problems. That's changing and one reason is that we play with foreigners week in week out and get used to how they think and what sort of ball they are looking for. In the past English teams would struggle because we wouldn't know how to regain possession. We would lose it too easily and find it difficult to regain.

"British players are more honest; they fly into tackles, they don't have enough patience. Foreign players will play a five-yard ball and have it straight back whereas as soon as a British player gets it he turns and looks for a 20-yard ball forward. Sometimes if you play a five-yard ball, then have it back, it opens everything up. When it does the ball you should play is so obvious it becomes an easy ball."

Cantona, who lunched with the team on Wednesday, was an integral part of United understanding this. He rarely played well for them in Europe but his influence was fundamental. On one occasion, during a training session, he was orchestrating the sort of passing Hughes mentions. Five yards here, five yards there. A team-mate said to him: "What's the point of this, we're in the same positions we were before." "Ah yes," replied Cantona, "but the defenders aren't."

Meanwhile Ferguson was struggling to temper his inclination to attack with the need to be cautious. Changes in the game's laws, which speeded up the game and protected attacking players, strengthened his hand. Slowly he was able to build a team that was comfortable in possession but passed with a purpose, not for the sake of it. He also placed a greater emphasis on discipline.

Hughes recalled: "When I was at United it was more physical, that was the nature of the game then. Four or five years ago teams would try and physically intimidate United. We had to stand up and be counted. Maybe the way the climate is with referees now United don't need those type of players so much."

What has remained from that time, due to the lingering influence of past players and the prevailing one of the manager, is the will to win. Yesterday several United players were reflecting on the Churchillian nature of Ferguson's half-time oratory and the belief he has instilled in them.

"The manager gave a great speech," Teddy Sheringham said. "He told us that if we lost we would have to go up and get our losers' medals. We would be just six feet from the European Cup and not be allowed to touch it. And he said for many of us, that would be the closest we would ever get. He said `Don't you dare come back in here without giving your all.'"

What next? United need a goalkeeper to replace Schmeichel, probably Mark Bosnich, who is thought to be signing on a free transfer when his Villa contract expires at the end of next month. Fabien Barthez, of Marseilles, waits in the wings. Another central defender is likely especially as Ronny Johnsen is rumoured to have a long-term knee problem. More midfield cover, ideally on the right flank and inside, is also required.

Some money is available, though, despite Ferguson's success, not as much as he would like. A few fringe players may have to be sold. Whatever personnel report to Old Trafford when pre-season training begins in June, the target is clear.

"Now we have to go away and come back and win them all again next year," Nicky Butt said, "because that is what the boss will demand of us."

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