|Ferguson continued his legacy of match winning wingers when he signed Antonio Valencia in 2009 [GALLO/GETTY]
In a quirk of footballing fate, the red and blue sides of Manchester are both poised to claim silverware this weekend. And while these arch-rivals may rarely see eye-to-eye, the importance of wingers is something they do apparently agree on.
Nani, and more recently, Antonio Valencia, have played crucial roles in carrying Manchester United to the brink of a record-breaking 19th English title. For Manchester City, David Silva and Adam Johnson have been key men in Roberto Mancini’s march to the FA Cup final at Wembley.
Back in vogue
Watching with delight from Asia has been former England winger Peter Barnes, one of only a handful of players who’s worn the colours of both clubs. Barnes dazzled down the left in the 1970s and 1980s before fading into oblivion as Man City adopted a more conservative approach.
"It is great to see wingers back in vogue again because as Sir Alex Ferguson has shown, the best form of defence is attack, as scoring goals wins you games," Barnes said.
"Even dating back to his days with Aberdeen when he had Gordon Strachan and Peter Weir, Alex has always loved playing with wingers and they continue to bring him success more than 30 years later."
Born four months apart, Strachan and Barnes were signed by former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson and brought to Old Trafford in the mid-1980s.
|Nani's pace and trickery has been vital in helping Manchester United to success in the Premier and Champions League [GALLO/GETTY]
Barnes had been a teenage prodigy at Manchester City, scoring in their 1976 English League Cup victory over Newcastle United.
But soon after Alex Ferguson arrived in November 1986, he sent the former PFA Young Player of the Year back to his old club in a major clear-out while allowing Strachan to stay on. He’d make 160 league appearances over five years.
By then, Manchester City were a fading force, having been relegated from the top-flight. Barnes and former England under-21 winger Paul Simpson often found themselves on the bench as new manager Mel Machin tried to grind out results.
"In the 1970s, most teams were still adopting an entertaining approach by playing in an open style, with one or two wingers," Barnes said.
"That started to change in the mid-to-late 1980s when managers who were frightened of losing their jobs, replaced wingers with hard-working midfielders to keep things safe at all costs."
Manchester City’s previous tradition of wide players included Mike Summerbee and Neil Young from the great sides of the late 1960s. They were crowned English champions in 1968, won the FA Cup in 1969 and lifted the League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup in 1970.
To his credit, Machin did earn City promotion for the 1989-1990 season and went on to pull off a memorable 5-1 victory over United in September 1989 which Ferguson has described as the lowest point of his career.
Meanwhile, their one-time favourite Barnes drifted overseas, with playing spells in the United States, Australia, Northern Ireland and Malta before retiring in 1993. He now lives in Kuala Lumpur, where he works as a coach and TV pundit for Asian network, Astro.
Rise of United
But the Citizens' revival was short-lived as the 1990s saw the two Manchester clubs heading in different directions. Man City would slip to the third tier while Man United embarked on a period of unprecedented success, with wide players like Lee Sharpe, Ryan Giggs, Andrei Kanchelskis and David Beckham integral to Ferguson’s atacking philosophy.
Even after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2009, the current side has the luxury of two world-class wingers. With a league-high 18 assists, Nani has been among the Red Devils’ best players all season and yet he was left on the bench as Valencia ripped Chelsea to shreds last weekend to effectively wrap up the title.
The penetrating runs of the Ecuadorian international opened up space for his attacking partners including Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney.
"Tactically Sir Alex got it spot on because the difference between the two sides was Valencia," said Gary Phillips, coaching advisor for Malaysian Super League club, Sabah.
"His persistent threat on the right also destroyed any thought that Ashley Cole had of getting forward."
At Manchester City, Spain winger David Silva has been one of the Premier League’s outstanding imports, although he’s adopted a more central role than when he plays for the national side. Another international winger, Adam Johnson, of England, has found himself getting more game-time as Manchester City wrapped a Champions League spot for next season.
As Tottenham made a bold run to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon were two flyers giving opposing defenders headaches. But many top clubs adopt a more compact diamond-formation that may rely on overlapping fullbacks instead of natural wingers to provide width.
"In the modern game, a lot of teams like Arsenal and Chelsea still tend to try to go through the middle," Barnes said.
"After so long without a trophy, I bet Wenger wished he had an Overmars at his disposal"
Former City and United winger Peter Barnes
"After so long without a trophy, I bet Wenger wished he had an Overmars at his disposal, or even someone like Henry, who was a winger when he first arrived at Arsenal."
Alex Ferguson has vowed to fight fire with fire by going on the attack when Manchester United face newly-crowned La Liga top dogs Barcelona in the Champions League final on the winger-friendly Wembley Stadium on May 28th. That means that both Valencia and Nani are expected to feature.
Win or lose, Sir Alex is unlikely to ever abandon his liking for fast, skilful players who love to hug the touchlines and whip in precision crosses.
"From the days of George Best and Steve Coppell, it seems entrenched in Manchester United’s philosophy," Phillips said.
"It's guaranteed that Sir Alex’s network of scouts will be out tonight to target the next generation."