The term “Golden Generation” is one which is oft overused in modern sporting parlance.
The phrase “Fergie’s Fledgings” (the alliteration a homage to the previous “Busby Babes” moniker) was first coined during the 1988-’89 season, when a group of young Manchester United players were coming through the academy which were particularly talented.
The Manchester United “Class of ’92” would prove to be an exceptional bunch and would go on to dominate the English (and European) footballing landscape for well over a decade. With David Beckham’s recent announcement that he is to leave LA Galaxy and is now coming close to the end of his playing career, it seems an appropriate moment to assess Beckham and the remainder of that famous Manchester United “Class of ’92.”
While a dozen players who came through the youth system at Carrington that year (1992) would go on to make first team appearances for Manchester United – five of those players would become the most celebrated British talent of the first decade of the new English Premier League and beyond.
Those five players names are: David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, and last (but only in alphabetical order): Paul Scholes.
With 42 FA Premier League winner’s medals, seven UEFA Champions League winner’s medals, 15 FA Cups, five FIFA World Club Cups, not forgetting one Spanish La Liga title as well as 365 English/Welsh senior international caps between the quintet – the only term I can think of to label this generation of Manchester United players is “Golden” and I believe it is one of those rare occasions where the term “Golden Generation” seems utterly appropriate.
Of the five, who were the best and most influential in the game though? I will use five categories to decide this. Each category I will mark out of 10 for a maximum total possible of 50 per player.
First category; ATTITUDE/WORK ETHIC: One would imagine that this would be a given for any player at Manchester United. It is a category however which top players such as Dimitar Berbatov and Cristiano Ronaldo would certainly not get a mark of 10/10.
Second category; LONGEVITY/IMPACT ON THE CLUB: The truly great players produce the goods week in, week out, year after year over a considerable period of time which ends being referred to as an “era.”
SKILL: Self explanatory in some ways but it’s a category which covers many aspects of a player’s game and is also largely relevant to their position. For example; tackling for a midfielder or heading for a defender. A goalkeeper’s skill set will also be very different to that of a striker of course.
COURAGE: This category covers physical courage, but also covers emotional/psychological courage as well as the efforts a player has made to overcome various obstacles throughout their careers. For example; when the team is losing 2-0 or 3-0, can the player keep his and other player’s heads up and grab the game by the scruff of the neck?
IRREPLACE’ABILITY: How easy/difficult/impossible was it for the club to replace the player when he was absent/injured? Or when he was past his best? Or when he left the club? The higher the mark out of 10 a player gets, the more irreplaceable he is.
- 5th NICKY BUTT:
Had the shortest top flight playing career of any of the top five and just barely edges out Phil Neville in my view on this poll. Gary’s brother is probably unlucky not to make it onto this list. Both Phil Neville and Butt won six Premier League titles and the Champions League with the Red Devils. For me, Butt shades it by virtue of the fact that he played in the dramatic 1999 Champions League Final triumph over Bayern Munich, whereas Phil Neville stayed on the bench as an unused substitute for the duration of that game.
ATTITUDE/WORK ETHIC: 9/10: A player who was certainly more than the sum of his parts, Butt had to fight for everything he achieved in the game. Replacing Roy Keane at the heart of the Manchester United midfield for the 1999 Champions League final was Butt’s finest achievement.
LONGEVITY/IMPACT ON/LEGACY AT THE CLUB: 9/10: He made his first-team debut during the 1992-’93 Premier League season, but did not get his big break in the team until the 1994-’95 season, often covering for Roy Keane in the event of injuries and (regular) suspensions. Butt performed remarkably in his first two full seasons at United, and often started in the lineup as well as weighing in with some crucial goals as he won his first Premier League winner’s medal at the end of the 1995-’96 season campaign.
Butt also functioned as a steady replacement for Roy Keane as the hard tackler of the midfield, especially when Keane was injured for much of the 1997–’98 season. Butt earned a PFA Team of the Year award that year. However, when Keane returned, and after striker Paul Scholes developed into a midfielder around the end of the 1990s, Butt’s first-team chances started to become increasingly limited.
Butt’s first team opportunities were to become less and less at the turn of the new millennium and the Manchester native eventually left for Newcastle United in 2004 having spent almost 12 seasons as part of the Manchester United first team squad. Butt was 29 at the time and wanted first team action so he felt that leaving Old Trafford was his only option. The argument that “Moving anywhere away from Manchester United is a step down” appeared apposite as Butt’s playing career never reached the heights of his time at Old Trafford and he retired from professional football at the end of the 2009-’10 season. In October 2012 he returned to United to take charge of the Reserves.
SKILL: 8/10: Butt was a tough tackling, no nonsense defensive midfielder. His ability to win the ball back, while maintaining a solid disciplinary record which saw him never be sent off during a top flight career incorporating more than 400 appearances, was a refined skill in itself.
COURAGE: 10/10: Butt never shirked a challenge or a tackle as a player. He was never afraid to fight for his place in the team until it became obvious that his time was at an end.
IRREPLACE’ABILITY: 5/10: A big part of the reason Butt left Manchester United back in 2004 was because he had been replaced in the midfield pecking order by the emergence of the likes of Scholes. At 29 years of age, Butt’s top flight career was coming to an end.
- 4th GARY NEVILLE:
ATTITUDE/WORK ETHIC: 10/10: A man whose career has been very much defined by his work ethic. A man possessed with very little natural ability but made more than 400 first team appearances for United almost from sheer force of will to succeed alone.
LONGEVITY/IMPACT ON/LEGACY AT THE CLUB: 9.5/10: More than 400 first team appearances for United during a career which spanned almost exactly 20 years at the club, is a telling statistic. Some of his legacy/impact at United is negative and unnecessary though, such as his incitement of Liverpool players and fans.
SKILL: 7/10: A man most adept at getting up and down the right flank and whipping quality deliveries into the box, Neville was a more talented player than he was given credit for. His relationship with the man who operated further up that right flank (David Beckham) was almost telepathic.
COURAGE: 9/10: Neville was never afraid to confront and confound his critics; proving them wrong time and time again by producing solid, if unspectacular performances time and time again.
It should probably be mentioned also the knowledgeable and fascinating insight he provides as an analyst on Sky Sports. Even Liverpool fans have been gushing in their praise of the Mancunian in that regard. He had to overcome his nerves to undertake his new media role – a media role which was part of the reason that he was offered the job as the England senior team coaching staff by newly appointed England manager Roy Hodgson in May 2012. Hodgson described Neville’s contributions on Sky Sports as “Fascinating. Gary’s demonstrated technical and tactical knowledge on Sky Sports are definitely partly why I wanted to recruit him for England.”
IRREPLACE’ABILITY: 9/10: Neville only left United in early 2011 and the club went on to win the Premier League at the end of that season. The following season, i.e. last season, United failed to emerge from the Group stages of the Champions League for the first time in six years. It is still early days in the Old Trafford career of Valencia, Gary Neville’s replacement.
- 3rd DAVID BECKHAM:
David Beckham is a name (many would say ‘brand’) known worldwide and the most famous of the quintet from the Manchester United “Class of ’92” globally. The 37 year-old has been the subject of ridicule for his interests in fashion and for playing the media game. There can be no questioning the Londoner’s commitment to and passion for the game of football though.
ATTITUDE/WORK ETHIC: 10/10: There is possibly nobody in professional football history who has worked harder at his game than David Beckham. He is famed for being the first in and last out of training at every club he has been at. It was revealed back in January 2007 that he would be leaving Real Madrid to join LA Galaxy six months later. Madrid manager Fabio Capello stated at the time: “David Beckham will not play for Real Madrid again.”
Within six weeks the Champions League winning manager put Beckham back in his Madrid starting XI. Upon announcing his decision to return Beckham to his starting team, Capello stated: “It’s a wise man who recognises and addresses his mistakes.” Beckham would star for Real Madrid from then until the end of the season and lead the club to the Spanish La Liga title.
LONGEVITY/IMPACT ON/LEGACY AT THE CLUB: 9/10: Beckham won six Premier League titles with Manchester United and of course the 1999 UEFA Champions League title. In that 1998-’99 season Beckham was at the peak of his powers and contributed more goal assists than any other player in both the Premier League and the Champions League.
SKILL: 9/10: One of the best right footed passers of a ball and set piece takers in English football history. Other areas of Beckham’s game might have been lacking but he could literally put a ball on a sixpence from 40 yards with his right foot.
COURAGE: 10/10: Showed immense courage and restraint to complete arguably the best season of his playing career immediately after his red card and subsequent vilification against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. The 23 year-old was subjected to unmerciful abuse and threats from ‘fans’ at rival club grounds, with security being increased tenfold when Beckham approached the crowd to take corner kicks. A particularly ‘charming’ topic of abuse from ‘fans’ that season was: “David Beckham, we hope your baby gets AIDs.”
IRREPLACE’ABILITY: 8/10: The season after Beckham left the club, Manchester United won the Premier League and Champions League titles. The man who replaced Beckham on the right side of midfield was one Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese has gone on to become, behind Lionel Messi, one of the best two players in the world and was one of the five best players in the world when he played for United. Not many other players could have had as much of an impact at Old Trafford as Beckham did.
- 2nd PAUL SCHOLES:
A man hailed by Thierry Henry as: “Probably the best opponent I ever played against in the Premier League. Certainly the toughest.”
ATTITUDE/WORK ETHIC: 10/10: Scholes has made more than 600 first team appearances for United since his first team debut back in 1993 and is still going, maybe not strong, but he’s certainly still there.
LONGEVITY/IMPACT ON/LEGACY AT THE CLUB: 10/10: Having started out as a striker, Scholes moved into central midfield early in his United career. To play in such a combative and physically demanding position for 18 seasons in the Premier League is quite an amazing achievement.
SKILL: 8/10: A very talented player who has the knack of losing his man and popping up at the back post to score a vital goal down to a fine art. Also renowned for banging home 25/30 yard volleys when the result of the game is in the balance. For all his skills, he never learned to tackle properly though and his career has seen some ten red cards. His indiscipline also cost him a place in the 1999 Champions League final.
COURAGE: 9/10: The heart of a lion, but again, was too brave at times, putting his feet places they shouldn’t have been. This often invoked the ire of referees and cost the team his massive presence.
IRREPLACE’ABILITY: 10/10: With fitness/competitive levels increasing in modern football year on year, it is highly unlikely that a player will have a Premier League career in the battle zone that is central midfield which lasts close to two decades. Going forward, this will be particularly true of a Champions League club.
- 1st RYAN GIGGS:
This man continues to re-write the record books year after year. Not alone has he played in, he has also scored in every one of the English Premier League’s 21 seasons.
ATTITUDE/WORK ETHIC: 10/10: Giggs has made more than 900 first team appearances for Manchester United. Bobby Charlton is second with 758! You won’t achieve stats like Giggs’ without an a remarkable hunger and dedication.
LONGEVITY/IMPACT ON/LEGACY AT THE CLUB: 10/10: Likely to come close to being the first top flight footballer to make 1,000 appearances for his club. Will anyone ever come close to that in the future? Almost definitely not.
SKILL: 9.5/10: Phenomenally quick during his first decade at United and beyond. He was probably faster running with the ball than without it during his early career. Has adapted well to his deeper playmaking role of recent years. Half a mark is taken off as he is probably slightly overly reliant on his left foot.
COURAGE: 9/10: As a winger, Giggs would naturally be somewhat removed from the cut and thrust of the central positions on the pitch. Never shirked his responsibilities and always got stuck in though.
IRREPLACE’ABILITY: 10/10: His longevity alone at the highest level makes him a live contender for “Greatest Ever British Footballer.” A lack of success at international level could mitigate against the Welsh man on that front though.
So there you have it. Continuing the “Best of” series; Ryan Giggs is my “Number One of the Manchester United Class of ’92.” What say you? Is my omission of Phil Neville a glaring oversight? Is there another gem who graduated from the Youth Academy at Manchester United “Class of ’92” who I should have included?