Towards the end of 2006, certain pundits and magazines were proclaiming the birth of Sir Alex Ferguson’s third (for some, fourth) great team stemming from his 20-year tenure at Manchester United.
The team were wreaking havoc within the Premiership, and everyone with an opinion was quick to acclaim this as the next chapter in the legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson at the club, the same pundits who wrote the Scot off in the years gone by. The side who were tipped by many to be scraping around for a Champions’ League spot before the start of the season hit the front early, then went on a run probably not seen before in the 15 year history of the Premiership that lasted the duration of the season, managing to hold off the spirited challenge of reigning champions Chelsea and secure United and Ferguson’s ninth title since the inauguration of the Premier League.
It was an achievement probably only topped in the modern era by the United side of 1999 and Arsenal’s Invincibles in their unbeaten campaign of 2003/04, but neither side embodied the collective grit, determination and panache of the 2006/07 Red Devils en route to their place in history.
The trick is always in retaining a title however, something Ferguson has become relatively accustomed to over the years, and it would have initially appeared that the 2007/08 United side would fail to reach the same heights as the previous year. Two points and one goal from their first three games, including a sending off for Cristiano Ronaldo at Fratton Park, followed by a Derby day defeat to Manchester City, saw most people questioning United’s credentials for the title.
Fast forward to the last few days of 2007 though, and most people would probably have United down as the favourites to reclaim their Premiership crown, myself included. It would appear that after the initial blip, the Red Devils have found their stride again, only losing once since the Eastlands defeat in the league, whilst also picking up important victories against Chelsea and Liverpool, whilst taking a point away from the Emirates stadium. The rest within the league have also been on the end of United’s wrath, the most recent and perhaps most impressive showing coming away to Sunderland, where the home side was completely taken apart in a 4-0 drubbing, a performance described by many pundits as “almost perfect”.
Granted, Arsenal have been the more surprising and somewhat more eye-catching of the two sides who will probably end up fighting for the title, but Manchester United have been going about their task with ruthless efficiency more often than not, and it may well be a trait that sees them pick up a 10th Premiership crown.
Ferguson’s tactic of buying big seems to have paid off in the summer, with only Nani failing to make a significant impression on English football thus far since his move in the summer, but he has also had his moments (The winner against Spurs in late August) and doubtless he is being groomed as a future star within this United side. The trio of Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez have all done their jobs thus far though, the former pair going a long way towards justifying their hefty transfer fees with solid, dependable showings in the heart of United’s midfield, something which has seen questions raised about Michael Carrick’s own position within the hierarchy, while Paul Scholes may find it very tough to make it back into the starting XI on a regular basis upon his return from injury, a statement I never personally expected to say while Scholes was still playing to such a high standard.
The side has also been helped no end by the best defensive record in the league, shipping less then a goal every two games at the moment, with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic forming one of the best centre-back pairings in Ferguson’s time at the club, ably assisted by Patrice Evra and Wes Brown. Again, it’s a sign of the times when Gary Neville may well have competition for a place upon his own return from injury, even if Brown may well be helping his captain’s cause by stalling on a new contract. Edwin Van Der Sar remains sturdy as usual the majority of the time, although the development of a new goalkeeper, be it Tomasz Kuszczak, Ben Foster or a new signings, will be preying on Fergie’s mind, given Van Der Sar’s age and tendency to make a mess of situations at times. He has signed a new two-year contract, but he will need to up his game a little in the second half of the season in order to stop any doubts about his position as United’s Number 1.
Attack still remains United’s forte though, the fact that they have scored as many goals as their North London counterparts thus far proving testament to their own ability in the final third. Tevez and Rooney have formed a deadly partnership up front which promises more and more with every game, while Ryan Giggs continues to perform to his expected standard, maintaining his own position within the team despite the overtures of Nani, who will need to look at dislodging Giggs from the side, because no-one comes close to Cristiano Ronaldo at the moment.
Top scorer in the league currently, top dog in the United team and probably the top player in the world, he is the unstoppable force at the moment. While the rest of the side is playing well, he is on a different level to anyone else and fully deserves the accolades he is receiving. Last season it was a case of when he was going to have a dip in form, but it never came. As a consequence, no-one is expecting such a slump this time around, while the same can be said about the team as a whole currently.
Simply put, if Manchester United continue to perform to the standard they are setting at the moment, there is no-one to stop them in the Premier League. Give Arsenal the credit they deserve, and the likelihood is that they will run their opponents a long, long way in this title fight. But if United play lie they have been for the last four months all the way up to May, they will retain their title, it’s as simple as that.
However, there is more to consider than just whether United can or cannot retain their crown as Premiership champions. It is also worth considering where this set of players fits in the ranks of United sides that Ferguson has developed in his 20 years as the boss at Old Trafford. In truth, this probably is the third great side of Ferguson’s reign, (The United title-winning side of 2003/04 was largely referred to as the third great side, but the team was broken up too quickly, was not successful enough and did not have time to make their own mark on history) but they have to prove their worth, with the potential to become the greatest side of Ferguson’s era and potentially of United’s history also at stake if they continue to perform to such a standard.
Ferguson’s first great side spanned half a decade, starting with the first title in over 30 years for the club and culminating in the 1996/97 title, setting the stage for Ferguson to build over the next decade. Veterans such as Steve Bruce, Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes, coupled with the ability of Gary Pallister, Peter Schmeichel, Denis Irwin, Paul Ince, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane along with the blooding of youngsters such as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes saw United take four of the first five Premier League titles, with two FA Cups thrown in for good measure, in the process seeing United become the first side in English football to win the Double twice. The collective brilliance of Ferguson’s first great United team would be a hard feat to follow, but the new era which followed soon after blew all of United’s previous achievements out of the water.
The second great United side did not dominate English football for quite as long as the previous outfit, but it is generally seen by many that there has never been as successful a team as the Treble winning team of 1998/99, who then added two more Premiership titles to their name before slowly dissolving. Schmeichel, Neville, Irwin, Johnsen, Pallister, Stam, Butt, Keane, Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham, Solskjaer, the names of that Treble winning side are still remembered almost a decade on, and will be long into the future, achieving a feat that will be matched by few in many, many years to come and may well never be overhauled.
It will always be remembered for the dramatic moments, such as the semi-final at Villa Park, the 6-1 mauling of Arsenal, the last day at home in the 98/99 against Tottenham Hotspur, the 8-1 at the City Ground, Scholes’ volley at Valley Parade and that night in Barcelona, but it was also United’s ridiculous ruthlessness in dispatching with opponents, big or small, that has to be noted, the defining factor behind their march to three straight Premiership titles.
Ferguson’s second great United side may not have been as proficient at collecting silverware as it’s predecessor over a long period of time, but in terms of sheer ability, United’s side from August 1998 to May 2001 is probably up there with the very best English football has ever produced. It does seem quite harsh to ignore Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s contribution to United’s history, but with only one Premiership title to his name in his time at the club, his period cannot be defined as a memorable one in United’s general history, even if his own contribution was marked.
So what of the third great era of Manchester United under Sir Alex? Truth be told, it is a tad premature for comparisons to be made with teams of such stature as those that Ferguson has produced in years gone by, especially when you consider it is still a somewhat formative team with only one Premiership crown to their name, but it would also be quite churlish to ignore the potential flowing through this new crop that Fergie is moulding together.
The run put together last season is arguably more impressive than that of the Treble winning side, depending on who you discuss the matter with, and the efficiency, style and tenacity that United nowi possess in all areas of the park means that they can be a match for any side, at any stadium, on any day.
There is still plenty of work to be done, United will probably have to conquer Europe once more if this side is to be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of the 92/97 and 98/01 teams, and that means no more nights such as the one at the San Siro back in April, and naturally the standard will be raised domestically if Arsenal’s youngsters continue to progress at the rate with which they have done in the first half of this season, while Chelsea and Liverpool continue to spend big in search of trophies, therefore United may well face a multi-pronged attack on their domestic dominance, but these are all hurdled that Ferguson has faced before, and it is something he has overcome before, therefore you cannot say that there are any reasons why this side can flat out not be successful for many years to come.
The ability is there, the mentality is there and the chances for success are plentiful, it is now up to the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, Ferdinand, Tevez, Hargreaves, Anderson, Nani, Evra, Vidic, Carrick and the rest to make their own mark on their club’s and the countries’s footballing history. If they perform to the potential that they clearly possess, they could match and even surpass the sides that have gone before them, Sir Matt Busby’s European Cup winning team included, but if they don’t, then United fans may well be left asking what could have Fergie’s third great team could have achieved in their time. It’s time for these players to make their mark.
Chelsea sacked Jose Mourinho in September under the subliminial premise of wanting more entertainment, more bang for their buck, or rouble, if you will, whilst also guaranteeing continued success. They sure have it, Avram Gran’t side are nothing if not entertaining, their two most entertaining fixtures under his brief tenure being a 1-0 loss to Arsenal and a 4-4 epic at home to Aston Villa. Entertaining? Yep. Seven points behind Manchester United in the title race? Yep.
I do wish the FAI would stop this painfully drawn out process of trying to find the new international manager for the Republic, appoint Terry Venables and put me out of my misery, along with many others, I would assume. This three-man panel appointed to search out the new man, including the odious Ray Houghton, has appeared to have done nothing but persuade Paul Jewell into taking up a Championship job and scare off Graeme Souness, thankfully. If they managed to warn Venables off the job, the men can have access to my bank account details, however I think that’s about as likely as the trio enticing Marcello Lippi into taking up the role. Just appoint Venables now, stop mucking around, and watch us slip further down the hierarchy.
The media has found it’s new campaign to latch onto in recent weeks, with the sudden awareness over two-footed lunging drawing comments from the great, the good and the worthless of English football. Putting aside my cynicism for a minute however, it is an issue which does need addressing. As Stan Collymore and others have said in the last few days, it is a matter which needs to be stamped out and stamped out quickly, otherwise the bigwigs will step in after a promising player’s career has been ended by a horror tackle, making moves when it is all too late. I sincerely hope that referees continue to send players off for these reckless lunges as deemed necessary, contact or no contact. If they continue to do so, watch the matter being slowly phased out.
Note to Fabio Capello: Play Leon Osman on the left side for England when he returns from injury. Capello has no genuine left-sider within the traditional ranks of England players, so it’s time that Osman was given a chance. He’s been Everton’s most consistent player, barring Tim Cahill over the last few seasons, and he deserves a crack at the international game at least. If he is ignored by another England manager, then it will be travesty for such an able performer.
I contemplated using this article to write a piece on the best and worst of 2007, but I’m sure that there will be another author who will fill that role quite ably. However, I would like to give a special mention to Gary Johnson and Bristol City as my best team of 2007. City went up as runners-up in League One last season, and they have taken like a duck to water in the Championship, maintaining play-off form right up to the end of the year. I only hope that they manage to remain competitive for a play-off position all the way up to May, because Johnson and his players deserve success, they’re an excellent little outfit who go by with hardly any recognition, although if they have as good a year in 2008, expect that to change. Notable mentions are also due for Portsmouth, Barnsley for staying up in the Championship, Drogheda United for upsetting the apple cart in Ireland and winning the Premier Division title Toulouse for earning a Champions’ League spot in France, Croatia for their performances in qualifying for Euro 2008 and Chasetown, for becoming the smallest team ever to make the third round of the FA Cup.
I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a belated Happy Christmas and the best of wishes for 2008. I hope that I manage to have as good a year in 2008 as I have had in 2007, and I extend that hope to the rest of you. All the best and enjoy your New Year’s Celebrations.