Apart from Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt was the first of the current crop of young players to come out of Manchester United's youth system and earn a first team berth back in 1994. His debut came as early as 1992 when he was a 65th minute substitute for Paul Ince against Oldham Athletic, but it wasn't until 1994-95 that he began to enjoy regular first team football.

Not that he was idle during the years in between. As a member of United's 1992 FA Youth Cup winning side, he scored two goals in the first leg of the final against Crystal Palace. While he also helped the England U-18 squad lift the European Championship in 1993. He also represented England at Cchoolboy, Youth and Under-21 levels before moving into the full International squad under Glenn Hoddle. Sadly Nicky was one of the few to be dropped from Hoddle's final 22 for the World Cup in France and he has since struggled to regain his place.

His qualities as a midfielder for Manchester United have never been in doubt however. A fierce, yet rarely malicious tackler, Butt's ball winning abilites and powerful engine are his primary assets. Never renowned as a goalscorer, his relatively small portfolio of goals still includes a collection of highly memorable strikes. Including a spectacular diving header against Newcastle at Wembley in 1997 and a goal aginst Leicester City that had Cantonaesque flair stamped all over it.

In 1995 Alex Ferguson certainly had the utmost confidence in young Butt, as he chose not to replace the departed Paul Ince, the "guv'nor" of United's midfield, with a big name signing. Instead the United boss was prepared to give Butt a pivotal role in the centre of midfield alongside Roy Keane. A decision which he has never been made to regret.

It was a challenge Butt was helped conquer by the experience gained from competing regularly in the Champions' League a season earlier. Due to the restrictions imposed by the foreign player rule, Alex Ferguson was forced to juggle his starting line-up which resulted in Nicky becoming a fixture in United's midfield throughout their European campaign. Far from being overwhelmed, Butt took to European football like a natural. And in United's 4:0 defeat to Barcelona in the Nou Camp, he outshone his more experienced colleagues and produced a defiant performance in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the tide against the relentless Catalans.

The biggest challenge of Butt's career however came in 1997 following Roy Keane's cruciate knee ligament injury. With such a formidable partnership broken for the remainder of the season it was left to Butt to govern the midfield on all fronts and fill the void left by the United captain. Such a workload tooks its toll though and a string of injuries mid-way through the season left United short of central midfield cover which proved costly in the final run-in.

Last season had mixed fortunes for Butt as he ended the season with three winners medals, but his place in the starting 11 became anything but assured as Roy Keane returned and Paul Scholes pushed for a more regular place. Nevertheless Nicky was destined to play a crucial role yet again in United's most important match of the season. The suspension of both Keane and Scholes for the European Cup Final in Barcelona left United critically short of midfielders. As the only available recognised central midfielder Butt's starting place in the United side was guaranteed, with David Beckham moving in from the right to partner him. Facing the formidable Bayern Munich midfield under such circumstances was hardly ideal going into a match with so much hinging on it. However both Butt and Beckham battled against the odds and although exposed at times by the guile of Effenberg their efforts played a major part in United's victory that night.

Patrick Eustace 2000. Last modified on Thurs, 27 Jan, 2000

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