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Published: 05 FEB 2005

MOOD ALTERING GENIUS
by John Ryan


It's just over twenty four hours after our victory at Highbury and to say thoughts of the game are still producing a high is an understatement. Last night the team we follow with passion, both from afar and regularly on match day, went to the home of the champions and produced a second half performance that may haunt Arsene Wenger until Arsenal next win a trophy. The performance had all the passion, pride and panache that we expect from a Manchester United side. To get that result in the manner it was achieved was nothing short of phenomenal. It was a display of brilliant attacking football that put every single Manchester United fan on cloud nine. But should we be surprised?

Studying the history of our club, it's clear that since Matt Busby arrived at the helm he was intent on entertaining the fans as his sides set out to achieve greatness. From the team of Johnny Carey in 48, to the latest win, this tradition has in the main continued although there have been depths we have plunged to in between. Recently, a mailing list member on the Manchester United mailing list that we are members of, reminded us that the Busby Babes last game on English soil was on February 1st 1958, at Highbury. United ran out winners 5-4 with both sides applauded off the field. I'm sure the thought went through all our minds that another result like that would be more than acceptable and that it would be a perfect tribute to those who lost their lives at Munich in 1958. But how many would have expected it? Certainly, I didn't. Going to Highbury and winning was a tough task even in the mid-90's when Arsenal had slumped to mid table. To do it to Arsenal the champions would be something altogether different.

From his early days at the club, Alex Ferguson set out to continue a history & tradition commenced by Busby & his predecessors. He won on his league first visit to Anfield and although United had a number of poor results and it was three and a half years before he landed a trophy, Fergie got the balance right eventually. He made mistakes along the way such as buying five new players in the summer of 1989 and accomodating them in hotels which unsettled the players, but Ferguson learned from this. After doing enough to win the FA Cup of 1990, United played with great style to win the Cup winners cup in 1991. The young Lee Sharpe would provide a glimpse into Ferguson's vision of United. Of course there had been earlier players such as Russel Beardsmore who didn't fulfil their potential and Sharpe sadly also fell into that category, but midway through the 1991-92 season United were inching closer to the holy grail. In the second half of the season the title challenge wilted and United failed to produce the spark needed to become champions. Sixteen wins in the first twenty two was mirrored by just four wins in the next nineteen. Cloughie's Forest were seen off in the League Cup, but after the previous two seasons cup wins, expectations had been raised. The title was not won and here I think Alex Ferguson learned some of the most vital lessons of his career. Fergie failed to sign Mick Harford to add attacking options to the side. Having played a lot of games where United seemed to be settling for a point to edge towards the title instead of the three to cruise over the line also stung Fergie. Big performances would be needed to life the biggest of trophies.

Since those harsh & unforgving lessons of the 1991-92 season, Manchester United have just occasionally failed to find the big performances when needed. As the latter days of the 1992-93 season approached the results changed so much from the previous season. QPR had destroyed United 4-1 at Old Trafford on New year's day 1992 and when United won 3-1 at Loftus Road in January 1993, some wounds were healed. But one of the biggest performances was the way United tore third placed Norwich to shreds at Carrow Road towards the tail end of the season. Giggs, Kanchelskis and Cantona (the player Fergie ironically landed having failed with the more direct Harford the previous season) were instrumental in that win. United won seven games at the end of the season to be crowned champions. A corner had truly been turned.

Season after season since then, Manchester United have produced in the Premiership. Almost every season has produced a huge result displaying mental strength & fine attacking football. In the 1993/94 season United were almost unstoppable losing just two games in all competitions until the first week in April. The double followed but the following year it was double disappointment. Blackburn pipped United to the Premiership title while Everton beat Ferguson's army in the FA Cup final. But Fergie's men produced two huge results against Blackburn. Defeating them 4-2 at Ewood, they were seen off 1-0 at Old Trafford in January 1995 with a cracking header from Cantona. It wasn't enough to win the title, but when the chips were down United had enough to win. As is well documented by now, Fergie's "Fledglings" led United to the double in 1996, but two results of that season stand out with great significance. In December 1995 Newcastle who had made a fantastic start to the season, visited Old Trafford. United who were in the middle of a depressing run of doing well at home but losing away, produced the goods in a 2-0 win. A great show of character indeed, but it was the return game that stood out as one of United's great results. In March 1996 United travelled to St. James Park where Newcastle had won 13 games out of 13 in the Premiership that season. Eric Cantona scored the goal, Peter Schmeichel made the saves. Manchester United won the title.

If credit should go to any oposition Manager and team for taking us on mentally, it goes to Wenger's Arsenal. In 1998 they were 12 points behind us in January, but overturned that deficit to become champions & double winners. They won the title in 2002, coming to Old Trafford to seal the seasons biggest trophy and in 2004 went on a remarkable run that saw them go unbeaten throughout the Premiership. But in this era, big Premiership performances from Manchester United were still in evidence. The 1997 title was won more with a stuttering trickle than a surge as a series of draws carried United to the title. But the 1998-99 season showed everyone what United stands for. Losing only 4 games in all competitions was testament to a great season, but some other notable results stick forever in the memory. Beating Nottingham Forest 8-1 away from home on the 41st anniversary of the Munich Air disaster was memorable to say the least. But the FA Cup semi final replay conjures up magical memories. Down to ten men, saving a penalty in the last minute of normal time and winning the game with a goal the Busby Babes would have been proud of still makes the hair stand on the back of the neck. But it was what we came to expect from that season, from the time we notched two late goals to see the Scousers out of the FA Cup to the final day win over Tottenham. Great performances from a great team with an excellent Manager.

Since then we might all be guilty of regularly expecting United to just turn on the sort of performances like we saw in 99 as though it were some sort of tap. Fergie's men have found it difficult to surpass the highs of 99, but when called upon the team has responded. Eleven straight league wins at the end of the 99-00 season, the 6-1 demolotion of second placed Arsenal in February 2001, the 6-2 away to Newcastle at the tail end of the 2002-03 season and the titanic 2-2 at Highbury that same season. Should we expect anything less from Fergie's men than to come out fighting when backs are to the wall? Certainly not, as the two games in a week against Arsenal left their treble dreams shattered last season.

In Europe it took Fergie a while to acclimatise, but after exiting the European Cup without losing a game in the 93-94 season and the strain caused by the foreginers rule that saw us humiliated in the Nou Camp the season after, confidence rose and results improved. After competing in the UEFA Cup in the 95-96 European foray, returning to the Champions League the season after was a welcome boost. The 4-0 thrashing of Porto was a welcome result, even if it did not lead to ultimate success. But in October 1997 Manchester United scaled huge mental hurdle by beating Juventus 3-2 at Old Trafford. It was our first win over the Grand Old Lady of Turin under Fergie. After that the European results roll off the tongue. Almost every performance of the 98-99 season; beating Fierentina when we really had to in 2000, the wins over Deportivo in the 2002 quarter finals and Juventus home and away two seasons ago. Even in defeat, some of our games have produced fantastic football, most notably the defeats at the hands of Real Madrid in 2000 & 2003. The 4-3 win at Old Trafford, though a defeat of sorts, would surely have thrilled the crowds that frequented Old Trafford in the 50's & 60's. Our fans would be the first to admit we haven't won enough in Europe under Fergie, or in Europe full stop. But European nights at Old Trafford are special. They offer something different to the weekly grind of the Premiership. But then again, that was the vision Matt Busby had, which few outside Old Trafford shared at the time. And that, coupled by our club losing the nucleus of a great team forty seven years ago, is why European football is so special to Manchester United.

Beating Arsenal 4-2 at Highbury was sweet as Arsenal have been our main rivals for almost ten years now. But delving beneath the surface of the win something altogether different is apparent. It's great to win a big game, better still a title, but to do it with so much self belief that tells you you are never beaten is a work of genius. Last Tuesday nights game was not just a huge win in football terms, it was something a little more. Few teams if any, are as dangerous as Arsenal when they go a goal up. They have the ability to cut teams to ribbons and score four or five, as teams like Charlton & Inter Milan have found to their cost. But Manchester United's players went behind to the Champions twice and never panicked. The passing and movement that Ferguson has instilled into this side gave these players the self-belief to equalise and then once level, go for the throat. Ferguson could have changed tactics to put eleven players behind the ball & batter the ball into Arsenal's half in the hope of catching them off guard and scoring a 1-0 win. Instead he just played our normal game, probably the only difference was him telling our players we have to win. United won, it's fantastic, but should we be surprised? Over and over again, Ferguson's men have been written off. That burning desire though shines on as brightly as ever. And the fact nobody on Wednesday morning was complaining about refereeing decisions or physical play shows one thing: United won the day with a second half of devastating attacking play. Read the many match reports that saturated the internet football sites all day Wednesday. Then read the match report from the Arsenal 4-5 United game in February 1958. Similar? Of course, because that's what you get from Managers who believe in themselves, their philosophy and their players, many young & gifted players.

I don't know if our football club will even win anything this season, nor do we know if we will even finish second in the Premiership. But what Ferguson might not even realise is the effect his decisions have upon us as fans. Games like the one on Tuesday night allows us fans to take ourselves out of our routines for just about two hours. It places us in a spot where every emotion you have can change within a second, from disappointment to elation & back to disappointment. Tuesday night Alex Ferguson & his men made it easy for us fans to go to work on Wednesday morning and made whatever troubles we have disappear, if only temporarily. This football club binds people together from all over the world hoping the players do themselves justice whenever they take the field. Arsenal's players, Management & fans were no doubt gutted, but they've had good days & will have them again and we will no doubt feel the pangs of disappointment again. Tuesday night's game made great headlines, but thankfully for a game of attacking football. All we can do is thank Ferguson & his players for their part in a great display, without their footballing talent wouldn't life be very very dull?

John Ryan 
Copyright 2005 Red11. All rights reserved.
Not to be reproduced without permission of the author.

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