Commentary

With Fergie gone, United are losing their swashbuckling identity

Manchester United's former Scottish manager Alex Ferguson on Jan 2, 2016.
Manchester United's former Scottish manager Alex Ferguson on Jan 2, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

"Look at each other," Alex Ferguson said in a small meeting room at the Marriott hotel in Birmingham. "Look to your left. Now, look to your right."

The players glanced at team-mates on either side. Fergie went on: "Think about how good the players around you are in this team. Trust them. Trust in each other. Trust in yourselves. Trust the badge.

"We have done our preparation. You are playing for United, the biggest club in the world. You have millions of supporters behind you. We are not just a club; we are a family. Trust the fact that you have practised, run, sacrificed, more than anyone else on the field tonight. Don't forget that. Never forget that."

The date was April 14, 1999, and the time was 5.30pm. In less than three hours, Manchester United would take to the pitch against Arsenal in an FA Cup semi-final replay at Villa Park.

But this was not the only challenge facing the group. United were also in the semi-final of the Champions League and top of the English Premier League. The Treble was a possibility.

Philip Neville, who had been named in the team alongside the surprise inclusions, Teddy Sheringham, Jesper Blomqvist and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, took a deep breath. Arsenal boasted some of the finest players in the league, including Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams. This was a fierce challenge.

"It felt like I was in a trench," Neville said later. "We had drawn with them three days before. It was two worlds colliding. I had never felt like that before. I never go into a game thinking of fighting. I always have a clear aim. I am calm. I try to have perspective. But that night I could taste the pressure, the tension, the adrenaline. I can still taste it now."

The match unfolded at a breathless pace. Both teams had terrific organisation, and rock-solid defences, but they also played with flair. David Beckham, for long stretches of the game controlling the midfield, scored with a shot in the 18th minute that seemed to turn sideways in the air. Bergkamp equalised for Arsenal 22 minutes into the second half. The match was perfectly poised.

But when Roy Keane, the United captain, was sent off for a second bookable offence with 19 minutes remaining, it seemed like it was all over. United had played a sequence of strength-sapping games, were running on fumes, and were up against a team adept at exploiting the smallest of weaknesses.

And yet hold on they did. Peter Schmeichel saved a penalty from Bergkamp as the clock ticked into stoppage time, and then United repelled waves of Arsenal aggression. With a few minutes of extra time to go, and fans on both sides having shouted themselves hoarse, the decisive moment happened.

Ryan Giggs had been brought on for Blomqvist 16 minutes into the second half. Most people had expected a defensive change, but Ferguson decided to go for the jugular, even as his quarry were sizing up his own team for the kill. "Get on, Ryan," he said. "Dixon is tiring. Don't be afraid to run at him. Try to make something happen."

For many Old Trafford loyalists, the FA Cup replay against Arsenal will remain the match that encapsulates the Ferguson era, and the instructions issued to Giggs as he danced on the touchline will forever underscore the Scot's instincts. This was a manager who hated losing, whose soul was wounded every time his team were defeated, and yet he was always willing to take risks in pursuit of victory.

I cannot picture Ferguson in my mind's eye without seeing that distinctive figure standing on the touchline in the dying moments, waving his players forward for one last push, transmitting the sense that United were about glory and daring and unforgettable memories or they were about nothing.

For Scholes, United are not only about the stadium, or players, or manager, or owners. All these things could change (and at some time, probably will) and yet the club would endure. No, United for Scholes is also about a way of playing. A philosophy.

Neutrals thrilled to the philosophy, too, even as they yearned for the most successful of teams to falter. This is not rose-tinted nostalgia, but the sense that pervaded the Ferguson era of men in red dashing forward on the break, weaving in and out of opponents, moving the ball wide, the front men sprinting beyond the last line of defence.

Giggs went on to score, a slaloming run rightly regarded as one of the finest goals in history. A week later, United came back from 0-2 down to defeat Juventus 3-2, overcame Newcastle United in the FA Cup final, then shocked Bayern Munich to win the Treble. At the Nou Camp, Ferguson waved his team forward in extra time once again, daring them to clinch a victory that would have been impossible for any group that didn't have courage written into their hearts and minds.

And this is why, when Paul Scholes criticised the present team for being "boring" after an uninspiring FA Cup victory over Sheffield United, he was not carping from the sidelines. This is someone from the Langley area of Manchester, who grew up loving United, who cherished his Bryan Robson "gold" shinpads, who kicked balls on the street so often that neighbours complained to the council.

This is a man so loyal to United that he didn't consider multiple offers that came his way. Scholes didn't need a conventional agent. Why would he need someone to look out for new opportunities when he had no intention of leaving the club he adored?

This is why it is noteworthy that Scholes associates United not merely with the formal artefacts of the club's identity. For Scholes, United are not only about the stadium, or players, or manager, or owners. All these things could change (and at some time, probably will) and yet the club would endure. No, United for Scholes is also about a way of playing. A philosophy.

It is a philosophy that is, perhaps, best summarised in that unforgettable instruction issued to Giggs at Villa Park. "Dixon is tiring. Don't be afraid to run at him." The sentiment ought to represent the beating heart of United, now and in the future. Instead, they seem to be slowly, but unmistakably, losing their identity.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'With Fergie gone, United are losing their swashbuckling identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe