Will the kids' stuff really work for Ferguson?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am


It was former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen who famously declared that you'll win nothing with children before Manchester United's youthful side proved him wrong 15 years ago. So few observers would dare write off the 2011-12 Old Trafford 'babes'.

When veteran French defender Patrice Evra came off in the second half of Sunday's Community Shield match, the Red Devils' average age was just 22 years and seven months. And yet the champions were able to complete their comeback to put their 'noisy neighbours' in their place.

The team that takes to the field at West Bromwich Albion for this weekend's season opener will have a greater backbone of experience, led by seasoned central defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Yet, over the course of the season, it could be the performances of emerging talent like Javier Hernandez, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones and David de Gea that determines if the Premier League trophy remains at the red end of Manchester.

At first glance, the retirements of Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Sar and Gary Neville don't leave a void that can't be comfortably filled. However, if there is a bad run of injuries, Man United's raw core will be exposed and tough questions could be asked of some relatively unproven players.

How many of them have long track records of success over the gruelling holiday periods when championships are often won or lost? Who fancies that midweek trip to Stoke on an icy winter's night or a tight turnaround late in the season after international duty?

Back in 1995-96, it was the likes of Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers who filled the big shoes left by the departures of Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. That United side was bolstered by a healthy sprinkling of seasoned performers. Eric Cantona, Gary Pallister, Steve Bruce and Peter Schmeichel were the kind of tough teammates you could rely upon in a crisis.

Then, as now, Alex Ferguson knew exactly what he was doing as he seamlessly blended in a new generation.

Even so, the signing of Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder would complete the puzzle as Manchester United look to replace the creativity in the midfield provided for so many seasons by Scholes and Giggs. The latter is surely on his last legs and won't start many games as he passes his 38th birthday this campaign.

Given the lack of quality in the middle of the park last season, Ferguson sometimes got it done with smoke and mirrors. Deep down, he probably knows the Red Devils' success was due as much to their closest rivals self-destructing as his team's tenacity and undeniable team spirit. Another Champions League final drubbing at the hands of Barcelona was a sober wake-up call.

Sneijder, who hasn't been shy in publicising his desire to play in England, provides the chance for a good side to become great. If he moves to Manchester and stays injury free, the gap between England and Spain's best will narrow. Without him, United can certainly dominate domestically but will continue to underachieve on the European stage.

Their abundance of attacking players has already been dubbed the Magnificent Seven. But for all the spark of Hernandez, the trickery of Dimitar Berbatov and the coming of age of Danny Welbeck, it will again be Wayne Rooney who carries the tag of talisman. Rooney, 26, is now a senior striker. Berbatov, 30, and Michael Owen, 31, will continue to live on the fringes.

In the 1995-96 season, Cantona returned from a nine-month suspension only in October, yet managed 19 goals in all competitions, including the winner against Liverpool in the FA Cup final. In terms of his value to this side, Rooney is the Cantona of the current crop.

One possible Achilles heel is goalkeeping as the trio of de Gea, Tomasz Kuszczak and Anders Lindegaard do little to inspire confidence. It was an inauspicious start by de Gea at Wembley Stadium, yet Spain captain Iker Casillas still expects the 20-year-old to one day replace him in the national side.