No ifs for Butt at the top level

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It Was not only the Germans who were surprised to find Nicky Butt running through their defence in Dortmund on Wednesday night. Alex Ferguson had not expected him to be there either: he thought Butt would be alongside him on the substitutes' bench.

Six hours earlier the Manchester United manager had gone into the last team meeting before the European Cup semi-final with Borussia Dortmund with the teamsheet already written out. It did not include Butt. Then David May revealed that his ankle had reacted badly to Tuesday night's training session and he would not be fit. Ronny Johnsen dropped back into defence and Butt came in alongside Roy Keane.

He proceeded to prove United's best player, chipping away at Paulo Sousa's early dominance until United gained control and, three minutes into the second half, being the width of the post away from establishing his own niche in Old Trafford folklore. Even a nasty foul by Lars Ricken, which earned the German a booking, failed to dim Butt's fire. Ferguson for one was impressed. "I thought he was our best player on the night," he said. "He was outstanding."

It was the culmination of a remarkable spell for Butt. Ten days earlier he had come on in the friendly against Mexico at Wembley to become England's newest cap. In doing so the South Manchester-born 22-year-old finally caught up with his peers in the vintage 1992 United youth team, Gary Neville and David Beckham. Of that group only Paul Scholes, whose progress has been stymied by the presence of Eric Cantona in his preferred role, has yet to receive full recognition.

After a couple of early games Butt first made an impact in the United team in the 1994-95 season. The next year he assumed Paul Ince's No 8 shirt and position. His slender build and youthful features mask a spikiness of play and growing maturity in character.

Apart from the odd outburst there has never been any doubt about his temperament. Eric Harrison, United's long-serving youth coach, has said of Butt: "From his early days it was quite apparent that Nicky would not suffer with nerves. You never like to stick a label on youngsters but when I saw Nicky I could see he was a Bryan Robson-type player.

"He has always been slightly built and is one of the few kids who has stayed virtually the same weight from the day they came to the club at 15. But I was never concerned about his weight holding him back because of his size. He has proved he can hold his own against bigger and older players. He is like Keane and Ince - you can kick him from pillar to post and he still gets up for more."

He also appears to have come through a mysterious illness that earlier this season left him suffering headaches and double vision during and after games. The only area in which Butt has disappointed is goal-scoring. He was a regular scorer at youth and reserve level, breaking from midfield as against Dortmund, or heading in as in the Charity Shield against Newcastle. Yet he left Germany with a record of eight goals in 80 Premiership and European matches.

The example of Ince and Steve McManaman suggests that goal-scoring is one of the hardest arts to master. Yet Butt is improving. As well as the Charity Shield score, he had hit five goals in 22 Premiership matches this season before yesterday. The return against Dortmund on 23 April, when Butt will have to assume the driving role of the suspended Keane, would be a good time to get his first in Europe.