On August 19, 1995, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side were beaten 3-1 at Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, prompting Match of the Day pundit and former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen to say of the youngster-laden team: “you’ll win nothing with kids.”
Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side went on to claim the Premier League crown that season with a team that featured Gary Neville (20), Paul Scholes (20), Ryan Giggs (21), Phil Neville (18), Nicky Butt (20), and substitute appearances from David Beckham (20) and John O'Kane (20) condemning Hansen to a lifetime of reminders about his comments.
Manchester United appeared to be in limbo in the summer of 1995 and having won the first two Premier League titles, they had been narrowly beaten by Blackburn Rovers for the 1994/95 title, despite the marquee signing of Andy Cole with Eric Cantona still sitting out a 9-month ban from the game after his Kung-fu exploits at Selhurst Park the previous January.
As they so often had before, many predicted that United would strengthen over the summer and as news broke of Alan Shearer, who had won the title with Blackburn, joining Newcastle United, it was pretty evident that Alex Ferguson would have to do something drastic to shift the balance of power back to Old Trafford.
With the departure of club legend Mark Hughes to Chelsea and flying winger Andrei Kanchelskis who joined Everton, United fans waited anxiously to see who the club would sign to replace them; after all, they had not been shy to spend in the past when they needed to, but the Reds boss had other ideas.
He and youth team coach Eric Harrison had rejuvenated the Manchester United Academy, a path that had been trodden by former manager Matt Busby in the fifties and sixties which had produced enormous success for the club thanks to the world-famous “Busby Babes” before the tragedy of Munich in 1958.
United’s youngsters had won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, with a team that boasted the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville while Paul Scholes was part of the team that made the final in 1993 and Phil Neville captained them to another victory in 1995.
Having given them first-team cameos in various cup competitions in recent years Ferguson now felt the time was right to give them their big break and the venue would be Villa Park for the opening match of the 1995/96 Premier League season.
As it turned out, the game and the season couldn’t have got off to a worse start for United and having gone into the break 3-0 down United recovered somewhat in the second-half but couldn’t find a way past Mark Bosnich in Villa’s goal apart from a deflected effort for David Beckham who had replaced a beleaguered Phillip Neville.
In fairness United’s line-up that day of: Schmeichel; G. Neville, Parker, Pallister, Irwin; P. Neville, Keane, Scholes, Butt; Sharpe, McClair, was far from what their manager had in mind for the long-term.
Giggs was unavailable through injury, as was David May, Steve Bruce and Cole not to mention the missing Cantona. Lee Sharpe, a left-winger by trade and another product of the United Academy, was even asked to play up front
“I think they’ve got problems,” claimed Hansen that night on MOTD as he tried to sum up what he had seen. “Obviously, three players have departed, the trick is always to buy when you’re strong, so he needs to buy players. You can’t win anything with kids.
“You look at that line-up of Manchester United today and quarter-past two, when they get the team sheet it’s just gonna give them a lift and it’ll happen every time he plays the kids. He’s got to buy players.”
But Hansen would soon be proved wrong and after that opening day defeat to Villa, United did not lose in the league until going down to Arsenal in November while the return of Cantona from suspension gave them the injection of belief and experience they craved.
They went on to reel in Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, who had raced to a 10-point lead at the top of the league by Christmas in one of the greatest title races ever and if that wasn’t enough they went on to win the FA Cup too, beating Liverpool in the final to complete the double.
The squad that won the league had an average age of just over 26, with six players involved in 10 or more games under the age of 23. The Neville brothers made 55 Premier League appearances between them, while Butt (32 apps), Giggs (33), Scholes (26) and Beckham (33) all played a big part in United’s success.
To be fair to the former Match of the Day pundit, United won the league with six players under the age of 23 in their ranks, the youngest for almost 40 years at the time and a Premier League record which stood until 2005 when Chelsea won the title with an average squad age of 25 years and 312 days; meaning his opinion may not have been as daft as first thought – but don’t let that get in the way of a good soundbite.