The first in the series looking back at some of Manchester United’s great teams.
Three of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams won European trophies but there are some supporters who feel that the best of them all was the 1994 team.
They won the Premier League and the FA Cup as proof of their quality and they have the added element of the unknown, with the foreigner rule imposed by UEFA restricting Ferguson’s ability to play his full team in the newly formed Champions League. Thus, their potential was handicapped. More on that later, but it certainly adds a level of intrigue as we were never able to know what the team was truly capable of.
It’s a team which rolls off the tongue and goes almost exactly to the beat of the famous Status Quo song recorded with United for the 1994 Cup Final “Come On You Reds”. Schmeichel, Parker, Pallister… Bruce, Irwin. Kanchelskis, Keane, Ince, Giggs. Cantona, Hughes.
Okay, so not quite in tune with the lyrics, but an instantly recognisable eleven. You might be surprised to learn that specific eleven did not line up together until 15th January 1994, in a 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur.
The same team won by the same scoreline the next week against Everton; the game most remembered for being the match which followed the death of Sir Matt Busby. It may have been decided by a single goal but match report for the Times included the following : “It was wonderful stuff to revive memories of a great man. Manchester United were, in the truest Busby tradition, spellbindingly entertaining.”
“I think Sir Matt would have been proud of the way we played today,” Ferguson said afterwards.
Two weeks later, the same team won at QPR in a game which featured one of Ryan Giggs’ most memorable goals, with the eleven also playing in the FA Cup games which flanked the tie, at Norwich and Wimbledon. They played together at home to Sheffield Wednesday in the league, at Leeds, at Ipswich, and of course in the FA Cup Final – a surprisingly low total of nine games. They won them all, and in the case of at least four of them, played their best football of the entire season.
In Peter Schmeichel, United had arguably the best goalkeeper in the world. Paul Parker was at right-back – although he had been signed for his man-marking ability despite his diminutive height. He was quick, strong in the tackle and exceptional defensively. Really, it was that defensive capability which was required, considering he was playing behind Andrei Kanchelskis, and he demonstrated that admirably. In Bruce and Pallister United had, respectively, the archetypal penalty box defender and the ball player. Few players – if any – could dominate Bruce in the air – while Pallister was often derided for his pace yet was deceptively quick in a foot race. Completing the set on the left (though equally good on the right) was Denis Irwin, who ticked just about every box for qualities you would want in a full back. More often than not he would cause opponents more problems than they would give him and his prowess from set-pieces was arguably more consistent than anyone else.
Roy Keane had just signed from Nottingham Forest for an English record £3.75m and instantly took to life at Old Trafford with no issue whatsoever. The 1994 Keane was a box-to-box midfielder in the truest sense of the word; as tough as anyone in the tackle, and a real goal threat, with an admirable return of 8 in his first campaign. Alongside him was Paul Ince, who never played better than he did in 1994; he was, in many ways, similar to Keane, and was renowned for the speed in which he could tackle and distribute the ball. In that respect he was probably the closest comparison to Steven Gerrard, though of course Ince ended his career with two Premier League winners’ medals.
United have arguably never been as blessed with wingers in the Premier League era as they were in 1994. Andrei Kanchelskis was having his own best spell; a right-sided player with astounding pace and an equally incredible ability to control the ball. His direct style was almost reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo, in the respect that the Russian always seemed to look for goal first. On the other side was Ryan Giggs, who was already fulfilling his potential and was probably, alongside Eric Cantona, the best player in the team. Another with that rare ability to control the ball at speed, Giggs’ individual skill was even more breathtaking than his opposite flankman.
Cantona was often the conductor of the orchestra; though ostensibly one of the “2” in the 4-4-2, he would often drop deeper to allow one of the wide men to penetrate defences with their speed, and pick up the pieces. What more is there to be said about the mercurial Frenchman? He was tall, quick, mobile, with a predatory instinct, all of which made him a great centre-forward, but it was his penchant for the unexpected and the brilliant which singled him out as one of the best players of the time.
Alongside him was Mark Hughes; the Welshman was both a scorer of great goals and a great goalscorer. Perhaps even greater than that, he had the nose for the big occasion; in 94/94, he scored on all four of United’s trips to Wembley. The third was arguably the most crucial, with his last gasp equaliser against Oldham not only brilliant in execution, it also re-vitalised a United team who were showing signs of flagging after a long, brutally competitive campaign.
As a team United were physical, direct, with the sort of pace never really seen in the British game. Their 34 game unbeaten run, in all competitions, from September 1993 to March 1994 underlined their quality.
Their capability to deliver stellar performances at the business end of the season also stood out. Performances against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford and Leeds at Elland Road were nothing short of remarkable, while the standard of football played in the FA Cup has probably never been bettered since.
Sir Alex Ferguson had the Midas touch at this point in his career. There were valid arguments to say that certain key areas of the team might have looked very different indeed had Ferguson got his first choice. He could well have had Terry Butcher instead of Steve Bruce. Paul Gascoigne instead of Roy Keane. David Hirst instead of Eric Cantona.
It was what it was, however, and it was nonetheless a very brave move to put two players in wide positions who would have no intention of helping their full backs. Later on, Ferguson would select the more industrious David Beckham to replace Andrei Kanchelskis, echoing the kind of choice made by Tommy Docherty when he picked the hard-working Steve Coppell to complement the flamboyant Gordon Hill. Even Docherty, a manager whose tactics were gung-ho, might have blushed at the idea of having two wingers who had no interest in defending.
In the eighth year of his work at Old Trafford, Ferguson had the perfect groove; the consistency of his team was fantastic, and he had enough familiarity with his squad to make changes which would not affect the form.
Other squad players
United had some fantastic squad players. In Bryan Robson, Lee Sharpe and Brian McClair, they had three players who played so much football that they could be described as first-teamers. It wasn’t just there that United were blessed with quality back up. They had Les Sealey and Gary Walsh in goal; Sealey was now a veteran of course, while Walsh was a promising academy graduate whose career had been stunted by injuries.
Nicky Butt was breaking through whilst probably the most unfortunate player at the club was Clayton Blackmore; the versatile Welsh international had played his best football from 1990-1992 but a hernia injury had restricted his first team appearances. He made just 15 appearances for the reserves in 93/94, and by the time he was fit, after two years out, found it difficult to break into a winning team. Truth be told, he was one of a group of senior players who were playing alongside the future in the reserve team, which featured the rest of the class of 92 yet to graduate to the senior side. The reserves registered scores of 7, 6, 5 on two occasions, four on three occasions, and three on seven occasions.
United played a 4-4-2 system, although some might describe it as a 4-4-1-1. You might also fairly describe it as an early variation of the 4-2-3-1 that Ferguson once played to devastating effect against Roma in 2007, although the roles within the team had, by that point, wildly changed due to the characteristics of certain players.
The emphasis on the 1994 team was most certainly on attack. They were physically strong down the middle, more so than probably any team in the club’s history. The full-backs were expected to join in and overlap where necessary; that rarely happened on the right, but Denis Irwin would often be seen as a de-facto left-winger as Ryan Giggs floated around. As stated earlier, Pallister would be the player in the central defence who would bring the ball out most often. United’s midfield pair were perfectly complemented, both great on the ball, full of energy and physically combative. They were able to control most games in this area.
The emphasis in the wide areas was on the blistering speed United had; few full-backs could live with Ferguson’s team in these areas. A great many of United’s goals were scored through breathtaking counter attacks executed with clinical accuracy. So talented were United’s attackers, that defence could be turned into attack in as little as ten seconds, and it would usually take even fewer touches of the ball than that for United to have created a genuine goalscoring opportunity — and, often — a goal.
This goal at Sheffield United – eight touches, fifteen seconds — sums up the point.
Up front, neither Cantona or Hughes were poachers in the mould of an Andy Cole or a Ruud van Nistelrooy, but they were probably all-round better players, and they would combine with their team-mates more instead of just being on the end of a move. It meant for an all-round team with threats from any angle. There is an argument to say it was the most complete team in United’s, and Premier League, history.
United won the Premier League, losing just 4 from 42 games, and the FA Cup. They got to the League Cup Final against Aston Villa and might have felt they would have had a better chance if they were able to field the suspended Peter Schmeichel.
The biggest question mark against this team of course is how they might have fared in Europe if not for the foreigner rule which stated that teams could only play three foreigners and two ‘assimilated’ players, with the UK countries and Ireland also counting as foreign.
Ukranian Kanchelskis was in no doubt that this cost United. “The biggest reason Manchester United did not do well in Europe in those years was nothing to do with Cantona but the UEFA rule that then stated you could only play three foreigners in your team,” Kanchelskis wrote in his autobiography (the Keane reference was relating to a comment the Irishman had made about how Cantona was perceived to have played poorly in continental competition).
The rule left Ferguson with the unenviable task of trying to fit two of Schmeichel, Irwin, Keane, Cantona and Kanchelskis into a team shorn of the rest whilst also trying to work out how he could then work in McClair, Hughes and Giggs. Whichever way you looked at it, they would be shorn of around a third of their best team. Even when Cantona was suspended, it didn’t help matters.
The team Ferguson played in the game at Barcelona, where United were infamously humbled 4-0, read: Walsh, Parker, Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, Kanchelskis, Butt, Ince, Keane, Giggs, Hughes. It was as close as United could get to their best team but still missed Schmeichel and Cantona; the stardust at either end of the field.
As with any such debate, predicting what United could have done with their full complement available is impossible to do. However, one thing is surely certain : they would have done better than they did.
One of those occasions of the most famous XI playing together was at Wimbledon in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. It was the perfect showing in many respects; this was a Dons side who were probably at their collective peak. Having won the FA Cup in 1988, they now had a reputation of a bit of a footballing side to go alongside their formidable physical qualities.
In this game at Selhurst Park, Wimbledon tried to bully United off the pitch, with reckless and potentially intimidating challenges. Vinnie Jones — Cockney turned footballer turned Welsh international turned Hollywood film star — launched into one of his trademark thigh-high lunges at Cantona, who shrugged it off. Later on in the first half, the Frenchman scored one of his best ever goals for the club.
United scored a second through Ince and a quite magnificent third through Irwin, with United wearing out their opponents.
The Sun said of the game : “This was not even a contest. It was an embarrassing, one-sided exhibition match. Ferguson’s side were so good it was frightening.”
The Express concurred. “Even by United’s extravagant standards this was a skillful win with passing and movement that would have delighted a Sadler’s Wells choreographer,” read their report.
One might easily choose the Cantona goal from the above game, or the Irwin goal; or any of the five scored against Sheffield Wednesday.
However, the essence of this team is probably best exampled by a goal scored earlier in the Cup run, against Wednesday’s neighbours at Bramall Lane. Mark Hughes demonstrated the earlier point about being part of a team, linking up with his colleagues on a number of occasions before eventually finishing off a long passing move.
The patience, the pressing, the physicality and the talent are all on show in one of the great – and unsung – goals in United history.