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On a typical afternoon down the pub watching football last season (or was it the season before that? I can’t be sure), I couldn’t help but overhear a couple of blokes discussing the defensive frailties on show that day. I can’t remember the exact game, nor the time of year it was, but I can only assume Manchester United were playing given the conversation that followed and the fact that I was there myself to begin with. Inevitably, and quite rightly so, the pair began to harp on about ‘the good old days’. “This is s***, remember the old back-four?” One can only assume that Jonny Evans had started the match…
Manchester United have had some formidable defensive units in their time, but arguably none more-so, than the back-four which came to prominence during the 1992/1993 season. Ah, the 90’s. The European Cup became the Champions League, the First Division became the Premier League and football came home (before promptly f*****g off to Germany *).
Having narrowly missed out on topping the Football League in the previous campaign, Manchester United somehow managed to crawl their way back from the dead to win the inaugural FA Premier League. In doing so, they ended a drought which had lasted over a quarter of a century. So dramatic was their U-turn, that the first time they reached the league-summit wasn’t until after Christmas. Having spent the opening few weeks in the relegation-zone and the months that followed occupying some respectable mid-table to top-half places, they never really looked like true title contenders.
Off the back of an opening three months which saw them take only 21 points from a possible 45 and on a run where they hadn’t tasted victory in seven games, a routine home win over local rivals and relegation candidates Oldham Athletic in November, was hardly reason for over-exuberant celebration. Needless to say, it ended up kick-starting the Reds’ average campaign and so began a run of impressive form which well and truly put them in contention for top-spot. They went on to win the league with two games to spare and the title went to Old Trafford for the first time since 1967. (I’d pay good money to anyone who could have predicted who the top-four clubs would be come May that season. Football hasn’t always been so predictable.**)
They finished the season with the best defensive record in the league and the back-four remains to this day one of the most effective English football has ever seen. A lot of Manchester United fans and indeed, fans of any club, could probably have a good go at naming the back-four which conceded just 31 goals in what was then, a 42 game league campaign.
And so the scene was set for these two experienced campaigners to reminisce this memorable era and the back-line which proved to be the cornerstone of one of the most famous and significant seasons in the clubs history.
“Now they knew how to defend…” one of them recalled, much to my delight I might add. These guys will have watched this great team week-in, week-out. I would have been three years old at the time and so have no recollection of seeing them play live. A real history lesson then. What a treat. “Paul Parker at right-back…” he continued (contrary to popular belief, there was actually a time when Gary Neville wasn’t in the Manchester United first team. I know, it’s hard to imagine), “Bruce and Pallister at centre-half…” my mind wandered off to Steve Bruce’s late brace against Sheffield Wednesday that season; one of those moments you wish you’d been old enough to have witnessed in its true glory at the time. As I re-focused my attention to the present, I realised that the man had yet to finish his sentence. An awkward silence had descended…
I’m probably exaggerating far beyond what is necessary, but the suspense was killing me. As the man who had been speaking racked his brains, desperately searching for the missing link (in this case, a left full-back), it appeared as though his musings had come to an abrupt end. Luckily though, his mate was on hand to help him out, although nothing could have prepared me for what followed…
Now, at this point I was expecting a reply along the lines of “Nah, don’t be an idiot.” It would have been a perfectly acceptable response from one friend to another and in this instance, completely justifiable. After-all, Mikaël Silvestre didn’t join the club until seven years later. He didn’t even fully establish himself until almost a decade after the 92/93 season, having initially struggled at the club following his arrival from Inter Milan in 1999. Completely different era’s altogether. In fact, he didn’t even sign his first professional-football contract until 1996.
But alas, it wasn’t to be and the pair seemingly agreed that the Frenchman was the final piece of the jigsaw and swiftly returned to their pints. What an anti-climax.
There’s every possibility that they’d just had one too many of course. Or even that with a combination of this and old-age, memories of football-past can become muddled (they weren’t that old though, in fairness). I like to think that perhaps the man who was struggling initially to remember the player’s name knew how wrong his mate was, but wanted to spare him his blushes. A true friend if there ever was one. Either way, the sheer conviction with which he had said Silvestre’s name is what really brought my head into my hands.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t shouted his name at your computer screen already, the left-back in question was of course Mr. Reliable himself, Dennis Irwin.
* * * * * * * * *
* Having disposed of England on penalties (again), Germany went on to beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in the Euro ’96 final at Wembley. Germany winning the European Championships on English soil is bad enough as it is, but to make matters worse, Berti Vogts was their manager at the time. I mean come on, the man went on to manage Scotland for Christ’s sake.
** Manchester United, Aston Villa, Norwich City, Blackburn Rovers