Thursday, October 31, 2013

My first Manchester United decade - 1994-2003

There are many noisy Manchester United fans. I am one of them on occasion. I have been a supporter of Manchester United since 1994. It's hard to believe that it would be 20 years since I started cheering and following Manchester United. During that time, Manchester United has been one of the most successful sports club in the world. Its undisputed leader, Sir Alex Ferguson, retired after capturing the club's 20th English championship. David Moyes was his assigned heir and though he's off to a fairly shaky start, many ManUtd fans are solidly behind him. He has a long way to go to fill the shoes of the man who run  +Manchester United like a businessman and has a Harvard Business School case study around his work.

I started following football aka soccer very closely in 1994. My father is a Hearts of Oak supporter so I naturally became a Phobia fan too. Growing up, we used to watch a lot of European soccer, I can clearly remember the "Football Made in Germany" show. I became a fan of many European teams; AC Milan, Olympique Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam. But maybe because Man United played in a country where the people spoke English, they became my favorite team. I'd support ManUtd over all these teams when they met in Europe. The Red Devils were reigning English champions. 

Circa 1994, the stars of the team were Eric Cantona, Andy Cole, and Andrei Kanchelskis. Ryan Giggs was already owning the Number 11 shirt. We remember Eric Cantona as an enigmatic figure who scored goals like this and also had bonehead moments like this. Blackburn, thanks to a lot of Alan Shearer goals, had won the league in 1995. Quickly enough, the young guys like David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Phil & Gary Neville and Nicky Butt came into their own. I really remember seeing the word "kiddology" in an article somewhere, and how it referred to Manchester United's breeding of young kids in their team and the way they played soccer. Did that have mostly to do with former assistant coach, Brian Kidd? Maybe. Alan Hansen, former Liverpool captain, once said "You can never win anything with kids". We sold Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Andrei Kanchelskis at the start of the 1995-96 season and won the league and cup double with kids.

ManUtd was dominating England with a repeat league championship in 1997. Arsenal was challenging our place at the top and won the league in 1998. However, we yearned to dominate Europe too. I remember how the 1999 season unfolded. David Beckham had become my favorite football player. Not because he was hot or that he was dating Posh Spice, but because of his football. He could bend a cross in, find his man or find his spot with a freekick. Bend it like Beckham. When I was on the field, I would get excited about how I hit the ball, a pass, a cross. I always wanted to score a nice free-kick. He was also wearing number 7 like the previous iconic ManUtd player, Eric Cantona. Ryan Giggs was more influential, the kids had grown, Dwight Yorke had joined Andy Cole as the second (black) striker and Peter Schmeichel was going to retire. In Jaap Stam, we had a central defender who had international stature like Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister didn't. We had quite a special team.

I could smell the glory of the 1999 season from months away. I was in Presec, in a boys' school with many people who supported many different teams. Of course, I was far from alone as a ManUtd fan. I remember skipping prep at Presec to watch the Champions League final against Bayern Munich. I remember Bayern Munich scoring first and how those who wanted ManU to lose were cheering and teasing the ManU fans. I had to stop watching the game at Mr. Peprah's house and return to my dorm in Clerk House. And then we heard the shouts. And then we heard the shouts again. Given the euphoria that followed each goal and those who were shouting, it was tough to tell who had actually scored. And then the news hit us. The men from Manchester had become kings of Europe! This was quite a special night to crown a season of achievement - the Treble!
The heroes of 1999 left the team one by one. Including Dennis Irwin who together with Ryan Giggs owned the left flank of many football games. New stars were signed, some of whom didn't work out so well. But Manchester United just kept on winning. In fact, Fergie's fledglings won the league in 2000 and 2001, making it 3 straight in a row. Arsenal hanged around and won the league in 2002. We had made Rio Ferdinand, who is pretty much my all-time favorite ManUtd centre back the most expensive signing for a defender. Am sure you'd guess what would happen in 2003. We came roaring right back and took our crown again.

By 2003, the new number 7 had arrived in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo. Wayne Rooney followed shortly after as the new young English stalwart. They both had promise. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was the unquestioned goal getter at this time. But then a lot of locker room controversies were arising. A boot Sir Alex kicked had caught David Beckham's eye. Becks was still the soul of the team who could rescue games with his crosses and free-kicks. At the end of the season, he was sold to Real Madrid. I was sad he had to leave but by that time, any true Manchester United fan was loyal to Alex Ferguson before anywhere else. And Becks was going to Real Madrid to join Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and co. Not bad. It's the system that was going to keep the engine moving. We were still on top, it'd been a decade of support for me and there were very few reasons to cause me to support another team. I looked forward to the next decade, and for you, the next post. :-)
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