Sunday night saw the premiere of the much anticipated Class of ’92 documentary, a film taking an in-depth look at Manchester United‘s famous 1992 academy side that went on to claim the domestic and European treble in 1999, eventual becoming an integral component of the club’s successes over the next twenty years.
Drenched in Red Devils nostalgia that may be a tad too intoxicating for Liverpool fans to endure in its entirety, the documentary focuses on the experiences of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, recording their meteoric rise from the Old Trafford youth team to Champions League winners in just seven years, with their legacies still existing in the game today.
But as much as fans across the country, putting personal allegiances aside, will undoubtedly enjoy the inside scoop on 1990s Premier League football, there is a rather sour note to the feature film – the fact that we will never see another Class of ’92 ever again, in England at least.
First of all, because ‘golden generations’ don’t come around too often. The chances of six players from the same youth side at club level going on to claim 26 major trophies and 428 international caps between them is incredibly slim.
That being said, it’s not impossible; some would argue that over the years, the Old Trafford conveyor belt has in fact produced five golden generations.
Even if more critical supporters downgraded the early 1940s, late 1960s and early 1980s sides to the silver or bronze levels of appreciation, that still leaves Sir Alex Ferguson’s 90s cast and the famous Busby Babes. So maybe it’s more of a once or twice in a life-time thing, although Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy would beg to differ as they churn out top level Spanish talent year upon year.
But it’s not necessarily a case of half-century cycles, the element of luck or sheer circumstance that stands in the way of another Class of ’92 breaking through to take domestic and European football by storm, but rather, the manner in which the nature of the Premier League has transformed the English game out of all recognition in comparison to twenty years ago.
The first intrinsic difference is the role of the manager nowadays. Some even prefer the term ‘Head Coach’. More than just a title, the shift in responsibility has morphed as the risks of the Premier League have become more intense.
Back in the 1990’s, Ferguson spent every Monday night watching the youth team, and he’d only been with the Red Devils a matter of weeks before he’d charged Eric Harrison with the task of overhauling the entire youth set-up at Carrington.
But how many managers in the present era of the top flight have the time or the patience to regularly take in first-hand viewings of their youth squads? Perhaps a handful of times per season, or even once a month, but a current manager at a top club will be far more concerned with the two first team matches per week, in addition to all the prior and succeeding interactions with the press, and plane-hopping across the continent for Champions League or Europa League fixtures.
Not that Sir Alex never had to deal with such burdens, but these responsibilities have undoubtedly intensified in importance over the last twenty years.
At the same time, Fergie always emphasised the significance of synergising the philosophies of the senior squad and the youth team as a means to maintain identity and also ease the transition process to the first team squad. But considering the average life span of a Premier League manager has now dropped to just one year and two months, if you exclude Arsene Wenger’s 17-year Arsenal reign as the rare anomaly, most English clubs don’t maintain any sense of identity long enough to begin passing it on to the next generation.
New managers mean new ideas, and new players, and foreign chairmen with big wallets mean progress must be rapid and imminent, or face the consequences.
Most managers can only look as far as the next transfer window, or in some cases the next six games, let alone administer a long-term plan that will allow for youngsters to naturally break through.
Bearing in mind even Ferguson came under infamous criticism from Alan Hansen in 1996, with the former Liverpool defender quipping on Match of the Day ‘ You can’t win anything with kids’, it seems unlikely a manager of the modern era would ever have the confidence or fearlessness to oust proven players for the sake of the next generation.
Furthermore, the rise in financial backing and popularity of the English game has wholeheartedly changed the experiences of young players, something Neville and Scholes both commented on in a recent interview with the Daily Mail. The retired ginger maestro used to get three buses to training in the morning when he was still going through the youth ranks.
Compare that now with Manchester United’s newest young trend-setter Adnan Januzaj, whom through the advantage of market demand secured a new contract with a basic salary of £60k per week and a signing-on bonus of £5million in October. The winger is only 18 years of age and has so far made just six Premier League appearances for the Red Devils.
For lack of a better word, young players today are mollycoddled; their futures are panned out for them by their agents, and before they’re old enough to even get a driver’s licence, most can easily afford their first car. They lack the working-class roots and the street-smarts that undoubtedly contributed to the bitter determination and loyalty of the Class of ’92.
The Belgium international also represents another vital sign of the times. Butt, the Nevilles, Giggs and Scholes were all local Manchurian lads, whilst David Beckham came from a Manchester United-obsessed family from the East end of London. Cut them open and they’d bleed United. Nowadays, English academies are by no means restricted to English players, let alone youngsters from the local area.
The current trend is to include promising talents from all over the world – it seems part of the challenge for clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City is to have as many ‘next Messi’s’ in their academy rosters as possible for the sake of prestige, rather than any focus on whether or not they’re creating the right kind of environment to prepare young players for first team football.
Even sourcing home-grown talent is becoming a far less localised practice. The FA have done away with catchment areas in favour of the Elite Player Performance Plan, a policy which essentially allows bigger clubs to cherry-pick the best talents from lesser academies and only paying around £500k in compensation per time for the privilege. It’s how Chelsea managed to snap up Isaiah Brown from West Brom in the summer for next-to-nothing. If the former Baggie never makes it at Stamford Bridge however, it’s no huge loss to the West Londoners.
Considering these youngsters are now plucked from across England and the world to be taken to some of the country’s most prestigious academies, with wild sums of money thrown at them in the process, is it any surprise they’ve become decisively apathetic when it comes to club loyalty and their own personal development? By the time they’re 21 or 22 years of age, they could already have been thrown back to where they came from, in favour of another hotly-tipped youngster whose become the new flavour of the month.
The common factors remain money, pressure, and the desperation for continual rapid progress, three vital ingredients to the Premier League’s maintained success that will only continue to increase in their magnitude for the foreseeable future.
With no respite in sight, as concerns over the future of the national game continue to grow, it’s virtually implausible that we’ll see another class of ’92 in our lifetime.