What happened to Sir Alex Ferguson’s forgotten team?


In the study of filmography, a prominent theory is ‘equilibrium theory’. Equilibriums are in simple terms, a signifier of normality. But ultimately the plot is at its most thrilling and entertaining when the equilibrium is breached. On the 7 May 2013, Manchester United suffered a disequilibrium that would rival the drama of even ‘The Terminator’ franchise.

Their illustrious and seemingly immortal manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, announced his retirement from football. United’s decline is well documented, but a common misconception is that Ferguson left his successor David Moyes, with an ageing team. Throughout his period at the helm of United, Ferguson was acclaimed for the subtle rebuilds of his outrageously successful teams.

The mid-noughties additions of future superstars such as Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand, paired with the more-shrewd signings such as Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic. This transpired in a European Cup, and three consecutive Premier League titles. All of this is well documented, but the rebuild Ferguson constructed post-2010, appears to have been lost in history.

This began in 2011 with the additions of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, two raw talents who at the time were touted to be future mainstays for club and country. Jones, in particular, was immediately put on a pedestal, with Ferguson famously referring to the Englishman as ‘the next Duncan Edwards’. In Smalling’s case, the towering centre half has shown glimpses of fulfilling his potential, notably under Louis van Gaal.

While Jones has never lived up to his Edwards comparison, he has delivered some solid performances for United; most prominently through his brief partnership with Eric Bailly under Jose Mourinho. However, due to injuries and a lack of development in the wake of the Scots retirement, both Smalling and Jones are widely viewed as Theo Walcott prototypes- ‘oh what could have been’

While Jones and Smalling were sought in the market, there were two other exciting young English talents in the squad: Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck. Welbeck made his first steps into the United first team in 2008, coming on as a substitute against Middlesbrough. In the following years, Welbeck developed into an exciting forward.

A player with scintillating pace and desire; who appeared to fit the mould of a forward in Ferguson’s evolution. In 2013, the Mancunian’s crucial goal at the Santiago Bernabeu in the last 16 stage of the UEFA Champions League, appeared to further cement the Englishman’s place in the Red Devils’ future endeavours. But just 12 months later, Welbeck’s stock had fallen drastically.

Not only had the man who had mentored him departed the club; injuries plagued the forward’s campaign. Football is a cynical sport, and Welbeck’s bizarre attempt to audaciously chip Manuel Neuer signified to many that the decision making of the 23-year-old (at the time) was inadequate. On the back of a disastrous campaign for both the player and the club, the Englishman was offloaded to arch-rivals Arsenal for a measly £16 million.

While Jones, Smalling and Welbeck constructed the defensive and attacking dimension of the new look spine; Cleverley appeared to be the candidate to plug the gap in midfield. A tenacious and seemingly technically gifted player; Cleverley played a role in United’s infamous 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal; a game in which Jones, Smalling and Welbeck were also present.

In Ferguson’s final season, Cleverley made 22 league appearances, while scoring the first league goal of his career against Newcastle United. However, in the following season, the midfielder’s performances were substandard, to say the least, which ultimately resulted in his loan spell to Aston Villa for the season, leaving for Everton on a free the following summer.

It’s important to note that there was one success story in Ferguson’s final wave of transfers: David De Gea. The irony is De Gea was initially perceived to be a questionable signing. His difficulties competing in the air and his blunders in his first season, notably on his debut against Manchester City; resulted in De Gea facing intense scrutiny.

Furthermore, it’s easy to forget that in the 2012/13 season he even lost his place to Anders Lindegaard. However, De Gea is a rare example of a player who excelled in the wake of Ferguson’s departure. The Spaniard’s meteoric rise deservedly won him the ‘Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award’ in four of the next five seasons. De Gea has been a rare positive in United’s era of mediocrity and has proven an astute acquisition by Ferguson.

The final signing of the ‘Fergie era’ was Wilfred Zaha: a 20-year-old tricky winger from Crystal Palace. Zaha played a pivotal role in Palace’s promotion to the Premier League and widely viewed as one of the most exciting young prospects in his age group. The Ivorian winger seemed to be an obvious candidate to fill the right-wing position, which United desperately needed following the decline of Antonio Valencia.

However, alleged attitude problems meant Zaha was instantly out of favour under Moyes. After just two appearances, Zaha was shipped off to Cardiff City on loan in January 2014. Following his stint at Cardiff, Zaha was sold back to Palace, where his performances have at times been exceptional. 

In addition to this long list of players, Nick Powell, Alexander Buttner and Rafael and Fabio da Silva also fell into the United abyss. At a time where United are frantically attempting to construct yet another vast clear-out, the impact of Ferguson’s departure could not be starker. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the young team that Ferguson built may have brought illustrious success.

Furthermore, the stagnation of such a vast number of young players also further diminishes the eras of Moyes, Van Gaal; and to a small extent Mourinho. Mediocrity has transformed into the equilibrium at United. But United fans hope that one day, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger; they’ll be back.

Written by Alexei Braithwaite

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