Man United's Class of '92: 'We made it because we were talented and hungry'
Nicky Butt reveals the dedication of the Class of '92 ahead of a new documentary
Unity was our topic of conversation when Nicky Butt went to the point with the force of one of his tackles. "If I was a manager now I'd get a team spirit," he said. "If you like people, you'll try harder for them. If you don't, you won't give a toss about them."
Butt is the hard man of the Class of '92, the Manchester United FA Youth Cup-winning side who matured into the Treble-winning team of 1999, and whose documentary premieres in London tonight. Phil Neville, a more outwardly sensitive member of that stellar cast, says: "Nicky's got a million stories because he was always in the thick of everything: the good, the bad and the ugly."
The narratives of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, Phil and Gary, are familiar. Butt is the least clearly defined in the public mind: the anti-glamour candidate for the Manchester district Gorton, which, he says – jokingly, I think – is portrayed by the film in an unflattering light.
"A few people don't like them [the directors] in Gorton now, so they'd better not go back there," he says, deadpan. "I still go back there and have a drink with my uncles. I used to go back with my dad before he passed away. It's a rough place, but a good place. People never looked at me as a footballer. I was expected to get my round at the bar like everybody else."
No rougher, then, than the birthplaces of the other Class of '92 luminaries? "No, Scholesy's from as rough a place as me."
He did, though, carry a large security chain on the floor of his first car when the lads took delivery of their first motors. "Yeah, it was a way of protecting my car. I got it robbed twice. So I had a big chain."
Long-distance impressions of Butt turn out to be correct. In 12 years as a first-team player at United he won 39 England caps, six Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League in 1999, when he played the full game against Bayern Munich in Barcelona in place of the suspended Roy Keane. But while Giggs augmented his role as United's Peter Pan, Beckham went hunting for superstardom and Gary Neville retired to become a businessman, England coach and TV pundit, only Butt can say he was sent on loan to Birmingham after struggling to adapt at Newcastle following his move from United in 2004.
"It [the culture shock] was massive, because I was at United since I was 11 and I left at 29 or 30," he says. "Newcastle were a great club, great people. It was me. I just couldn't adapt. I went from being one of the players who was part of this group who shared the workload to trying to do things I couldn't do. I felt I needed to show how good I was and do the 50-yard Scholes ball that I couldn't do. That's where I went wrong. My dad said: 'You've got a choice. You can either jack it – because I was all right money-wise – or go up there and show them you can be better than you were in the first year'. It turned round and I ended up being captain."
He is back at United now as a reserve-team coach with designs on becoming a manager. He remembers the 1992 apprenticeship culture more as Disney fantasy than Dickensian time-warp: "We thought we were very privileged. Playing at United, cleaning people's boots: Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, all these great players' boots, every day. To even say hello to these players when you were 15 years old, we thought it was a privilege. We made it because we were talented, had real hunger and had each other to look at. If I was having a cup of coffee at The Cliff and saw Becks practising free kicks or Scholes practising shooting I'd think – I'd better get out there, because I never wanted them to get a headstart. If you sat back and said how good it was at the time you'd be sold and gone."
No Fergie Fledgling faced stiffer competition for a first-team place, with Keane, Scholes and Juan Sebastian Veron often ahead of him. But he says now: "I never thought I was a fantastic player. I didn't have the ability of a Scholes or Giggs. But I knew what I was good at. I was good at tackling, reading the game, heading. I played in my dad's pub team at 14 and I knew what to do. That's what got me a good career. I knew what I was good at and what I wasn't."
Butt was sufficiently brave, even as a teenager, to challenge Alex Ferguson about being left out: "I remember the first time it happened when I was about 19 and I thought: I played well the last couple of weeks but I got dropped. My dad said: 'Go and speak to him. You're a man in a man's world. He'll appreciate you speaking to him rather than sulking.' I was shitting myself, but I did it, and I think he appreciated me speaking to him like that. I never went in shouting and bawling. I just said: 'I really want to play.'
"Right through my career I ended up playing in the big games, bizarrely. It ended up three in midfield or there was a suspension. But if we were ever playing Scholes and Keane I never knocked on the door because I knew they were world-class players and better than me.
"There came a time when players were playing ahead of me because they'd been bought into the club, and I could never accept that. Now I'm older I can understand that if you buy a Kleberson from Brazil and you don't give him a chance it's very hard on him. Footballers are very selfish and you just think about yourself the whole time but you've got to think about the bigger picture. A lad would come from Brazil and play badly for three games and I'd think – that's it, he's not good enough, but you can't think like that.
"I remember when Veron signed I bumped into the manager in the corridor and I'm thinking – f****** hell, I've got Scholes and now I've got Veron. The manager said, 'I've signed Veron' and I said: 'I know, yeah, he's a very good player'. And the manager said: 'Don't worry, you'll still get your 30 games'. I always got 30 games a year. But it came to 2004 and I didn't want to be bitter about the club. That's what I was getting like and I thought, 'That's it, I've got to go'."
Woe betide an idle footballer who finds Butt as his new boss. "I can look at somebody and say – yeah, I hate you," he says. "Everyone hates agents, but they're in it as a job. It's the whole football universe that's made them.
"So I could deal with agents quite easily. What I couldn't deal with is lazy players. You see them up and down the country. Most of the top players are good lads. You sit down and have a cup of tea with them and they're good lads.
"But then you go further down and some of the lads have to prove to people how much money they've got. I don't like that."
He wants youth players to watch the documentary as an inspiration and a warning: "I would like them to go and see it, because you've got a group of young lads who got lucky and did well, and a group of lads who got lucky at first but then had bad luck. So when you do get a bit of luck at 16 you've got to kick on and push it. If you sit back you'll just be dead in the water."
The showbiz caper of interviews and public appearances, he is not so sure about. He pointed to a room service tray in the hotel room where we spoke: "I wouldn't want to do it every week. But I've been treated well. Burger. I got a burger out of it."