Filmmakers Ben and Gabe Turner also successfully place the story of Manchester United’s rise in the larger context of what was happening in Great Britain at the time.
By Adam Ellsworth
On November 24, 1992, Queen Elizabeth II made a speech at Guildhall in London to commemorate her 40th year on the throne. Despite the intended celebratory nature of the occasion, the Queen was not in a festive mood. Days earlier, a fire had broken out at Windsor Castle causing major damage. In the months prior to the speech, her second son, Prince Andrew, separated from his wife while her daughter, Princess Anne, divorced her husband. On top of this, the tabloids were filled with stories that the marriage of heir to the throne Prince Charles and Diana, the Princess of Wales, was all but finished.
“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” the Queen said at Guildhall. “In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis.’”
In addition to the Queen’s troubles, Britain, along with the rest of the world, was in a recession in 1992. Britons took to the streets to riot but despite the unrest, and polls showing that it was finally the Labour Party’s time, Prime Minister John Major was returned to power, giving the Conservative Party their fourth consecutive general election victory.
As if all this weren’t enough, England failed to advance past the group stage of the 1992 UEFA European Football Championship. Germany, naturally, made it to the final.
It is against this backdrop that directors Ben and Gabe Turner begin their excellent documentary, The Class of ’92.
The film, which was released this month on DVD in the U.S., tells the story of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt, all players recruited by Manchester United Football (or as we call it, “soccer”) Club in 1992. The action follows the players from their first years in the club’s youth system to the ’98-’99 campaign when Man U. became the first, and to date only, English team to win “the treble” of the Premier League, FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League championships in the same season.
“All I ever wanted to be was a football player,” Gary Neville states early in the film. “And the only club I ever wanted to play at was United.”
While such sentiments are distressing, if not downright sickening, to those of us who despise the Red Devils (full disclosure: I am a supporter of Everton, and a proud member of Boston Evertonians), it is one of the marvels of the story that all six of the 1992 recruits profiled in the film, whether they grew up in the Manchester area, or, like Beckham, they grew up hours away in London, were boyhood supporters of United. Even more amazing is the fact that each of them got the opportunity to write their names into the club’s storied history.
The Class of ’92 is of course filled with game footage, starting in the early days of the players’ careers and going right up to the May 26, 1999 Champions League final against German powerhouse Bayern Munich. But its best moments are when the six are sitting around a table together, in the present day, drinks in hand, reminiscing and joking with each other. Even when the topic of conversation is as unpleasant as hazing, or being benched by manager Alex Ferguson, the laughs keep coming. It’s obvious that as different as they all were, and are, they genuinely like each other.
And they all are very different. There’s Beckham, the global icon, Giggs, the ironman, who at the time the documentary was being filmed WAS STILL PLAYING FOR MANCHESTER UNITED, Gary Neville, the workhorse, his brother Phil, the master of the step over dribble, Butt, the tough kid from the dodgy part of town, and Scholes, the man with no interest in being a celebrity. The directors do a masterful job of weaving these six individual stories into the fabric of the film’s narrative. Technically speaking at least, it’s the documentary’s greatest triumph.
Ben and Gabe Turner also successfully place the story of Manchester United’s rise in the larger context of what was happening in Great Britain at the time, from the last days of the acid house scene that was centered in Manchester, to the mid-90s “Cool Britannia” triumphs of Britpop, New Labour, and Kate Moss. Interviews with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and die-hard United supporter (and Stone Roses bassist) Gary “Mani” Mounfield are included to provide insights on the club’s larger cultural appeal, though neither adds much. Blair tries too hard to make larger connections and isn’t shy about reminding everyone of his role in the changes that were occurring in the country at the time (though he is correct in pointing out that Alex Ferguson would have been a successful leader regardless of what field he worked in), while Mani, despite his brilliance as a bass player, and despite the fact that his support of United is obviously genuine, just doesn’t have anything interesting to say. Really, he comes across as obnoxious, though perhaps that’s most United fans.
Far more effective are the comments offered by director Danny Boyle. The ascent of Man U. coincides nicely with his own career breakthrough (his Trainspotting was released in 1996), though he never mentions this. Instead, he shows a true understanding of United’s history, as well as Britain’s mid-‘90s return to idealism and collectivism, after so many years of being told by Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society.”
The rest of the interviews stick to the team and its players and are provided by Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, the Neville brothers, Butt, Ferguson, youth team manager Eric Harrison, former United captain Eric Cantona, and others.
“We had a great bunch of boys who were getting paid to love the game,” Ferguson states for the camera, “and they did it together. That was the important thing, they did it together.”
Love United or hate United, that much is true. By the time The Class of ’92 reaches its climax, the thrilling comeback in the final three minutes against Bayern Munich in the ’99 Champions League final, it’s hard not to be pulling for the Red Devils, just a little, regardless of your usual rooting interests. After all, you know how it’s going to end anyway so there’s no harm in it. There’s also no harm in admitting that it’s unlikely that something as incredible as the success of the class of ’92 will ever happen again. As Gary Neville puts it at the end of the film:
“You always hope, and think, that things will happen again. But, will there ever be a time where six lads who grew up from the age of 12, 13, come through and win the treble, having supported the club? I’m not sure. I’m not sure it can happen again.”
Unfortunately, he’s probably right. It’s doubtful we’ll ever see anything as amazing as that again.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has a MS in Journalism from Boston University and a BA in Literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.