He's at it again... Ferguson's fourth generation can keep Manchester United ahead of the pack
Old Trafford manager is rebuilding his side once more. How has he done it in the past and how will this one compare?
It was not exactly a Carling Cup team, but as Harry Redknapp surveyed Manchester United's line-up on Monday night the Tottenham manager must have thought, "We've a chance here."
Wayne Rooney, Nani and Patrice Evra were playing, but many of the men behind United's title triumph last season were not. There was no Ferdinand, no Vidic, no Giggs, no Scholes, no Van der Sar, no Carrick, no Fletcher, no Hernandez, no Berbatov. There was a rookie in goal, two more plus a reserve in defence, another in midfield and in attack.
Ninety minutes later it appears that Alex Ferguson is doing it again: building another great side. As in the past it has an English core with four young lions, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Chris Smalling and Tom Cleverley at the heart of the team. They are, respectively, 19, 20, 21 and 22 years old. Add in David de Gea (20), the Da Silva twins Fabio and Rafael (21), Anderson (23) and Nani (24) and, somewhat under the radar, Ferguson has out-Wengered Arsène Wenger in creating a high-class team of tenderfoots. And Wayne Rooney is only 25 while both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are 26. Given United's ability to meet most players' demands when it comes to wages and trophies, this is a squad that should keep United at the forefront of the game for years.
There will be bumps along the way. Young players are more prone to suffering dips in form and some may fade, but Ferguson has the experience to bring the team to maturity – he has done it before...
From Fledglings to Champions: 1988-93
In late 1986 Ferguson took over a Manchester United team that had talent, but had stagnated. Like many clubs it was mired in a drinking culture. He had, though, inherited a reasonable crop of young players, twice recent FA Youth Cup finalists. On New Year's Day 1989 he threw a quartet in against champions Liverpool. Teenagers Lee Sharpe and Mark Robins, plus 20-year-olds Lee Martin and Russell Beardsmore, all featured as United won a thrilling match 3-1.
It was a false dawn. The youngsters were either not quite good enough or, as in the case of Martin, suffered injury. Although Ferguson had such senior pros as Bryan Robson, Brian McClair, Jim Leighton and Steve Bruce the squad was not up to standard either and United finished 11th, then 13th.
Yet the "Fledglings" did play their part in the making of the modern United. In January 1990 Robins scored the fabled goal which secured FA Cup third-round victory at Nottingham Forest, and more importantly, critical goals at Easter as relegation threatened. Martin then scored the winner in the FA Cup final, in a replay against Crystal Palace. That bought Ferguson the time he needed.
Though the youngsters dropped out, heavy transfer investment enabled Ferguson to build a powerful team. In 1991, by which time Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister and Paul Ince were all in harness, United won the European Cup Winners' Cup.
Ferguson was on the way. He added Peter Schmeichel, Paul Parker and Andrei Kanchelskis to the team and predicted a title win. United came second, but a year later, with Eric Cantona aboard, they finally won their first championship since 1967.
'You win nothing with kids': 1995-2003
As Alan Hansen occasionally points out, when he gets tired of the ribbing, he was not entirely wrong. The "kids" of the 1995-96 Manchester United Double winners were not just kids sent out into the mean streets of the Premier League alone, they had some muscle and know-how to protect and nurture them, notably Cantona, Pallister, Irwin, Schmeichel and Bruce, plus a young but already dynamic Roy Keane.
In fact, Ferguson had not intended to break up the 1994-95 team, which had finished second to Blackburn in the league and Everton in the FA Cup. He had decided to replace Paul Ince, whom Keane had supplanted as leader, but he did not want to lose Mark Hughes, whose contract was allowed to wind down due to an issue about contract arrangements. Nor, having traded Keith Gillespie as part of the Andy Cole deal, did he want to lose Kanchelskis, but the player and his agent forced the issue. David Beckham, who was being groomed as a central midfielder, was thus thrust into the team on the right flank, and did so well he stayed there for most of his career.
If Beckham's emergence so early was fortuitous Ferguson had long been anticipating drafting him, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers Gary and Phil, into a team already graced by Ryan Giggs. These "kids", bolstered by shrewd recruitment, notably Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam, were to form the bulwark of the 1999 treble winners, and beyond, winning four league titles in five years.
Meeting the Chelsea challenge: 2004-2011
Roman Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea changed the game. Previously United could outbid anyone: Rio Ferdinand's £29m purchase from Leeds in 2002 was the sixth time Ferguson had broken the British transfer record. He has not broken it since. When Chelsea won back-to-back titles from 2004-06, following on from Arsenal's Invincibles, Old Trafford began sounding mutinous with Ferguson's future openly discussed.
Ferguson had already begun his response, scouring the world for the best developing talent, such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. He supplemented them with smart medium-priced buys, such as Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic, to provide instant experience, and belatedly signed Edwin van der Sar. Four domestic titles and one Champions League have followed, but at Wembley in May Barcelona's supremacy was clear. So Ferguson is building again, grafting developed and imported youth on to the long established framework. With his track record, who would bet against him?
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