From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.32 :: NO.09 :: Feb. 28, 2009

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COVER STORY

Indomitable Reds

Kunal Diwan

Manchester United is now poised on the cusp of history. For weeks now, the English press has been teeming with allusions to the grand ‘quintuple’, a clean sweep of the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup plus the already snitched World Club title. Is this the greatest Manchester United side ever?

In the picometre-perfect world of the exact sciences, there are several ways of determining the efficiency of a functional unit. Parameters are defined, scales are rigged for uniformity, and all values and outputs are measured against each other after their conversion into a common, comparable entity.

This adherence to preciseness can only be vaguely extended to other fields; in sport, for instance, any analysis of the worth of a team or a player is overtly dependent on bare statistical review. And as any statistician worth his pie-chart would tell you, figures hide more than what they reveal and the very act of comparing sports teams from different generations contains within itself the seeds of its own undoing.

It would be hard to parry with a valid counter-argument a recent comment by Manchester United’s Argentine ace Carloz Tevez that “(United) is the best team in the world at the moment. One of the reasons for that is the range of options available to the manager”.

With Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo prowling like hungry cats in the opponents’ box, the evergreen Ryan Giggs on the wings, mean warhorses Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic beefing up the rear with Dutch legend Edwin van der Saar (just 10 goals conceded in 25 matches) and manager Alex Ferguson’s hell-bent emphasis on a constant policy of rotation, the current United side brooks little debate on being the best team in the Premiership.

But any exercise undertaken to determine the worthiness of the current outfit against its equally illustrious predecessors is best started with a discourse from the horse’s mouth.

“I believe this is the strongest squad I’ve ever had, so much so I think I would be pushed to name it my overall best team,” Sir Alex had said last year even before the Reds had garnered the prestigious European double. And if the mastermind of the Club’s fortunes for almost a quarter-of-a-century chooses to swear by his current squad — as against equally imposing sides from 1993-94 and 1999 — then it’s surely time to sit up and take notice.

United’s tryst with success started way back in the 1950s, when a fiercely independent Matt Busby set in motion a staunch policy of preferring youth over experience in a fledgling side. Fuelled by fresh legs, the Club finished second in the League in 1947, 1948 and 1949 and won the FA Cup in 1948.

The ‘Busby Babes’ — led by the priceless wing-half Duncan Edwards — won the League in 1956-57 and reached the FA Cup final. United also became the first English team to compete in the European Cup and reached the semifinals in their first appearance.

Disaster struck Busby’s recruits the following season when their airplane crashed on take-off at a refuelling stop in Munich, claiming the lives of eight players. One of the survivors, goalkeeper Harry Gregg, managed to stay conscious through the tragedy and, fearing a post-crash explosion, dragged a groggy Bobby Charlton to safety.

Having made his debut barely a year earlier, Charlton didn’t know then that he, along with the mercurial George Best, would form the nucleus of another formidable Manchester United team that would rule through the 1960s.

This rebuilt side that had at its epicentre Best’s supreme ball skills added a bunch of trophies to its already crowded mantelpiece. It won the FA Cup (1963), the Premier League (1965 and 1967) and the European Cup (1968, beating Eusebio’s Benfica 4-1 in the final). United’s overflowing ranks also received three European Footballer of the Year awards, one each for Charlton, Denis Law and, of course, Best.

By the time Matt Busby gave up the ghost in 1994, United was already in the middle of another glorious chapter in its history, this time under the aegis of Sir Alex who had taken over the reins in 1986. With the Danish goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, and the enigmatic Frenchman, Eric Cantona, the Club embarked on another decade of European glory.

Cantona ignited the team to its first League title since 1967 in 1992 and, assisted by Roy Keane, was equally instrumental in a repeat the following year. The side also won the FA Cup to complete its first ‘double’ in 1993, and then nabbed another double in 1995 (the ‘double double’). The results were a just reward for the major team restructuring that Ferguson had performed, once again giving weightage to youth by signing players from the Club’s youth team: David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes all went on to play for England.

The Reds’ best, though, was yet to come. The attack-oriented 1998-99 team — still touted as one of the greatest comeback outfits ever — became the only English team to win ‘The Treble’ (the Premiership, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League) in the same season. With two out-and-out strikers — Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke — and players of the class of Teddy Sheringham and ‘baby-faced assassin’ Ole Solskjaer on the bench, the ’99 side was second to none in player power.

United won the League after a tense season on the final day when it beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1. Sheringham and Paul Scholes struck in a 2-0 win over Newcastle United in the FA Cup final, and then a resilient United came from a goal behind with two strikes in injury time to fashion a remarkable win over Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League final. With such a rich and successful history, it becomes virtually impossible to zero in on one particular United team from an era for selective honours. And armed with megabytes of information and statistics, the comparer runs the risk of getting his point of view tinged by what has already been reported, assessed and documented. Reportage and public opinion — that almost necessarily go hand-in-hand — are also, in-turn, subject to the whims of the times of their genesis.

It is beyond contention that Fergie’s persistent emphasis on youth and a policy of rotation has ensured freshness, intra-team competition and an ideal scenario where players have to perform to keep their place in the side. The emergence of Rafael da Silva and Jonny Evans has been a downright bonus.

Vidic and Ferdinand have been the bedrock of defence. But nobody, not even record cap-holder Giggs, has been a sure shot starter for the next game.

“The competition is there in every (playing) position now,” said Scholes after Fergie implemented seven changes for an FA Cup tie. One of the richest clubs in the world, United sure doesn’t suffer from a lack of resources to purchase precociously talented players. And that, more than an actual overabundance of skill, may just accord this side a slender margin of superiority over the others.

Eight points in the clear atop the Premiership table, United’s and Van der Sar’s unimaginable streak of having gone 1,334 minutes with a clean sheet was ended by Blackburn Rovers recently (the Rovers lost 2-1 anyway).

The club is now poised on the cusp of history, the kind that even Ferguson wouldn’t ever have imagined. For weeks now, the English press has been teeming with allusions to the grand ‘quintuple’, a clean sweep of the Premier League, Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup plus the already snitched World Club title.

Mr. Versatile, John O’shea — the Irishman has possibly manned every position for United including a one-match goalkeeping stint in 2007 — had this to say on how his team approached the delicate issue of its place in history.

“Every player from every decade will have an opinion about who was the best…some will say ’94, others will say ’99 and obviously the 2008-09 boys will say this one. But this team, because of its age, has a great chance to become the best ever.”

Forget the quintuple, if Manchester United manages to win the treble again this season, few will argue with O’Shea.



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