A Severe Test of Patience: Manchester United 2016/2017

I know there’s still another game to go – and, boy oh boy, have I never felt so uninvolved about United being in a Final before – but today’s final League game felt like the long-awaited and much-wanted end of the season for me. We might have won a trophy and we may win another, to give us a complete set of all the trophies it’s possible for an English club to win, but the 2016/2017 season has severely tested my patience with Manchester United.

What is it now? Nearly forty years since I came out for the Red Devils. I endured Dave Sexton, I was up and down with Ron Atkinson, I was impatient with Alex Ferguson until the Resurrection Title, and after that came those impossibly long years of dominance, of being the best, of being *MANCHESTER UNITED*, including that night in Barcelona. I was faithful to Moyes until almost the bitter end, and I screamed and yelled and was utterly frustrated by van Gaal, yet was disgusted at the timing of his sacking and replacing with Jose Mourinho, before we’d even collected the FA Cup.

Jose Mourinho, eh? The one man I never wanted to see managing at Old Trafford and the man who sits in the Manager’s Chair, and guess what? He’s been exactly the dick I expected him to be, and more, publicly attacking players in the exact opposite of the Ferguson way, all but destroying Luke Shaw, mismanaging Anthony Martial and buggering up Marcus Rashford for such a long time.

Mourinho puts up a barrier between me and my team, loosens the ties. I’ve missed more matches this season than since the end of the Eighties, several because I work shifts that keep me in work until 9.00pm, four nights a week, but far too many due to indifference at the way Mourinho has United playing.

We are still too slow, of thought as well as of pace, and we spend too much time passing backwards and sideways, and we still play as if we have no idea how to get past a defence, and even less confidence at trying to go forward. Wednesday night’s game against Southampton was the perfect example: we were abject and dull. With the youngsters in the side this afternoon, we looked tons better, and Josh Harrop’s opening goal is one of not much more than a dozen that I’ve greeted with an open yell of delight. And even then we faded in the second half, albeit whilst staying in command.

It’s not like we can’t do it. The win over Chelsea was the only time this season we’ve looked like United, Manchester United, the team we all in our souls want us to be. But most of the time it’s been tedious and unenjoyable. I feel like asking those fans who welcomed Mourinho if this is what they really wanted? Do they really want this unending miserable negativity that Mourinho spreads relentlessly? Complaining about having to play Premier League games after qualifying for the Europa League Final? What the fuck do you think the Premier League is? Can clubs just decide not to bother playing games if the fancy tales them? You might as well complain that it rains too often: this is Manchester, what do you EXPECT?!

I am so glad this season is over, and I can stop thinking about United, and I don’t have to groan despairingly as we give away another lead to end up with another draw, because we started backpedalling with fifteen minutes to go, ‘holding on to our lead’, like how many times has that blown up in our faces? We used to be the Club that played until the 96th minute, now we’re lucky to get to the 80th with a semblance of effort.

Ground down, that’s what I am. Football is supposed to excite you, to involve you, to awe you and thrill you. You’re supposed to watch the clock because you’re eking out a one-goal lead in a tight match, not because you’re bored to death and just want it to end, please.

And I think that the last few games, when Wayne Rooney has had a run of matches because that enables the resting of players who we do want to see play has proved my point. Have you ever seen so many instances of a player buggering up moves, losing the ball consistently, taking it backwards, slowing things down and constantly slinging forty yard passes out to the wing, because that’s the only thing he can still do correctly?

I shouldn’t be thinking that, because he has done some truly dazzling things for us, and he is our highest ever scorer, though I will go to my grave still insisting that Sir Bobby Charlton is a far more worthy holder of that honour. But if that was his last game at Old Trafford today, I won’t weep any tears. I won’t be nostalgic for him, like Eric, or Keano, or the little Scholesy Man, and I will be glad to see a different name occupy the number 10 shirt next season.

Which can bloody well take its time in arriving, thank you very much. I won’t be storing this one in my memories.

Respect to Sir Bobby

I’m watching the FA Cup Third Round tie between Manchester United and Reading, from Old Trafford. After six and a half minutes, and a long wait, Wayne Rooney has just scored to equal Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time goal-scoring record for United.

I’d rather it had stayed Wor Bobby’s exclusive record, for many reasons that i won’t go into now, but one of them is the camera focused on Sir Bobby’s face, sat with his wife Norma,  at the moment Rooney scored.

His face opened up in a delighted smile.



What it’s like to be a Red: The view from 20 September 2016

Rather weird.

That’s what it’s like to be a Red at this particular point in time, or at least this Red. As you know, I am one of those Reds who is a conscientious objector to Jose Mourinho as Manchester United manager: having loathed him virulently for several years, the thought of turning round and backing him as my team’s manager was one hypocrisy too far.

So, for the first time in nearly forty years, there has been something of a barrier between me and my club.

Though I’ve not avoided the news about United through the summer, I haven’t gone hunting for it with the same avidity and I made no effort to watch any of the pre-season tour matches this year either. In fact, for the first time since I discovered a reliable live stream, I have not watched any of United’s games on TV, restricting myself to YouTube highlights of the goals afterwards.

There is an exception to that: I did watch the Derby, the weekend before last. If I can’t muster enthusiasm for supporting the Reds against that lot, then I have no business calling myself a Red at all. And I did yell with excitement in the old manner at one point, when Marcus Rashford got the ball in the net in the second half and, for a moment, it looked as if we had equalised, until Ibrahimovic turned out to be offside.

That game apart, I have consciously distanced myself and watched what has been going on.

Everybody assumed Mourinho woud be the magic man, that he would immediately restore the United of the Fergie era, win following win following win, and with the best brand of exciting football, the very DNA of Old Trafford. And United started with four consecutive wins, although, with the exception of the Community Shield, which was a friendly anyway, they weren’t exactly against the best of teams, and we needed young Marcus in the last minute to overturn Hull.

And now there’s been three defeats in three games, in eight days, the first time that’s happened to Mourinho since the early days at Porto, back in 2002. And everyone’s remembering what happened at Chelsea, this time last year, when he took the reigning League Champions nose-diving towards the relegation zone, and secured from them their first Europe-free season in donkey’s years.

This puts me in a very awkward position. On the one hand, as a long-term despiser of Mourinho, I can’t help but finding it amusing that he’s already in difficulties, but on the other hand, hey, this is my team, and I do not like or want to see them losing (this may have been the way of things over the last three seasons but that doesn’t mean I’ve gotten used to it).

United success means a satisfactory situation, but means Mourinho stays on and takes credit for it. United failure hastens the day I can commit fully to my club of clubs, but also means that when this comes we’ll be even deeper into Crisis than we already are, and taken even longer to get back where we want to be. Which makes the current state of affairs both funny and decidedly not funny.

What’s also of interest is that sudden, almost universal wave of criticism for Wayne Rooney, with everybody under the sun except Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce coming to an accord that he’s over the hill. It’s amusing for me given that for years I have been watching the sheer volume of mistakes he makes each match without the least word of criticism, and overnight everyone now seems to see what I see and have seen over and over.

Rooney’s only 31, and should be a long way yet from eclipse, but on the other hand I watched him make his debut for United (and score a hat trick) in 2004, and he’d been playing for Everton’s first team for two years by then. Rooney started young, and as often happens, it looks like he’s ending young.

Oh yes, he still turns on things other people can’t do. Let us not forget that he was responsible for our equaliser in the Cup Final, when he forced his way diagonally left to right, holding off all challenges, until putting over the cross from which Mata scored.

And he’s kept on scoring, until he is now only three behind Sir Bobby as United’s highest ever scorer, but does he actually look now as if he’ll ever score again for United (especially as he won’t get the cheap ones from the penalty spot since Ibra’s claimed those).

But he can’t dribble past people, he can’t direct an accurate pass over ten yards (but if you want him to bang a forty yard pass into Tony Valencia’s path on the right wing, that’s a different kettle of fish). And people are starting to notice that, or maybe it’s just that they’re finally commenting on that. Last season, away to Everton, in one five minute spell in the first half, I say Rooney, in space, under no pressure, misplaced four consecutive passes to team-mates in space, putting each ball directly to an opponent. And the commentators remained completely silent.

So, that’s what it’s like to be a Red at this moment, or at least this Red.


Crisis at Old Trafford – the next stage

For the third time in seven days, Manchester United have gone goalless, and for the second time in four days, they’ve never looked like scoring. This afternoon was not so dreadful an experience as Wednesday night’s game, but that’s solely due to my approaching the game with drastically lowered expectations. And thanks to  such lowered expectations, I got all the way into the closing minutes of the game without once having uttered the traditional words, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Rooney!”

That was brought about by our supposedly world class leader receiving the ball approximately twenty-five yards from the goal and taking so long to sort out which foot he was going to use to kick the ball who-knows-where that he let two Crystal Palace players come at him from his blind side and take the ball off him without a fight.

That’s practically all I can remember from the recently-finished second half, except that for some reason, Ashley Young got booed by the home support every time he got the ball, which started from his first touch.

The first half was marginally more memorable. United hit a comfortable passing rhythm that kept Palace away from the ball, but it was possession without purpose. It was as if there was an invisible barrier across the pitch, twenty-five yards out from goal, and that as soon as any United player felt its influence, they were compelled to turn round and pass the ball back.

There was a telling exchange involving Schweinsteiger, assessing the position and playing the ball to Rooney, who promptly kicked it straight back to him, which must have had Schweini wondering why he’d bothered in the first place. So he passed it to Anthony Martial, who promptly kicked it straight back to him. Realising that he was getting nowhere like this, Schweini recalibrated his sights and picked out a forty yards crossfield ball to Darmian, presumably on the grounds that at least it wouldn’t be winged back instantly to him.

It was like that a lot of the time, but the moment that will be picked out, we hope, came in the 31st minute. There was a scramble for the ball, which ran loose in space for Martial to surge in from the wing, where he is still being absolutely wasted. There was a gap, and Rooney was pointing, so Martial hit this brilliant pass. It split the Palace defence, and it wasn’t even hit hard, but try as he might, Rooney didn’t have the speed to catch up to it and the keeper beat him to it.

He’s only just turned thirty. It was pitiful to watch him chugging after the ball, unable to catch up to it.

So that’s now 300 minutes of football in which United have looked less likely to score a goal than I am. There was this great shot of Louis van Gaal in the dug-out, staring wide-eyed at the pitch, unable to believe what he was watching. Now you know how we feel, you useless lump.

These players can play, most of them anyway. They need a manager who can release them, who’ll tell them that it’s ok to play forward passes, to go at defenders whole-heartedly, even to shoot, which is getting to be a bit of an alien concept at Old Trafford right now.

Oh, and Rooney/Mata, a word in your shell-likes: that free-kick gimmick where one of you runs over the ball and lets the other take it? It’s not going to fool anyone unless sometimes the one who runs up first takes the kick. Otherwise, it’s just a complete waste of energy. And patience.

Crisis of Faith redux

If they had a choice, they’d face the other way

There have been a number of times this year that I have inveighed against television series that have been tedious, boring and unedifying. The un-missed Fortitude springs to mind, as does the current, thankfully short-lived run of Arne Dahl.

But the televisual crown for most desperately dull two hours plus of my life 2015 was decidedly won on Wednesday night.

There’s no point in checking the channels for what programme has caused this outbreak of despair: I was watching a live stream of the Manchester United vs Middlebrough League Cup Fourth round tie.

The dull statistics are that the game ended goalless after thirty minutes extra time, after which Middlesbrough won the penalty shoot-out 3-1. The plain fact is that this was a tedious, sagging, dragging unadventurous game in which United demonstrated all the plentiful faults of their style of play under Louis van Gaal, and the whole thing was boring as hell.

Back in March I wrote a piece about how I had lost faith in van Gaal and his approach to United and their play, a loss of faith that I temporarily recanted when United went to Anfield and bossed Liverpool out of the game. I have maintained a reserved position subsequently, as United have had a more successful start to the new season, including topping the table for a week.

No more, though. This being a League Cup match, United did not field a full-strength team but, with the possible exception of striker James Wilson (an England U-21 international) and midfielders Andreas Perreira and Jesse Lingard, the eleven was composed of first team was composed of first team players. The side even omitted Wayne Rooney, whose performances this season have been primarily dreadful.

Yet it was clear from about a quarter hour in that United, as so often lately, had no idea of how to score. From about fifteen minutes in, United looked like a team that would need the penalty shoot-out just to stand a chance of scoring at all.

Objectively, it was an improvement on my previous expression in disgust: several players, Carrick in particular, were actually threading forward passes, and between opponents less than ten yards apart. But, this distinction aside, it was the same slow, measured approach, enabling Middlesbrough to organise an already well drilled defence, and the instinct in any situation was to play the ball back, far more often than trying to make progress.

James Wilson cut a lonely figure up front. In all the games I’ve seen him, he’s a striker who needs service and he was getting nothing. Andreas Perreira, plying on the left, was neat and clever throughout, constantly feeding balls into the box, every single one of which were either catching practice for the ‘Boro keeper, or were heading easily clear by the defence.

When Wilson came off at half-time, this was apparently due to injury but at the time it looked like a tactical change, to bring on someone with the ability to create something for himself.

On the bench, United had a strong, in-form centre forward who could do that. Instead, van Gaal sent on Wayne Rooney. When he did send Anthony Martial on, there were twenty minutes left and Martial was sent out to the left wing, with United making most of their plays down the right flank.

I’ve been concerned about Rooney’s form for several seasons by now, but this year it has become critical. The amount of passes made under no pressure that go to opponents. His immobility. His inability to take a ball past another player. These are matters of major concern, and to be frank I’m not concerned about why any more. Putting it plainly, Rooney is fucked and he isn’t going to come back from this.

By about fifteen minutes from the end, I was loudly wishing for a goal, scorer immaterial, to avoid having to endure another thirty of this: I was denied. By the end of extra-time, I was past the point of any interest in United having been denied a late penalty for handball, and utterly drained of the even minimal interest that ought automatically to be associated with a penalty shoot-out. Defeat came as neither a surprise nor a pang. Middlesbrough weren’t really dangerous, but we looked incapable of scoring ever again.

It was noticeable that of United’s four kick-takers, the three established veterans all blew it and the only one to put even a penalty away on the night was the youngster Perreira.

United have put in some decent performances so far this season, but there is still very little to suggest that the long term success enjoyed under Alex Ferguson is anywhere in sight. To put it bluntly, even when we play well, we play like shit, draining the heart and spirit of the supporters. If money, principles and the Glazers were suddenly no consideration, I would still not go back to Old Trafford: pay to watch that? Kindly perform an act of travelling fornication.

So count me back in the anti-Van Gaal camp. There’s a long way to go and under him we’re traveling in a different direction, towards a destination that will include neither trophies nor glory. The season can be written off now: the League, the Cup, the Champions League, all of these are meaningless. Other fans taunts, bitter and jealous in the face of our two decades of glory, contain more than a morsel of truth.

We have players who can make Old Trafford into a joyful, excited,exciting place to be again, who can win, and win in style. But we have a manager who can only dampen and mis-direct them into a cul-de-sac of drabness. And we desperately need to sell Rooney now, whilst there are still people stupid enough to buy him.

What’s the Dutch for ‘Bugger off, van Gaal’? Sodemieter uit, Louis.

What’s it like to be a Red?: Crossing Over

Ok, I give in. I’ve been loyal all season, I’ve been patient. I’ve tolerated what has been happening at Manchester United, because I’ve long expected it, because I’ve been convinced that our success of the last three seasons has been based on the ability of Sir Alex Ferguson to conjure results out of a squad that, in so many areas, has just not been good enough.

I’ve backed David Moyes for many reasons. Because I trusted Ferguson’s judgement in choosing a manager to build upon what we had. Because I believed that, given proper time and the chance to build his own side, he could succeed. Because I wasn’t the kind of shallow fan who started screaming the moment we struggled for the first time. Because I didn’t believe we were entitled to be top of the pile forever. Because the mighty and blatant anti-Moyes, anti-United agenda of the press, decided upon before the season started and continued by blatant lies and fact-twisting, got right up my nose. Because United don’t turn on their managers like that, don’t tip them overboard at the first sign of trouble.

Like I said, I’ve been loyal. And now I’ve crossed over. Now I’m giving up and adding my voice to the chorus of Moyes out.

The catalyst was, naturally, this afternoon’s game away to Everton, which ended in a 2-0 victory for the Merseysiders, and which could have ended double that score without United having any grounds for complaint.

The biggest single factor was that this was Everton, the club David Moyes managed for 11 years, successfully so given their current status and their limited financial resources in comparison to the Premiership’s leading teams. It was Past vs Present, a team still solidly comprised of the players Moyes bought or brought through, versus a team still solidly the creation of Alex Ferguson, with only one Moyes-introduced player in the fourteen that featured.

Moyes’ team are now under the control of a manager whose track record in the League involved taking a Premiership club into relegation, albeit just after winning the FA Cup. Ferguson’s team are now under the control of David Moyes. Everton were, by far, the more committed, enthusiastic, disciplined, tactically aware, faster (mentally and physically) and determined team on the pitch. United dominated possession, but in safe areas, with no penetration into scoring positions, let alone actual shots. They played an intricate, sometimes elegant, short passing game that, no matter how quickly the ball was laid-off, made forward progress a slow motion affair, giving Everton ample time to build a defensive formation that offered no gaps through which passes might be made.

Not that it would have been any different had there been any gaps, since for the first hour United played without a striker. They were supposed to have Wayne Rooney in that role, but Rooney is having no truck with that kind of fucking nonsense. No matter how well Mata and Kagawa performed, building intricate little triangles, finding spaces close to the penalty area, they had no-one to pass the ball to, because Rooney lacked any sense of discipline, continually wandering all over the field, getting in their way but primarily leaving them with no-one to pass the ball to!

Only when Hernandez came on as a substitute did United finally have a striker looking for the ball in front of goal. Then, with twenty minutes left, two goals behind and in need of scoring soon if there were to be any prospect of saving something from the game, Moyes introduced a second striker, Danny Wellbeck, but insisted on him playing on the right wing, and not getting anywhere near goal.

Add to that such things as allowing Nani to remain on the field for an hour when he had long since proved that the only aspect of his once considerable skills that he still possesses is that which sees him tumble artistically to the ground and take himself out of play for minutes on end whilst he sulks that the referee hasn’t bought it.

Yet Rooney was allowed to remain on the pitch for all its overlong 90 minutes, despite the fact that he was never where he ought to be and in fact was everywhere else, that he lost the ball to an Everton player every single time he tried to take it past him, that he squandered United’s only two serious chances of scoring, the first by simply not trying to shoot but gyrating mindlesly in the hope he would create space when he had miserably failed to do so before that point in the match, and the other, far too late in the game to matter, by simply not being smart enough to kick the ball past the keeper instead of against him.

I did not believe at any time that United had any chance of scoring, not if the game were continuing yet, the floodlights switched off, the Everton team blinded and United playing in infra-red night vision goggles. Moyes does not know what to do. He has never known what to do. And he has yoked our future to the over-inflated ego and the self-indulgent mindset of the World’s worst World Class Player I have ever known.

So make room for me, I’ve come across. Moyes out, preferably on the back of Rooney. We would have been far better off going for Roberto Martinez ourselves: hell, it’s looking like a bad idea not to have at least considered Tony Pulis.

And it’s now only a matter of time before Liverpool win the League. We went 26 years without, 1967 to 1993, and it has long been my insistence that Liverpool HAD to go at least 27. For it to have got to 24, to have got so close and slipped in under the wire, and for it to be in this season will be the ultimate dagger-through-the-heart pain, no matter how dulled I am to things now.

What’s it like to be a Red?

What’s it like to be a Red?
It’s not particularly enjoyable this season, when Ferguson has stepped down, the team has imploded and the whole world is relishing Manchester United’s seemingly precipitous fall from grace. It’s not just the ABUs either: collectively, the Press has decided upon the narrative and anything which deviates from their simplistic analysis of how David Moyes has brought the once-mighty United down to permanent extinction is to be ignored or denigrated.
I mean, let’s say that on this Wednesday coming, 2-0 down from the Champions League first leg against Olympiakos, United rally to win 3-0 and go through to the Quarter Finals. United will not be given any credit for engineering a reversal that they haven’t achieved in 30 years: that the opposition is Olympiakos will be used to relegate the feat and the focus will still be on United’s first leg defeat.
The story is set in stone: United/Ferguson = world beating, United/Moyes = League Two material. And in a single summer too.
Of course, you know that there’s a lot more to it than that.
Though I’ve only been a fully-fledged United fan since 1979 (exiled in Nottingham, at the time Forest were League Champions and en route to their first European Cup, I needed something to bolster a Mancunian identity), I’m old enough to remember the 1968 European Cup Final, and the beginning of the wilderness years that followed the stepping down of Sir Matt Busby. That immediately gives me a head start over the generation of football fans – and journalists – who have not only known only Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford but have known only the glory years that began with the 1990 FA Cup win – achieved against a background of a near-season long relegation struggle.
These people lack the perspective to imagine United as anything other than perpetual challengers for honours. They can summon it up as an intellectual exercise, but they can’t understand it, not when United have only ever finished as low as third twice in the entire Premiership era.
I, on the other hand, have not only been prepared for a post-Ferguson slump, I know what it feels like. It doesn’t make it any more pleasant, but familiarity not only softens the blow, it allows for the ability to recognise that things can improve at a slower speed than overnight.
To be honest, the Ferguson era has been a statistical improbability: thirteen Premierships in twenty years? Three in a row twice? That’s nearly twice as many Championships that everybody else put together, and two sets of three in eleven years when only three clubs have ever won one set before us, in seventy years? It’s been absolutely brilliant to watch, and when, long ago, we won the Resurrection Title (1993), I could never have fantasised that it could be like this and go on for so long.
But every year that this has gone on has exaggerated the scale of United’s success, and guaranteed that the comedown would be proportionately worse when it inevitably came.
Back in 1993, when we broke 26 years of drought to win the first Premier League, I was working with an avid Blue, who was decent enough to offer me the congratulations I could never have offered him. He also warned me, with utter solemnity, not to go overboard celebrating. His point wa sthat, if I revelled in our title the way I wanted to, the way I believed I was entitled to do, it would do me some kind of harm: people would think higher of me if i was gentle, restrained, modest: ie, if I didn’t talk about it at all.
I thought about his words for a while, and then rejected them completely. At that moment, we were on top. It would never be 26 years again. I wasn’t saying we’d win it again the next season (a prophesy that cemented my record and sunk it to the bottom of a pond forever) but we would be Champions again within four years at most (ha ha ha ha ha!). So my philosophy was: if you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it, because it won’t last forever. In victory, gloating, in defeat resentment. Because when United fell away from being at the top, my having been a perfect gentleman about celebrating our success won’t spare me one tiny second of the spite that will follow.
That’s how it’s been ever since, for longer, as I’ve said, than I dreamed it might be. But if you’re going to gloat about victory, if you’re going to rub people’s noses in it, there is one cast-iron rule: you have to take it from others when it’s their turn to be in the ascendency.
And I’ve stuck to that maxim, no matter how painful its been this season: besides, there is nothing more disconcerting for the gloating ABU than to find you agreeing with him in a matter-of-fact manner.
Because that’s the other side of the coin. The press keep making much of the gulf between United 2013, Champions by eleven points, and the United of 2014 who, with practically the same squad, are shedding points all over the place.
There is an explanation for this, but it’s not one that fits the prevailing press narrative, because it doesn’t rest solely on the notion that David Moyes has destroyed United. Nobody’s prepared to even contemplate the possibility that United 2013’s success was heavily flattering to a team playing far above its genuine skill level.
Now that’s heresy, but that’s my belief.
Let’s take a slightly more detailed look at the Ferguson era. It breaks into two parts: first, the breakthrough back into titles, which saw seven titles in nine years, including a set of three. Much of this era, though not the beginning of it, was defined by the You-Can’t-Win-Anything-With-Kids sextet. That first great era concluded in 2003, when United came back at Arsenal, dogging them until the end of the season to make it eight in eleven.
That era was then followed by three fallow years, during which United finished third for the first time. Ferguson couldn’t find a formula to make things work, though United did win the FA Cup (against Millwall) and the League Cup (against Wigan), as well as losing a one-sided final on penalties to an Arsenal team they’d dominated for 120 minutes.
Then phase 2 started. Let’s call it the Rooney/Ronaldo era, or better the Ronaldo era, for though he’d been establishing himself during the fallow years, this is when Cristiano Ronaldo was becoming the best player in the world.
And although he was only part of United for the first three years of this phase, his absence defined this era as much as his presence.
In this second phase, United collected another five titles in seven seasons, including a second set of three. Of the two they missed out on, one was infamously by goal difference only, by virtually the last kick of the season. They also reached three Champions League Finals in four seasons, though they only won the one that wasn’t against Barcelona.
It’s another phase of seemingly unparalleled dominance, supported by the statistics, but it’s by no means as simple as the statistics and the press make it seem.
I’ve seen more of United’s games in this period than I have ever before, even when I was a season ticket holder at Old Trafford. Thanks to live-streaming, the only time I miss a United game is when I’m at work. I’ve watched the team intensely for several years, week in, week out. I’ve seen the difference between what the press states as part of its established narratives, such as the fact that Wayne Rooney cannot take a decent corner to save his life, and that for every free kick he puts beyond the goalkeeper, thirty or more are either fired miles over the bar or hit straight into a non-encroaching wall.
What has been most obvious was that when Ronaldo left United for Real Madrid he left a hole that has not even begun to be replaced.
I don’t mean in his person: you cannot ‘replace’ a Cristiano Ronaldo: by his very nature, he is irreplaceable.
But when Ronnie left Old Trafford, he took with him more than his considerable ability, he took United’s speed. And not only speed of motion, the fast, attacking style that’s a key characteristic of United’s DNA but, more importantly, Unityed’s speed of thought.
Watch a United performance between 2007 and 2009. Even in defeat, United are aggressive, decisive, moving forward inexorably, trying to beat defenders, to get behind and between them at pace. Compare this then with even the best of the post-Ronaldo performances, and United’s approach is completely different. There is no decisiveness, replaced by a willingness to indulge in long spells of what I call pointless passing, interpassing – usually in their own half – without making any attempt to get forward. Especially when in the lead.
The ball is no longer played forward, between opposition players. Should a defender be anywhere remotely between the player on the ball and his team-mate, the forward pass no longer appears: it is back, or sideways, until the player in an advanced position is either covered by an assembled defence, or else has to come back, further from goal, to receive the ball in a position of no opportunity.
Breakaways break down not through over-ambition or courageous defending, but due to the player on the ball immediately halting when a defender gets within fifteen yards of him. Play is held up until he has support but, more importantly, until the whole defence has marshalled itself into position.
I don’t want to start castigating individual players, but in this context it’s impossible not to refer to Luis Antonio Valencia. Valencia was a superb acquisition, a fast, courageous winger who exactly fitted United’s style. Sadly, he suffered a severe leg break, costing him most of a season and, since his return, his whole style of play has changed. It is characteristic of the modern United – and I speak of the Ferguson period, not of Moyes – to see Tony Valencia race up the right wing, with the ball, only to stop as soon as a defender tracks him, and stand over the ball, not moving, because he no longer has the confidence to take the defender on, and he has no idea what to do with the ball any more.
The point is that this isn’t just something that’s started since David Moyes took charge. United may have won the title last season by an astonishing 11 points, but has everyone forgotten how badlty the team struggled before Christmas, falling behind in so many games, depending so often on a late goal from Chicarito, off the bench. What of Ferguson’s final match in chargem, at West Brom? 3-0 up, and then 5-2 up with less than ten minutes to play, United allowed West Brom to score three goals, to secure an improbable 5-5 draw.
It’s not just Moyes. There was a rot there before he ever came to Old Trafford, a collective lack of quality in the squad, in respect of which the sheer force of Ferguson, and the intimidating aura he brought to United was not so much a papering over the cracks as a comprehensive polyfilla-ing of the very foundations.
So, what’s to be done? Is it David Moyes? I’ve kept the faith for him throughout the season, but after the defeat to Liverpool – and especially after his open concession to Liverpool being the better team, a thing that United fans are able to do in the spirit of honesty but no United manager should ever say – I’m starting to lose belief in his ability to build the kind of team we need to see. As far as I can judge, radical surgery upon maybe two-thirds of the current squad is necessary, but is he the right man to set a new direction?
If not Moyesy, who else? Not, for certain, and under any circumstances, Jose Mourinho. He’d win things, but he’d destroy United: if not whilst he was there, then for years after he’s gone. he’s probably the only manager in the game who could cause me to distance myself from my team.
I’m actually coming around to the belief that United would be very well served by selling Wayne Rooney.
I don’t say that lightly. He’s been fantastic for United, done some incredible and vital things, and he’s always being painted as England’s only world class player.
But I watch him, week in, week out. I see him waste free-kicks and corners by the dozen. I see him regularly bang forty yard balls out to the player on the right wing with an accuracy worthy of Paul Scholes, but he can’t pass the ball ten yards without giving it to the opposition. He keeps lumbering forwward with the ball, even though he loses it nineteen times out of twenty. He will not pass the ball to Robin van Persie except under extreme duress, which I put down to having his arrogant nose put out of joint by the idea that someone else may possibly be more valuable to United than he is.
And he is the most completely indisciplined player I have seen at United in a very long time. Everybody goes crazy about it, Rooney turning up everywhere on the field, dropping deep to pick it up all the time, eager to be involved at every possible moment of the game.
Or, as a recent and very perceptive analysis pointed out, a player constantly trying to fill in by doing the job of specialised midfielders/defenders/wingers etc., usurping their roles on the pitch and, even more damagingly, depriving them of the outlet for their talents by being too bloody close to them when they are in a position to unleash a damaging ball to where Rooney ought properly to be.
To use one of Terry Pratchett’s favourite analogies, Rooney is like a metal ball on a rubber sheet, distorting the shape of everything around it. The team, the club, is forced to accommodate what he wants to do at any given moment, restricting their ability to give their talents to the game. And, frankly, having watched him perform so often, I am now unable to believe that he will ever match the enthusiasm and ability he showed a decade before, that he cannot achieve a fitness level necessary to perform, and he has retrogressed in his abilities to the point that he frequently no longer merits his place in the team.
And let’s not get started on the loyalty issue.
All of these things feed into being a Red in this season of disgrace, 2013/14. United haven’t suddenly stopped being a good team: they were a disaster waiting to happen, held together only by the force of will of Alex Ferguson, and now that has been removed, United are exposed, and the hounds are circling, determined not to allow anyone to escape.
But it’s like I said before: in victory, gloating, in defeat, resentment. When you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it, because it won’t last forever. I made every minute of it count, for far longer than I imagined it possible.
No-one can take that away from me. Three Cup Finals and Three Doubles. Thirteen titles. Knocking Liverpool of their fucking perch. The Nou Camp on 25 May 1999. The entire career of the Ginger Genius. Eric.
And the good times will come back. These bad days will make them all the sweeter.