Fergie's fledglings fail to take flight

In the delirious aftermath of Manchester United’s victory in the European Cup final of 1999, commentator Clive Tyldesley sounded a note pitched perfectly between caution and celebration: ‘Gary Neville, 24, David Beckham, 24, Nicky Butt, 24, [Ryan] Giggs, 25. Whatever they achieve in their future, I doubt they will ever, ever cap this.”

It was hardly a hostage to fortune — you don’t top the Treble — but nobody realised that they would never get near those heights again. Like Tyldesley, United’s fledglings have been living off May 26 1999 ever since.

This golden generation — a crop so talented in their teens that manager Alex Ferguson ripped up his awesome mid-90s side so as not to stunt their development — should now be at its absolute peak: Gary Neville (29), Beckham (29), Butt (29), Giggs (30), Phil Neville (27).
Instead they are, almost to a man, past their best, pale and poignant ghosts of the players who scared all-comers in England witless between 1998 and 2001. A place in the pantheon alongside Peter Schmeichel and Roy Keane has long gone.

It was not supposed to be like this. As word spread around Manchester in the early 1990s, it was clear that this was not just any old crop of youth players; led by Giggs, who was in the first team at 17, they had the potential to achieve what the Busby Babes would have done.

So when Beckham and Co achieved the ultimate in their mid-20s, it was taken as read that they would go on to rack up European Cups as relentlessly as the great Bayern Munich, Ajax and Liverpool sides of the 1970s and 1980s.

That is harder to do in the modern age — no side has retained the Champions League, and you don’t play Dinamo Bucharest in the semifinals any more, as Liverpool did in 1984 — but United did not get close, even when they were winning the Premiership by January. It is a damning indictment.

With the exception of Gary Neville, who is now arguably Europe’s best right-back, they have slowly, surely lost their groove over the past three years. Careers that were destined for greatness are instead dribbling to a dank, dreary conclusion. Saddest of all is the dramatic decline of that blockbusting midfield axis: Beckham-Scholes-Keane-Giggs. Of the four, only Keane’s decay can be fully attributed to the passing of time.

Beckham provided some of the greatest crosses ever seen on a football field — none better than the one at Anfield in the title run-in of 1998/99, which seemed to gather a life of its own as it increased in pace and swooshed violently mid-flight to enable Dwight Yorke to ram it in — before wilfully disappearing into a black hole of hubris, Heat and excess patriotism. He made his bed, but no longer enjoys lying in it.

Giggs scored probably the greatest goal of the past 15 years, in the FA Cup semifinal against Arsenal in 1999, but he has been on the slide for the past two years. On occasion, he still slaloms tantalisingly past defenders, but he can no longer turn on the afterburner to take three or four out of the game in an instant.

Giggs is a jack of all trades, but he no longer masters any of them. Like Michael Owen and John Barnes, his predecessor as English football’s finest left-winger, devastating pace and energy elevated him into the top bracket. Without it, he is troublingly ordinary.

In his pomp, no wing in history worked harder defensively than Giggs. Whereas then the loss of possession was the catalyst for that furious, upright, arm-pumping gallop and immaculate scooped slide tackle, now it merely prompts hands to go on hips. With it has gone most of the goodwill afforded him by fans at Old Trafford.

Scholes’s case is slightly more complex, and it is too early to determine whether his recent slump is indicative of a permanent decline or a blip in form. Either way, for such a pure, natural footballer, he has never imposed his technique and class on the stratospheric contests, especially in Europe, as he might.

And while it fits his shy, retiring profile, it means he has no legacy to live with the midfield champions of the modern game, such as Keane (vs Juventus 1999), or Fernando Redondo (vs United 2000), or the man to whom he is often compared, Zinedine Zidane (vs Leverkusen 2002).

Externalities have also plagued Scholes more than most: the signing of Juan Veron, in part designed to help him to take the final step to greatness, instead precipitated the lost year of 2001/02, when he had to learn how to play off the front man. He responded with the best season of his career in 2002/03, but since then he has suffered from Keane’s advancing years and weakening legs.

Because Keane can no longer do the work of two men, Ferguson is disinclined to play the defensively vulnerable Scholes as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2 — which means he either plays left midfield (rarely a success, the glorious hat-trick at Newcastle in 2003 excepted), right midfield (even worse) or off the front man, where he still does not look entirely comfortable.

For the first time since 1997, the news that Scholes is to miss a match provokes an empty ‘oh” rather than an exclamatory ‘oh shit” from many fans.

Of the rest, Phil Neville — who, it is forgotten, was an incisive, marauding left-back of very high calibre in his first two full seasons from 1995 to 1997 — and Butt never truly recovered from the trauma of being left out of England’s World Cup squad in 1998.

Something died in both of them that day: Butt lost the wiry, humourless malevolence that enabled him and Keane to grip games by the scruff; Phil Neville became every non-United fan’s favourite bad joke.

Butt hardly played in the two seasons before his move to Newcastle, and Neville cannot get a game ahead of Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson in midfield or, earlier in the season, the bungling John O’Shea at leftback. Condemnation does not come much greater.

If there was a turning point, it was the European Cup quarterfinal against Real Madrid in 2000. Before the first leg in the Bernabeu, a modest Madrid side — this was in the days when the idea of a galactico was Steve McManaman — were terrified. They were miles off the pace in La Liga; United, who had slammed West Ham 7-1 three days earlier, were miles ahead and scoring goals in obscene quantities (97 in 38 league games).

An intoxicating combination of fear and defiance emanated from the Madridistas that night, but United only picked up the latter. They drew 0-0 in the first leg — they were lucky to get that — a dangerous scoreline going into the second leg.

It was a night rich in drama and intrigue, when United’s fledglings lost their wide-eyed innocence for ever. Real switched to an unprecedented 5-3-2, with Redondo given only the wafer-thin support of Savio and McManaman. Yet though their 3-2 victory was seen as a tactical masterpiece from Vicente del Bosque, United had a series of clear chances at 0-1.

After half-time, United were stung clinically on the counter-attack, and the future of European football had been guided on a different course: Real won their eighth European Cup, bought Luis Figo and became their generation’s great entertainers.

United went the other way: Ferguson lost faith in the power of swash and buckle against streetwise European teams, and sacrificed part of his side’s identity in pursuit of sustained success. With only one knockout win in the four seasons since, he has had neither.

Now, they seem further away from the ultimate prize as at any time since the mid 1990s. And if they do win it, it will be because of the new generation —Ronaldo, Rio, Rooney and Ruud. Gary Neville will offer the usual unobtrusive excellence, Giggs and Scholes will be bit-part players, Phil Neville will be watching from the bench, and Butt and Beckham from their living rooms.

When Ole Solskjaer put the ball in the Germans’ net, it was supposed to be the beginning. Nobody knew that it was actually the beginning of the end. —

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