It seems almost absurd to suggest that signing Paul Dickov on a free was as little a risk as paying £38million for 23-year old Sergio Aguero in the summer of 2011 but such is the change at Manchester City that if, indeed, a signing was not to materialise, they could, well, just get someone else. And if they were not to get the title this year, they could always improve their squad and attempt to win it the next. (As it turns out, Aguero has been superb — he has managed nearly 30 goals in his début season and he, along with Yaya Toure and David Silva, have forged a sort of Triple Alliance; a powerful force that everyone thinks could win but one they all want to come second.)
Manchester United fans might not admit it, and, of course, why should they but City’s kamikaze spending — which should, yes, be objected to at the same time — has made for a captivating title race made more compelling by an old, unimpressive-for-too-long rivalry; if United were to prosper at their rival’s expense, then it would make for the sweetest of victories and a domestic triumph above most.
And so, is Monday’s Manchester derby the biggest ever? ”It seems to be mentioned before each Manchester derby that the importance of the match increases every year and I suppose that’s no different now,” says Steven Allweis, editor of Manchester City-fansite View from a Blue. “That’s due to the fact we are genuine challengers for various trophies and not just some hopeful upstarts. City are a real threat to United’s dominance, so with this game effectively deemed a title decider, I think it’s fair to say it is the most important Manchester derby ever.” Playing City now, as Sir Alex Ferguson says, has “an importance which, at this moment in time, supercedes the Liverpool games.” Heck, this may even be the most important Premier League game to date in the 20 years of its existence: yes, not only has the fixture emerged as the biggest derby in the country, but it’s one that may decide the title.
I asked Allweis to be honest, here; how well does he think Manchester United have performed this season? “After virtually every game, we hear how United weren’t quite at their best or didn’t display the form that was on show in the last couple of years. As a one-off explanation that could be feasible, but perhaps United just aren’t as good as they were last season or two years ago, and this is their best form. However, even if the players are different, there is still that ruthless winning mentality that drives them on,” he concedes. “Even if not utterly dominant, United still find ways to be victorious and that’s not exactly a bad trait to have!”
It is a testament, some argue, to Sir Alex’s managerial nous that this otherwise ‘average’ Manchester United side are doing so well this season; a view that would probably have more credibility if his team were not only sitting at the top of the table, but freely scoring goals and heading for a points tally that can only really be preceded by a noun-turned-adjective that usually refers to a prehistoric mammal with long, curved tusks. All three of Jonny Evans, Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia deserve a lot of credit for where United are now; but many have tended to overlook the trio, Valencia to a lesser extent, curiously, in favour of Wayne Rooney.
When you look at some of the things Rooney has said this season, what you may be able to infer is a man that values goals above anything else; which is fine, but it’s a wonder whether he himself thinks he’s not playing as well as he should be. Truth is, he’s only had a good season where he has scored plenty — but Rooney plays in a position that demands more than numbers. His negligence to waste as many attacks as create is a slight worry; his tendency to drift out and drift in only when United have a penalty is a major concern (and a bit of a hyperbole, but it has happened on a few occasions).
Sir Alex thinks Rooney is the “type of player who has to play on the edge in a game” and ”when it’s a really close and competitive game” or else “when it gets to that casual bit, he’s worse than the rest of them.” Which is a rather reasonable explanation; Rooney’s cameo at 3-0 down to Chelsea in February helped United to a 3-3 draw. That is not always true, of course (the recent 1-0 defeat to Wigan saw him subbed after 65 minutes); but United will need him at his best — while they’re not entirely as reliant on him as some will suggest, he is still their most talented player and one that Steven Allweis points to as the obvious danger-man; but then he earmarks Valencia as the man he wishes to have an off-day: “He’s been outstanding in the past couple of months and is the type of player that we could most certainly do with,” Allweis says. “He’s old-fashioned in the sense that he sticks out wide, receives the ball, takes on his man and puts crosses in, but it’s proved hugely effective and his battle with Gael Clichy will be an intriguing one.”
Moving away from the derby for a moment, Allweis thinks Manchester City have “overperformed” based on his personal expectations. “My hope at the start of the season was that we would finish in the top four. Having achieved Champions League football last season, I felt it was imperative to qualify for the competition for the next campaign, so we’ve done that and more. Many fans would have expected a genuine title push though I think you’ll be hard-pushed to find a City supporter who says we have underperformed.” How would you feel if you finished second, then? “If we finish second, there will be disappointment because we led the table for the majority of the season, but it will be an improvement on last year and that is a positive. If we continue to build, then I’d expect us to win the Premier League next season.”
And what of Mario Balotelli? If City end the season trophyless, many would point to him as the man who cost City the title. Do you agree? He can’t have been that much of a burden, though; indeed, despite some of the stupid — and stupidly hilarious — things he has done, which City would rather not have happened of course, he has surely made up for it with satisfactory or more-than-satisfactory performances on the pitch? “I think the criticism Balotelli receives is ridiculous,” claims Allweis. “I’ve actually written an article detailing some thoughts on Balotelli and other various reasons as to why we might not win the title, but to blame it purely on Mario is naive and simplistic. He’s certainly a factor, though a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of things.”
A similar question was posed on Carlos Tevez — had he been playing for the last five months, what sort of table would we be looking at? “His form since returning has been superb: not just the goals he has scored, but his all round contribution. His workrate is first-class, constantly putting pressure on opposition defences and he seems to have rejuvenated Sergio Aguero. That, of course, makes it all the more frustrating that he has spent most of the season working on his tan and playing golf in Argentina.”
Allweis, however, is sensible in answering the question, and it’s one you cannot but agree with even though so many others see it differently: “It’s easy to forget that we didn’t exactly struggle too much in his absence. Despite Tévez not being here, we were scoring plenty of goals, winning games and were atop the table for most of the season. His presence may have helped in the last couple of months as we suffered a slight blip, but we coped well for the most part without him.”
Back to Monday — is it actually, literally, a title decider? “If United win or it’s a draw, yes [they will go on to win],” says Allweis. “If City win, then we would be favourites though still have a couple of tricky fixtures remaining.” Those ‘tricky fixtures’ he refers to is City’s trip to Newcastle United — and then one against, er, Queens Park Rangers. It would be utterly desperate of United fans to expect Newcastle to do them a favour — what could and might happen then is irrelevant at such a late stage. United will have to do it at the Etihad. And given what’s at stake in the derby, everything, absolutely everything, is comparably irrelevant.
I asked Allweis a question I myself had interest in and, while not exactly vaguely to do with Monday’s game, felt out of place in the actual piece. Do you buy into “the best team is the one which ends up above all the rest” or do we need to look deeper than that?
“It totally depends on what you define ‘best’ as. City could win every game in the season 6-0, but lose to United twice. United could win every game 1-0 and would then clinch the title. City might have played the best football, scored the most goals and entertained in matches, but United would have the best record. It’s an interesting question.”
While this piece, more general than usual, is not strictly to do with Manchester United, there are more than a few references to the club and its past and the overriding feelings of the write-up is one that’ll surely resonate more with United fans than others. It is appropriate and topical, though not quite anything to do with the side this season and the title race, rather in reaction to the Premier League’s sudden ‘look at me’ celebrations, looking back nostalgically at the best of the League since it started back in 1992; players, managers, even quotes. And goals.
The problem with Goals of the Month/Year lists is this: they’re mostly a bunch of good goals that we’ve seen before, scored by a different player, in a different game. You can still admire a good goal; but unless it has significance, you support the team or, at least, admire the player who scored it, you’ll quickly forget it. Paul Scholes might have scored the same goal twice every season from outside the penalty area for a decade but it is satisfying for those, Manchester United fans in other words, who hold him in affection, allowing for a moment of nostalgia; for every one else, it’s a bit, you know, the same thing as the other day.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final was straightforward — if he had scored that against Wimbledon in a comfortable 3-0 win in 1996, few would care or even remember now, of course. But it wasn’t; the goal not only sealed an unprecedented Treble for Alex Ferguson’s side, but capped off a late fightback in stoppage time which saw two goals in as many minutes. Its context meant that it found its way somewhere on ITV’s Top 50 Champions League goals of all time. Some, from memory, protested (on the internet at least) the decision to include it at all because it was no wonder-strike or featured very little interplay at all; but its importance made it arguably a better goal than Alan Smith’s against Roma — the second in a 7-1 win — which, curiously, sat comfortably in the Top 10.
Although nothing like Solskjaer’s strike, same rules apply for Zinedine Zidane’s goal in the 2002 final against Bayer Leverkusen. It was a marvellous sight in itself; but with its context, a chance for the galácticos to win the continent’s most prized trophy and the fact that it was Zidane, the world’s most expensive player at the time and probably the best around then given France’s emergence as the best international side in the early 00s, meant it was destined to be a goal frequently repeated. When the ball came down from the heavens, Zidane, who, setting himself with an almost half-turn, hit the ball with measured power, displaying great technique so wonderfully Zizou. Being admiring of the player — and Zidane certainly had his admirers — enhances our opinion, and thus it sticks in our mind and we look back fondly at it. This, incidentally, topped the ITV list.
Perhaps the best example is Peter Crouch’s recent hit against Manchester City. As superb as it was, a first touch and volley as exquisite as you’d ever see, you’d feel there’d be a lot less fuss over it had, say, David Silva or Juan Mata netted. The context here: “It’s Peter effin’ Crouch of all people! This beanpole should be in the box scoring headers!” And Wayne Rooney’s overhead-kick against City last season was quite possibly one of the best goals in the Premier League era; but it was late in a Manchester Derby heading for a 1-1 draw, watched and celebrated by the very same fans who, only a few months ago, vilified the player. These two were special in their own right; they had a story, a meaning. A goal shouldn’t just be what we see; thankfully, Crouch’s, like Rooney’s last year, might be this year’s Goal of the Season. Steven Gerrard’s late winner against Olympiakos in 2004 helped Liverpool progress into the next round in Europe — still, to this day, their fans look back fondly at it (partly because there isn’t much else for the under-20s), even though Gerrard has arguably scored goals more wonderful.
Arsenal fans continue to talk up Sylvain Wiltord’s sole goal at Old Trafford in a 1-0 win which helped The Gunners clinch the double in 2002 and it is special to them not because of the manner of the finish, it was a simple finish after all, but its context. Federico Macheda’s debut goal against Aston Villa in the 08/09 season also had a similar impact on United fans but, not only was its significance because it went some way to help his team win a trophy, but captured neutrals because of the shock of a relative unknown (outside Old Trafford, anyway) scoring the winner. Unlike Wiltord’s, this was a considerably better one — though not as much, aesthetically, as some will tell you. Michael Cox, not a Manchester United fan, describes this moment well:
I was watching the game in a pub with a friend, and when Macheda came off the bench in a desperate attempt for United to get a goal, while 2-1 down in a crucial game in the Premier League run-in, we both agreed that we’d never heard of him before.
At 2-2, in the third minute of injury time, Macheda picked the ball up, turned his marker, and curled the ball into the net from the edge of the box. We certainly weren’t expecting that – indeed, considering we hadn’t heard of the player until 10 minutes beforehand, we couldn’t have remotely guessed it might happen. It was a brilliant goal, a brilliant moment, and when later meeting up with another friend – who, crucially, hadn’t seen the game – we described it in great detail.
When he finally saw the goal that night on Match Of The Day 2, he was a little disappointed. We’d gone on about the goal so much, that he was expecting the greatest goal he’d ever seen, when in reality it was a good, if not sensational, strike. His impression of the goal was entirely influenced by the hype he’d heard before he’d even seen it.
Now, take a look at the Premier League’s nominations for Best Goal over the twenty seasons since its inception in 1992. They’re all utterly magnificent goals — as you would expect with such a wide scope. However, if you were to collect, say, ten of the best from each year since the League started, you may be able distinguish a tedious similarity — a lot of long-range efforts that are magnificent in isolation but, as a whole, just very drab. Thinking about it, these awards itself do very little in telling a story; goals win games and define seasons — these are just a collection of the very good and brilliant – no doubt someone else will do something similar in the next few years.
Is that a selfish way to look back at it? Yes. Indeed, many could argue that their teams aren’t always in a position to create goals that have context like some of the bigger clubs do, that is true. But we should enjoy football in the way we want to and so anything, by definition, is selfish.
The actual day was some time before this ...
“We don’t want Shearer, he’s f*cking dearer, so please don’t take my Solskjaer away …”
Even now, you can hear these words booming at and around Old Trafford; it tells you all you need to know about how Ole Gunnar Solskjear is viewed by Manchester United fans. Celebrated over the Premier League’s record top goal scorer and current Match of the Day pundit Alan Shearer, as you would expect, Solskjaer goes down in United folklore – but when he’d signed, very few had envisaged the impact he would eventually have on the club and its fans.
After a summer of tedious speculation regarding Manchester United and their apparent pursuit of Blackburn Rovers’ Shearer, he officially signed for Newcastle in a then-world record £15m move, in July 1996. Only the day before, United had announced the signing of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a 23-year-old Norwegian striker for a fee of £1.5m. With only six Norwegian caps and one full season in the country’s top flight with Molde, for whom he scored 31 goals in 42 appearances, Solskjaer was hardly a household name, but, given the saga, he inadvertently found himself competing with Shearer who had just scored 5 goals at the summer’s European Championships.
Upon signing, a modest Solskjaer said that he was only expecting to play in the reserves and would be delighted to get some first team games before Christmas. It turned out that he didn’t have to wait that long; in the 64th minute of United’s third league game of the season, at home to Blackburn and 2-1 down, he was given his debut and came on for defender David May. Six minutes later he found himself one-on-one with Tim Flowers and despite having his first effort saved, he tucked away the rebound to claim a point for his new side. No one knew it then, but the legend had just begun, as well as his much-celebrated, unique ability to make an impact off the bench.
A debut goal to savour, yes, but Solskjaer would not be immediately rewarded. He had to make do with the substitute bench for United’s next two league games versus Derby and Leeds, and then a 1-0 defeat in the Champions League away at Juventus. It would be three days later that Solskjaer would finally make his first start for club; impressions had to be made in a home league game against Nottingham Forest. Solskjaer opened the scoring as United ran out 4-0 winners — his career, it seems, was only going one way.
Solskjaer was on a roll. He started the next six games for the Reds in which time he scored in his 3rd consecutive game at Old Trafford (twice in a 2-0 win v Spurs) and his first European goal for the club in a 2-0 win over Rapid Vienna (a goal in his 4th straight appearance at Old Trafford, he really was at home). He finished his debut season a Premier League champion and United’s top goal scorer with 18 goals.
Unfortunately, Solskjaer experienced a stop/start second year; he started the 1996/97 season injured and didn’t feature until late September when he came off the bench in a 0-0 draw with Bolton. He only managed six league goals in 22 games as injuries and form saw him in and out of the team. For some, this was a case of second season syndrome. It was, however, during this tough campaign that Solskjaer’s hero status was born.
The making of a hero
On April 18th 1998, United went into their home game with Newcastle a point ahead of Arsenal having played two games more. Whilst United were wobbling, Arsenal were in great form with nine wins in 10, including a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford the previous month.
The game started shockingly for United and after 11 minutes, a lack of an offside call saw Gary Speed head back across goal for Andreas Andersson to score. Seven minutes later, Peter Schmeichel went off injured, adding to the hosts’ woes. United did manage to get themselves level through David Beckham’s goal just before half-time but despite piling on the pressure in the 2nd half, it was still locked at 1-1 with ten minutes remaining (however hard makeshift striker Gary Pallister tried). United turned to the bench and on came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but there was to be no last-minute winner for him today. As United sent everyone forward for a late corner, Newcastle broke and midfielder Rob Lee, with the entire United half free for him to run into, closed down on goal. Solskjaer, who started almost 10 yards behind Lee, sprinted after him but as they approached the penalty area, Solskjaer made his decision. He knew that United could not afford to lose the game and as Lee set his sights on a winner, one-and-one with Raimond van der Gouw, Solskjaer took action and cynically brought him down before it could be a penalty and before Lee could get a shot away.
Solskjaer knew the red was coming and waited, hands on hips, for the card. The Old Trafford crowd gave him a standing ovation, Beckham ran over and gave him a consolidating pat on the head for he knew that Solskjaer had done what he had to.
He took away the forthcoming red card from his mind, the three match ban that would end his season and made Manchester United and their faltering title bid his only priority, allowing them to escape with a point. It was, for me, the day that the legend was born. The day he showed how much he loved the club and the day the fans found a new hero, to go perfectly with all the others.
This was written by the Shaun Birch. He is the editor of Beautifully Red — a magical website where the most beautiful, yet often overlooked, moments produced by Manchester United and its players are shared (usually is GIF form — like the above image — immediately after ever game). You can follow him on Twitter. Read more Retrospectives here.
Some observations on Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa, along with a bit of gushing over Paul Scholes …
> Tackling an unappreciated asset of Paul Scholes
Paul Scholes, the scruffy, half-blind, asthmatic messiah brought down to Old Trafford in January to aid an ailing Manchester United side — or already ailed according to some back then — has shown that, despite its negative connotations, it’s never so bad to act desperately. Indeed, many have retracted their initial cynicism for the U-turn; it’s only a desperate masterstroke, now.
An important point: not long ago, a commentator remarked that since his re-arrival, he’s even managed to improve on his tackling. Contrary to what some think, Scholes’ tackling have never been as bad as made out. It was just that the midfielder never helped himself with the odd rash one that always stuck out; unfortunately, something that’ll always stay with him. At Old Trafford, he made two vital challenges in the first half and, in truth, has been doing that sort of thing for nearly 20 years now.
> United badly missed Scholes at Wigan
Ryan Giggs still has a lot to contribute in his final years, but the feeling is that, realistically, he can only come from the bench to make an impact in most games. With Scholes, and Carrick beside him, United look far more in control — and it’s certainly no coincidence. A similar sort of player in their mould might be what is required in the summer, as opposed to the bulldozing midfielder (understandably) so many want. In fact, get both kinds (so that’s neither, then).
The joys of Danny Welbeck
Danny Welbeck has very few enemies. Yes, there are those who have doubted him, and still do, but it is a very unfortunate minority. Welbeck should be pleased with his efforts so far in this campaign; 11 goals is not bad for a player who does so much more for the side, tracking back and linking up play like an old Bulgarian used to (probably the latter more). His instinct to get on the end of the cross for the team’s second wrapped up the three points as Villa still held faint hope before it; where others might opt out because it looked like Aston Villa’s Nathan Baker would clear, Welbeck foresaw a possible opportunity to score. The only concern with him now is that he’s incredibly wasteful — but, at least, he gets himself into good positions and perhaps with experience, that problem will be addressed.
Ferdinand and Evans as a defensive partnership
Both Rio Ferdinand and Jonny have ensured Nemanja Vidic’s absence doesn’t become a deciding factor in where the title ends up. Should United not win the Premier League this year, neither can be culpable for what has been a very good season for two players who, initially, were under-fire and, in different ways, thought not to have a future at Old Trafford. Now things have changed; and, amusingly, Ferdinand, as good as he has been, looks to be playing second fiddle to the renascent Northern Irishman.
One way of measuring Evans’ confidence is the way he strides out his own half and well into the opposition’s. Indeed, Evans was there on the edge of the box to play a through pass for Nani to score and United’s fourth.
Bad, but not that bad. Next.
The good and bad of Wayne Rooney
> Rooney’s influence
Wayne Rooney needs help. It’s not entirely clear what exactly that is and should look like, but perhaps, and this is only a suggestion, he should play higher. As good as he did look in a deeper position last season and those before, he appears a little out of his depth — if that means anything and not another meaningless cliché – and someone behind (Wesley Sneijder, eh? Eh?). While indeed the main job of a forward is to score (and he’s scoring plenty), Rooney’s role in the team requires and demands so much more and you feel he’s coming short; countless attacks have fizzled out due to his negligence and wayward passes have become frequent, whether by illusion or not. Still, with the help of Ashley Young’s theatrics, he’ll almost certainly always influence a game, but you feel he can do even more.
> Rooney’s penalties
Rooney’s penalty technique is marvellous. Goalkeepers can guess the direction right, but preventing it going in is another matter (he missed a few at the start of the season, yes, but he’s managed to confidently dispatch the recent batch dead in the corner with ease). Penalty takers don’t get much praise for it — as they’re often expected to score anyway — but a successful penalty isn’t necessarily a good one. With Rooney it almost always is.
In the famous 1994 film Speed (a.k.a ‘The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down‘), protagonists Jack and Annie shared a delightful conversation as Annie, in charge of driving the bus, had to maintain her speed levels above 50mph or else a bomb would explode — a fitting, uncoiled plot for 90s cinema. It went like this (source: IMDb):
Annie: So you’re a cop, right?
Jack: That’s right.
Annie: Well, I should probably tell you that I’m taking the bus because I had my driver’s license revoked.
Jack: What for?
This, as it would turn out, is only vaguely to do with Manchester United — but, as Annie, played by Sandra Bullock, would concur, speed(ing) has its benefits (let’s face it, the introduction is too good to be altered and so you must live it no matter how tenuous the reference turned out to be).
United have changed from last season; and, what was probably inspired by Keanu Reeves and Bullock’s cheesy flick, they have looked to see out eternal transition — surely the most tedious term in football — with greater emphasis on speed; or energy and pace.
When United had slightly avenged their Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in pre-season with a 2-1 win, Sir Alex Ferguson thought he had stumbled on the solution to the previous year’s shortcomings with players such as Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck displaying great energy to overcome Barcelona’s pretty patterns. From the end of the final until now, the manager has frequently spoken about the need to close the gap between United and the Catalans and, although this clearly hasn’t worked in European competitions in this campaign, it is something that he is clearly intending to stick with, considering he is ready to allow Dimitar Berbatov — often accused of slowing play down — to leave.
United’s 19th title last year, many had noted, was down to a more pragmatic approach. Despite the success, they are changing up again — or reverting back to the thing they know best. “We’ve introduced some young players to the club this season who have tremendous ability and a great energy and spirit about them,” said the manager in October. “So I think we’re making great strides towards that level Barcelona have reached these past two or three years.”
Berbatov’s impending exit would be a major blow for any side and especially for one where he has contributed seven in only ten this term, a goals-to-game ratio so good that you wouldn’t need to bother to calculate it. It’s just zero point very, very impressive. But the fact that he has played so few says so much that certain people (naming no names) will feel compelled to throw away the gorgeous lock of hair found in a Mancunian barber apparently belonging to the Bulgarian. His agent, Emil Danchev, said last month that Sir Alex wanted to ”change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game”. The Guardian article from which that quote is taken from, written by Daniel Taylor, also says the following:
In a game last year, one of Berbatov’s team-mates took issue with him for not running hard enough. Berbatov pointed out that was the way he played and he didn’t need to go faster. “You do at this club,” came the reply, expletives removed.
United seem to want to return to the fluid style of 2007/08; that, certainly, has been evident in some of their play this season, something that the blistering start in the League in August and September can surely be put down to. There was a gradual slowing down somewhere in the middle but, recently, United have looked a team invigorated, possibly by Manchester City’s dramatic decline and the lack of involvement elsewhere in other competitions. Indeed, for all this talk of an ‘average’ team, ‘Sir Alex’s worst’, United are heading for a mammoth points total and look in good stead to extend their already sizeable lead at the top of the table, all at the expense of their local rival, a side that was expected to blitz the League given their strength in depth and depth of pounds.
The signing of the admittedly-erratic Ashley Young, although not literally young, not any more, probably ties in with the Fergie quote earlier in the article; what a player like Young would give to any team is pace and energy, and rather than be an eventual Ryan Giggs replacement like some had thought, he is the ideal man for the current system (Park ji-Sung has ‘energy’ in the abundance, but, curiously, he’s been largely uninvolved — is his lack of pace, like Berbatov, the reason why?). With Antonio Valencia on the other side, they looked to have found some consistency and have become an altogether more efficient, and entertaining, outfit, yet they do remain wasteful and only, it has to be said, a very good side that should win the title. Still — and don’t let others tell you otherwise — United have improved from last year and will only get better; they won’t reach Barcelona any time soon — unless Lionel Messi and Xavi are offered in a part exchange for Ryan Tunnicliffe — but armed with brute speed and led by a wily Glaswegian sage, they are in a position where almost anything, but not yet everything, is attainable.
If you ever find yourself incarcerated in an El-Salvadorian prison and forced to watch ITV’s football coverage, you will see a man in the studio. A man who seethes with contempt at the inane banality around him, a man whose icy stare at the artificially folksy repartee of Adrian Chiles could freeze magma. This man is Roy Keane, and before dedicating his life to campaigning against glove-wearing pansies and slating Alex Ferguson in the gutter press, he was actually the captain of Manchester United and — oh — what a captain he was.
As a player, Keane will be remembered for many things, like kicking Alfe-Inge Haaland’s right knee so hard it caused a career ending injury in his left one or scaring the brioche out of Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel. Of course, some ‘purists’ will tell you he was nothing more than a thug, a madman who had no place in a gentleman’s game but deep-down, in places they don’t like to talk about in the comment section of the Guardian football site, they wished that they had someone like him in their side. Keane was a winner, a force of nature, a rabid, iron-clad wolverine who would rather kill his granny and sell her body as dog food than accept a 2-2 draw at Selhurst Park, a man who, if he had lived in ancient Sparta, would have been the subject of a best-selling graphic novel and blockbuster movie called ’1′.
Perhaps his finest hour was in the 1999 Champions League semi-final second leg against Juventus. It’s often overlooked now, but sandwiched between the last, and possibly greatest FA Cup semi-final replay in history (won in extra time by Ryan Giggs beating seven Arsenal players, two unused substitutes and Pat Rice before rifling a shot past David Seaman and flaunting his chest rug all over the West Midlands) and that balmy night in Barcelona where half the Bayern squad were already tucking into their celebratory bratwurst when Teddy Sheringham scuffed home the equaliser, Keane was the driving force behind what, until a famous flick off Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s leg, was considered the greatest comeback in the history of the European Football.
United had been scintillating in qualifying from the group of death that featured both Barcelona and eventual finalists Bayern and had made fairly light work of Italian giants Inter in the quarter-finals. History, however, was not on their side as they travelled to Turin. In the late 1990s, Juventus were quite the side; they’d featured in the last three Champions League finals and had beaten United three times in the previous two years. With the skill of Zinedine Zidane, the drive and energy of Edgar Davids and the movement of Filipo Inzaghi, the Italian champions had dominated Fergie’s men for much of the first leg. While a late Giggs equaliser (yes, another late goal, this is Man United) had given them a lifeline, the Reds had never won in Italy and the ‘Old Lady’ had never been knocked out of Europe in the comfort of their own rocking chair.
United couldn’t have got off to a worse start. After a scrappy first five minutes, Juve took the lead through a nicely worked corner routine that saw Pippo Inzaghi nip in at the far post to poke the ball past Peter Schmeichel. Five minutes later, their lead doubled when another Inzaghi shot took the cruelest of deflections off of the outstretched leg of Jaap Stam and looped over Schmeichel’s head. United were visibly shaken (seeing Pippo Inzaghi onside twice in the same calendar year will do that to you) and looked in danger of being humiliated.
Roy Keane, however, had other plans and immediately began to impose himself. Edgar Davids had been one of the standout performers in the first leg but Keano dominated him here, rendering the former Milli Vanilli man as effective as a celery stick at Charlie Adam’s house. The Reds followed their captain’s lead with the movement of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole proving particularly difficult for the Italians. As David Beckham jogged over to take a 24th minute corner, ITV co-commentator, former United boss and perma-tanned jewelry magnet, Ron Atkinson suggested that the next goal would be the most important of United’s season. Seconds later, Keane duly obliged with the ultimate captains’ goal, firing a glancing header past stranded Juventus ‘keeper Angelo Peruzzi.
Such was Keane’s focus, he barely celebrated but the goal invigorated United who began moving the ball around like sugared up children playing pass-the-parcel with an overly wrapped scented rubber. In the 34th minute, however, a misplaced Jesper Blomqvist pass forced Keane to bring down Zinedine Zidane and the Irishman was given the yellow card that meant, no matter the outcome, he would have no role to play in Barcelona. This was the same stadium where, nine years earlier, Paul Gascoigne had received a booking that would have caused him to miss the World Cup final but, rather than blub a toddler who’d dropped his ice cream, Keane was unyielding, the very embodiment of the grit and determination that characterises Alex Ferguson’s United.
What followed was immense. There were no 40-yard passes or no pointless step-overs but there was a master-class in midfield efficacy. Keano covered more grass than Season 5 of ‘Weeds’, chasing down loose balls, bolstering the defence and making surging runs in support of front men.
Within minutes of his booking, United were level thanks to a diving header from Dwight Yorke and Juventus were forced to chase the game. They responded by introducing Nicola Amoruso to partner Inzaghi up front and moving Zidane back into central midfield where diminutive water-carrier Didier Deschamps played Penfold to his Danger Mouse. Keane, however, was unperturbed and maintained his vice-like grip on the contest, reining in the World Cup winning duo with his trademark snarling aggression while simultaneously providing the impetus for the United’s passing game, offering a constant outlet and distributing quickly and efficiently.
Save for an Inzaghi effort that was ruled out for offside (his record-breaking 364th of the season) Juve offered very little in the second period. United, however, with Keane calling the shots like Paulie from ‘Godfellas’ (except a lot thinner and wearing a magic hat), continued to dominate, hitting the inside of the post for the second time in the game before Andy Cole finally put the game to bed.
There were a number of men in red who put in great performances that night, but the impact of Keane is best summed up by United manager and renowned trophy aficionado Alex Ferguson, who said: “It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”