Let me make something perfectly clear: at no point in my 37.5 years of existence have Manchester United ever been anything but a massive club.
However, there was an extended part of my life when United on the field were relatively unremarkable, at least by today’s high expectations. Sorry… force of habit. Not “today”. Two years ago. The last eighteen months have seen United slip back to a level some thought unthinkable.
But that’s what you get when you allow David Moyes to step into an Apple store en route to Old Trafford.
In any case, while some of our fans are too young to have known an epic title drought, I was born slap-bang in the middle of one. It was only about a decade long at that point. To put that into context, that’s less than half of both the Premier League’s lifespan and Liverpool’s own current dry spell.
I of course heard all the stories about how we’d been the best team in the World prior to the Munich disaster and about the Charlton/Law/Best trinity. The Man United I grew up with were a lot less consistent. For every Robson, Albiston and Whiteside, there was a Birtles, Brazil and Milne. For every FA Cup win and spectacular run of form, there was an inexplicable spiraling into oblivion.
For a decade and a half, when people asked who I supported and I answered “Man United”, it was a completely different situation. There was no talk of gloryhunting, no interrogation about whether I’d been to Manchester or Old Trafford, no open cynicism regarding my claims to have supported them my whole life. People were totally apathetic. It was like I had replied “Aston Villa” or something.
It took almost exactly sixteen years for that to change. Looking back, I value the fact that I was forced to wait. When people genuinely do jump on a sports bandwagon, I feel they’re cheating themselves. It’s one thing to spontaneously anoint oneself a Barcelona fan and then sit back and watch the trophies flood in. Delayed gratification is almost always more rewarding than immediate.
United had been going through a rollercoaster in the past few seasons. Promising campaigns had been followed with disappointing ones. Success mingled with frustration with alarming frequency. Sir Alex Ferguson had according to legend (but denied by the top brass at OT) been saved only by the 1990 FA Cup run. Suddenly however, it all seemed to be coming together.
The 1991-92 season had seen campaigns on multiple fronts, ultimately leading to a juggling act that Fergie couldn’t sustain, fading from the title race at the last. A Milk Cup ensured that trophies had been won in three consecutive seasons, but the one we all wanted remained agonizingly out of reach.
In the wake of that disappointment, in the face of the title wait continuing Alex Ferguson made a decision that would define the fate and legacy of the club. He decided that he needed one more player. An attacking player. A man to take the mantle of “legend” on his back like a perfectly tailored overcoat.
There are a couple of stories about how he got his man. In one, Leeds United contacted Man United in a bid to sign Denis Irwin. Realising the Chairman was on the phone with Leeds, he hands him piece of paper on which he has scribbled the words “Ask about Cantona”
In the other, Fergie contacted Leeds United manager, Howard Wilkinson to bid for Lee Chapman. He was told that the player was not for sale, but that he could have Eric Cantona for 1.2m pounds sterling. That’s a bit like being told you can’t buy a run-down flat in Moss Side, but if you’ve got a fiver spare, the USA is looking to offload Malibu.
Until that point, United had been slightly inconsistent, owing largely to struggles in front of goal going back to the previous season. Cantona proved to be the solution, not just scoring but playmaking masterfully and racking up assists. Before long he was team’s star player.
They were far from a one-man team of course.
It’s easy to forget now that the frosted barnet atop Ryan Giggs’ age-weathered head was once curly locks on the bonce of a teen heartthrob. He was almost Beckham, while Dave was still toiling away in the youth team. I guess the ultimate difference was that Beckham started dating a member of a pop-group that was at it’s gargantuan peak of popularity as his own star was rising. For Giggs to have done the equivalent, he would have needed to date Take That’s Gary Barlow.
Quick, skillful and exciting, watching his exchanges with Cantona could be breathtaking. Meanwhile you had a defence of the ever dependable Irwin, the rock solid duo of Gary Pallister and future captain Steve Bruce, with his penchant for scoring headers (sadly at times, in either goal) and Paul Parker – he was a character.
Paul Ince was still a disciplined holding midfielder, Bryan Robson was still serving as “Captain Marvel”, Lee Sharpe was at times as exciting on the wing as Giggs, while Mark Hughes seemed to make it his job to score ridiculous volleys at the most vital moments.
Then there was Peter Schmeichel. He was so good at stopping shots that if stupid, embarassing, woefully controvertial revelations were a football, he could good get UKIP elected.
For me, the most iconic moment of that season, was the sight of Fergie and Bryan Kidd celebrating on the field as Steve Bruce scored twice (in the correct net) to steal a draw with Sheffield Wednesday after being three goals down. Kiddo slid on his knees, throwing his arms in the air like a man possessed. Fergie stood on the touchline, shaking his fists like… a grandmother possessed?
In any case, United were now two points clear. The closest challengers Aston Villa, stumbled while United stayed the course. A Villa defeat against Oldham Athletic was enough to end the title race. I still remember Sky Sports cutting to the house of Steve Bruce or Peter Schmeichel (I forget which, but they were neighbours and were watching the match together). My brother observed that Peter Schmeichel was holding his daughter in one massive hand.
After we celebrated for a while, I remember finally going to bed and looking up at the shelf at a Man United cushion, commemorating the 1991 Rotterdam Cup-Winners-Cup final.
Then it occurred to me: “Bloody hell…. I support the Champions”…