Sir Alex Ferguson: An outfit tailored especially to avoid the 10-year itch.

Click to follow
The Independent Football

IT READS like the track listing of a great album, one on which there are no duff songs, a Revolver or a Blonde on Blonde. Barthez, Gary Neville, Brown, Stam, Silvestre, Beckham, Keane, Veron, Giggs, Scholes, Van Nistelrooy. The final refinement of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. There are some nifty bonus tracks, although Andy Cole, who spent the build-up to the Charity Shield raging against the notion that he is a "bench player", may take some getting used to as a B-side.

Ferguson has already indicated he will be fielding two Manchester United sides this season; one in the Champions' League and against the main pretenders in the Premiership. The other will deal with the ordinary morass of clubs. Here you will find the likes of Nicky Butt and Quinton Fortune.

Despite their swagger, United needed renewal and Ferguson's way has always been to inject new blood when the team shows signs of faltering. Away from Old Trafford, their performances last season were fitful; they beat none of the top six on their own grounds and in Europe there was just a lone victory in Austria against Sturm Graz. After scraping a point against Panathinaikos in March, Roy Keane, a man not close to the players he captains but who shares the same heartbeat as his manager, said pointedly some of his team would have to go.

The average lifespan of a great side is around 10 years. The Wolverhampton team of Stan Cullis, which when it overcame the Hungarians of Honved could fairly claim to be the best in the world, only once finished outside the top three between 1953-1962. Then they fell away and Cullis was promptly sacked, prompting a call from Matt Busby on the ingratitude of directors, sentiments Ferguson would echo.

Leeds's golden age spanned precisely a decade; from finishing second in their first year in the top flight in 1965 to their defeat by Bayern Munich in the European Cup final 10 years later when the rot set in. Liverpool's dominance was more durable but the cracks were gaping by the time Kenny Dalglish resigned in the February of 1991.

Manchester United have ruled domestic football for nine years in two distinct phases. The team which battered its way to the Double in 1994 was probably Ferguson's favourite; certainly they mirrored the physical, uncompromising way he played the game as a centre-forward at Ibrox. Significantly, they were galvanised by a summer signing, Roy Keane, then 21.

"Bruce, Ince, Robson, Keane, Hughes, Cantona and Schmeichel were capable of causing a row in an empty house," Ferguson recalled admiringly. "They were winners and they were bad losers." Some thought the 1994 Double team to be the finest Manchester United side ever, although in Europe it misfired badly. "They froze on the big stage, they forgot to defend," was how their manager summed up abject defeats in Barcelona and Gothenburg.

Just as elimination from the Champions' League caused Ferguson to demand that the board spend £50m on Veron and Van Nistelrooy this summer, so it did in 1995 when the Double team was broken up to make way for the finest crop of young players in United's history.

He won everything with kids. Of those he identified as United's future, only Keith Gillespie failed to last. The rest still form the nucleus of the side; the oldest, Ryan Giggs, is 27, younger than the baby-faced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. All are at their peak, all, bar David Beckham, have signed long-term deals. Veron's arrival makes the midfield look invulnerable, although Paul Scholes, who was United's leading marksman in Europe last season, is so valuable that Ferguson would rather use him as a striker, playing off Van Nistelrooy, than leave him out.

The mix was freshened up in 1998 when again stung by failure, this time in the Premiership when a vast lead was surrendered to Arsenal, Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke were bought for £22m. Yorke and Cole scored 50 times between them and United seized the Treble.

Those who wonder how Veron and Van Nistelrooy will adapt should note that aside from Cole every major signing Ferguson has made has fitted in with remarkable speed and there is no reason to think they will be different.

The machine is primed, awaiting the first spark.