In our third instalment, the subject is Henning Berg as selected by Samuel Luckhurst who is a Huffington Post sports editor.
After the delirium of the final three minutes at Camp Nou came the celebration. United’s Treble hegemony had begun and the players – some whose hunger had been sated – savoured the history they had made.
Each squad member requested silence from the Red Army and would then loft the European Cup skywards. Andrew ‘Andy’ Cole’s request was interrupted by his ‘He gets the ball and scores a goal’ ditty, Peter Schmeichel, poseur extraordinaire, feigned lifting it whilst David May sought to appear in every image.
The squad then formed a guard of honour for two players not forgotten amidst the carnival. The suspended Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, each clutching one of the cup’s handles, arguably drew the loudest applause. Lurking behind them however, was a forgotten man. Henning Berg was passed the trophy and merrily hoisted it, yet predictably the cheers subsided.
Many forget that Berg missed out on a squad berth in Barcelona. Scholes and Keane, silk and steel, drew so much attention for their yellow cards in Turin and afflicted Ferguson’s selection process for the final that the Norwegian’s absence through injury wasn’t considered pivotal.
Yet it was. Had Berg been fit then he may have slotted into defence alongside Jaap Stam, enabling Ronny Johnsen, immaculate in defence or midfield, to partner Nicky Butt with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs providing width. Instead Ferguson was posed with a midfield quandary (rare back then, unlike now) which he never solved even during the final.
Signed the previous season from Blackburn, Berg’s steadiness and organisational skills were a welcome antidote to a defence that was as leaky as the present United sans Nemanja Vidic. His compatriot Johnsen had already made waves in his first campaign, but with the Bruce-Pallister axis ended and with the latter’s United career coming to an end, Ferguson sought continental savvy.
A bargain £400,000 signing from Lillestrøm, Berg won the 1995 Premiership with Rovers and featured in the club’s forgettable foray into the Champions League, best remembered for David Batty and Graeme Le Saux’s spat. The foreigner rule had since been abolished by Uefa, so British citizenship no longer presented an issue for Ferguson after the smarting experience in 1994/95.
Had it not existed then it is safe to assume that May, another acquisition from Ewood Park, would never have pulled on a red shirt. Vital goals against Middlesbrough and Porto aside, the boyhood City fan rarely resembled the prerequisites of a United player in his nine years (yes, that long). Berg, on the other hand, was cultured, deceptively quick, a recognised international and adept at right-back as well as at the heart of defence.
Peculiarly though, he only started three matches alongside Johnsen in his debut season when it appeared to be the natural partnership. Ferguson, displaying sentimentalism even back then, showed blinding loyalty towards Pallister, whose back problems were taking a detrimental toll on the team in his final season.
As Pallister returned to Teesside in 1998, Ferguson splashed out £10.75m on Jaap Stam; a then-world record fee for a defender. The Scandinavian centre-back pairing, never given a genuine chance to showcase its credentials, was now disrupted by a Dutchman.
Decent season though Berg had in 1997/98, was just the second campaign in the Ferguson era that United hadn’t won a trophy since the 1990 FA Cup win. Injuries, most adversely to Johnsen, Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs, as well as the void of the retired Eric Cantona, saw the arrivals of Stam, Jesper Blomqvist and Dwight Yorke in 1998.
Berg would make just 10 league starts that season – less than half of the previous campaign – but like most members of the 1998/99 squad, he holds a signature moment that he is instantly synonymous with.
The Champions League contained just 24 sides back in the late 90’s. The last eight consisted of the group winners and the two best runners-up, and United prevailed from the grim reaper of deathly clusters to face Internazionale in the last eight.
There was the hysteric build-up focusing on Beckham and Diego Simeone meeting again for the first time since the 1998 World Cup, the pinpoint crosses from the Brylcreem Boy and the Yorke headers in a fabulous first half at Old Trafford. But for the remaining three-quarters of the tie Inter were mostly camped in United’s half.
The 20-year-old Nicola Ventola, on at half-time for the not-so-divine ponytail Roberto Baggio at Old Trafford, started causing problems with his movement on the shoulder of the defensive line. Schmeichel had already provided one of his greatest saves to deny Ivan Zamorano, but the Nerazurri, now accustomed to the frenetic pace, were dictating play.
Simeone had a goal dubiously disallowed from a corner and Schmeichel then denied Ventola one-on-one. United were on the cusp of not conceding – a rare feat that term – but then Ventola escaped the offside trap and Stam to draw another save from Schmeichel, only for the ball to fall to Francesco Colonese.
Adroitly, the Italian sold the onrushing Dane a dummy to round him before firing at goal. Berg, however, had identified the danger and raced back on to the line, slid out his left leg and blocked the goal-bound shot to deny the Milanese side a valuable away goal. The roar from the Scoreboard End was louder than most goals scored that season, whilst that black and white digital on-screen graphic which signals a programme is coming to an end was on display. It was that crucial.
He was rewarded with a start at San Siro three weeks later as Ferguson dropped Scholes to promote Johnsen to anchorman duties alongside Keane, with Berg beside Stam. However Inter were relentless from the first whistle and dominated.
A half-baked Ronaldo, preferred ahead of Youri Djorkaeff, Baggio and Zamorano provided the mercurial forward line, but time and again were thwarted by Berg and Stam. Zamorano had a penalty appeal overlooked, whilst Javier Zanetti’s stroked effort hit the woodwork. The most outstanding renunciation was to come though.
Drifting into the right channel, Zamorano delivered a cross addressed for Simeone’s head, with the lead on the night seemingly a fait accompli. Only neither South American reckoned on the brilliance of Berg, who scuppered chances of halving the aggregate deficit with an extraordinary scissor-kick, leaving the Argentine in a heap in the goal’s netting.
Eventually Inter breached United after 153 minutes over the two legs, courtesy of Ventola via an uncharacteristic Keane error, but Berg’s colossal display those two legs saved face. Yes, Ze Elias missed a gilt-edged chance to level the tie with eight minutes remaining, but Scholes’ match point goal six minutes later was endemic of United that glorious campaign. And Berg, the forgotten man that night in Catalonia, deserves to be remembered for the part he played.
In our fourth instalment, the subject is Nicky Butt chosen by RedSnout.
Being born in the very late 80′s meant that my earliest, and most effusive, football memories coincided perfectly with a period when United were dominating the football scene in the country. It was also a period that saw a soaraway maturation of a crop of burgeoning talents who later known as Fergie’s fledglings. Obviously there were setbacks and shrieks but they didn’t bother me much. I was not only too young to appreciate what fine footballers Ince and Kanchelskis were, but was also too infantile to wallow in despair after their premature exits from the club. United were enigmatic in the extreme and filled my childhood with an endless stream of joy. Edge-of-the-seat stuff week-in week-out from some of the most breathtaking footballers ever to grace this game. But now looking back, I feel, in all the excitement, whilst appreciating many, I may have overlooked the significance of an unfettered, icy-veined ginger lad then. No, not Paul Scholes. Nicky Butt.
Nicky Butt is a strange character and, in some ways, a persona that exudes mystery. He may have spent thirteen trophy-laden years at the club he supported as a boy, but no one can be adamant that the twitching remains of his legacy still persist there. There are no banners or memorials at Old Trafford that glorify his footballing deeds. Rarely, if ever, would you see someone in a retro replica shirt having Nicky Butt written on the back of it. He doesn’t visit any fan’s everyday chats often. Never in last few years have you read an article saying United could do with a player in the mould of Nicky Butt. Heck, if you’re asked to pick your favourite Nicky Butt moment, the response, more than likely, will be a long, stretched pause. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the fact that his mystique is still not around the club that makes him mysterious, but it’s the fact that no one seems to bother about it. A player who’s won as much as him isn’t supposed to be like this. He should be esteemed and talked about.
Nicky, a born and bred Mancunian, a regular match-goer with uncle Billy in his childhood days, joined United as a trainee in July 1991. A member of youth cup winning team of ’92, he was hailed as one of the kids that can fulfil the long-instilled longing of fans for home-grown talents. Though made his debut in November ’92, the enthralling success of Ince- Keane partnership meant ‘The Guv’nor’ of reserve team had to wait till ’95-96 to get a regular run in the team. Post-Ince era, Butt was proved to be a crucial player in the two following title winning seasons, made more appearances than Roy Keane in both. He also ably replaced the Irish colossus when the latter did his knee ligaments at Elland road in September ’97 and missed the rest of the season. In the absence of suspended Keane and Scholes, Butt was the only recognised central midfielder given a start in the ’99 European cup final against Bayern; an indication of manager’s trust in his defensive diligence and discipline. It’s easy to forget, in all the nostalgic euphoria, that German champions couldn’t score from open play that night. Nicky continued to be a valuable member of squad in the early part of century before moving to North East in ’04 when his position was taken by Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and youth product Darren Fletcher. A United career expanding over a decade, decorated with plenty of honours. Loyalty and commitment never in doubt. Nicky Butt, a United hero? Um… Well.. not really.
Honours: 6 PL, 3 FA Cup, 4 CC, 1 Intercontinental Cup & 1 UEFA Champions League
So what is it about Nicky Butt that leaves him so ill-appreciated by the wider section of supporters? It’s facile – not to mention impossible – to offer an answer to that, but it is worth thinking about. Nicky Butt, in retrospect, spent his entire career being a consummate stand-in. United almost, almost didn’t miss Keane when he was injured or Scholes when he was out or Ince after he left because of this lad. May be, there lieth the problem. Nicky Butt always had huge huge boots to fill early in his career and as a result he never really had an identity of his own, certainly not of the magnitude of Ince or Keane’s. In many ways, Butt was a back-up even when he was a regular starter. Then there is the notion of personality. He had none of the raging ego of Ince or the relentless desire of Keane. He didn’t really have the insouciance Paul Scholes either. He had, instead, an almost machine-like grace, in the sense that there was nothing overtly heroic, raucous or surprising about him. A self-conserving but selfless, soft-edged character calmly accepting of the fates, whether they swing for him or against. You want your heroes to be a genius or an eccentric, or both. Nicky Butt was neither of them.
The way he played his football had its blemishes too. Nicky played in the least fashionable position on the pitch with minimum fuss. Stress told on his face and gestures regardless of the situations. Even when he was playing brilliantly, the grimace of distress on his face made it look it’s all a bit struggle out there. Unable to offer anything that looks more than functional, he struggled to excite the imagination, even of the utmost pragmatists in the gallery. Moreover, the surrealist form he showed in reserves was abandoned in favour of utilitarianism for the first XI. It’s not difficult to imagine that if he had played cricket, he probably would have played it like Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The shivery-looking West-Indian doesn’t possess the brooding aura of Viv Richards or the sudden, absurd and outlandish lurches into genius that Brian Lara can provide but he, somehow, does his job rather effectively without tickling anyone’s aesthetic sense. Nicky Butt, when compared to Keane and Scholes, wasn’t much different.
I’m in no way suggesting that an enigmatic/eccentric personality or an enchanting playing style is a pre-requisite for being a cult icon. For some players, it only takes a few spectacular incidents in their career or life. But, sadly, that’s where Nicky Butt falls really short. His career graph is devoid of any kind of epic curves or troughs of a hero. There were no career threatening injuries and miraculous comebacks, or onerous controversies to please any jaundiced journalist. Grabbing-games-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck was never his forte. He didn’t score an injury-time winner at rival’s backyard or a wonder goal to keep any dream alive. His best goal came in a 4-0 routine trouncing of Sunderland ’00. Arguably his most important goal came in a 2-all draw against Liverpool ’95, a game of little importance barring the rivalry factor. The players he tried to pick on in the tunnel and on the pitch were Pascal Chimbonda and Micah Hyde, not Vieira and Shearer. Put simply, his story was one of discernible banality and a tinge of mediocrity.
It’s not that he was a mediocre player, far from it actually. An irrepressible but startlingly mature box-to-box midfielder in younger days and an extremely organised centre midfielder later, Nicky Butt was aptly described as a “good, honest soldier you can always rely on” by Ferguson. In a country where only Hollywood passers with the positional sense of blindfolded drunk are revered, he’d still managed to forge a respectable international career. In many ways he had a football career that millions of footballers would dream of. It’s just that this lingering concern that the perception of his talent did not always correspond to how good he really was. One would like to think that, if Nicky had done exactly the same job, but snarled like a maniac and ripped Ray Parlour a new one while he did it, things might have been a lot different. A lot different.
Jesper Blomqvist: The Understudy who performed on the Greatest Stage.
We’ve all heard the story of Manchester United facing a little known, exciting, young winger resulting in the fans and players imploring the club to bring him to Old Trafford. The origins of the Cristiano Ronaldo legend is oft told; yet few to my knowledge have drawn a comparison with a less heralded Swede who similarly played a part in our European success.
The setting was the NYA Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, where 36,000 Swedes witnessed a demolition of a hapless full back which left an indelible impression on all who saw it. The defender in question was actually an out of position centre back – Ferguson paying the price of selecting David May in a role in which he would never again appear. The tormentor was a slightly built, blonde starlet with long sleeves pulled down over his hands. A far cry from the bronzed, extrovert Portuguese yet the devastation inflicted on United was just as deadly.
Unlike Cristiano however, Ferguson did not heed the call to bring him to Manchester. Back in the mid-90s the idea of stashing exciting young talent on the bench was blissfully absent and the form of Ryan Giggs meant the acquisition of an apparent replacement made little sense. Blomqvist did gain the move to a club at the European top table his talent deserved, but it was North Western Italy rather than the English equivalent. Things didn’t go great in Milan however; a season spent warming the bench was followed by a similarly dispiriting spell on loan at Parma. It is worth remembering that during these two seasons he was competing with the likes of Savicevic, Boban, Fiore and Stanic for an attacking midfield berth. So it was that two years after his sparkling audition, Blomqvist sealed a move to Old Trafford; albeit as an undoubted understudy to the Welsh wizard.
Understudy; to study or know a role so as to replace the regular performer. In today’s game such a role is unspoken. Rotation is the name of the game; every position is competed for and a series of systems are used meaning the concept of a ‘first eleven’ has been consumed by ‘the squad’. However back in 1998, the Manchester United midfield had an unchallenged hierarchy; even Nicky Butt was forced to accept a role as providing respite when Keane and Scholes required removing from the frontline at the behest of the manager or Football Association. This was no minor contribution – Butt made only four less appearances over the season than Scholes. In Blomqvist’s case, despite clearly being second in the pecking order, the need to nurse Giggs’ troublesome hamstrings meant the Swede made the same amount of Premier League starts that season as the leading man. For many players, this diminished status would rankle – but not for Blomqvist. Perhaps it was the chastening experience of being isolated in Italy, or simple satisfaction at being a part of something special, but the body language spoke of a player relishing life at the club. This ego-free attitude typified the collective team spirit that fuelled the team’s successful pursuit on three fronts.
Aside from his character as a man; what did Blomqvist the player provide? A solitary goal – providing the coup de grace in a 4-1 demolition at Goodison Park – reveals that he had little direct impact on the goals for column. However that is to miss the point; in the Premier League Giggs himself only troubled the scorers on three occasions. Blomqvist’s role was as a true understudy; his impact is to be measured in how effectively he replicated the contribution of the man he was standing in for. It is on this front that Blomqvist proved such an asset; he may well have lacked the searing pace of Giggs but his propensity to hug the touchline and offer balance to the side meant that the rhythm of those around him was not significantly disrupted by the absence of the number eleven. To use a cliché, in Blomqvist Ferguson possessed a ‘like for like’ alternative for Giggs and in a side so dependant on a finely tuned midfield unit this should not be undervalued.
Catch Jesper’s one and only goal for United below:
The crowning glory of Blomqvist’s career came on the greatest stage. Suspensions ripped the heart out of the Manchester midfield. Ferguson had a pivotal decision to make – who would partner Nicky Butt in Camp Nou? The candidates were Beckham, Giggs, Sheringham (who had made such an impact at Wembley) or Johnsen. A selection of either of the former duo would displace a key figure in the double winning quartet. A selection of either of the latter pair would dramatically alter the character and shape of the midfield that had brought such success. In many ways, Ferguson’s decision to bring Beckham in from the flank was a demonstration of his faith in Blomqvist. Giggs suitability for a central role was dismissed on the grounds of his wastefulness in possession (sound familiar?) so Beckham was entrusted with the responsibility of retaining the ball against the technicians from Munich. Ironically, given his role as understudy, in the biggest match of the season it was the leading man who would switch flanks as Ferguson sought to pose the imperious Lizarazu an unexpected problem by using Giggs as an inverted winger. The alternative was Solskjaer in an untried right midfield berth or asking Blomqvist to perform on the right where he was palpably unsuited. Time and again during the season Blomqvist had demonstrated his reliability on the left flank and these auditions gave him the nod on closing night. He didn’t disappoint – arguably proving English champion’s brightest spark in midfield before being fatefully replaced by Sheringham as United went for broke.
From triumph came tragedy, as chronic knee problems meant Blomqvist’s only appearances for Manchester United over his final two years at the club came on MUTV (sadly I never had the pleasure of watching ‘Cooking with Jesper’). Such was his impact that Ferguson went the extra mile to persuade his mate at Everton to take a forlorn chance on resurrecting his career. It is perhaps fitting that his final contribution to Manchester United on the field was the ultimate display of what makes him an unsung hero; delivering exactly what was asked of him on the biggest night in the club’s history. His time at the club may have been all too brief, but he we always have a place in the hearts of many a Red. Thanks Jesper.
Introducing a new series called “Unsung Heroes” where the great and the good of Twitter reveal the Manchester United players who largely crept under the radar of publicity yet arguably had as much impact on the success of the club as the more exciting names.
I will begin the series by profiling the ultimate unsung hero – Denis Irwin.
When a manager has been at one club for twenty five years and you are described by the man himself as his best pound for pound signing then it is some accolade to be “awarded”. So when Sir Alex Ferguson bestowed this title upon Denis Irwin, you can have no better testimony to the impact made by the shy and unassuming Irishman during the twelve years he patrolled the full back positions for Manchester United.
Denis began his career at Leeds before moving onto Oldham where he shot to prominence under the guidance of Joe Royle. He appeared on United’s radar having played against the Reds in the semi final of the FA Cup in 1990 where he impressed with his calm defending and progressive support of his wide colleague. Irwin became one of Ferguson’s primary targets following the first trophy under his stewardship as he had been forced to play the reliable Mike Phelan at right back in an unaccustomed role for much of that season.
Fergie got his man for a bargain fee of just £625,000 and from the moment he made his league debut against Coventry at Old Trafford, he did not look back and became a mainstay of the United backline for the next decade. What made Irwin stand out from his peers in the full back department was his sheer consistency. Whether he was stationed on the right or the left, he performed his role with minimum fuss and rarely dropping below a 7/10 rating week in week out. Although right footed, he was equally adept on either side and in fact played the majority of games on the left, getting a privileged view watching a young Ryan Giggs emerge and flourish as well as the exciting talent of Lee Sharpe in the early 1990′s.
The primary role for any full back will always be defending and it was exceedingly rare that you saw Denis beaten for either pace or trickery. In addition, his positioning was first class and he formed a terrific partnership with Schmeichel, Parker, Bruce and Pallister culminating in United’s first League Championship for over a quarter of a century. Although the big Dane and the centre backs often received the plaudits, Irwin was a major factor in the club’s success. With the introduction of the likes of Cantona, Giggs and Kanchelskis, the attacking instincts of the shy Irishman began to flourish as confidence flooded throughout the side.
This was epitomised by one of my favourite United goals of all time against Spurs at Old Trafford in the 1992/93 season. Irwin picked up the ball on the left about 25 yards from goal, spotting Cantona hovering inside anticipating a pass. Once he had laid the ball inside, it would have been easy to stand still and admire the artistry of the enigmatic Frenchman but not Irwin. He had something in mind and made a dart for the penalty box knowing that Cantona could find him with an incisive pass. What followed was pure genius from Eric as he “stabbed” the ball with the outside of his foot that saw the ball drift over the static Spurs defence meaning that Denis could take the ball in his stride before firing left footed high into the net. The goal was immortalised in Ken Loach’s film “Looking for Eric” where the great man himself described it as his favourite moment and waxed lyrically about the Irishman saying “I knew how clever he was…. left, right footed”.
Go to 1:30
For such a shy character like Denis to blossom into such a wonderful attacking weapon in his time at the club was a joy to behold. As confidence rose, he added to United’s armoury at set pieces becoming a wonderful free kick taker from the edge of the box and soon took up the mantle of penalty taker which considering the high pressure nature of these showed the ice cool aspect of his character.
The other stand out goal from the Irishman’s time at United came against Wimbledon after a wonderful passage of play that saw the whole team involved with some neat, intricate passing before Irwin was found in the box by Paul Ince. There was plenty still to do but after turning his opponent the wrong way, he fired his shot past the flailing keeper. A great end to a marvellous team goal that can be enjoyed again below:
You can imagine that Irwin was a manager’s dream of a player. Similar to Scholes in this aspect, you would envisage him never being late for training, always putting in 100% whether in training or in match situations and also no occurrences of being seen staggering out of nighclubs at unruly hours. The boss could rest easy knowing that Denis would be relaxing at home with his family away from the glare of publicity and celebrity.
His roll of honour places him high up in the stakes of most decorated players in the game. In total, he made 511 starts for the club and scored 33 goals. Along the way, he was richly rewarded with seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a Champions League trophy, one League Cup and one Cup Winners Cup.
He was awarded a testimonial in 2000 against Manchester City but had to subbed after 37 minutes after a bad challenge by George Weah. He went on to play for Wolves (famously being part of a side that defeated United) before retiring at the age of 38.
For many, Irwin is remembered as one of United’s best full backs of all time and for his all round ability, it is hard to argue. He played a major role in the club’s success in the 1990′s, rarely being injured yet always producing the goods on the pitch. When I decided to start this series looking back at some unsung heroes, Denis’ was the first name that sprang to mind when considering candidates for inclusion. He now enjoys spending his time as a pundit in the media safe in the knowledge that his legendary status at Old Trafford is secure and to such a degree that future United full backs should aspire to reach such an esteemed level of service.
In future posts in this series, you can read about Jesper Blomqvist, John O’Shea, Henning Berg and Ronny Johnsen among others.
If you would like to leave your thoughts on Denis Irwin, please do so in the comments section below.