Ahead of Saturday’s clash…
Top flight football, as many have already found, can be an unforgiving place; one where individuals are left to rue what might have been if not for injuries, intense competition or failure to adapt and/or develop at the necessary rate. A world which is no longer as rosy as it once was, as cold, hard reality hits home and becomes too much to bear. Once this happens, you very barely get a second chance. However, there are some notable exceptions. Phil Neville, for one.
At first, there were no limits. He was once a prodigy and, under the guidance of Sir Alex, was expected to do big things. He played for the strongest side in English football and was regularly called up for international duty. As time passed, though, he eventually found himself playing second fiddle to his older brother, Gary, and pushed into the fringes. Things were going downhill, so it seemed.
Perhaps, Phil Neville is lucky. Leaving Manchester United for any club would typically be viewed as a step down (unless you’re Gerard Pique), but since joining Everton, Neville appears at his happiest. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s a permanent fixture in the team and although he’s well into his thirties, is still going strong and continues to influence the team on the pitch. In 2007, he was rewarded with the captaincy, yet the responsibility that comes with such a task had largely unfazed him. “I don’t know if it’s a dying breed but he’s a great leader,” manager David Moyes once said. “The team seems to function much better with him in the team.”
“He might get to the stage where he might not be the best player but, certainly, the team needs his leadership qualities. You should hear him in the dressing room; you should see him before the game,” added Moyes.
It helps that Everton are a cautious team with a reluctance to spend; indeed, they have made a few notably shrewd signings in the transfer window in recent times, but not so much that provokes the sort of competition that the younger Neville found at United, nor are individuals scrutinised as much. That’s not to say Everton are a small club, however. Moyes’ transformation of the Merseyside club from relegation contenders into a competitive club worthy of a place in Europe has been nothing short of admirable, promoting youth and landing gems such as Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill in the process.
Among the likes of Cahill and Arteta is Tim Howard. The thing with Howard is this: he was criminally underrated by the end of his Manchester United career and was by no means a flop; rather unlucky (in fact, he was in PFA’s Premier League Team of the Year in 2003). But you feel that’s not how he’ll be remembered; instead many will be quick to point out that he was error-prone. This was not true (although that one fateful mistake against FC Porto where he failed to deal with a free-kick thus allowing Francisco Costinha to knock United out of the Champions League back in 2004 will live long in memory) but then again he’s just like any other ‘keeper, so often the lone stars of an unforgiving world where one mistake can define who you are. Reputation for any goalkeeper is fragile.
Over at Everton, though far from perfect, Howard’s importance mustn’t be underestimated. In 2009, he set a new club record of 16 clean sheets, one more than Neville Southall – which is quite an achievement considering that the Welshman had made nearly 600 appearances for the club. And Howard will be looking to make a point when he faces his old club on Saturday; you certainly cannot put it past him to frustrate in what will be a tough game for the visitors – more so because of the hammering they received by Man City last Sunday.
There is one more former employee of United’s at Goodison Park: but, unlike both Howard and Neville, has been less fortunate. His midweek goal in the Carling Cup against Chelsea suggests that Louis Saha still has a lot to give; but the problem with the Frenchman is that fans worry not whether he’ll produce, but how often. Because, as United are too familiar with, his tendency to pick up injuries means that his time at the club comes under serious doubt. It will be interesting to see whether he’ll start against United, or be consigned to the bench. While Saha’s story is a lot more complicated, it is heartening to see that both Tim Howard and Phil Neville avoided the downward fall that players in their position so often experience.
If you could choose one moment that best encapsulates the raw talent of Ravel Morrison, you’d go back a fortnight to a Manchester Senior Cup game against Bolton’s Reserves. 93 minutes had passed on what was nothing more than a dour encounter and, with the score at 0-0, Morrison had shifted responsibility upon himself to put things right. Collecting a pass from Marnick Vermijl, Morrison lit up the evening with a wonderful, curling effort with his left foot. The strike had only re-established the claim from some corners that such a naturally gifted player was ready for the big time and, less than two weeks later — yesterday’s game against Aldershot — he was to make his first appearance for the club this season.
He had to wait nearly 70 minutes for the honour, waiting patiently on the touchline and then as Mame Biram Diouf approached him — the man substituted in place of him — he allowed for an anxious stare into the Senegalese’s eyes, with the look of someone who had only just realised what this had meant for him. The inevitable nerves, however, were to be replaced with bubbling enthusiasm.
There was no angled 25 yard strike into the top corner but, then again, we didn’t need it; instead, it was encouraging to just see the simple things that make him the player he is. His touch didn’t let him down and he also showed great awareness of those around him. Actually, he is an intelligent individual (more than he is given credit for) on — and indeed off — the ball and that is something of an undervalued attribute of his and one that can allow him to maximise his potential. And his willingness to track back and help out in defence just goes to reinforce the point that he is an enthusiast (and also a team player). At one point, he even tried to talk the football-starved Dimitar Berbatov out of taking a free-kick, but to no avail.
However, Morrison’s cameo was something to behold not so much for the actual performance, as promising as he did look, but what his presence on the pitch means for the team; and to a further extent, the future of Manchester United. This was his first senior appearance for the club where he could actually make an impact — he did only play a minute against Wolves in this competition last year. It is all the more symbolic because many had doubted whether he’d able to do such a thing, that his behaviour and attitude is not one of a professional footballer and so he isn’t ready for the step up. He’s got the wrong mentality, essentially, and will only have a negative effect on the club and its reputation. For a person who has found himself in trouble on countless occasions, you can excuse such a sceptical thought.
Granted, it was only 20 minutes of Carling Cup action but he has effectively overcome his first virtual hurdle and, under the watchful eye of Sir Alex, might get many more opportunities in the near future — even if limited to a cameo appearance. It’s a milestone made all the more important because he’s someone who is often dismissed as a fragile tearaway.
When you consider it, it’s a small shame that Morrison has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons; because it has inadvertently put more pressure on him. Of course, that’s mostly his own doing and no rational person can defend his actions but for those who have seen him, it would be tragic to let all of that go to waste. Especially for a man who is often regarded as the most naturally gifted player the club have seen since Paul Scholes.
He’ll need to reassess, change his attitude and although it’s unlikely he’ll turn into a saint overnight, and will make a mistake here and there, it is vital that he knows the difference between right and wrong; such a basic, achievable thing will almost certainly turn out to be profitable for both him and Manchester United. Just imagine how good he’ll be in five years time. This substitute appearance, although brief and against lower opposition, is a chance for Morrison to start over. He’s entered a brave new world and there’s no doubting that, with all his talents, he will flourish in it.
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David Beckham’s legacy is already tainted. Tainted because he will forever be remembered as the man who dated a Spice Girl as much as he would for his starring role in the final minutes of the 1999 Champions League final. Tainted because he will forever be recognised as an Armani poster-boy as much as he would for his last-gasp free-kick against Greece which helped propel England to the World Cup Finals in 2001. And tainted because all the good that he has done in his footballing career will be overlooked, unappreciated, due to his lifestyle and celebrity status. But behind the underwear adverts (er…) and the white teeth, there is arguably one of the finest players of the modern era.
It will be easy to forget just how good David Beckham was in his peak. In the treble-winning season of 1998-99, undisputedly the greatest in Manchester United’s history, he was recognised as one of the best in the world; and not at all distant and a different class from the would-be Greats at the time, such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo. In fact, Barcelona’s Rivaldo was the only thing standing in his way from being named European Football of the Year that season, narrowly missing out in the prestigious Ballon D’Or award. Many would argue that the impenetrable Roy Keane was the engine in that team, but they surely couldn’t have achieved what they had without the buccaneering Beckham to steer them to glory.
The game that was to change his life forever was in a 4-0 win over Galatasaray in the sixth round of matches in the 1994/95 Champions League group stage, where he had struck with a bobbling low shot before half time. That was to be his first senior goal for the club. His raw enthusiasm had helped him make a lasting impression in this particular game, his first in Europe, distinguishing himself from the rest of the academy graduates that had been promoted to the first team that night, the likes of Gary Neville and Nicky Butt included, and had provoked legendary TV commentator Brian Moore to say at the time: “Young Beckham has had a superb game on the right of United’s midfield.” That was to be the first of many.
In retrospect, Beckham had revolutionised the role of the wide midfielder. Players were modelled in the shape of him, where there was less emphasis on pace, expunging the stereotype that for a player in that position to be successful, they must be able to beat defenders with sheer speed. Beckham didn’t need to do that, for his crossing ability was enough for him to be regarded as the greatest winger (the term “winger” in an ‘English’ sense) the Premier League had ever seen.
Has there ever been a better crosser of the ball in the game? Perhaps not, for no player has quite been so consistent and freakishly accurate in doing it; and because his technique is virtually impossible to replicate, so his crossing ability will surely remain unmatched. In that glorious 98/99 season, his tally of assists numbered into the twenties and most came largely via his excellent delivery.
And as rewarding as it was to watch him cross the ball with such deadly precision, watching him net a free-kick was the ultimate joy. Whenever he set himself up to take one, the Old Trafford were expectant rather than just hopeful. He was that sort of player; like Cristiano Ronaldo had done years later, and George Best many years before, he was always tipped to do something very special. And very often, he would not let you down.
Out of the many phases he went through in his career – and we’re not talking about his ever-changing hair in this instance – the David Beckham of 1999-03 was the best of the lot. He was frighteningly consistent, and had doubled effectively as a central midfielder when required. He could do many things that he wasn’t given credit for; especially, the popular myth that he couldn’t dribble. In a European clash versus Real Madrid in 2000, he had left the defence trailing in his wake, awestruck, with a brilliant mazy run and finish. That was all in a vain as United were defeated in the end, but that moment epitomised what Beckham was all about; even when those around him were miserable, he was still able to conjure moments of magic. Football fans know all about this when he had done the exact same thing a year later, this time for England, and this time there were reasons to smile. England, trailing 2-1, had won a free-kick against Greece in a World Cup qualifier in the very last minute – and you know the rest. Beckham duly dispatched; this despite a gutless, uninspired performance from the team as a whole. Actually, this was a time where his relationship with the national team remained frosty because of the events of France ’98, but with United fans he had a sense of belonging. In scoring this free-kick for England, he had won over the largely-patriotic fans that were once prepared to disown him. “How silly was I then?” they must have thought.
In his time at United, he had also forged an unforgettable partnership with Gary Neville and, to a lesser extent, Ruud van Nistelrooy. With Neville, there was some sort of telepathic understanding. Neville loved to venture forward in order to find David Beckham down the right – and he did it as if he were some sort of catapult. The mutual understanding was something to behold and their very public friendship had gone some way to contributing to this. With van Nistelrooy, it was a shame that they didn’t play together more often. But when they did, it made for something clinical – the Dutchman always happened to be in the right place for Beckham’s crosses.
When you look back at it now, without doubt, his departure was premature. Instead he moved to Real Madrid in 2003 and, despite a few notable blemishes, it turned out to be very successful. As were his brief flings at AC Milan and even now, at LA Galaxy, there is enough about his game to suggest that he still has it. But it was at United where he was at his scintillating best. The man who has “fame beyond football” and “tattoos” listed as Wikipedia entries will be looked back at with dewy-eyed fondness, but the regrettable nature in which he left, and when he left, means he might never be regarded as a club legend. And, most tragically, he is in danger of retiring to a world where suddenly football is just a thing of the past. A world where he is seen as an underwear model or a movie star. However, there is no doubt that for a celebrity, he was pretty darn good at football.
Musa Okwonga, author of A Cultured Left Foot, noted that games between Manchester United and Liverpool are “to be endured, not enjoyed” and he could hardly have been more right; for this unsightly affair was not so much in preserving the image of the beautiful game, rather dig deep, fight hard and play if necessary for three points. In the end, neither side achieved their end goal – but the result did prove the team that deserved the shared spoils less still have many issues to be addressed.
Indeed, the greatest shame about this performance was that we know just how good this United side are and can be. 1-1 at Anfield and the end of an undesirable run of defeats at this ground isn’t such a bad result; nor is it when you consider that Manchester United were a goal down at one point with just ten minutes to go. Instead, it was the way that the visitors set up at the very start which was a touch disappointing; they appeared to opt for pragmatism and because of this, failed to really assert themselves, especially when going forward. Their brief flirtation with a fluid style right at the beginning of the season which saw the opposition on the verge of begging for mercy looked a distant memory by the time 90 minutes were up.
Of course, you would argue that the pragmatic approach does allow for better defending and it did so here. At the back, United were resolute and it only took for a contentious set-piece and a rare lapse by Ryan Giggs in the wall to allow Liverpool the initiative. However, it could be seen as a failure in the sense that no balance between defence and attack was found. This is how United had set up last season and it was particularly effective at home and in Europe – but away from Old Trafford, they were dismal, limping to a result and feeding off scraps, and so must avoid going down that road again in this campaign.
The selection was a little curious, too. Phil Jones got the nod in midfield alongside Darren Fletcher and exciting as that did sound before kick off, it barely reached its potential. Jones was playing in front of Fletcher and that itself was questionable; when he had played in midfield for Blackburn Rovers, he was primarily used as a defensive midfielder. That isn’t to say that they shouldn’t play together at all, but it is all about balance and perhaps the two are too similar in a sense.
It sounds almost strange to say, but United didn’t need to opt for the sensible. The difference between this team and the one we saw last season is that they’re better set up to play free, flowing football. That showed when Nani, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were brought on. Those three were only together for 15 minutes but United’s performance picked up considerably, and it was from there where Hernandez was ready to pounce from a corner after some much-needed pressure in the Liverpool half. Nani and Rooney are almost the ambassadors of this style; and along with Young, who looked lost without the two, United have the potential to beat most teams in this manner. Almost certainly, a pragmatic Manchester United might not have scored more than three, let alone eight, against that weakened Arsenal team in August. Arguably, however, they might have not conceded twice either – but a ruthless edge is what can set the Red Devils apart from most others, not a cautious method which would only see teams in an ever-improving Premier League fancy a chance of earning a result.
That doesn’t mean that whenever Rooney and Nani play, United pick up the pace and are automatically devastating with the ball. That isn’t true at all. But it is increasingly obvious that they, and the team, prefer being set up to win convincingly rather than cautiously. United are a good enough team to get away with it most of the time.
They are also missing Tom Cleverley. Since he picked up an injury in a 5-0 win over Bolton, United look a team with less authority. Their central midfield also lacks depth. There isn’t anything wrong with the individuals, more so with how they might perform as a duo or even a trio. Yes, these are good times for the club; but we mustn’t look past and ignore things. For a team in a transitional period, that sort of attitude isn’t going to help. Just to put into perspective the difference between United and Liverpool going forward, the hosts only made 16 defensive clearances, the away side 47.
There were many positives from this game and it would be rather unfair to overlook those. David de Gea, in particular, was very busy and a generally safe pair of hands, pulling off a few superb saves in the process. In a sense, it is a little concerning that the Spaniard has had so much to do – much more than van der Sar ever had to last season. And saying that gives off the impression that United hadn’t defended very well, but that’s far from the truth; indeed, both the solid Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra made a return to form with gutsy performances and once again, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling looked assured and comfortable on the ball.
But, it must be said that Liverpool were the better team. They won the midfield battle and so looked the likeliest to score; but that goal came about, unfortunately, from a Charlie Adam dive. The thing with diving is that it is always wrong – and any sort of history and the attitudes towards it or any other form of cheating that is equally as bad is irrelevant because there is certainly no justification for the action. He wasn’t punished, and instead won a free kick. We know what happened next. Liverpool’s joy from Gerrard’s goal was to be short-lived however as Javier Hernandez converted a Nani – yes Nani – corner. But the game itself was drab.
In fact, let’s never speak of it again.
It was a goal that ran out of superlatives as quickly as it happened. Time was motionless. To a degree it was unexpected, though there was no shock factor. The date: Saturday 22, March, 2003. Manchester United were 1-0 up against Fulham at Old Trafford, the protagonist of the piece putting them ahead from the penalty spot; his second should have won goal of the season.
Picking up the ball inside the centre circle, he shrugged off Sylvain Legwinski, and began to accelerate towards goal. Sidestepping another challenge, he raced past two Fulham players, and then beat defender Andy Melville before slotting the ball past Maik Taylor with a cool finish. It was his 28th goal of the season, hard-pressed to find anyone of the previous 27 that was met with the same ecstatic ovation. Then again, we are talking about Ruud van Nistelrooy, an individual who made it a habit of defying belief: whether on the pitch or in the record books.
That goal may never have taken place if not for Sir Alex Ferguson standing by him after his initial move to the club broke down. Before first contact, Van Nistelrooy started out as a sweeper at amateur level before being converted into a striker at Den Bosch, and his impressionable start to life as a professional saw him transferred to Heerenveen. It was there when everyone started to take notice, including PSV, who signed him for €6.3m after one season at the Friesland club. The Eindhoven club had a special player on their hands, one that started to draw comparisons with Marco van Basten, though many were quick to point out that, despite their knack for goals, there were differences.
“They are both excellent players but different,” said Rinus Michels, who had coached Van Basten with the national team. “Van Basten was more of an all-round striker. He had better control and was better at outplaying opponents. He was a great finisher but there was a lot more to his game. Van Nistelrooy is a more decisive finisher. He is excellent at going for goal and is speedy and dangerous.”
Though comparisons were flattering, given the former AC Milan and Ajax forward happened to be his idol; “He is upper, upper class as a striker, the best ever,” Van Nistelrooy recalled. “From the minute I saw him play, I was hooked.” The goals flowed at PSV. He was remarkably scoring a goal a game. The club insisted he wouldn’t be sold on the cheap and they stuck to that promise. Interest came from England in the shape of both Arsenal and Chelsea. However, it would be Manchester United that snapped him up for £18.6m; Arsène Wenger was among those who considered the striker too expensive. A chequered injury record concerned his future employees and when he broke down in training rupturing his ACL, his dream move looked to be over. However, a year later the move was resuscitated and the Dutch marksman wasted no time settling in.
36 goals in 49 games in his debut season was a sign of things to come – a goal on his debut in the Community Shield against Liverpool whetted the appetite, two more on his league debut at home to Fulham and those that had been familiar with his exploits in Holland started to brace themselves. His price-tag, initially a record fee, was paid back.
The brilliant thing about Van Nistelrooy was, and still is, that you get what you see. A quintessential ‘number 9’, he never seemed to score the same goal, despite attaining 150 for the club. He was big and strong enough to ward off challengers from the mightiest of defenders, in his earlier years, nimble enough to beat them in a foot race. His aerial prowess was slightly underrated, and you couldn’t help but feel even when the action during the game didn’t involve him, he was thinking of ways to score his next goal.
Though he showed signs of being impatient; “If I don’t get the service or if I don’t the ball in the box, where I want it, I start drifting into midfield. I go and look for the ball. I try to be important for the team in other areas.”
The greatest shame with Van Nistelrooy is that he had the misfortune of being in a transitional phase at the club, only winning one league championship in his five seasons with Manchester United: ironically the club had won four of the five in the years after. However, that doesn’t take away from what he brought, often maligned for the crime of ‘scoring’, a stigma attached to most Dutch strikers. As scoring goals weren’t the job of a striker, what did people expect him to do: defend? He used to be one, of course. I’m sure as good as he may think he would have still been. There wasn’t a chance anyone was going to stop him doing what he loves. Ronaldo, aka O Fenômeno, once said he lived to score goals. There’s nothing more in the world he enjoyed, the same applied to Ruud.
“When it comes to losing with [Manchester] United, I feel solely responsible for it,” he once said. “I can’t help it. My brain will work like mad after a defeat. I want to know where I have made the wrong decisions, how I could have changed things for this fantastic club.”
If you think about it, most of his goals were eye-grabbing. The run against Fulham may have been the most sensational, but if you go back and watch some of his finest efforts, a master class in the art of finishing, any young striker wanting to make it in the game must, as a requisite, study him.
His control was as good as any forward of the last 20 years, he struck the ball sweet and true, it was as crisp as the finest Armani shirt. The one fear goalkeepers have is of a striker in his element, whereas most go through periods where the goal is hard to find, Van Nistelrooy rarely struggled. Given that he arguably played for some of the weaker sides under Sir Alex Ferguson in the Premier League (this is not a slight), it was incredible what he was pulling off week after week. Whenever the ball found him inside the penalty box, there was always one outcome due to his breathtaking instinctiveness, unless he decided to give the keeper a reprieve. It was on the continent, in the European Cup, where he did fine damage. Only Raúl González has scored more goals than the Dutchman in the competition, with Manchester United his tally read: 38 goals in 47 games, a club record. Looking at the history books, only one player has topped the scoring charts in a European Cup season more than him, one of the finest strikers of them all: Gerd Müller. Van Nistelrooy sits alongside Lionel Messi, Ferenc Puskás, Eusébio and Jean-Pierre Papin with three titles, all won with Manchester United.
Though disappointingly, he never managed reached the final of the competition; elimination in 2002 to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals was the furthest he got, again a cruel misfortune that since his departure, the club entered one of their more successful periods in the competition.
Despite the absence of a plethora of silverware, and strange as this may sound, in his first three seasons at least Manchester United played football that could be equal to what is seen at Old Trafford today. His link-up with Paul Scholes, controversial back then given the formation change, looking back was the perfect combination. Scholes, one of the preeminent playmakers of his day, was a perfect foil for the goal-scorer. It only took a single pass and he was clever enough to play one that could cut through a defence and bring Van Nistelrooy into play. David Beckham and Ryan Giggs on the flank were a strikers’ dream. It wouldn’t be surprising to know if he signed just to feed of the two wingers. Beckham in particular with his pinpoint crossing were a delight for Ruud; I could be wrong but there’s a statistic out there that says he’s assisted the Dutchmen the most during his time. Even if it is indeed wrong, there’s a hint it may even be true given the numerous times a Beckham cross was converted by Van Nistelrooy.
The hallmark of a great striker is that he continuously improves as the years go on, especially at the height of the powers. For Van Nistelrooy, it was the case during his time in England. His most prolific season was his second, which ended with the league win, 44 goals in 52 games. He was two shy of Denis Law’s club record of most goals in a single season. Though that campaign was still special, he ended it scoring in the 2-1 win over Everton at Goodison Park, the tenth consecutive game with a goal – a feat no player at the club has achieved. The previous year, his debut season, he became the first player to score in eight consecutive league games. It seemed everything he touched was turning to gold, becoming something of a manager’s dream. Van Nistelrooy approached an apex, untouchable status. A PFA Player of the Year that season confirmed that. His unceremonious departure was as spectacular as his glorious arrival.
It’s hard to say whether he was the perfect striker, though at times it felt like he was, because at his optimum he easily rivalled the finest in history. Would he go down as the club’s greatest striker? In all honesty that’s subjective, though he has the goals to back any argument in his favour. How will those who witnessed his five years remember him? It’s easy to say just the goals, all 150 of them, but it’s the majesty and the way he carried himself, the fine strikes, the elegant finishing and sheer ruthlessness. He was: ‘Ruthless Ruud’ after all.
This was written by Mohamed Moallim. He is the editor of the superb La Croqueta, where he muses about the wonders of Dutch and Spanish football. Mohamed is also a columnist for FourFourTwo and World Football Columns. You can follow him on Twitter.
When the bards sing of deeds gone by or poets write in remembrance, memory is always airbrushed. As an eager, fresh-faced boy desperate to fill my mind’s expanse of blankness, I noticed, interested, the holes in Manchester United’s rich history. The period for instance that some call the 1970s, is one afforded only a cursory sentence or two in all the unofficial accounts I read, seemingly, football hadn’t happened between around the time George Best lifted the European Cup and the day Ron Atkinson cleaned out his office.
What with decades disappearing, to misplace a week might seem a trifling matter, but here I seek to preserve one of the worst. Observed through the lens of glories since, the first seven days of April 2010 lose poignancy – victory’s narcotic effect blurring our understanding of what it means to lose. Pain, all too happily sedated.
The weather was nice, early Spring temperatures in Germany complementing early spring moods in Manchester – moods dictated by a script long since memorized.
Adjustment had been an overarching theme that year. The departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez kicked off a period of change. In came Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen, as a goalscoring burden of titanic proportions shifted onto the shoulders of Wayne Rooney.
With Roman wounds still being licked, United started the season in dismal fashion, taking only two games to fall at the hands of inferior opposition. Memories of Robbie Blake’s powerful volley faded quickly though, as Ferguson’s men, and in particular Rooney, picked up a head of steam.
Come Christmas, United were embroiled in a battle for supremacy; Arsenal taking their normal place as hopefuls looking to avoid inexorable doom, and Chelsea as cold hard assassins, destroying opponents with their stare alone.
At the heart of United’s title charge was Rooney and his goals. Any murmurings of discontent though at an apparent over reliance on one so brilliant yet temperamental were kept at a whisper – such is football fans’ ludicrous dogma: to doubt is to betray.
Back then to that lovely Spring week. At the Allianz Arena the atmosphere was cheery; beer mixing with optimism, nostalgia with excitement – a group of English fans, refusing to let the small matter of season prevent an impromptu Oktoberfest.
When just minutes into the tie Rooney broke the deadlock with the last of the thirty-four goals he scored that season, an alcohol stained hubris took over, one as pervasive as it was worrying.
Even after Franck Ribery’s second half equaliser, spirits were high and predictions bullish – after all, United had a Champions League Quarter Final away goal to go with a place atop the Premier League standings. And then, with the first leg drifting towards conclusion, Mario Gomez crushed dreams.
To the cynics among us, the stamp will always have been deliberate, and the subsequent jump and twist pre-meditated results of an insidious plot. The truth however, lies in a force impossible to manipulate, one which that night turned a deaf ear to United prayers and continued to do so for the next six days. As Rooney hopped, ankle damaged, and Olic scored, even the bluntest revelers were moved – luck it seemed had deserted.
While a long-term prognosis would have to wait, the short-term news had supporters fearing the worst. The talisman was broken, and the date of repair set indefinitely for some time after that weekend’s clash with Chelsea.
In the days quickly following, calls for Dimitar Berbatov to revive his Manchester United career numbered many, but most were pessimistic. “As if losing their best player at such a critical point in the season was not disadvantage enough, the man likely to be his replacement is clearly not in the same league.” wrote Jim White in The Telegraph – sentiments echoed across Fleet Street and beyond.
Inside thirty seconds of Berbatov’s rebuttle though, the canny men in the press box were left scratching their heads. With a Saturday lunchtime, top of the table clash to contend with, the Bulgarian immediately released his inner razzle-dazzle, dancing past blue shirts with consummate ease, before seeing a promising attack peter out. As fate would have it though, for all its seemingly auspicious significance, Berbatov’s dribble was merely a misleading preface to an alarming narrative.
One Joe Cole backheel and Drogba blast later, United were chasing the game. While Federico Macheda’s handball from close range briefly kindled hope, a deserved defeat was met on home soil, and title dreams sliced to ribbons. Blue ribbons.
To dwell on misery would not have been in the Ferguson spirit. Just days after surrendering top spot, the inevitable passing of the Premier League baton was forgotten in light of Fergie’s perpetual pursuit. With a fourth European crown an eventual goal, Old Trafford lent its hospitality to the destroyers of several nights previous – Mario Gomez and all. There to welcome them though was the iron man, Rooney – miraculously fit after completing several difficult training sessions post-Chelsea.
Once again, it was the English side that started the better. A Gibson slash gave United the lead within five minutes, before two classy Nani finishes totted the score up to three. Surfing, cruising, that pestilential hubris returned, turning the usually organized rearguard into a careless mess. Having taken advantage of a Michael Carrick error, Ivicia Olic pounced just minutes before half time to steal an away goal. Now within only one concession of elimination, calm needed to prevail. It didn’t. Rafael Da Silva’s blatant youth came to the fore, a second loss of concentration resulting in a deserved second yellow card.
Against ten men, the Germans clicked into typically efficient gear. Latching onto a looped Franck Ribery corner, Dutch winger Arjen Robben knifed a volley across Van Der Sar for 3-2. Lost in awe of his brilliance, a dumbfounded home crowd waited for United to exercise their secret prerogative; to find the late goal so intrinsically linked with European matches against Bayern Munich.
Another fifteen minutes of toil though, caused little in the way of trouble. Rooney’s somber limp off the field early in the second half marked the removal of United’s most dangerous creator and, as it had the previous Saturday, the end of championship aspirations. Rooney-less and impotent, not much more could realistically have been expected.
With green and gold regalia draped over the mantle, and season review money safely invested elsewhere, supporters settled down for the campaign’s conclusion. They watched as Inter defended, Chelsea scored and Rooney flopped. Bereft of Queen on final day, the ghosts of titles past haunted Old Trafford. A 4-0 annihilation of Stoke, punctuated constantly by choruses of Viva Ronaldo, was hardly noticed in the midst of vigorous celebrations at Stamford Bridge.
The malaise started by one innocuous stamp continued to fester over the summer. A World Cup defined by Spain’s brilliance and Holland’s bravery was not one enjoyed by Manchester’s red and black contingent. Nani and Ferdinand suffered on the sidelines, while Rooney and Vidic both struggled to inspire their respective nations.
More than a year on, that week and the failure it heralded had been more or less forgotten. The all-consuming nature of United’s nineteenth title celebrations allowed no space for morbid recollection. In the face of victory, we forgot defeat.
And in that statement is the essence of this club’s greatest flaw. The cyclone of matches that makes up football at the highest level has a tendency to let the past disappear unless carefully preserved. Through the halls of overpriced museums or fan forum gloats, the best aspects of United’s history will always thrive. Neglected though, our darkest moments and despairing nadirs waste away.
Under Ferguson’s reign, the collection of trophies has become an under appreciated habit – one tarnished by expectation and a feeling of entitlement. Defeat reminds us of what it means to lose. It helps us cherish the moments that we enjoy now, inculcating an appreciation that some have lost. To be perennial winners is a fleeting privilege. We must enjoy it while it lasts.