Biggest and best news of the wake-up day: Ole Gunnar Solkjaer has been formally appointed manager of Manchester United. Get in there! Come on you Reds!
Biggest and best news of the wake-up day: Ole Gunnar Solkjaer has been formally appointed manager of Manchester United. Get in there! Come on you Reds!
I’ve been a Manchester United fan for forty years now, for most of that time an Armchair Red, but for a not-quite decade – 1990 to 1999 – an active fan, a regular at Old Trafford and a handful of away games, not to mention six Cup Finals at the old Wembley, the Empire Stadium: three League Cups, one won, three FA Cups, all Doubles. And I was there in Barcelona, on that night.
Along the way, there have been some astonishing moments, astonishing games, none more so than the Champions League Final in 1999, my last game, about which I’ve written separately. But before that was the semi-final, second leg, against Juventus in Turin, Juventus, with an away goal from the first leg at Old Trafford and seconds away from a win there and two up inside eleven minutes.
We came back from that, we beat them, we took it to the last minute, we won.
It’s not been much fun since Fergie retired. Many of us expected it. You can’t let go of one of the most decorated managers of all time, who stamped his personality on the club for over a quarter of a century and expect it to just go on as if nothing had happened. But it was worse than we feared, not just the defeats but the victories as well, because a succession of crabbed, fearful, negative managers not only cost us success, but made United into a dull, tedious, hopeless side. They made watching United a chore and, what’s worse, a bore.
I never wanted Mourinho. I said so before he was appointed, and I don’t go around saying ‘I told you so’ (usually, it’s ‘I wish I wasn’t right’), but I fucking well told you so. Of all the replacement managers, short or long term, I never expected them to call on Ollie, Ollie who put the ball in the German’s net, ‘And Solksjaer has won it!’
But I have been back inside that old dream again, the Theatre of Dreams, the belief that somehow, some way, but most of all by playing fluid, flowing, attacking football, Manchester United will come out on top. At the moment, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has managed United for seventeen games. We have won fourteen, drawn two and lost only one. We have won every single away game under Ollie, that’s nine in a row, a run that according to one source United have never, that’s never done before, and according to another, have only done once before, under Sir Matt Busby.
We’re fourth in the League, with a good chance of staying there and a reasonable chance of going third. We’re in the FA Cup Sixth Round, after putting out both Arsenal and Chelsea on their own grounds. We’re one of the two strongest teams left in the competition, beside our Bitter neighbours. We should both go through to the Semi-Finals where, on all previous occasions we’ve both got there, history and perversity requires us to be drawn together, but I’ve got a funny feeling that this time, if we’re in the draw, we’ll be kept apart. I’m anticipating the possibility of a Manchester Derby Final.
Wouldn’t that be something? Just wouldn’t that be something?
But amongst all this there is one single thing that matters to me. Not winning anything, which would be great, but even more important than that, against which all else pales. It’s fun again. I want to watch United again. I am excited to watch them again, and how much I have missed that these past five and a half years. One simple point: I was so sunk in the misery of our sterile, hapless, negative football that I have forgotten how to scream at goals. Not every time, there were certain ones that demanded I burn my throat, Tony Valencia’s screamer against Everton being a case in point. I had lost the raw enthusiasm, the urge to celebrate. Thank you, Ole Gunner Solksjaer, for giving that back to me.
Let’s go back to that one lost game. It was at Old Trafford, the Champions League first knock-out round, Paris Saint Germain, the big French team, the buyers of stars. We lost 2-0. We were going out. In the history of the European Cup and the Champions League, 106 teams had lost first home legs 2-0 and 106 teams had failed to overcome the deficit and gone out. PSG don’t lose at home much, and had only done so to an English team once. We were going out. With a full team, we were going out, but with ten first team players out, injured, ill, suspended, this was the line in the sand we didn’t get to cross.
Ole was positive, like he has been from the start. Never say die. You don’t concede in January. Nobody I spoke to thought we could do it. I didn’t think we could do it. But I said, yesterday, that if we did do it, it wouldn’t surprise me.
And it turned out to be one of THOSE nights, another Turin, another Barcelona, another of those nights when reality can tread where fiction doesn’t dare go. Ahead in under two minutes, a predatory Lukaku. Hammered unmercifully, carved open for an equaliser, a failed right-sided defence. Less than twenty per cent possession.
But it isn’t, and never has been possession that wins games. Only goals count, and we got a second, Rashford’s swervy shot, Buffon’s failure to grasp, Lukaku the predator again. Only one goal needed.
It’s PSG that get it, the killer, but no, Angel di Maria was offside. Exquisite execution, and execution it would have been, United’s vulnerability exposed, but if di Maria had stayed onside, not stolen that extra yard, maybe two, that fraction of extra space gained on Smalling and de Gea, would he still have scored? We don’t know. Anyone can ‘expose’ a defence from an offside position.
2-1 was good enough for pride, for a good showing, but that other goal wouldn’t come, it wouldn’t line up. It’s injury-time, a wild shot by Dalot deflected out, maybe a chance for the corner, a flick on buried by 17 year old substitute Mason Greenwood, who puts them away for fun in the U21s.
And then the referee calls for VAR. It’s hit the defender’s arm, it’s inside the box, OMG, could this be a penalty? And on the tide of a rising controversy, with footballers lining up to say no way, and referees lining up to say that under the laws of the game, and me for only the second time ever in my life taking the referee’s opinion as superior to mine, IT IS A PENALTY! Oh my.
Obviously Lukaku will take it, complete his first ever hat trick for United. Except Marcus Rashford, the kid who’s never taken a penalty for United before and he’s going to start with this one, he’s got the ball, he’s so calm through all the efforts to distract him, divide his concentration.
And a 66 year, 106 game history falls over at a push because he absolutely buries it and this is Barcelona and Turin again, only with absolute fucking ages before the final whistle in which PSG could prop history up and push it over onto us, but the whistle goes and every United player races to the away end to celebrate with the fans.
And if it all goes pear-shaped from here, from this moment, so what? I have had last night, I have had that all over again, the euphoria and hasn’t it been so long since I last felt that? And isn’t it so so good?
It won’t go pear-shaped, that’s the best bit of it. Ollie must have tthe job full-time now, what mote evidence do we need? We won. We went through. We did what nobody else has ever done. ABUs accuse us of arrogance, well, after last night in Paris, bring it on pal. We are entitled to be arrogant. We deserve arrogant. We are Manchester United. Again.
Youth team coaches are rarely famous outside the specislist interest of football club fans. Eric Harrison, who has died aged 81, was the glorious exception. He was the youth team coach at Manchester United from 1981 to 1999, and that makes him the man who brought through the Famous Five, the Class of ’92, the Can’t-Win-Anything-With Kids. Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes. And, let’s not forget, their slightly senior team-mate Ryan Wilson, who then took his Mum’s surname, of Giggs.
Any one of these would be worth an entire career, but all of them? And at once?
Oh yes, United, and we, and Eric were all blessed that this quintet/sextet came along at the same time, that they had both the talent and the application to makewhere others of their generation, equally and in some cases reportedly better talented, never broke through for one reason or another. But Eric Harrison was the one who coached them, developed them, directed and enabled those talents to the extent we all saw and we all rejoiced in.
We owe you, Eric Harrison, and I owe you all those times I marvelled and shouted and jumped up and roared, and for the magic that was the ginger genius, the small, asthmatic who might not have made it, I owe you the memory of Paul Scholes, and I thank you and I promise you that yours is one of the names that will always be legends in our club’s story. Thanl you, and may whatever gods you believed in grant you peace and happiness.
As I post this, Manchester City are entertaining Burton Albion in the semi-final, first leg of the League Cup. There is something truly weird about this for me. Just over a decade ago, when Burton carpet-bagged themselves into the Northern Premier League in order to win it at the first attempt and progress into the Football Conference, I saw them play at Droylsden.
They won 7-0. In my match report, I gave our goalkeeper 10 out of 10 (you have to imagine the score without him) and refused to rate anybody else because it would have been meaningless.
Now they’re playing Manchester City. At the Etihad Stadium. In a serious Cup semi-final. It feels seriously weird to imagine that. It also gives me a problem. I don’t which of the two bastards I most want to see tonked!
…Not just scoring five in a Premier League game for the first time since Fergie’s last match. Not just winning comprehensively and comfortably. not just Athony Martial’s brilliant goal.
But we were in white shorts.
Not the fucking black shorts we’ve been wearing under The Departed One all season, even in home games. Red and white. That’s Manchester United’s colours, not red and black.
Red and white. Forever.
The defenstration of Mourinho and the appointment in a caretaker capacity of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Ollie!!!), assisted by another old Red in Mike Phelan has seen me in a happier frame of mind about my favourite club than I’ve been for a long time.
We have Ole, the hero of the third greatest moment of my life, in Barcelona, and Mickey Phelan, who never impressed me as a player but who turned out to be a bloody good coach: two men experienced in working at Old Trafford, steeped in the culture and traditions of the Club and I am now confident that, for the remainder of this shitty season, whether we do better or not in terms of results, we will be a lot more fun to watch.
That’s the thing. I prophecied three years ago that whatever he might achieve as Manager, Mourinho would leave is in tatters, worse than when he started. At work I make a big thing of how I don’t do ‘I told you so’s, I do ‘I wish I wasn’t right.’ Well, I TOLD YOU SO!!
I think the majority of United fans are going to be reasnable and sensible about the rest of this season, not that anyone outside our circle is going to accept that. We’ll still be painted as obnoxious and self-entitled.
There’s plenty of people willing to point out that Mourinho isn’t solely to blame, and they’re not wrong, but I’m amazed to find there’s still a strong contingent that are blaming everybody but Mourinho, as if after all the evidence we’ve seen, he only wants to be left alone to do what he wants and it’ll all come good. I can’t believe that, but maybe I should.
What does amaze me is the ones who are going on that appointing a caretaker manager is wrong, we should have kept Mourinho till the end of the season and sacked him them. I mean, apart from asking ifthey’ve ever heard of the Law of Diminishing Returns, do you seriously want five more months of this tortuous crap? And do you really want to give Mourinho an extra five months to fuck things up even worse than they already are?
From hereon in I don’t want to know from Mourinho. It’s over, it’s done, it was a fuck-up, let’s just concentrate on improving in any way we can from here to May, if we can pull off the FA Cup, wow, brilliant, but for God’s sake, let us play like Manchester United, that’s all I ask. Let’s die trying, let’s die being excited, let’s die going for it. And maybe we won’t die at all.
Jose Mourinho has been sacked.
Whatever happens next, it cannot be as bad.
For practically all of my adult life I’ve been a Manchester United fan, with all that that implies. And the only time I’ve lived outside of Manchester was in Nottingham, a city whose rivalries are with Derby and Leicester. These are where my allegiances are supposed to lie, and where they do lie.
But two football seasons ago, that amazing year of 2015/2016, I appointed myself an honorary Fox, a temporary Leicester City fan, for that year when all the improbable things that never happen any more happened, and Leicester City won the League. Leicester City. The first first-time League winners since, ironically, Nottingham Forest, thirty-eight years before.
It was and still is a brilliant thing, no doubt a complete one-off, but who cares? The point was that it happened, and whilst I could never feel what a lifelong Leicester fan would feel, I could understand it, and be thrilled for them to have that indescribable feeling. It’s created a glow that lasts until now, and will remain. a lifelong soft spot for the team that did the impossible.
I never knew or understood how much of that success was made possible by the Club’s owner, Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Another foreign owner of one of our clubs, yet someone who stood out from the rest by being in it for the football. For the club, and for the City. We should all of us be so blessed.
That I know this now, and know more about the generousness, the philanthropy that Srivaddhanaprabha brought to Leicester City and Leicester, is only because of what happened on Saturday night, when the helicopter carrying him, two assistants and two pilots, crashed shortly after taking off, and killed all five people aboard. It seems that the pilots too were heroes, those kind of heroes who represent what we all could be, managing to keep the helicopter from crashing until they could get to the car park, where no-one else could be injured. In the face of death…
The Guardian has a football cartoonist, David Squires, who produces a cartoon account of the week in football every Tuesday. Though he lives in Australia, Squires is one of the funniest, sharpest and wittiest commentators on this bloated, overblown but still compelling game of ours, and every week, every panel skewers someone, often many people in one panel.
This week’s cartoon is about Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, and what he did for and what he meant to Leicester. It isn’t funny, it isn’t cruel, it doesn’t stick anything into anyone. It’s a tribute, and in panel four, he produces a moment of such piercing insight that you wonder at how everyone else who talks about the game and what it can mean so consistently fails to understand what it really all is about. A look on a face, and three words. And he’s right, in the caption too: Looking back now, you find yourself wondering if it ever really happened.
I wanted to pay my own tribute to Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, and the best way I can do that is to link to what David Squires has said and done, and in particular that fourth panel, which says it all, really. Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, you gave them that, and you gave a share in that to people like me, who stood behind the cheering fans, adding our silent and not-so-silent will to your doing the incredible. Thank you, thank you, thank you a thousand times. You deserved a better fate than this, this cruelty. As Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.
The new Premier League season starts on Friday night, with Manchester United, last season’s runners-up, at home to Leicester City, the 2016 Champions. And after much thought, I’ve worked out that you’d have to go back to the early Eighties, the period when my gorge rose over Football’s insouciant bandying around of large monies when their primary audience was getting deeply embroiled in the first Thatcher Recession, before you could find a time when I felt less interested in the new season.
The explanation for this is very simple: Jose Mourinho.
I don’t do ‘I Told You So’s, I do ‘I Wish I Wasn’t Right’s. Two years ago, from the first moment Mourinho was mooted as a replacement for Louis van Gaal, I was against it. To me, Mourinho was the wrong man, the incorrect fit for Manchester4 United, our history, our style, our way of doing things.
I wasn’t the only one, but we who doubted were outweighed by the greater number who looked only at Mourinho’s record: a winner at every club he’d managed. And that’s what they wanted: United winning things again. Now, two years on, all of the United fans where I work have the same opinion about United’s forthcoming season: it’s going to be an Absolute Fucking Disaster.
Much of the preconception about this is coming from none other than our sainted Manager who, from the start of a spectacularly unsuccessful USA Tour, has been talking down our prospects in a manner you would usually expect to hear coming from the mouths of Bitters and Scousers. To listen to Mourinho, you might get the impression that this summer’s World Cup, instead of being an international tournament played at four year intervals for the last 68 years was instead something specifically and maliciously designed to make Jose Mourinho’s job difficult.
Much has been made of how well Paul Pogba played at the World Cup, with especial reference to how much better than he plays for United. Now he wants a move to Barcelona, which every commentator has interpreted as a yearning to play for a manager who isn’t Mourinho, and I can’t blame him. Mourinho is also on the point of driving out Anthony Martial, and much as I think he’s a brilliant player, an exciting player, and I don’t want to see him go, I think he’d better for the sake of his career.
Mourinho’s having the same effect in every corner. He’s doing his best to destroy Marcus Rashford’s progress, and the crop of youngsters that van Gaal began bringing through, all of whom looked so promising, have stalled to say the least. United are famous for having had a homegrown player in every single matchday team/squad since before the Second World War: I dismally expect Mourinho to fuck that record over before season’s end.
But it’s the style of football we now play that is the most depressing, to the point where the word ‘style’ is seriously misleading. Famously, United are and since the appointment of Matt Busby in 1946 always have been a vibrant, attractive, attacking team. It’s not enough for United to win: that win’s got to be exciting. We can bore teams to death in a drab 1-0 game if we have to, but we don’t set out to do it that way. Not in our tradition.
That’s no longer the case. I have spent a lot of painful time with YouTube videos of United games under Fergie and what stands out is that the first instinct of every player, once they get the ball, is to move forward. The other half, the other penalty-box, that is the target. In contrast, Mourinho’s United team have a very different first instinct: don’t make a mistake. They play completely scared. Don’t fuck up or he’ll get on our backs.
It’s even more seriously depressing that the old rivalries can’t be sustained at the moment. Of course, the old bedrock animosities towards the Scousers and the Bitters never dissipate, but by common consensus, these two teams are playing the best football going at the moment, and what’s worse they are playing the football we would normally associate with United. We should be these teams: we are not and we are light years away from being able to match them over anything longer than possible 90 minutes of a Derby.
When the rivalry with hated rivals runs out of steam, maintaining the energy of support becomes proportionately more difficult.
By the time Friday comes round, the Transfer Window will have closed. Pogba may have gone. There’s talk today of shipping Juan Mata out. There does not seem to be talk of United bringing in any serious targets. The pursuit of Jerome Boateng, whose record as a centre back is no better than any of the coterie we already have, comes over as more of an urge to buy for the sake of buying. That’s not how United should be behaving.
It’s now been five years since the last title. The last time we went that long, it was twenty six years before the duck was broken. It’s beginning to look like we may have to go a lot longer. Already, the feel is that the big players are not keen to come to United, because they have a realistic appraisal of our chances to win the big trophies, and they don’t want to play football the way we play it.
That’s a death spiral. And we may be in one already, if Mourinho stays the whole season.
It begins again on Friday night. Emotionally, it hasn’t got me with it yet. Not since the early Eighties.
I’m hurt and I’m angry about England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia last night, and it’s colouring my feelings about everything today, and will likely do so for some time yet.
I know that I shouldn’t be. That reaching the semi-final was a triumph over expectation in itself. That this squad of contented players, bonded as a team, under a manager who has shown a high level of tactical awareness has gone further than any cold analysis of England’s chances beforehand would have suggested. Rah-rah England, it didn’t come home after all, but it had got as far as the runway.
But I’m one of that diminishing number who saw that one back in 1966, and despite my careful dispassion, my refusal to get excited or dream too highly, I’d started to think that I might get to see another. For the first time since, well, probably 1970, it felt like it could be on.
And I don’t do excitement much these days, because to get excited about something you’ve got to admit to yourself that it matters and that you have the emotional energy to care, and I don’t get edgy about things because that is that one line from John Cleese’s Clockwise that anyone ever remembers, which has been on my mind a lot lately: I don’t mind the despair, I can live with the despair, it’s the hope I can’t stand.
England scored early. The hope started. I began to think about where I would watch the Final, if we got there, because we were leading, we’d done the hard part, we’d gone ahead and if needed, all we had to do was not let them score. Then the second half began, and hope dissolved early, and I began to shrivel, and shout at the screen, and swear and moan.
Because I’ve seen it all before, so many times, with United, since Fergie stood down and especially since fucking Jose Dickhead Mourinho took over. It was there from the start of the second half. It wasn’t just Croatia getting their act together, it was England abdicating the very idea of scoring a second.
We just stopped trying to go forward seriously. It wasn’t that we weren’t able to, but that we didn’t want to. Attacks didn’t break down because of strong Croatian defending but because we didn’t want to try. Promising advanced positions kept turning into retreats into our own half. Don’t move forward, don’t keep the ball in the Croatian third, bring it back, back, back all the fucking time, into our own half, play it across our back line. Going forward wasn’t going forward. Play it to the wide man on the flank, who immediately passes it straight back. Pointless passing. Louis van Gaal’s United were particularly good at that. Don’t look for ways through. Was Harry bleeding Kane, Golden Boot candidate, even on the field that second half? He sure as shit wasn’t keen on getting near the penalty area.
I know it’s being professional, I know it’s being street-wise. Why take a risk by playing forward when you might lose the ball to the opposition? How much better is it though to play backwards and sideways and backwards again, then another sideways pass, and then lose the ball anyway? Yes, it uses up time, but it gives the opposition strength. They know you’re not going to come at them so they can come at you. Was Dele Ali playing at all?
So, having spent all this time pissing around on a lead that can be wiped out by just one goal, instead of merely being reduced if you’ve, bloody radical idea I know but some teams used to try it, gone and scored again, when that lead is wiped out, you’re fucked. You’ve conditioned yourselves into being crap, into being backwards and sideways and you’ve no fucking idea how to go forward, how to attack, how to get past a defence that suddenly is charged up, because they’re no longer losing, they’re no longer staring at a cliff-edge getting nearer at every second.
Why were we so stupid? Why are United so stupid, time and time and time and time and time again? United used to score last-minute equalisers, now they concede them with monotonous regularity, all because Dickhead doesn’t like us attacking after 75 minutes if we’re ahead. As for England, well, it’s not like the same thing happened only two bloody games earlier, is it?
That’s why I’m angry. That’s why I’m hurt. Maybe we were never good enough, maybe Croatia would always have beaten us. I wanted to face Russia for that very reason. But maybe, if we hadn’t been so fucking passive in that second half, and only tried to score when we had to, we might have been in the World Cup Final again. I might have had a second bite at the cherry. Who knows if we’ll ever come this close again in my lifetime?
And for many reasons and many years I haven’t had anything that makes me happy. Real, serious, unalloyed happiness. A World Cup Final. And against France when I feared Belgium more. Who knows? I wouldn’t have watched it alone. I’d have gone into bloody work on a day when I’m not working and watched it there, in the midst.
But we had to go and kick ourselves in our own heads out of sheer stupidity again, and I am so sick of seeing that, and I cannot celebrate what we have achieved, and I can’t be philosophical about it because I am angry and I am hurt, and because I forgot to despair. And despair is good, despair is comfortable, despair is your friend.
In blogs, nobody can hear you scream. Which is a good job for you lot at the moment because I’d blow your eardrums out.