Opinion: United can learn from lessons of 1995
The last time Manchester United finished second in the Premier League and lost the FA Cup final was back in 1995 and it signalled a post-season period of hysteria.
It became labelled by some as the ‘summer of discontent’ but it serves as a warning that knee-jerk reactions can seriously damage your health – or the health of a football club, that is.
Twenty-three years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Reds were possibly a Steve Bruce hamstring injury away from winning the FA Cup as the defender couldn’t react on the old Wembley goalline when Everton’s Paul Rideout scored the winner.
They were a once-in-a-lifetime, defiant performance from West Ham goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko away from winning the Premier League title as a frustrating 1-1 draw at Upton Park cost the Reds the chance of winning the crown for a third time in a row.
United were a cigarette paper’s width away from a back-to-back domestic Double. The fallout criticism from that ‘failure’ was ludicrous.
In the wake of those last two matches of the 1994/95 campaign came the news that three Old Trafford favourites – Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis – were leaving the club.
The ’94 ‘dream team’ was breaking up, United had gone a season without silverware and a scapegoat was needed. In some quarters, Sir Alex was, unbelievably, that proposed fall guy.
But in the aftermath of United missing out on that second Double attempt, Ajax were winning the Champions League in Vienna against the then European super power AC Milan. A young Dutch side had won the ultimate Euro prize.
Sir Alex already knew he had a batch of kids at Old Trafford in the form of the Class of ’92 who had the capacity to replicate the Amsterdam side.
Ajax’s triumph, he once told me, rubber-stamped his belief it was the road United should go down. The rest is history.
But the point is a season so close to triumph was depicted as a flop by and if some had had their way – not the Old Trafford hierarchy, I might add – then a new manager would have been in the post for the next season.
No reminder needed that Ferguson then engineered, with a new generation, the domestic Double in ’96 that had eluded him 12 months earlier.
No new signings but internal promotions, a tweak here and there; the wagon wheels were fixed and it was off and rolling again.
To a certain degree, this campaign has mirrored 1994/95.
In this season’s Emirates FA Cup final, United were possibly a glancing header from Paul Pogba in the second half away from sucking the life out of a fading Chelsea side and launching another traditional thrilling comeback.
Had United made the breakthrough, Antonio Conte’s side didn’t have the look of a team, after the first half, who had the stomach for a real battle. An equaliser and you felt they’d collapse. But it wouldn’t come. Fine margins.
The gap between the Reds and Premier League champions Manchester City is certainly not as close as it was to Blackburn Rovers in ’95. There is without doubt some ground to make up in that one come August.
But while Sir Alex overhauled his blueprint 23 years ago to propel United into a new era, Jose Mourinho may have to look at personnel alterations and adaptations here and there to ensure his Old Trafford progress chart keeps on an upward trend. There could be another summer of transformation at Old Trafford as a result.
Mourinho is working towards a United squad built by himself. You don’t discard servants who have served the club well but the squad is still made up of choices made by Sir Alex, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, as well as Mourinho’s own stamp on it.
It is an eclectic mix that has stabilised United, with Mourinho adding to van Gaal’s FA Cup success in 2016 with last term’s League Cup and Europa League, and an FA Cup final and second place in the Premier League this time around.
Many clubs would give anything for that kind of haul in the middle of such a major transitional time.
Two trophies for the Portuguese coach and an improved league standing in two campaigns cannot be dismissed.
Just because the campaign has ended without more silverware does not mean it is stamped ‘failure’ on the summing-up file.
There are areas to be improved on, like combining winning ‘Category A’ games against rival elite teams with victories against opponents with lesser pedigree and power. That’s a must.
And to that end, Mourinho will look to the summer transfer market to move his rebuild on.
“We are not going to spend more than we can. We are not going to do anything crazy,” he said last month in a reaction to City winning the title in record time.
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“We are just trying to improve a little bit more. That’s what we are going to try.”
Some might say it is going to take something ‘crazy’ to eat away at City’s points winning haul and overtake Pep Guardiola’s side.
Some definitely said Ferguson was crazy over two decades ago to allow big-character players to depart and install kids in their places. But it worked and there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Mourinho’s work in the transfer market in the coming months before matches start again on July 19 in Arizona against Mexican side Club America will be key. It might not all be in place by that opener in Phoenix but it will all start being moulded.
A whisker away from a cup final triumph and finishing runners-up in the Premier League has not suddenly made the foundations Mourinho has laid in the last two years rickety and on the verge of collapse. The foundations remain strong enough to construct silverware success next season.
Ferguson did it his way in 1995 and Mourinho will do it his in 2018.
The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.