‘The Class Of 92’ premiered earlier this month, leaving the footballing world to, once again, discuss the phenomenal success Manchester United’s amazing crop of youngsters went on to acheive.
They didn’t always have it their own way though, a convincing defeat at the hands of Leeds United on Christmas Eve, 1995, almost ending their title hopes for a year at least.
It had been three seasons since Leeds United fans had had anything to cheer about.
A rapid decline from winning the old Division One title meant they were struggling in the bottom half of the Premier League. Howard Wilkinson’s side escaped their mediocrity and gave the fans a glorious Christmas that year with a resounding 3-1 victory over their fierce rivals from across the Pennines.
Elland Road was buzzing on the day of the clash, and the fans were desperate to see Wilkinson’s men help put a premature end to United’s title challenge.
Before the match, Leeds could have been forgiven for being nervous, they hadn’t won for over a month, losing three of their previous four matches and were facing United’s team of established champions combined with some of the countries finest young players. The £7m Andy Cole led the frontline with Eric Cantona returning to Elland Road.
David Beckham and Nicky Butt – both still just 20-years-old – were in midfield, which was completed by Roy Keane and Brian McClair. Gary Neville started at right-back alongside captain Steve Bruce, Paul Parker and Denis Irwin.
This young group were feeling the heat, with their title challenge faltering to a Newcastle side inspired by Kevin Keegan’s no-holds barred attacking philosophy. The title contenders were coming off the back of a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield, and, like Leeds, hadn’t won in their last four matches.
The pressure was on Ferguson’s’ so-called ‘kids’ to silence their critics.
Fuelled by the electric Elland Road atmosphere, a high octane start from Leeds gave them an early corner, resulting in a melee in the box as the Red Devils failed to clear their lines.
Referee Dermot Gallagher put the whistle to his lips for what everyone in the ground thought must have been a push on a United player.
He was in fact awarding an early penalty to Leeds, a brave decision just four minutes into the game, although replays showed that Butt had handled the ball as he attempted to challenge a much bigger and stronger David Wetherall, in the air.
Captain Gary McAllister calmly stepped up to slot a powerful side-foot into the top right-hand corner, giving Peter Schmeichel – who had guessed correctly – no chance of saving it.
Shortly afterwards, Carlton Palmer’s side-steps had the United midfield mesmerised, and his reverse through-ball to Brian Deane left England international Parker on his backside.
Deane proceeded to audaciously chip the ball over a helpless Schmeichel from the edge of the box, only for the crossbar to come to the rescue of the Manchester club.
It was impressive stuff from a Leeds side suddenly brimming of confidence.
But a rare mistake from Gary Speed in front of the Revie Stand led to a goal when he surrendered possession to Butt on the edge of his own penalty box. The ball was squared to Cole, who in turn side-footed home to level matters.
The goal came against the run of play as Leeds’s midfield duo of Speed and McAllister continued to win the battle in the centre of the park against Keane and Butt.
Speed almost atoned for his error from 25 yards when he hit the side-netting.
Then a ball to nowhere from Gary Kelly fell to the ever-confident Tony Yeboah 50 yards from the Manchester United goal, following another slip from Parker.
With only one thing on his mind he ran directly at the United defence and, after taking on Irwin, he lifted the ball over the on-rushing Schmeichel with his right foot.
Inspired by the Elland Road faithful, Leeds continued to dominate proceedings.
Palmer and Sweden international Tomas Brolin combined well before the latter deceived the Untied defence as he feinted to shoot, only to chip the ball on to the head of Deane, who nodded home to make it 3-1.
In his desperation to get their campaign on track, Ferguson threw on the rest of his famous starlets – Phil Neville and Paul Scholes. But they couldn’t do anything to change the momentum of the game, the day deservedly belonging to Leeds.
Christmas Eve match statistics
Date: December 24, 1995
Venue: Elland Road
Leeds United: Beeney, Kelly, Wetherall, Jobson, Speed, Dorigo, Palmer, McAllister, Brolin, Deane (Wallace, 86), Yeboah.
Goals: McAllister (6), Yeboah (35), Deane (72)
Manchester United: Schmeichel, Parker (P Neville, 74), Irwin, Bruce (May, 79), G Neville, McClair, Butt, Keane, Cole, Cantona, Beckham (Scholes, 74).
Goal: Cole (30)