The 1995/96 season is one looked back upon by Manchester United fans with the sort of nostalgia normally reserved for the final family holiday featuring a much-loved grandparent. When Alan Hansen slammed an omelette into his face with the infamous phrase “you can’t win anything with kids” it was the kids he was referring to everyone remembers as being the reason for United’s double winning triumph that campaign, well, them and Eric Cantona.
‘Eric the King’ was, as one commentator put it during the remarkable spring of 1996, “on a one man crusade to bring the title back to Old Trafford” and is rightly revered alongside if not slightly above, the class of 92 as being the architects of the unlikely successes that season. It’s Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and the Neville brothers who everyone credits with surpassing the odds and delivering the second double in two years to Old Trafford. Yet for those of us old enough to recall that season properly, the narrative of the returning Gallic talisman leading his young charges to unparalleled glory doesn’t quite fit and it forgets one major factor in United’s success that season- the backbone of hard bastards that allowed the youngsters to flourish.
While Beckham may have been bending in free-kicks, Roy Keane was bending femurs, Peter Schmeichel was the type of keeper whose mere presence was enough to cause strikers to pass him the ball rather than put it past him, while Steve Bruce wouldn’t have looked out of place staggering out of the working men’s club with a blood-stained pool cue in one hand and a pint of snakebite in the other. United were a team not be messed with and it was that toughness that allowed the acne riddled sextet to blossom.
Toughness is something that’s been missing from the United side since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Players who could be relied upon to “get stuck in”, the likes of Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher, Rafael Da Silva, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra are all distant memories. Under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, United became a team lacking the necessary roughness that’s needed to win titles. In the past the tunnel at Old Trafford resembled the scene from Gladiator where the men about to face certain death in the arena literally piss themselves. A striker knowing he had 90 minutes of Jaap Stam ahead of him was about as keen to get on the pitch as Alf Inge Haaland was to face Keane, but that was a different era. Until now.
Looking over the United team sheet against Southampton and other than the fact it was a mightily impressive array of talented stars, the other thing which stood out was it was a team you wouldn’t fancy bumping into outside the kebab shop on a Friday night. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the type of player who’d make defenders want to call in sick, unless of course he was their boss in which case they wouldn’t dare. Eric Bailly may look slightly mental as he goes flying into challenges with the unbridled enthusiasm of a drunken teenager, but he’s not just an overeager lunatic. United’s young defender obviously has the talent and the ebullience but he also has fearlessness which has instantly endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful. Marouane Fellaini may have been labelled “a thug” by commentators and referees alike, but he’s not just a dirty elbow throwing animal. It’s one of the least spoken about aspects of the Premier League that United’s lanky Belgian is regularly the victim of nasty challenges or aggrieved opponents grappling or sticking their face in his- anyone recall Jack Wilshere embarrassing himself at the Emirates two seasons ago, as Fellaini looked on at the angry dwarf with a bemused look? Fellaini can take it just as well as he can give it and any midfielder up against him can expect a tough 90 minutes, something United fans finally seem to appreciate. With Paul Pogba alongside him, the Reds have the type of strength in the middle of the pitch not seen since Butt and Keane partnered one another. Wayne Rooney has never been shy of a challenge and while the fire in his belly may have been extinguished slightly with age, he’s still capable of mixing it when the need arises.
Looking at the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera and Anthony Martial and while you would never class them as “hard men” they certainly know how to look after themselves. David De Gea has gone from a rake like bum fluff covered waif, easily shoved off the ball, to a muscly commanding, keeper who picks crosses out of the air whilst clattering strikers out of the way in a manner Edwin van Der Sar would be proud of. Heck, even young whippersnappers like Jesse Lingard aren’t afraid of getting involved when it all kicks off. Just ask Martin Demichelis.
No one’s doubting United’s credentials when it comes to ability but there’s been severe question marks about the sides’ toughness for several years now and finally that could all become a thing of the past. Jose Mourinho has always relied upon a steely backbone in his teams and it looks as though he’s got that in the current United one, in a matter of months since taking over. No mean feat.
While the ‘Class of 16’ may struggle to match the achievements of its more famous predecessors when it comes to trophies, in a fight – all things may have just been equal.