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The Independent Online

After United had handed the 1991-92 League title to Leeds, there were mental scars to recover from and a patent need for fresh blood. The first-choice team for the new season was pretty much unchanged from the previous term - until November and the event many believe was the single most important factor in the success to come: the wholly unexpected signing of Eric Cantona from Leeds, the snip of the decade at just over pounds 1m. From his first game, when he came on as a substitute in the Manchester derby at the beginning of December, United were a different side.


As Bryan Robson became an increasingly peripheral figure (he started only five League games in and 10 in '93-94), it was clear that Ferguson needed another midfield giant in the tradition of Robson and Ince. The relegation of Nottingham Forest provided the perfect opening, and Roy Keane was signed for pounds 3.5m, immediately forming a devastating partnership with Ince in the middle, while the trio of Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe and Andrei Kanchelskis shared the wing duties.


In 1995, the title was lost on the final day of the season to Blackburn, and the summer was a time of emigration for three of United's stars. To Everton went Kanchelskis, after a season of discontent at Old Trafford; to Chelsea went Hughes, considered to be past his best by Ferguson and squeezed out by the arrival of Cole, signed in response to the nine- month suspension of Cantona; and to Internazionale went Paul Ince who, Ferguson reckoned, had come to believe himself bigger than the club. Beckham slotted neatly into the right wing vacated by Kanchelskis, Cole became first-choice striker and Nicky Butt replaced Ince.


Despite the arrival of a foreign foursome - Karel Poborsky, Jordi Cruyff, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ronny Johnsen - plus the availability of more fledglings, particularly Paul Scholes and Philip Neville, the overall look of the first-choice line-up changed little, apart from the frequent insertion of Solskjaer into attack. The principal change has been the plethora of options at Ferguson's disposal - so much so, in fact, that the notion of a first-choice XI makes little sense. Giggs, say, has had several excellent games in central midfield, where Beckham has also distinguished himself, and Johnsen has played with equal facility in defence and midfield.