How can a Manchester United team ever be considered underrated?
Man Utd are the most successful club of the Premier League era, winning the title in over half of the seasons the league has existed.
Manchester United teams exist in a black and white state — either they are successful, or they aren’t. There are no shades of grey (other than the infamous away kit from the 1995–96 season).
But there is one Man United side who despite never winning a league, a double, a treble or a Champions League trophy, would by most other standards, be considered a great team.
The Man United 2003–2006 vintage, is one that deserves mention, not alongside, but surely just below some of their classic years.
Consecutive 3rd, 3rd and 2nd placed finishes, a league cup win, and an FA Cup triumph across this period, could only be considered a disappointment to a club as successful as Man United.
There is an obvious caveat to highlight when discussing this team; and it only further justifies their case as an underrated one, which is that this was a side very much in transition.
After the heady days of the ’99 Treble win, many key players from that superlatively successful side had moved on by the 2003 season.
Of the eleven that started the Champions League Final in 1999, Peter Schmeichel had departed straight afterwards, followed by Jaap Stam, Dennis Irwin, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
But perhaps the biggest departee from that side only finally left the club at the start of the 2003–4 season: David Beckham.Embed from Getty Images
It’s difficult to overstate how big a loss Beckham was to Man United, and not just because of his on-pitch contributions. He was the England captain by this stage, a global brand and an icon.
Nobody quite foresaw that his replacement, who arrived just after Beckham departed to Madrid in the 2003 summer transfer window — a skinny, gangly Portuguese teenager by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo — would go on to eclipse Beckham’s impact both on and off the pitch.
The Ronaldo that arrived that summer was not the Ronaldo we know now — best (or joint best) player in the world, ultra-human, goal-plundering-machine of an athlete — instead Ronaldo at this time was very much a rough diamond.
The skills were there, perhaps too much in fact. That first season he would be remembered as much for his over-complicated flicks and propensity to lose the ball, as for his clear talent.
But there was a reason Ronaldo was entrusted with Beckham’s Number 7 shirt from his arrival. He had the ability, even then at the tender age of 16, to pull off the spectacular and transform a match.Embed from Getty Images
Another position in transition was the forward line.
In normal circumstances, the loss of two strikers of the calibre of Yorke and Cole, who between them scored 114 goals across three seasons from 1998 to 2001, would be devastating to a team’s prospects.
But then most teams don’t have the ability to replace two great strikers with a world class one.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy joined in the summer of 2001 after a year-long protracted transfer saga that looked doomed at various times, having originally agreed to the move in 2000.
But my goodness was he worth the wait.
Already, by the start of the 2003/04 season, he had scored eighty goals in all competitions. In fact, his form dipped marginally over the next three years, and perhaps that was one reason Man United didn’t win a league championship in this time, and yet he still left the club in 2006 having scored 150 goals.
Like Henry and Drogba, Van Nistelrooy was a striker whose input would literally win games on an almost weekly basis.Embed from Getty Images
At the back, Tim Howard arrived to shore up what had been a problem position since Schmeichel had left. Though Howard was a largely accomplished keeper, question marks remained over his level.
And so in 2005, Edwin Van Der Sar joined from Fulham. That transfer would go on to be a masterstroke. Van Der Sar’s six seasons at United happened to coincide with their most successful period in recent history — four league titles and two second placed finishes, along with three League Cups and a Champions League title. But we’re not here to talk about that era.
We’re talking about what came just before, and how close that side was to becoming the all-conquering force it would go on to be for the next half a decade.
In front of Van Der Sar, or Howard, in those seasons, stood a variety of esteemed and not-so-esteemed defenders.
Rio Ferdinand arrived for a record fee, and went on to solidify the Man United defence for the next ten years. A rotating cast of nearly-men partnered him — Mikael Silvestre, John O’Shea, Wes Brown — until the arrival in 2005 of another of the key cast members who formed the spine of the hyper-successful team to come: Nemanja Vidic.
The Nevilles usually played in full backs roles, though they were accompanied at first by Gabriel Heinze and then, yet again another future club legend, Patrice Evra.Embed from Getty Images
The midfield across this era was a real mixed bag. Though many of the previous generation — Scholes, Keane, Giggs, Butt — remained, their playing time was limited to greater and lesser extents by a few new faces.
Alan Smith, Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung all staked a claim for a place in the centre of the park, and though each was hampered by their own range of issues, all played a key part.
Playing back up to Van Nistelrooy was the perhaps surprisingly effective Louis Saha, and perennial super-sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
There was also one other fellow…
The Star Player
I’m at pains to suggest that Wayne Rooney was the star player in this side, because 1. He would go on to have many more successful seasons after these and 2. There were other players in the team who were just as, or more, important.
To answer myself on 2 first — how can I possibly pick a single star player from a squad so talented.
And on 1… yes, Rooney did indeed have better campaigns, and yes, he had seasons where he scored more goals.
So why am I including him here?Embed from Getty Images
Because the Rooney of 2004/05/06 was the perfect embodiment of wonderful, raw footballing potential. And I don’t mean that in the sense that he was a glimpse of what he’d go on to be. I mean that the Rooney of 2004, in particular, was a player who genuinely looked like he could become the best in the world.
That isn’t an overstatement. He appeared to be the most naturally gifted English footballer since Gazza, with the striking power of Shearer and the fire and fight of Terry Butcher.
An eighteen year old Rooney was the most exciting sight on a football pitch, for an Englishman at least.
And so though he wasn’t necessarily the star for his consistency or goals or the overall impact on the side, he was the star because he made you want to watch football, he made you want to play football, he made you believe in football.Embed from Getty Images
What Messi and Ronaldo are now, that is what we thought he could be at this time.
That he didn’t go on to reach the heights those behemoths have set doesn’t detract from what was a beautiful sense of possibility, and just quite how impressive that young man was on the turf.
What can you say about Alex Ferguson that hasn’t been said before?
This period happened to be Ferguson’s longest without a league title since his first, and so it’s unlikely he’ll look back at these three years too fondly.
But Ferguson is also of course, a pragmatist, and he knew exactly what he was doing.Embed from Getty Images
The squad needed renewing and revitalising, and Ferguson deserves huge credit for sticking with the project, particularly as he had planned to retire at the end of the 01/02 season.
The unmatched success that followed is testament to his faith in his ability to regenerate the team.
I’ll leave the last word on him to the man himself:
“I don’t like losing” Sir Alex.
There wasn’t much in the way of trophy wins to celebrate during this era, save for the odd FA Cup and League Cup.
So instead, the moment that I think best defines this era, once again falls to Rooney.
In 2004, Rooney made his debut for Man United, after his switch from Everton, in the Champions League against Fenerbahce.Embed from Getty Images
What occurred that night was enough for Fenerbahce manager Christoph Daum to say about Rooney after the game “Maybe he will become the player of the century”.
17 minutes into the game, United were already 1–0 up.
Then Van Nistelrooy picked up the ball near the halfway line, looked up and saw Rooney’s run. A perfectly threaded pass through the defence, and a first time left-footed finish into the top of the net from Rooney, meant he had his debut goal, and Man United were 2–0 up.
At 28 minutes, Giggs started on one of his trademark mazing runs on the left. A pass to Rooney in space on the edge of the area looked like a simple one to continue the move. But then came the first bit of magic from Rooney.
A body feint that completely took the defender out of the game, one touch and then a rifling low shot into the bottom corner. A beautiful goal, and Rooney’s second of the night. It was turning into a very good debut indeed.
In the second half, United won a freekick on the edge of the box.
Bear in mind that Rooney was among such luminary talent and strikers of the ball as Giggs and Van Nistelrooy, he suggested he should take it.
What followed was a bending, perfectly weighted freekick into the top corner of the net, reminiscent of anything Beckham could do in his pomp.Embed from Getty Images
And so age 18, in his debut game, for the biggest English club side, in the Champions League, Wayne Rooney scored a truly sublime hattrick to announce himself on the world stage.
Ferguson himself said “I don’t suppose I’ve seen a debut like it”.
There was a palpable excitement around Rooney after this game, and though he would go on to win almost every available trophy with United, many will look at that debut hattrick and ponder whether he could have done even more in his time at the club.
But what’s for certain is that though unheralded, this United team were preparing for greatness, and Rooney and his debut were the first signs of things to come.
Written by Jackson Rawlings.
Jackson Rawlings is a football and politics writer, and long-suffering Spurs fan. You can follow him on Twitter here – https://twitter.com/jacksonhraw