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Feb 4, 2011

Fergie's Fledglings flourish

Gary Neville's decision to retire from football on Wednesday marked the beginning of the end of an era for English football, as the Manchester United defender became the first of the famed Fergie Fledglings to finish his professional career. This is the story of their emergence from the youth ranks at Old Trafford.

"You'll never win anything with kids." Alan Hansen, August 1995.

In punditry's hall of shame, Hansen's decision to write off an ultra-talented collective of young prospects at Manchester United following an open-day defeat to Aston Villa is perhaps the most infamous case of myopia. Not only would United win the title that very same season, but the club's 'class of '92' - the players who delivered the FA Youth Cup in that year, augmented by two leading figures from the following year - would come to dominate the landscape of English football, and beyond.

In David Beckham, Sir Alex Ferguson possessed a kid from London who would go on to become the most famous man on the planet, the poster boy of football's consummation with the world of celebrity. In Paul Scholes, the shy ginger forward from Oldham, United had unearthed a pure football genius, a player who would be described as "almost untouchable" by the great Zinedine Zidane. In defence, though initially a centre-back, there was Gary Neville, indisputably the greatest English right-back of his generation. Beating them all to first-team stardom was Ryan Giggs, now United's all-time appearance record holder and a winner of 11 league titles, with Nicky Butt and Phil Neville also leading proponents of the vanguard of young talent.

But such is the benefit of hindsight, in Hansen's defence, potential is no guarantee of success, as the subsequent careers of Ben Thornley and Keith Gillespie demonstrate. Ferguson himself had no problem with the logic that underpinned the pundit's comment, though he knew that the flowering of talent concentrated in his young collective was unusual, illogical even.

Writing in his autobiography, Ferguson later said: "Actually there was not a lot wrong with his statement. Teams mainly composed of young and inexperienced players rarely succeed in the toughest competitions. But at Old Trafford the Busby Babes had already proved that there can be exceptions to the rule and we were about to see another group of remarkable young footballers step beyond the norms of the game."

It did not take long for the press to notice the fascinating potential in the side that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992 under United coach Eric Harrison. While Giggs, 18 months older than most of his contemporaries, graduated quickly to first-team honours, Scholes and Phil Neville were added to the pool of talent the following year.

In January 1993, their exploits came to the attention of the Daily Express. Under a headline of 'Fergie Fledglings' and adjacent to a group shot of Matt Busby's great side, who won the title in 1956 with an average age of 22 and seemed destined for world domination before the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 that claimed the lives of eight members of the team, the youth team was described as the "best crop of youngsters since the Busby Babes".

It was a daunting comparison, but one that reflected the tradition of a club that was unafraid to place its faith in youth. Busby had done so, and Ferguson would do so again, ushering in another golden era in United's history.

Anticipation was rife. Speaking in February 1993, captain Bryan Robson waxed lyrical over a group of kids who were "nailed-on certainties to go all the way". Not only were they talented, but they were dedicated too. Robson revealed as much when relating how the team hired a minibus by themselves in order to travel and watch potential opponents in action - going the extra mile indeed.

In an era before YouTube and official club television channels, glimpses of the 'class of '92', Giggs aside of course, had been rare. The Guardian's Hugh McIlvanney captured the interest outsiders had in the exciting, mysterious developments behind closed doors at United, writing: "Until now, anything filtering through to the national audience about these young footballers has amounted to little more than slightly awed generalisations about their promise, batches of names without specific indications of what the names represent in terms of effectiveness and style on the field."

We had learned that Gary Neville and Chris Casper enjoyed a formidable partnership in defence, while John O'Kane and, particularly, Phil Neville were accomplished full backs. Robson even said of the younger Neville that: "[He] could easily turn out to be the best of all these lads." In midfield, Butt was already being compared to Robson himself, Beckham and Ben Thornley were being lauded for their style and Keith Gillespie was a talented, if possibly flawed winger with a suspect mentality. Towering above them all in terms of technique, even at that age, was Scholes, of whom Ferguson said: "Paul has everything". There was even a talented striker by the name of Robert Savage, who would achieve notoriety of his own away from Old Trafford.

Ferguson was convinced of their ability, having had the benefit of watching them at close quarters during their Youth Cup win and victory in the Pontins reserve league championship - a path that was also trod by Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards in the 1950s, and George Best in the 1960s. Ferguson said: "I'm convinced six or seven more will reach the very top, that's how highly I regard them. These boys are the best crop I have had in my management career. A lot of people tell me they are the best the club has ever had. To have them all come through like this is very rare. Now it's just a matter of fitting them into the first team when the opportunity arises."

In September 1994, that opportunity presented itself in a League Cup tie against Port Vale. Ferguson risked the wrath of the Football League when fielding a weakened team, with Butt's two first-team appearances marking him out as the most experienced youngster in a team that also included Beckham, Scholes and Gary Neville, as well as a handful of senior players. The League was unimpressed, but as Scholes scored both goals in a 2-1 victory, The Guardian's Cynthia Bateman recognised the significance of the occasion, writing: "What the more astute supporters recognised was that they were privileged to be watching a possibly great United side of the future."

Neville, Butt and Scholes all enjoyed further exposure that season, while Beckham was sent on loan to Preston to foster his development, and the realisation began to set in that far from being prospects for the future, these were players ready to assume first-team responsibilities. The great Denis Law saw the tide turning, saying of Scholes in January 1995: "If he does the job he can save United millions - and the same goes for the rest. There's been a lot of talent at Old Trafford, but Alex will be able to build a team around these kids."

Ferguson had reached a similar conclusion and demonstrated as much in the summer of 1995 as he gutted a team that had failed to win either the Premiership or the FA Cup, with Mark Hughes sold to Chelsea, "big-time Charlie" Paul Ince dispatched to Inter and Andrei Kanchelskis heading down the M62 to Everton.

Hansen, of course, was the man who most famously verbalised the scepticism towards Ferguson's transfer activity, but it was certainly not limited to him. The cull of high-profile names caused consternation. Andy Walsh, secretary of the Manchester United Independent Supporters Association, lamented: "Sadly, the supporters of Manchester United have grown accustomed to seemingly unfathomable decisions being made by the club's hierarchy."

But he should have shown more faith. After an inauspicious start, when that 3-1 defeat to Villa on the opening day of the season was followed by elimination from the League Cup at the hands of York City and a UEFA Cup exit to Rotor Volgograd by the start of October, United began to claw back the sizeable gap opened by Newcastle United at the top of the table, defeating the Magpies on December 27 to kick start their title challenge.

Spurred on by their young pretenders, United were crowned Double winners when usurping Newcastle at the top of the table and defeating Liverpool in the FA Cup final thanks to a goal from Eric Cantona, who had returned from his suspension for attacking a Crystal Palace fan in October.

King Eric had retired within 12 months, his departure marking the end of an era at Old Trafford. But the new class had already begun to stake its own claim to greatness. In the words of Gary Pallister, the group that dubbed themselves the 'Alan Hansen Generation' had proved to all concerned that "they are the team that will take United into the next century".

What happened next? Trophies, trophies and more trophies. England's first Treble in 1999 was the pinnacle of their achievement, and it was not until 2003 that Beckham joined Real Madrid, with Nicky Butt leaving for Newcastle in 2004 and Phil Neville joining Everton the following year. Gary Neville, Giggs and Scholes would remain one-club men under Ferguson.

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