By Henry Winter in yesterday's Torygraph.
One of the modern era's greatest groups of footballers, Sir Alex Ferguson's 1993-94 Double-winners, refuse to fade from view, simply re-inventing themselves as successful managers. Chips off the Old Trafford block can be found in dug-outs everywhere from Blackburn to Birmingham, Sunderland to Macclesfield, and even the beaches of France.
Perhaps it is no surprise that a side crammed with such strong characters, opinionated individuals who Ferguson regularly observed could "start a fight in an empty house", should wish to impose their distinctive thoughts on teams when their own playing powers ebb. The formidable unit that finished eight points ahead of Blackburn Rovers in the Premiership and destroyed Chelsea in the FA Cup final was largely built around Peter Schmeichel in goal, a resilient back-line of Paul Parker, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin, a perfectly-balanced midfield of Andrei Kanchelskis, Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Ryan Giggs, while Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes mixed rapier and broadsword in attack. This XI started together only 12 times and were never beaten.
"That was the best side I ever played with," argues Ince, who also saw distinguished service with Liverpool and Inter Milan. "That United side was full of leaders. We had everything. United's '99 side are going to say 'we are great because of what we won'. But if you look at the way they won the Treble, it was in the last two minutes of the Champions League final. We battered Chelsea. And we should have had the (domestic) Treble, but lost to Aston Villa in the League Cup final."
Ferguson's star pupils from the Class of '94 rewrite the old adage that top players do not necessarily graduate into managers. Hughes (Blackburn), Bruce (Birmingham City), Keane (Sunderland) and Ince (Macclesfield Town) have plenty still to prove (particularly the last pair), but the signs are hugely promising.
Hughes currently leads the way, guiding Rovers up the Premiership table and into the fourth round of the FA Cup with Saturday's barnstorming performance at Everton. Rarely are David Moyes' men outclassed at home, but Hughes masterminded an embarrassment that had another United alumni, Phil Neville, actually apologising to the Goodison faithful yesterday.
Some will back Keane in the Old Trafford succession stakes. Only three points off the Championship play-offs, Sunderland's latest leader currently reveals his personal clout in the transfer window. Arsenal's precocious striker Anthony Stokes yesterday chose Sunderland over Premiership admirers like Charlton Athletic and Scottish giants like Celtic – testament to Keane's aura.
In pole position for promotion from the Championship are Birmingham. Bruce's popularity helps explain why elite managers, like Arsene Wenger, loan him such prospects as Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastian Larsson, and Fabrice Muamba. Wenger knows their education will be accelerated under Bruce.
Ince's potential has been widely hailed in recent days, and even the post-mortems into Macclesfield's 6-1 defeat at Chelsea highlighted how well motivated and organised his charges were. No one will be surprised that sides shaped by Ince, Keane, Bruce and Hughes boast a combative streak. Ferguson believes that the Class of '94 was his most warrior-like collective. Hughes hit David Tuttle with a challenge that brought tears to onlookers' eyes, let alone the Sheffield United centre-half.
Cantona, who poleaxed Norwich City's inoffensive Jeremy Goss that season, is currently involved in management, albeit the French beach football team, while appearing in arthouse flicks. Schmeichel has taken to the dance-floor, while Pallister, Parker, and Irwin do turns in TV studios. The latter pair have managerial experience; Parker with Billericay Town and Irwin with his son's under-12s team. After a spell in Saudi, Kanchelskis was last heard of playing for Krylya Sovetov in Russia.
Still lighting up Old Trafford is Giggs, who will be honoured by the Football Writers' Association at a Savoy dinner this Sunday. Last year's recipient, Bryan Robson, also collected a title medal in '94, before entering management at Middlesbrough.
Ferguson's Cup Final subs were Lee Sharpe, now a fixture on the celebrity scene, and Brian McClair, highly regarded within Old Trafford for his Academy work. Also in that '94 squad were youngsters like Chris Casper, now managing Bury, and Gary Neville, destined for a dug-out one day. Ferguson's Class of '94 will soon need their own table at League Managers' Association functions.