Class of '92 on Sir Alex Ferguson, leaving Man Utd - and each other
Over the course of four days in two different cities, the six stellar names from Manchester United's now legendary Class of '92 explained the secrets behind their incredible success.
David Beckham held court in a hotel in London's West End. Time was short but he was, as always, generous with his warmth and strong-willed when the subject of Sir Alex Ferguson arose.
I saw Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt on home turf in Manchester. All are on the United staff but all spoke with a freedom and passion the years have not dimmed. I finished by speaking to Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, whose laughter echoed around the corridors of a Manchester hotel, like cheeky schoolboys on the last day of term.
Six more different characters you are unlikely to meet but what emerged, as they shared stories and recalled their debuts and differing views of Ferguson, was a unity of purpose.
They may be divided by celebrity, fame and even location, but they are all born winners - focused, forthright and united by a manager and a football club that ensured their names are etched into the history of the game. Speaking ahead of the launch of the Class of 92 documentary, they explain, in their own words, how they did it and what drove them on.
"When we all first met we didn't like each other as much as we do now. I think the United lads thought I was a flash cockney. Nicky Butt used to kick lumps out of Gary Neville on a Sunday league pitch. We didn't dislike each other, but we didn't have the relationship we do now. When I look back on our time, it was special.
"Paul Scholes was always unbelievably talented. Quiet. And dirty. When he got his tackle right, it was a great tackle. But when he got it wrong, he could kill someone. He was so talented and a player I feel honoured to have played with."
"I hated Gary Neville the first time I saw him. The first time I met him, I was playing against him, for Manchester boys against Bury boys. There was just this lad at the back, who was a good footballer, but who never, ever shut up talking all the way through the game. He still does that today - he never shuts up.
"I couldn't stand him, I hated him. I wanted to tackle him, I wanted to show how good I was against him. Then one day I met him at the training ground and it just clicked and he became one of my best mates. And he is still one of my best mates now."
"Ryan Giggs was probably the one I looked up to the most. I went to watch him train. He was stick thin but he was like nothing I had ever seen in my life. I remember thinking, 'if that is what it takes to be a player for Man Utd, I may as well pack in now'.
"He just did his job, put a great cross in, beat somebody, stuck it through someone's legs, scored a goal, ran back to the halfway line and said, 'give me that ball again'. That was the thing that impressed me the most."
"I never really looked at them and thought, 'this is a great bunch of players' or, 'these are great lads' - you were just concentrating on your own thing."
"I didn't expect to be in the team. Sir Alex Ferguson was running through the names - Denis Irwin at right-back, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister - I was last because I was on the left wing. He had gone through the team and I was not interested.
"I thought I might be in with a chance of making the bench, but then, and I will never forget it, he said 'and Ryan you will play on the left'. I half woke up. I got sweaty palms, I thought, 'right I am playing'. It was against City at Old Trafford but I was just excited. I wanted to impress and take my chance."
"I remember getting up from my seat on the bench and hitting my head on the way up. I was nervous. Then a couple of days after that, he told me I was going on loan to Preston.
"I thought, 'OK, I am not going to be a Manchester United player', but he explained to me that he wanted me to get experience of a league where people kick lumps out of each other."
"Sir Alex came up to me, he never said I was playing. He said: 'Are you OK? Are your parents coming to the game tomorrow?'
"I said: 'I don't know.' He said: 'Make sure they come tomorrow, it will be a good game.' It still didn't click. Then the next day, I was in the squad."
"The manager told me an hour before kick-off. I thought I was turning up to help the kit man pick up the kit and to help clean the boots afterwards.
"And then he said: 'In goal Peter Schmeichel, left-back Phil Neville.' It was the kind of moment that took me by surprise. There was no time to prepare yourself. He would say: 'Just go out there and enjoy it. However you play for the youth team, play for the first team. Get forward.'
Sir Alex Ferguson
"I met him at the age of 13 or 14 and the impression was that he wanted you to do well. He would tell you if you weren't performing to the standard you should be doing. But he has definitely been the biggest influence on my career.
"I am 40 now and I have known him since I was 13. Obviously the relationship has changed but he was a great man and a great manager to play under."
"There was a team ethic, there was no I in Sir Alex Ferguson's team. It was team before everything else. It was we before me. That was what was driven into us.
"When we were in the youth team, if you could pass to someone who was in a better position to score a goal, even if you were on a hat-trick, you had to pass that ball. It was not about personal glory. The minute you started thinking for yourself, being a little bit selfish, you would be out of the door. We have seen that over the years."
"Every player who played under him always appreciated that you knew where you stood. A lot of managers now won't know who the youth team players are, won't know their names.
"We had Sir Alex Ferguson, he knew who every one of us was from day one. He used to come and watch training on Monday and Thursday night. They don't have to do that, it is not part of their job. I can't see many managers today doing that. Sir Alex knew our parents, he would speak to them regularly on the phone. I just don't think that happens these days."
Winning the Treble
In 1999, Manchester United became the first English club to secure the Treble, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League - where they famously came back from 1-0 down to beat Bayern Munich with two goals in stoppage time.
"The last couple of minutes in Barcelona - we thought, 'what has just happened?'
"We knew we were a team that never gave in and always went to the end but when you are going for something that has never been done before and you are 1-0 down with three minutes to go, and then score two goals... I suppose it summed up the Sir Alex Ferguson era at United better than any other moment.
"I remember just collapsing on the floor thinking, 'wow, this is just the best moment you are ever going to have in your life'. It still makes me shiver.
"For the fans, everybody who was involved, anybody who was there, that moment when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sticks his foot out and it goes in the back of the net is just an incredible moment."
"The 10 days in 1999 when we won the Treble were just something else. If someone took it all away from me now and told me it wasn't true, I would believe them. Because it was that much of a fairytale 10 days - it was just amazing.
"There was plenty of drinking in the changing room! Drinking, dancing, singing, throwing champagne everywhere. Doing things that we wouldn't normally do, singing and making a fool of yourself.
"When you play for United you are expected to go and win things and we were confident before the Bayern Munich game. But with three minutes left we were thinking, 'we are dead and buried here' - and then three minutes later we go down in history."
"'99 was the pinnacle, without a shadow of a doubt. There was a 10-day period when we won the league against Spurs, won the FA Cup against Newcastle and then... went to Barcelona and it was just a memorable night. A night you will never forget.
"If you asked me now what happened in those games, I couldn't probably tell you. But I could tell you what happened in the dressing room afterwards, the celebrations with the families - because that is all you remember. The games pale into insignificance because there was a real bond between us that made it so special."
"The Champions League was the one - if we had to choose one out of the three that would have been the one. We would have liked to finish it earlier than we did, but still that was a great quality the manager brought, to never give up."
Leaving the club
David Beckham (who joined Real Madrid in 2003):
"It wasn't my choice. At the time, it was difficult to take. The fact that I had to leave Manchester United and find another club was obviously upsetting at the time.
"But the fact that I was able to go to a club that was as big as Manchester United, like Real Madrid, was very lucky. I am very proud of that. Not many players have been lucky enough over the years to leave Manchester United, be successful and go on to play for a club like Real Madrid. It was difficult, but there is always a silver lining."
Phil Neville (who joined Everton in 2005):
"It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. To leave behind playing football with my brother, my friends, the club itself.
"The first game I played for Everton against United at Old Trafford, I left the hotel and on the way to the stadium I was talking to Paul Scholes on the phone. I was playing against him in literally 90 minutes. I was speaking to Gary, having a laugh - that is what it was like.
"Maybe others could not understand the bond between us but we had been through so much. It was so special."
Nicky Butt (who joined Newcastle in 2004):
"It was massive and I never thought I would have to do it. I could have envisaged myself staying there forever. Right throughout my career, everything had been perfect for me.
"But then I came to a point where I wasn't playing as much as I wanted to and I couldn't understand why I wasn't playing. I couldn't accept why I wasn't playing. I knew that if I was a sub and Scholes and Roy Keane were playing in front of me that there wasn't much I could do there - they are two world-class players.
"At the time, I was getting left out for players I felt were inferior to me. I was getting bitter, I was getting twisted, I was being someone that I wasn't. I was moody, not enjoying training, going home in a mood to my family.
Being moody around the changing room, being moody around the ground - it just wasn't me. So that was it, I had to leave. I was happy to go to a club like Newcastle - they are a massive club."
Gary Neville (who retired in 2011):
"It was hard when David, Nicky and then Phil left - it was really hard. Because you never wanted it to end. You knew full well what we were achieving together was special, it was unique. When we started to break up, it began to feel different.
"It was still special,. Playing for United was the best thing in the world but when that group of lads were together it was absolutely brilliant. They were not nice feelings to have because you want those moments to last forever.
"But you are pragmatic and realistic. Then there were three of us together - me, Scholesy and Giggsy - then I left and there was two, and now there is just one."
Paul Scholes (who retired - for the second time - in 2013)
Giggs's Manchester United appearances
- Premier League: 626 (including 108 as substitute)
- Division One (pre-1992): 40 (including seven as substitute)
- FA Cup: 74 (including 12 as substitute)
- League Cup: 40 (including six as substitute)
- European Cup/Champions League: 148 (including 23 as substitute)
- European Cup Winners' Cup: 1
- Uefa Cup: 5
- Other matches (Charity/Community Shield, European Super Cup, Fifa Club World Cup): 19 (including 3 as substitute)
*does not include friendlies
"Leaving? No, never. Unless they wanted to sell me there was no way I would ever ask to leave. Why would you leave somewhere that you live, somewhere that you love and which is one of the best clubs in the world?"
Ryan Giggs (still playing - and now coaching - at United)
"It was weird really. With each one there was a different reason. Being selfish, you wanted them to stay. But Becks? It had probably come to the time where he was ready to move on. Phil and Nicky weren't quite getting the games they wanted to. You wanted them to be happy and they weren't particularly happy at that time.
"So while, from a selfish point of view, you want them to stay because they are your mates and you still feel they are good players, for them, they wanted to do different things.
"And credit to them, everyone who left, whether that be Becks, Nicky or Phil, went on to have successful careers. I can only imagine what it must be like to leave United.
"I am still enjoying it. It is a balancing act, playing and coaching, but I am under a brilliant manager who has helped me along the way and given me a great chance. I would like to be top of the league but we are not at the moment. Hopefully we will be at the end of the season."
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