Thus spake former Liverpool defender turned Match of The Day pundit Alan Hansen, after Manchester United had been brushed aside 3-1 in front of a packed house of mainly jubilant fans at Villa Park on the opening day of the 1995/1996 Premiership season, having fielded a young and inexperienced side. It is a moment Hansen will never be allowed to forget.

After United's failure to beat West Ham Utd on the last day of the previous season had gifted Blackburn Rovers their first title for 81 years (despite themselves losing 2-1 at Anfield), for non-United fans it was almost too good to be true. Had Alex Ferguson lost the plot, and miscalculated in selling club stalwarts Mark Hughes and Paul Ince, as well as the pacey right-winger Andrei Kanchelskis before the start of the season?

Not quite.

United were unbeaten in their next ten Premiership fixtures, the run ending with a 1-0 defeat at Highbury, thanks to an early Dennis Bergkamp strike (only his fourth goal since signing for Arsenal). From then to christmas, United's patchy away form prevented them from making the running at the top of the Premiership, while an exuberant, attacking, Newcastle United side, managed by Kevin Keegan was leading the way. When Spurs beat Man Utd 4-1 at White Hart Lane on New Years Day (United's 5th league defeat away from home), Newcastle were well clear.

United, though, went on to win 13 of their remaining 16 Premiership fixtures, picking up 41 points in the process, losing only once more, away at Southampton. In the process, Ferguson successfully wound up Keegan with suggestions that teams were making less effort to beat Newcastle to make sure United didn't win the league - claims which prompted Keegan's famous "I'd love it if we beat them. Love it!" outburst in an interview with Sky Sports.

In the end, United took the title, finishing four points ahead of Newcastle, in second, and 11 ahead of Liverpool, in third.

But worse was to come, as United faced Liverpool in the FA Cup final eleven days later. Liverpool, arriving in ludicrous designer suits, were desperate not to allow Utd a second league and FA Cup double since the start of the Premiership, and would have loved nothing more than to inflict United's second consecutive FA Cup Final defeat at Merseyside hands - Everton having won 1-0 the previous year in a largely forgettable encounter.

Sadly, Liverpool goalkeeper David James chose the occasion to live up to his billing as clown-in-chief, by weakly punching a late United corner towards Eric Cantona at the edge of the area. Cantona did what Cantona did best (kung-fu aside), striking the ball - off-balance but with technical perfection - on the half-volley through a crowd of Liverpool defenders and into the back of the net.

Reading a comment about the Villa game a few days ago, I wondered what happened to those so-called kids, and who exactly it was who played that day. Here's the skinny, courtesy of soccerbase.com:

Aston Villa v Man Utd, Villa Park, 19 August 1995

Aston Villa 3(3)-1(0) Man Utd
Taylor 14             Beckham 82
Draper 27
Yorke  36 (p)

Aston Villa: Bosnich, Charles, McGrath, Ehiogu, Wright, Southgate, Taylor, Draper, 
Townsend, Milosevic (Tommy Johnson, 50), Yorke (Scimeca, 86) 

Subs not used: Spink 

Man Utd: Schmeichel, Parker, Irwin, Gary Neville, Pallister ( O'Kane, 59 ), 
Sharpe, Butt, Keane, McClair, Scholes, Phil Neville ( Beckham, 45 ) 

Subs not used: Davies 

Bookings: Scholes (Man Utd) 

Attendance: 34655 

Referee: R Hart (Darlington) 

The Protagonists

(Ages on the date of the game given in brackets)
  • Peter Schmeichel (31yrs 9 months 1 day)

    Currently playing just down the road for Manchester City, Schmeichel has had spells at Aston Villa and Sporting Lisbon, and retired at least once since leaving Old Trafford. Made over 400 appearances for the club.

  • Paul Parker (31 yrs 4 months 15 days)

    Left United at the end of that season. Currently coaching non-league side Chelmsford City.

  • Denis Irwin (29 yrs 9 months 19 days)

    After 12 seasons with Manchester United, signed for first division Wolves in 2002. Made over 500 appearances for United, and was capped 56 times by the Republic of Ireland. Has medals for pretty much everything a footballer can win.

  • Gary Neville (20 yrs 6 months 1 day)

    The only 'kid' in the defence for this game, the older Neville brother (and occasional Dot Cotton stunt double) has now made more European Cup and Champions League appearances than any other United player in history. Has also played for England 55 times, and was David Beckham's best man. Scores a goal, on average, once every 90 games.

  • Gary Pallister (30 yrs 1 month 20 days)

    Returned to Middlesboro after nine years with United in 1998. Another player with a full trophy cabinet, although no international caps to accompany his many winners medals.

  • Lee Sharpe (24 yrs 2 months 23 days)

    For a while, Lee Sharpe was all set to be an England sensation. Hyped from a young age, he somehow failed to deliver, leaving United at the end of the season for Leeds United. David Platt signed Sharpe on loan at Sampdoria during his brief stay in charge, but that and periods at Bradford, Portsmouth, and Exeter failed to re-ignite the early promise of Sharpe's career.

  • Nicky Butt (20 yrs 6 months 29 days)

    Still at United, and has even managed to find an occasional berth in the England side for his solid defensive midfield style.

  • Roy Keane (24 yrs 0 months 9 days)

    Many thought Ferguson mad to sign Keane from Nottingham Forest for almost £4 million in 1993, but as the fiercely beating heart of the side for several seasons, Keane proved the doubters wrong. Loathed and hated in equal measure, Keane's 58-cap international career looks to be over after walking out from the Republic of Ireland squad at the 2002 World Cup, and persistent injuries have left him considering a deeper-lying role in the heart of the United defence.

  • Brian McClair (31 yrs 8 months 11 days)

    Brian "chocky" McClair trundled about ineffectually up front for United for 11 years, before returning to his first senior club, Motherwell, in 1998. Made around 400 appearances, almost always in slow-motion, and apparently even scored some goals during his time at the club.

  • Paul Scholes (20 yrs 9 months 3 days)

    A midfielder who scores goals regularly (something of a rarity in the English game), Scholes has been employed as an occasional forward in United colours, but seems most comfortable as an attacking midfielder, in the David Platt mould.

  • Phil Neville (18 yrs 6 months 29 days)

    Remarkably, Neville junior now has 37 England caps, despite not actually being particularly good either in defence or midfield. Takes partial blame for England's exit from Euro 2000, giving away the winning penalty in the last few minutes against Romania. Apart from that he's usually quite reliable.

  • Simon Davies (21 yrs 3 months 27 days)

    Made only a handful of appearances as a trainee, before being offloaded to Luton in 1997. Signed for Bangor City in 2001, which is a far cry from scoring for United in the Champions League.

  • John O'Kane (20 yrs 9 months 4 days)

    Trainee, sold to Everton in 1998. Currently playing for Blackpool.

  • David Beckham (20yrs 3 months 17 days)

    England captain, celebrity icon, general all-round hero, like, you know.

  • Alan Hansen (40 yrs 2 months 6 days)

    Liverpool legend, strolled about in defence alongside Mark Lawrenson for many successful seasons. Currently acting as BBC pundit alongside Lawrenson. Tends to be critical of defences.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of this team sheet is that it's not as stacked with teenagers as I thought it must have been. With the exception of Gary Neville, the defence was already getting on a bit in 1995, while Sharpe and Keane had been around a while, as had McClair. It was hardly the Busby Babes, but it's a sign of how blessed United were with a crop of youthful talent, all coming through the ranks at the same time, and how successful the club has been in recent times, though, that six of the players on show against Villa seven and a half seasons ago are now at the heart of the current side. It's hard to think of many young players who have made the transition at Old Trafford since then. Wes Brown and John O'Shea have made the grade, but since 1996, the vast majority of United's trainees have failed to hold down regular places in the top flight - John Curtis, Ronnie Wallwork, and Mark Wilson play in the Premiership but are not regulars at their clubs, while a handful of others have had to move to First Division teams to find first-team action.

What is interesting about Hansen's statement, though, is that since that season, the game has undergone a youth revolution in England. Almost all successful English sides since have tried to blend experience and guile with the fearlessness and exuberance of youth.

In recent years, Michael Owen became the youngest post-war England player, and at the age of 18, scared the Argentine defence witless with his pace in the 1998 World Cup, only to see his record broken recently when Wayne Rooney appeared as a substitiute against Australia. Rooney, meanhwile, became the Premiership's youngest goalscorer with a 20-yard strike against champions Arsenal this season, only to find his record quickly eclipsed by the even younger James Milner, of Leeds United, who scored against Sunderland eight days before his 17th birthday.

In some cases the youth has been imported, but a glance at the team sheets for recent England International sides reveals a wealth of young talent. The likes of Wes Brown, Jonathan Woodgate, Chris Kirkland, Paul Robinson, Joe Cole, Michael Owen, Emile Heskey, Owen Hargreaves, Frank Lampard, Danny Murphy, Stephen Gerrard, Alan Smith, Sean Davis, Rio Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer, Jermaine Jenas, Wayne Rooney, Paul Konchesky, Ledley King, Wayne Bridge, Ashley Cole, James Beattie, John Terry, and Francis Jeffers could comfortably fill an England training camp even though Murphy, at the grand old age of 26 years and one day, would be comfortably the senior squad member.

You'll never win anything without kids, Alan.

Sources

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,291-505992,00.html, Bill Edgar www.soccerbase.com www.soccerage.com

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