Continuity conquers all but title-chasers keep vision of future
Successful eras are built on a hard core of great players, writes Paul Hayward, and the big two are nurturing the next generation
F our years ago this weekend, Manchester United endured a calamitous trip to London. Outshone again in the Premier League by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, Alex Ferguson's men were assailed by indignity as William Gallas opened the scoring, a shaggy-haired Joe Cole tore off his shirt and booted an advertising hoarding after doubling Chelsea's lead and Ricardo Carvalho puffed an imaginary cigar with Didier Drogba after blasting in a third.
Worse: Wayne Rooney, the shape of United's future and the little knuckleduster of England's 2006 World Cup squad, left the pitch on a stretcher with a double metatarsal break. As their second coronation was confirmed, Chelsea were 12 points clear of United, whose Gary Neville clashed with an angry United fan in their next game, against Middlesbrough.
United's season ended with Ruud van Nistelrooy in purdah and Mourinho's side eight points to the good as the league trophy stayed at Stamford Bridge.
In that 2005-2006 campaign United finished runners-up to the Roman Abramovich project and won only the Carling Cup: which will be their fate again today should Chelsea beat Liverpool at Anfield and United lose at Sunderland.
The echoes from four years ago are abundant but not necessarily agony to United ears. Ferguson was growing a new vintage crop out of Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney. "We've put a marker down. There are some young players developing," he said at the time. "I'm very happy with the squad now."
Next: United win three consecutive championships and reach two Champions League finals, winning one, against Chelsea in Moscow in 2008. After Mourinho's conquest of Barcelona with Inter last week, it should be reiterated that United's recovery was assisted by Abramovich's disastrous inability to see that he had a manager of Fergusonian stature on his payroll. But the twin tornados of Rooney and Ronaldo were also pretty influential in restoring United's primacy, which Ferguson is now desperate to extend to a 19th title for his club and an unprecedented fourth in-a-row.
To return to 2006 as the most recent shift in power is to be reminded that this season's title race has been driven to a climactic point by the same core of diehards who featured the last time dominance was won and lost. Rooney, who is again carrying an injury in a World Cup summer, is the PFA's numero uno. His sack of 26 Premier League goals is one larger than that of Didier Drogba, the Havana-sucker of April 29, 2006. Third on the list for the two clubs is the ubiquitous Frank Lampard with 20.
What we are seeing in these last seven days, then, is the value of continuity at the heart of a top-two team: of players shaping events not just for a year or two but over eras.
Four seasons ago, Ferguson was already plotting beyond Mourinho's double triumph. This season he has hot-housed Nani, Rafael Da Silva, Jonny Evans and Antonio Valencia and laid foundations for the next five years by acquiring Chris Smalling from Fulham and Javier Hernandez from Mexico. But the unbending pursuit of Chelsea is attributable in the main to Rooney, the home-grown Darren Fletcher and the characteristically robust late-season form of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Neville, who have all signed one-year contract extensions to the summer of 2011.
With Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez elsewhere, United's season has been one of miraculous stubbornness. Off the field, the anti-Glazer and green and gold protests have prompted not a crisis of identity so much as a reaffirmation of the club's deepest values.
Neville, who will enter his 20th season as a United professional in August, has studied the squad's development to the point, today, when United could justifiably present the loss of their title as another evolutionary step.
He says: "The manager's been very careful throughout the transition stages. I can split my career into three distinct phases. The first was very British, with a sprinkling of foreign talent. Then there was a transition through to the 1999 Treble-winning team. From 1994-97 there was a certain style: a lot of strength in the team, a lot of physical players -- very British, 4-4-2 -- then on the way to 1999 we started to introduce the more European approach of Jaap Stam and Ronny Johnsen. Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole weren't European but they were in the way they played.
"There was still a British core to it but there was a switch to a more European style. From 2004-2005 onwards there has been a lot of interchanging and a much bigger foreign influence: Nani, Anderson, Tevez, Ronaldo, Vidic, Ji-sung Park, Valencia. In terms of British culture there have been fewer British players but the manager's very aware that with the likes of Carrick, Rooney and Ferdinand he has to have a British culture in the dressing room.
"To actually secure success over a sustained period you need players who are going to stay with you. You can't be changing your players season in, season out. The best way to do that is to have players who have that association with, or affection for, the club, or develop it, and British players are aware of the culture of Manchester United. We've been very lucky to have signed foreign players who've taken to it straight away.
"If you look at our squad now, me, Scholes, Giggs, Fletcher, John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Darron Gibson and Jonny Evans have come through the ranks. You then add to that Carrick, Ferdinand, [Owen] Hargreaves and Rooney: half of our squad have either come through the ranks or are aware of the Manchester United culture from an early age." From this, Neville believes, United are imbued with the muscle-memory and psychological resistance to go on fighting when momentum turns against them.
Ferguson, who is in the anomalous position of needing Liverpool to help him out, has ruled Old Trafford for 23 and a half years. The "Ayatollah", as Steve Bruce says his generation of United players called him, is in combat with a Chelsea manager who has yet to complete a year as Abramovich's latest chosen one. Yet from the collective vigour of the team Mourinho built has emerged another push back to the summit, with more entertainment to lace the physical power.
Chelsea have put seven past Sunderland, Aston Villa and Stoke; five through Blackburn and Portsmouth, and four beyond Bolton, Wolves and West Ham. Florent Malouda (with 12) has stepped from the mist to become a match-winning force. United, who have scored 12 fewer times and trail by eight on goal difference, have been less spectacularly destructive. Rooney's 26 aside, Dimitar Berbatov is their next top scorer with 12.
Both protagonists today and (probably) next Sunday were banjoed in Europe at the quarter-final stage. They have lost 13 Premier League matches between them. This has been a campaign to determine who has the fewer flaws. The difference, from 2006, is that Chelsea are compelled by budgetary constraints to copy the United model of self-regeneration. Next year's Carling Cup will be used to hasten the development of academy recruits: among them Josh McEachran, Gael Kakuta, Jeffrey Bruma, Jacob Mellis and Sam Hutchinson.
But first their old guard cling to a one-point advantage in their quest to reclaim a hold on power that seemed sure to last a generation on that April day four years ago.
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