Sunday Watch: The Class of ’92


United

I think it’s safe to say that this is more one for me than most of you. The Class of ’92 is a 2013 documentary focussing on the remarkable – oh, soddit, let’s not go all profesional and neutral here, let’s say incredible – sextet of youth team players who almost simultaneously became first team players for Manchester United in the years 1995/6 and who were the heart of the team that won the unique Treble of League, Cup and Champions League in the same season in 1999. This is another of those DVDs that I bought quite some time ago but which I’ve never found the right time to watch. It’s the extended edition too, running nearly two hours instead of the original ninety minutes, with no inkling whatsoever where the additional material has been interpolated.

It’s about, in alphabetical order, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and, my favoiurite player of all time, the Giger Genius, Paul Scholes. It’s about what made them stand out amongst a generation of young footballers that included players as good as and better than them, but who lacked the drive, the determination, the internal discipline to be footballers, to play for the club they all grew up supporting, and for their country. It’s about the common, utterly working class backgrounds of each boy, the East Londoner Beckham a product of Leytonstone and Chingford but no different in his formation from the five Mancunians, who came from working class districts in Manchester: Salford, Bury, Middleton and Gorton.

It’s about their experiences in breaking through and the wonderful, natural, cohesive respect, affection and admiration each of the six has for the others, both their abilities and their personalities. Gary and Phil Neville are brothers, but all six are ‘brothers’ to one another. It’s about male bonding, in a shared, mutually desired enterprise, an easy, non-toxic appreciation for one another.

And it’s about the years they shared together in the red and white of Manchester United, their parts in the Double Double on 1996 and the film is structured around the Treble year of 1999 – Ryan Giggs’ incredible goal in the semi-final replay against Arsenal that took ten seconds to make him immortal, Gary Neville’s ‘left-foot-hoick’ that set up the goal that won the League, Paul Scholes’ pass and goal that won the FA Cup, and finally David Beckham’s two corners that won the Champions League in Barcelona, my first visit to a foreign country and my last as an active United fan going to games (how could it get any better?).

It’s about United’s part in the changing times, the culture of the Nineties, the shift of emphasis from Liverpool to our city, not just in football but in our musical culture – Madchester, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Oasis – the overthrow of the dead hand of Tory Government, the Manchester Bomb and the beginnings of a wholesale regeneration of Manchester, all by our own hand, without the aid of Tory Government, indeed, one suspects, against its wishes.

And it’s about me, though I appear nowhere in the story, except in those big three games at the end of the 1999 season, one in the mass of United fans at, successively, Old Trafford, Wembley and the Nou Camp, but it’s about the time when I was an Old Trafford faithful, a True Red. It’s about seeing all of these six players making their home debuts and watching them turn into a phenomenon, a phenomenon that Gary Neville, sadly, can never happen again. Six working class kids, products of tough areas, brought up by tough but fair parents to understand hardship, coming together at the club all support and dream of playing for, and coming through together. I think he’s right, and if he is we’ve lost something we could do with.

The story is a mass of memory. Choosing it to watch today was, largely subconsciously, a badly-needed corrective to the events of the last seven days. A week ago, the news broke of the proposed and utterly despicable European Super League, with Manchester United one of the leading lights. It collapsed with almost comic speed, though punishment has yet to be visited on the participants, and that should be strong punishment, a righteous kicking. My relationship with the club I’ve supported for 42 years is now fractured, though my instant reaction to the news was that it was broken, completely. Where it goes from here, nobody yet knows, because you can bet your bottom dollar the bastards haven’t given up for one second.

But I needed to be reminded, and on a visceral level, of just what United in the Nineties were and meant, and not just to me only. The Champions League Final is one of the three most intense events of my life (the top two are more personal). The Class of ’92 contains all those memories but, in its intimate and honest discussions among the players brought it back to me at the same level of my near-simultaneous enthusiasm with Droylsden, where the football wasn’t in the same elevated plane, but you could sit and talk with the players in the bar afterwards, and travel to away matches on the team coach, and everyone was much closer for it.

As Steely Dan once put it, those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Woe, yeah.

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The Man Who… R.I.P. Eric Harrison


Youth team coaches are rarely famous outside the specislist interest of football club fans. Eric Harrison, who has died aged 81, was the glorious exception. He was the youth team coach at Manchester United from 1981 to 1999, and that makes him the man who brought through the Famous Five, the Class of ’92, the Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes. And, let’s not forget, their slightly senior team-mate Ryan Wilson, who then took his Mum’s surname, of Giggs.

Any one of these would be worth an entire career, but all of them? And at once?

Oh yes, United, and we, and Eric were all blessed that this quintet/sextet came along at the same time, that they had both the talent and the application to makewhere others of their generation, equally and in some cases reportedly better talented, never broke through for one reason or another. But Eric Harrison was the one who coached them, developed them, directed and enabled those talents to the extent we all saw and we all rejoiced in.

We owe you, Eric Harrison, and I owe you all those times I marvelled and shouted and jumped up and roared, and for the magic that was the ginger genius, the small, asthmatic who might not have made it, I owe you the memory of Paul Scholes, and I thank you and I promise you that yours is one of the names that will always be legends in our club’s story. Thanl you, and may whatever gods you believed in grant you peace and happiness.