When the story of Manchester United’s golden era comes to be written, it will focus on the glory nights at the Nou Camp, the Luzhniki Stadium and on the countless memorable afternoons on the Elysian fields of the Premier League. Far less romantic, though equally significant to the story, are the grim nights in the late 1980s that Alex Ferguson (no knighthood in those days) and his scouts would spend trawling the parks of Greater Manchester in search of the players who would go on to shape an era.

Ferguson had no idea back then that he would uncover a generation of players who would not merely add to, but help to rewrite the history of a great club that were battling to emerge from the dark ages. But soon he was alerted to the remarkable promise of a young slip of a lad named Ryan Wilson, whom he would eventually persuade to decamp from Manchester City, and a host of others, which included Nicholas Butt, a tough lad from Gorton, Paul Scholes, a diminutive goal machine from Oldham, and Gary Neville, the elder of two promising brothers from Bury.

Ferguson would not dare to claim the credit for unearthing those gems — the credit for that would go to unsung heroes such as Mike Coffey, Tom Corless, Joe Brown, Les Kershaw and Brian Kidd, who would devote hours to stopping the stampede of the best young local talent to Manchester City.

But, as Neville followed Scholes and Ryan Giggs (né Wilson) yesterday in happily pledging the rest of his playing career to the Manchester United cause, Ferguson could reflect on having been blessed by the presence of some of the most loyal yet inspirational players that he could ever wish to have found.
“That wasn’t luck,” he said. “That was hard work. I brought in Les Kershaw and we started trials at Albert Park every Tuesday and Thursday night on the AstroTurf there. We covered young players in Manchester, every one, and, instead of three or four scouts, which I had when I first came here, we were up to 20-odd. It was all hard work: trial, trial and trial.”

Celtic famously won the European Cup in 1967 with a team of players drawn from the surrounding area of Glasgow, but United’s success with Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers — David Beckham relocated from Essex but was also a distinguished product of the Old Trafford academy — is unparalleled in the modern era.

The conveyor belt of talent has slowed since then, but it has produced Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher, another three players whose presence alongside Giggs, Scholes and Neville ensures that, whatever the personnel on the pitch these days, there remains an understanding of United’s traditions. That is one reason why Ferguson and David Gill, the chief executive, a man who usually prides himself on parsimony, are prepared to keep Giggs, Scholes and Neville at Old Trafford for as long as they want to be there.

Neville, 34, had to wait longest to secure a one-year extension to his contract, having had to prove that he was over the injuries that effectively claimed 17 months of his career, but there was always a desire to retain his services. It is not a question of sentiment, more a case of recognising that his value goes far beyond the qualities that he offers as an alternative to Brown, O’Shea and Rafael Da Silva at right back.

In Ferguson’s words, Giggs, Scholes and Neville are “the spirit of Manchester United”, but, although he enthused yesterday about the way they have looked after themselves, giving themselves a chance of playing on for years like Paolo Maldini at AC Milan, even they cannot continue for ever. At the end of next season, when his new contract expires, Neville will be 35, while the other two will be 36. Intriguingly, Ferguson, who has already set the clock ticking on his managerial career, will be 68.

It is possible to imagine that the four of them will ride into the sunset together, but, in another sense, it is hard to imagine the place without them. In some capacity, whether as bit-part player, coach, ambassador or even, ultimately, as manager, the three players who embody the spirit of United will be encouraged to stay on and to impart the invaluable knowledge and experience that they have gleaned since their glorious association with the club began.
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