Around this time of year we’re always faced with the same debate, one that rages throughout social media, causes arguments, spats and even the odd fist fight: Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ or Mariah’s ‘All I want for Christmas’ as the definitive festive song (Band Aid doesn’t count as the clues in the name, the song is ear aids).
Another debate that’s raging, one that isn’t quite as important but seems to be causing even more uproar is which side is the ‘Greatest Premier League team ever,’ this argument stems from Manchester City’s march towards the title, winning every game and swatting their rivals aside like pesky flies. Somewhat paradoxically, City fans who often accuse us Reds of living in the past, now seem hell bent on trying to convince anyone who’ll listen that Pep Guardiola’s side are the bestest ever and much better than any other team from history, including United’s, even the ones most City fans have never seen.
To be fair to our Blue cousins it’s not just the City mob who are baying at the doors of history demanding their place at the top table, Arsenal fans have taken time off from arranging fights with one another on YouTube to throw their Invicibles hat into the ring, while Chelsea fans are busy reminding anyone who’ll listen that 2004-05 was actually a much better points tally than the Gunners have ever managed. Let’s not forget Liverpool fans too who’ve been at pains to point out their 1988 side was a juggernaut that steamed to the title with little trouble tearing teams apart with aplomb.
The sad thing about this debate from a United point of view is that due to the ages of those involved and the fact that both in 1999 and 2008 the Reds won not just the Premier League but also the Champions League – not to mention of course the FA Cup in 99, one of if not THE best side Sir Alex Ferguson ever assembled has somehow become forgotten.
United’s double winning side of 1994 suffers from the idea that the Champions League is the be all and end all for many fans and if we’re going to criticise the Invincibles for failing miserably in Europe’s top competition then how we can we not say the same about the Reds of 94? Well for starters the Champions League had different rules then, mainly the three foreigner one which meant a team was only allowed three foreign players, a rule which heavily favoured the Italian and Spanish teams of the early 90s who were less reliant on players from overseas, the AC Milan side that demolished Barcelona 4-0 in that year’s Champions League final was pretty much full strength with just three foreigners, while Barca only had two. United were unfortunate in that even players who’d grown up in England, come through the youth ranks at Old Trafford were actually classed as foreigners due to their international affiliation. Sir Alex Ferguson had to choose just three from Denis Irwin, Andrei Kanchelskis, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona, all first team players vital to United’s success, this coming at a time before the Class of 92 had matured enough to be thrown into the first team mix.
United’s failure in Europe – the Reds being knocked out to Turkish side Galatasaray in the second round – was undoubtedly down to the side being gutted by UEFA’s Nigel Farage-eqsue rule, one that would thankfully be abandoned, but in the league with no such restrictions the Reds were rampant.
The first 15 Premier League games of United’s title defence saw the Reds win 13 draw one and lose one a run which included coming back from 2-0 down at Maine Road in the Manchester derby not to mention an impressive victory away at last season’s runners-up Aston Villa, the 2-1 win at Villa Park thanks to a Lee Sharpe brace saw the Reds go top on the 23rd of August – a position they’d occupy for the rest of the season.
Domestically, perhaps no side in the history of English football has been so dominant on all fronts, not only did United win the league and FA Cup double that season, they also went all the way to the League Cup final, losing to an Aston Villa side that saw several of its veterans have one of the best games of their careers. I was fortunate enough to see United at all four of their Wembley appearances that season, the Charity Shield against Arsenal being my first trip to the Twin Towers, yet the game against Villa was the one time, arguably all season, the Reds didn’t really get going. Shaun Teale and Paul McGrarth marshaled Eric, while Kevin Richardson and Andy Townsend both put in MOTM worthy performances in midfield. Although it’s easy to look for excuses, the suspension of Peter Schmeichel for the final didn’t exactly help the Reds, as despite Les Sealey being a cult hero he wasn’t in the same class as United’s number One- even if the late Sealey is now far more popular among many Reds than the cartwheeling former City stopper.
The League Cup final loss would be the only real disappointment on home soil for United as Sir Alex’s team kicked on from winning the inaugural Premier League reach heights many fans had only dreamed of just a few seasons earlier, the acquisition of Roy Keane giving the Reds a starting XI that no other team in the country could come close to matching – and it showed.
Keane and Paul Ince were a formidable partnership that mixed steel with skill, any midfielder facing that pair knew he was in for a rough afternoon, in many ways Ince’s performances for United have been downplayed somewhat by many Reds due to his eventual signing for Liverpool and an over exuberant celebration in front of the Kop in 1999, but during that period of 92-95 he was simply superb, in many ways providing a taste of what Roy Keane would not only become but exceed.
The Keano of 1994 was by no means the player he would become in the late 90s/early noughties but he wasn’t that far off, immediately justifying his record fee with a series of displays which complimented United’s counter-attacking, no hold barred style.
On the wings Ryan Giggs enjoyed his most prolific season ever, bagging 13 league goals, his left wing rival/team mate Lee Sharpe managed nine goals in 26 games, including some vital winners, while Andrei Kanchelskis embodied a Siberian freight train steaming down the right wing before not so much as delivering crosses but more or less launching them with such ferocity it took a brave striker to even consider trying to get on the end of them – fortunately United had two such men.
Mark Hughes may not have been a prolific scorer in the Ruud van Nistelrooy/Andy Cole/Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sense of the word, but was he lacked in quantity he more than made up for in quality, almost every strike by Sparky seemed to be a goal of the season contender designed to burst the back of the net. My personal favourite in a season full of Hughes’ screamers was his late, late equaliser in the FA Cup semi-final against Oldham, a volley hit as he leaned back that gave Jon Hallworth absolutely no chance, I was left with a bloody nose due to some bloke hugging me a bit over excitedly in the stands behind the goal, to say I couldn’t care less would be an understatement.
Alongside Hughes, was a man who to this day remains on of the most popular United players of all time and the one many see as ushering in the Ferguson-era of dominance that would last more than two decades. Eric Cantona wasn’t just one of the most gifted strikers the Premier League has ever seen he was a true icon, the fans couldn’t help but adore, Eric’s 18 league goals that season, like Giggs, would be his most prolific of his career as defenders not only struggled, but often marveled at the Gallic genius strutting before them.
Defensively United had a centre back pairing that complimented each other perfectly and much like the 94 team is often overlooked by fans when considering the Reds ‘best ever’ central defensive partnerships. Gary Pallister was a classy defender who timed his tackles so perfectly he was booked just twice in 41 appearances that season, a ridiculous record at a time when despite the game still being a lot ‘rougher’ the continental inspired trait of going to ground easily was beginning to bare its teeth.
Next to Pallister, Steve Bruce may have looked more like someone suited to bricklaying that captaining a double-winning United side, but he was every bit the defender Pallister was, making up for his lack of pace with a reading of the game other defenders can only dream of, not to mention a fearless attitude coupled with the heading ability to match Marouane’s chesting talents.
Paul Parker isn’t a name often heard around Old Trafford, but the diminutive little right back, one of England’s best performers in Italia 90, was a tenacious speedy attacking full back in every sense of the word who worked perfectly alongside Kanchelskis on the right hand side. Parker is one of United’s true unsung heroes and in some cases is dismissed as an average right back during a great era, when in fact he was every bit as worthy of his place in the side as his team mates, let’s not forget Ferguson charged Parker with marking a certain Romario when Barcelona came to Old Trafford a season later, the Brazilian being kept quiet until Bruce decided to swap with his smaller team mate for a set piece and Romario gave him the slip to score.
At left back Denis Irwin is arguably the greatest left back, despite being right footed, ever to play for United, just shading Patrice Evra as even the Frenchman couldn’t get close to Irwin’s consistency, in fact few players ever have.
Behind the defence was Peter Schmeichel, who struck fear into not just the attackers who faced him, but also half of his team mates too.
What’s even more remarkable about United’s defence as a whole was the entire back five managed at least 40 league appearances each that season – this was a time when there were 22 league teams so 42 games, a pretty amazing feat considering the Reds were fighting on three fronts and Ferguson rarely rotated his team too much for the cup competitions. Bruce, Irwin, Schmeichel and Pallister all played at least 60 times for the Reds that season, Parker lagging behind with a paltry 55.
United finished the season on 92 points, eight ahead of second placed Blackburn, winning 27 games drawing 11 and losing four times, they also managed to score 80 goals while conceding 38 times, giving them a much superior goal difference of plus 42 to Rover’s plus 27. During that dominant league campaign the Reds also went 22 games unbeaten a run sandwiched between two surprising defeats to Chelsea- more on them later. Other teams during the Premier League era may have scored more goals and Chelsea in 2005 won more points, playing less games, but few would argue that Mourinho’s first Pensioners side was as entertaining as Sir Alex’s double winning one.
When looking back on the United side of 1994, the FA Cup run cannot be ignored, as it featured some of the team’s best performances and most memorable goals against top opposition. The Reds faced five Premier League teams en route to lifting the trophy, three of them away from home, Cantona’s volley against Wimbledon and Hughes goal against Sheffield United, coming after a 20 passes plus move rank among some of the best seen in the Ferguson-era, while the demolition of Chelsea in the final, a side which had done the double over United that season made a mockery of predictions it would be a close game- a 4-0 win over the Pensioners coming thanks to two Cantona penalties, the obligatory Hughes Wembley goal – the Welshman bagging four times in four appearances at the stadium in that season alone- and a McClair 90th minute tap in after some great work by Ince.
While the debate rages on about the ‘best ever Premier League side’ many people will overlook United’s 94 side, ignoring the fact it was hampered in Europe by an archaic rule, or that it’s FA Cup win came thanks to defeating five Premier League teams, or that the team was one result away from making history with an English domestic treble. People arguing for Chelsea 05, City’s current side, the Arsenal Invincibles or the Champions League winning United teams, will forget that United in 94 didn’t have a 40 goal Ronaldo, or even a Russian Billionaire, they didn’t fail in the other domestic trophies on offer, they had powerful, skillful wing play, a never say die attitude which went some way to inventing ‘Fergie time’ with many a late winner, a solid, consistent defence, explosive strikers and one of the hardest midfield’s England’s ever witnessed, not to mention a keeper who still ranks as the best ever.
As someone who’s watched every great United side since the Premier League era began, not to mention far too many of our rivals for my liking, when it comes to the debate there’s only one winner for me and that has to be Last Christmas, oh and the 94 side.