An XI of the best from the group stages, because we feel like it. If there’s any player you think we’ve missed out, it’s because he’s on your list. Or, alternatively, you can tell us who in the comments section.
We're as surprised as you are.
Iker Casillas: He’s a goalkeeper, and he’s played quite well, which is arguably enough to warrant a place in the side. The standard of keeping during the groups, generally, was very poor — but Iker Casillas still managed to stick out like a handsome and very competent thumb.
Gebre Selassie: Football logic is inconsistent — but Selassie’s status as an unknown has probably helped him stand out; he might not be the best right-back in the competition, right now anyway, but he’s looked as good as the rest. And who doesn’t dearly love a full-back who can defend as well as he can attack (which is a compliment in this case)? Selassie was Czech Republic’s best player (followed, of course, by The Gliding Jesus™, Petr Jiracek).
Pepe: Portugal wore their red home kit twice in the group stages, but rumour has it that Pepe’s ones mysteriously disappeared before the tournament, and instead, when needed to, he’s been wearing his country’s white away strip, blood-stained and all. Thankfully, it seems those claims are unfounded; Pepe’s put his apparent misanthropy to one side and decided to focus on the football. He’s looked good so far.
Daniele De Rossi: The Italian, makeshift centre-half would perhaps struggle in a two-man defence (in this tournament, he’s been part of a three), especially if the person he’s paired with is one of the most erratic and volatile in world football. While De Rossi might be the weak link in the team for this reason, he’s looked very assured in an unfamiliar position — and so he deserves credit — and everything he’s learned as a midfielder has been, in some way, translated to a withdrawn position in Italy’s 3-5-2. The opener against Spain was his best performance of the three — which he really ought to be bragging about if he hasn’t yet.
Fabio Coentrão: In a world of Steven Warnocks and Wayne Bridges, you sometimes wonder why anybody would even want to be a left-back. Coentrão, however, does a good job of it; good against Germany, even better against Denmark and even, even better against Holland.
Samir Nasri: We’re also surprised.
Steven Gerrard: This isn’t a joke post, honest. It’s been widely acknowledged that Gerrard’s been pretty good for England so far and after his performance against France, Laurent Blanc was said to have praised him personally. Gerrard had a hand in key England goals; Lescott in the first game, Carroll against Sweden in the second and then Rooney against Ukraine in the decider, with the help of a few deflections and a miserable-looking goalkeeper. Even his Hollywood balls have been effective according to sometimes-reliable science; Football365 say 14/19 of his long balls have found a team-mate.
Andrea Pirlo: Italy have had a makeover; and Andrea Pirlo’s game has so far been as attractive as it’s ever been.
Andres Iniesta: The doubters would be looking at this team in disgust; this side would never be able to succeed in practise, they’d say. Well, you’re wrong. Iniesta has been consistently good even when Spain largely haven’t; he’s always stringing passes together, looking to create and just generally holding his team together — all this making him the front-runner for Player of the Tournament. Take that, probably-right doubters!
Alan Dzagoev: The Russians might have ‘crashed out’ according to the papers, though perhaps a better description is needed given the manner of their 1-0 defeat to Greece where a dour game, and an uninspiring performance from a team that had semi-finals as a realistic target, mixed with Robbie Savage’s analysis, made for a rather anticlimactic end to all the Dzagoev — and Arshavin — fun. Still, the attacking midfielder was busy and impactful; he didn’t quite manage to maintain the level of performance against the Greeks, but he manages to pip Zlatan Ibrahimovic for his immense football in the first two games. He tucks in behind Gomez.
Mario Gomez: He scored three goals out of three. Did anyone else scored three goals? Yes? Oh.
BENCH: Lloris, Debuchy, Hummels, Krohn-Dehli, Arshavin, Modric, Ibrahimovic.
There’s always an attempt to replicate great moments — particularly goals — in the playground, though any young fan who enjoyed Danny Welbeck’s winner against Sweden for England on Friday evening would have difficulty pulling it off. It was an audacious piece of skill; the fact that it was initially seen as lucky, cynically dismissed as a fluke, made it an altogether better goal as the replay showed Welbeck react instinctively to Theo Walcott’s cross by turning, then letting the ball gently bounce onto the back of his boot away into the right of Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson. It was a goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic, failing to score at the other end, would have been proud of — the sort, clever and controlled, that would typically be attributed to him.
For Walcott, the supplier of the cross, the goal seemed to have evoked memories of another genius. “He reminds me of Dennis Bergkamp at times,” says Theo Walcott of Welbeck, without a hint of hyperbole. Only in Crazy Comparison Country is Welbeck the new Bergkamp, an extremely flattering comparison that does, at least, show the value of having someone like Welbeck in your team. What has helped Welbeck is that he isn’t exclusively a goalscorer — he does more, and this idea of Welbeck being a team-player meant he started five more games than Javier Hernandez in the 2011/12 season for Manchester United, something fans were generally content with despite that being his first proper campaign as a senior player for the club.
And without being too harsh on the Mexican, Welbeck simply got (and gets) involved more; he sees the situation better and yet still allows himself to take risks, his Pritt Stick feet means he has an immense first touch and the ability to dribble past others, while the understanding he’s able to create with players should, in Tuesday’s must-
windraw game to Ukraine, see him partnered with Rooney. For United, both have looked good together; it hasn’t necessarily been a great strike partnership in the Cole-Yorke mould but it doesn’t have to be; both performed consistently enough as a duo when required and there was still, at times, some genuinely sumptuous link-up play between the two.
Roy Hodgson’s decision is made easy for this reason, but Andy Carroll might point out, at least to himself, all alone in a darkened room, that he did enough against Sweden to warrant another start. Indeed, he fits England style of play quite well and he’s evidently chosen the right time to bloom; but Welbeck played just as well in the last game, though even if one performed better than the other, Carroll does not have the advantage the Longsight-born forward has in that he’s familiar with Rooney.
Of course, there’s then the argument that Rooney, back from suspension, should not start as it would be harmful to change a winning team. But England were hardly superior to Sweden; they couldn’t hold the ball when they needed to (possession yet to go above 50% for any of Hodgson’s four games in charge so far) and Rooney, so often something of a bonus midfield player, can at least help alleviate those problems, even if he has looked unconvincing for England for years now, his international high point as far back as Euro 2004. (Rooney spoke of Hodgson’s dilemma — though it’s not really that — in a press conference on Sunday: “The forwards have done well in the games, it’s great for me as well. It’s great competition. You know you need to be at your best to get in the team … there’s four good strikers there and we’ll all fight for one or two places. You have to make sure when you do play that you do well.”)
Hodgson likes club partnerships. Whatever motivated him to overlook Rio Ferdinand, he had originally planned for John Terry to start with Gary Cahill ahead of Joleon Lescott, even though the latter had the better of seasons, before Cahill was ruled out. Club-ties was also perhaps what inspired him to start Ashley Young with Welbeck in the France opener, though admittedly that was no more a successful combination than Ireland’s Eurovision entry. This one should be different, though. These two, as Chris Smalling says, are a perfect match.
“It has been a great pairing for United,” Smalling said. “They link up really well for us — and they get on really well. [Welbeck] knows how he plays — he’s seen his movement. He’s learned a lot off him at United. Danny’s played up top and Wayne’s played just behind and has fed him those balls. They are on the same wavelength.”
In April 2012, they came at Ashley Young with pitchforks: they’d had enough of his theatrics. It’s June 2012, and now they don’t dare: Young has become England’s key player, the most in-form and, with it, the most influential in what is a depleted, generally uninspired national side. Still, Young can bring theatre to a side that badly needs it and, perhaps, should they need it, some trademark theatrics in the 18-yard box in order to con the referee.
As the France opener approaches, he has found himself with a burden greater than he ever had at Manchester United in the season gone; though, what happens over the next few weeks might have an impact, though small, on his Old Trafford career. At 26, Young is at an age where players are said to be at their peak, and there are signs that he is about there, however profligate he may be at times, and however many times his rawness from his days at Aston Villa and, further along the line, Watford happen to be evident. Roy Hodgson will play him away from the left and into the centre, alongside, not behind, a proper striker. Whether that is Andy Carroll or Danny Welbeck shouldn’t change too much from his angle; though he might be better suited to play with the latter as it’s his club partner, though, then again, Young is more similar to Welbeck than Carroll in style of play so the Liverpool forward could be favoured to add something different; whatever that is.
Anyway, Young playing centrally could have some relevance to his club; the signing of attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa signals that United want someone behind Wayne Rooney, and should he be unavailable or rotated for any future club games, Young could be expected to play in that role, especially if he impresses for England during Euro 2012. If England were to play well — wahey! — you’d predict Young would have something to do with it. In fact, Ashley Young is England; he’s either scored or created 11 of England’s last 20 goals (Opta). France mustn’t beware of key players Steven Gerrard or Welbeck or Martin Kelly. It’s Young they have to deal with, Young they have to frustrate.
England and Hodgson might not immediately recognise the side’s reliance on the player but it does exist; he is creative from open play or on the set-piece, prolific in front of goal, shown against Norway and Belgium in the warm-ups, as he almost always manages to provide the breakthrough. He scored a wonderful solo goal in the first and then hit a cleverly weighted through pass for Welbeck against Belgium. England were average at best in both but Young’s moments helped Hodgson maintain respectability in his first few weeks as manager, despite the blows caused by selection and the re-emergence of the John Terry race row.
Young’s only problem is that he drifts out of games far too much; something this site touched on a few months back, where his first season at United could be defined by “one or two good moments [in a game], but otherwise [overall] frustrating”. Both friendly games, at least, were highly efficient performances where he was always available and always part of the game, but it is realistic that this problem will re-appear, especially as England take on considerably better teams.
Some other questions …
What can Hodgson do with England?
In yesterday’s Euro 2012 predictions piece, one question that perhaps, on reflection, could have been posed to the panel was whether Roy Hodgson could
bring the good times back make England a proper threat, and not just an underdog with a sniff, even a powerful one like Russia or Croatia. The players England have are better than those two sides — though I say that naively — and, realistically, could aim for better. Indeed, a semi final, though unlikely, is possible if England see off France in Group D and then play either one of Italy, Ireland or Croatia (i.e avoiding Spain) in the quarters.
Yes, Hodgson’s side is slightly uninspiring in some places — the six (SIX) Liverpool players a bit baffling — but a good run is possible, they just need to apply the right things.
You know, the three non-Barcelona teams to have won the Champions League in last five years all played the Spanish side in the semi final and defended deep in at least, though not limited to, one leg. All three — Manchester United, Inter, Chelsea — were criticised in some way but it should now be accepted — that “parking the bus” is like any other strategy. England have done similar, though not as extreme as those, in the warm-up games. Four 1-0s/0-0s, and generally being hard to break down, can see relative success; a place in the last eight. They’ll be like Greece 2004 — well, they’ll try to be. They won’t win the thing, for sure. Though the Spain friendly in November 2011, where England won 1-0, give weight to optimists’ arguments who think they can beat the bigger sides, hoping for a stubborn unit that can pluck goals on the counter or on set-pieces.
Welbeck or Carroll?
The title of this piece is a bit long, you know?
Croatia! They won't win it.
Euro 2012 may well be the last of its kind. While many generally view the Shakira-less Championships as somewhat inferior to the World Cup, it trumps it in perhaps the thing (or two things) that matters most; the competitiveness and, with it, the entertainment factor. UEFA’s Michel Platini’s meddling — 24 teams for 2016 — might serve to dilute a competition that simply doesn’t need it — that be weaker teams increasing gaps barely recognisable before, possible convoluted methods of qualification, and the tournament being unnecessarily long-winded (well, maybe not); and besides, poorly-timed reforms should only really be exclusive to a beleaguered coalition government — that way we can at least say we were prepared. Plus, who’s to say UEFA aren’t discussing the possibility of getting Shakira to sing the official song for France 2016, featuring the lyrics “Xhaka Xhaka, eh eh”, an ode to Switzerland’s Granit Xhaka, the FC Basel youngster, by then, of course, two-time Ballon D’Or winner.
As Soccernomics author Simon Kuper told the Associated Press in 2011, slightly cynically maybe, that “by definition, it [Euro 2016] will be diluted” as the “lesser teams defend because that is the easiest thing to learn.” With all of this considered, the Euro 2012 competition is, by conclusion, the Most Important Thing in the World, and it’s not like anything else big and sporty is happening this summer. Which is why, before the 2016 monster is unleashed and the world is brought to an abrupt end, we’ve invited writers and friends of the site to lend us their predictions for the upcoming tournament, seeking an appointment with the oracle, or perhaps even Wojciech the Octopus.
We have: journalist/writer Miguel Delaney (The Independent, Irish Examiner, ESPN), editor of BeautifullyRed Shaun Birch, Stretford-End.com‘s Doron Salomon and Robert Martinez, and internet vagabond Surge B.
Which two sides will progress from each group?
ManUtd24: Group A: Poland, Russia
B: Germany, Portugal
C: Spain, Italy
D: France, England
Netherlands crashing out — and I’d say crashing is a good verb given its magnitude — is my ‘being contrarian’ choice purely because I think their group (B), which features Germany and Portugal, is remarkably difficult and, of course, only two can go through.
Doron Salomon: Group A: Russia, Greece
B: Germany, Portugal
C: Spain, Croatia
D: Ukraine, England
Shaun Birch: Group A: Poland, Russia
B: Netherlands, Germany
C: Spain, Italy
D: France, Sweden
Robert Martinez: Group A: Russia, Poland
B: Germany, Netherlands
C: Spain, Ireland
D: France, Jubilee Nation
Surge B: Group A: Poland, Russia
B: Germany, Netherlands
C: Spain, Italy
D: France, England
In Group A, the draw’s been very kind to the Poles — Lewandowski’s goals should see them finish top. Russia are probably the next best in the group, an achievement akin to being the Europe’s tallest dwarf. [Group B] The ‘group of death’ moniker is misleading; Germany and Holland are easily the two best sides in it and two of the best three in the tournament. [Group C] Spain are World Champions, European Champions, WBA Light-Heavyweight Champions and winners of Toledo Bob’s World Famous Bar-B-Q Cook-Off. Italy conceded two goals in qualifying. It seems straightforward enough. [Group D] I was torn between England and Sweden for second place, then I saw England’s games against Switzerland and Belgium. It was like watching blindfolded zombies navigate an assault course in a flooded minefield.
The Euros’ best player?
Miguel Delaney: If you look through recent tournaments — other than Euro 2008 — this can often be a surprising one. It’s probably too easy to be drawn to the bigger names. In saying that, that’s exactly what’s happening to me. Mesut Ozil to run the show for Germany.
DS: Tough to pick a best player with all the Spanish talent but I quite fancy this to be Ronaldo’s tournament. I don’t think Portugal will win it but off the back of such a fabulous season I think he’ll take Portugal further than they probably should go.
SuB: Mesut Ozil. Forced to play second fiddle to the bigger names (and egos) in Madrid, Ozil comes into his own representing his country where he’s the heartbeat of a German attack that’s tailor-made for a man of his talents. A sublime passer of the ball, he quietly conducts the oom-pah band the rest of the forwards dance to. In 14 appearances in a German shirt, he’s either scored or created a goal every 78 minutes. Everything good Die Mannschaft do coming forward flows through him – and they do a lot of good things coming forward.
ShB: Like he stood out in his last international tournament, I’m going with Mesut Ozil. Coming off the back of a tremendous season with Real Madrid, that saw him instrumental in beating Barcelona to La Liga title, and playing in an international set up that is prepared to challenge as winners, Ozil is in perfect form to showcase his beautiful ability of making football look sexy. His creative genius will drive Germany all the way to the final.
RM: Andres Iniesta. He hasn’t had a particularly good season with Barcelona, but is vital to Spain’s attack, especially against the ultra-defensive opponents they can expect to face throughout the tournament. A big-game, big-tournament player.
24: Thomas Muller. He’s German. And very, very good. Shall I wrap it up there? He was just 20 in the 2010 World Cup where he won the Golden Boot and he’s got the same surname as his countryman Gerd (probably irrelevant but who doesn’t dearly love an insubstantial link) who, of course, scored a lot at major tournaments. He’s not necessarily a goalscorer but his record for Germany is good anyway and when you consider that, and his other notable attributes, creating chances, creating chances and creating chances, he’s a good bet to do well.
Best young player?
This may overlap with Best Player. Your problem?
RM: Does Mesut Özil still count as young? I don’t see the big contenders giving much playing time to any of his juniors. However, if Russia do well I expect their playmaker Alan Dzagoev to have a big role in that. He turns 22 during the tournament, and has been around for some time now — Euro 2012 seems as good a time as ever for him to “break out.” Was excellent for CSKA Moscow in this season’s Champions League.
ShB: I’m struggling to think of any real youngsters, so I’m going with a 23-year-old playing in his first international tournament. Double winner with Borussia Dortmund in a season that saw he scored 30 goals including a season ending hat-trick versus Bayern Munich in the German Cup Final, Robert Lewankdowski will spearhead the attack for co-hosts Poland this summer, and in a group that offers them a very realistic chance of progressing, and backed by his host country, I see the Polish striker continuing his season form and firing Poland into the knockout stages.
24: I like Christian Eriksen. Yes, fine, it’s fairly plausible that Denmark will end Group B pointless but they’ve got a good team and, while qualification into the knockouts is another matter, they can make it difficult for the opposition; and Eriksen, at 20, looks a fine prospect. And even if, as predicted, Denmark flounder, if they were to indeed produce any special moments, it would probably come from this particular Dane. If you want another, Danny Welbeck. (Ah, good ol’ Danny.)
MD: I think Poland will have a promising tournament and their young striker Lewandowski will show why clubs like United have bid for him.
SuB: Injury permitting, Yann M’Vila. Denmark won’t play enough games for Eriksen to be considered and there’s no telling how heavily the likes of Strootman, Reus and Gotze will feature. Mats Hummels is a preposterous talent -– an intelligent, commanding centre-back with an exceptional range of passing -– who’s likely to be Germany’s first choice but no young player will be more key to his nation’s fortunes than M’Vila. His vision and distribution are matters of record but, playing in front of a back four that inspires about as much confidence as a hedgehog operating a forklift, it’s his robust defensive abilities that will prove most important.
DS: It’s a shame Milan Badelj won’t be starting for Croatia because I really like the look of him but it could be any of the German kids — the two I’d pick out are Mats Hummels and André Schürrle. Given the injuries to England, too, I think Oxlade-Chamberlain will feature quite a bit and I think he along with Welbeck could be England’s young stars.
RM: Andy Carro… heh, no. This is a tough one, as I expect a fairly low-scoring tournament overall. I think the eventual top scorer will come from Group B, so I’ll just go for Robin van Persie. Unless Huntelaar plays instead. Err, yeah.
ShB: They are several top strikers coming into the tournament on the back of brilliant seasons for their clubs. Lewandowski, van Persie, Gomez, Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, for example. My pick, however, is Karim Benzema, who with 32 goals in 39 starts for Real Madrid this season is high on confidence and in deadly form. France’s recent international tournament shambles are well documented but under coach Laurent Blanc they look to have turned themselves around and Benzema is central to their plans.
24: I’ve said Muller will score a few but let’s go for Mario Gomez. He’s scored 26 league goals from 33 and although he’s always been seen as a bit of a bottler — lacking composure — he’s notably improved in front of goal (though 26 goals from 101 Bundesliga shots makes him the new Andy Cole). On another note, I’m not entirely looking forward to be disappointed by a Klose-less Germany.
DS: Mario Gomez. Next.
MD: Don’t laugh: I fancy a bet on Torres. Look at this way: most of the big scorers — like Ronaldo and Van Persie — are in tough groups. There are no stand-out options in the more open groups (although Kerzhakov is worth a punt at about 66-1). By contrast, Spain will dominate every game and Torres — who looks likely to start — is suddenly relatively revitalised.
SuB: Robert Lewandowski. Mario Gomez may not get a game and Ronaldo has never managed to duplicate his merciless club record at international level. The second half of Robin van Persie’s season was nowhere near as good as his PFA and FWA awards suggest and he’ll have to contend with Bert van Marwijk’s obsession with shoe-horning both he and Huntelaar into the same side. Lewandowski, on the other hand, being technically adept and a lethal finisher, is in the weakest group in the tournament and is the clear focal point of the Polish attack that could easily reach the semi-finals.
Surprise package (team), or [grits teeth] dark horse?
To do well and progress, exceed expectations, not to necessarily win the thing a la Greece ’04, but like semi-finalists Russia in 2008.
ShB: Sweden. As much as I’d like to say England will do well, they look a mess right now. Some strange squad calls from new manager Hodgson has been compounded by several injuries to key players and I think Sweden with the enigmatic Ibrahimovic will follow France out of Group D, and once you get to the knockout stages, with some added confidence and a key player performing, anything can happen.
MD: Group A is probably the best place to look given it’s the most open and, if you get through, you could be one lucky game away from a stand-out historical achievement like a semi-final. So I’d go for Russia and, to a lesser extent, the Poles. If you take into account that Spain and Germany are on a completely different level, though, France could be a good outside bet to win it if they build momentum in their comparatively easier group.
SuB: At first, I was tempted to say Poland but given that I’ve tipped Lewandowski to be top scorer and their group is about as challenging as a Spot-the-Ugly-Bloke competition at Melwood, I’m not sure I can get away with calling them a surprise package. Group D looks like an upset waiting to happen. The Spanish are beginning to look fatigued from having been hawked all over the world like a revolutionary kitchen cleaner on late-night television and will be missing both David Villa and Whitesnake’s Carles Puyol. Italy still have the whiff of experimentalism about them and if there’s one man capable of derailing the plans of entire nation by setting fire to the one-legged exotic dancer he invited back to his room for a game of strip-Temple Run, it’s Mario Balotelli. Croatia are more than equipped to capitalize should either of the big two slip up. If that happens, a semi-final appearance would hardly be unlikely.
RM: Ireland to make the semis! I can see them just beating an uninspired-looking Italy into Group C’s 2nd place. In the quarters, they would presumably face France, who look massively talented but unbalanced, and maybe one stale Gitane away from collective meltdown. Irish revenge against France… pretty good #narrative, eh? Oh, I don’t know — I just made this up and am currently wearing green.
DS: Croatia — they have a tough group with Spain, Italy and Ireland but I fancy them to come through it. Their strongest starting XI is very good and they have some pretty experienced players in the squad. Importantly, they have players coming in off the back of a good season, particularly in midfield and up front.
24: Poland! It’d be wrong not to fancy at least one of the co-hosts but unlike Ukraine, they’ve got a group they can realistically progress from.
And the winners …?
24: Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel might be planning to boycott the Euros but I suspect we’ll see her cheering her nation on — with David Cameron nowhere in sight — in the Kyiv final as Germany do a Germany and win the shiny thing.
DS: I’ve flipped a coin and the coin tells me it’ll be Germany, not Spain.
ShB: Allez Les Bleus! There may be question marks over how solid they are defensively but a competitive midfield of M’Vila and Cabaye mixed with the creative flair of Ribery and Nasri, added to my predicted goal haul for Karim Benzema will see France, with plenty of tournament pedigree in coach Laurent Blanc, make up for recent embarrassments and beat the Germans on penalties in the final.
MD: All things being equal, Spain. But all things are not equal. There’s a huge build-up of fatigue and pressure after four years of making and chasing history. As such, I think Germany might just pip them.
SuB: Germany. Spain are still a magnificent side but you get the sense they’ve already peaked. Germany, however, have spent two years building on their outstanding display in South Africa, quietly adding some of the finest young players in Europe to a squad that was busy gaining the experience of a 100% qualifying campaign. Their profusion of options, particularly in the in attacking areas, is formidable and their defence only looks weak when compared to the staggering embarrassment of riches they possess in other areas of the field. The squad that gave the impression the World Cup had come a little too early for them now looks ready to fulfill its potential.
RM: Germany. The eurozone will collapse the day after.
The site will try
hard to cover the Euros over the next few weeks, though probably intermittently. Leave your predictions in the comments section.
When United, a drama based on the true story of the Busby Babes and the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, premiered on BBC Two in Spring 2011, it was met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. It’s out on DVD and now on demand; and we review it below, with the help of director James Strong …
We all know the story; as the Manchester United team prepared to take off from Munich airport in February 1958 after a European game, the plane carrying them and other passengers crashed, killing many, wounding others. The intention of United, director James Strong tells ManUtd24, was to [in film terms] “tell the relatively untold story of the Busby Babes and the Munich disaster which nearly destroyed Manchester United football club. We wanted to tell the world about these incredible players and the ground-breaking techniques developed by Sir Matt Busby and his coach Jimmy Murphy in producing the best football team of a generation. And how, as they were about to conquer the world, tragedy struck and most of the team were either killed or injured in a fateful plane crash, but also how one man’s dedication [Jimmy Murphy] kept the spirit and the heart of the club going through its darkest hours.”
The film initially follows the template of any other sport film; centring around the toils of Bobby Charlton, a youngster wanting nothing more than a chance to play for Manchester United. But this is where United separates itself from the general mediocrity of other football flicks (and it isn’t even that), like 2005’s Goal! (which isn’t necessarily a bad film but it ultimately strays too close to the obvious) and gradually becomes edgy, moving away from the ‘feel-good’ and opening itself up into an entirely different world.
This film does things well. Bobby Charlton becomes Old Trafford’s new hero, impressing against Charlton Athletic, but sees an attempt to cut short his post-match celebrations by an opposing player who remarks with the most powerful of lines — a case of dramatic irony, perhaps, that serves not only to emphasise the prowess of the Busby Babes but to put the impending tragedy into context:
‘You’re just kids. How can you win like that when you’re just kids?’
Imagine you’ve been chosen to create a film. You — on the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. How would you go about it? And who would be the protagonist? Bobby Charlton? Matt Busby? Duncan Edwards? Even Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper who helped make survivors of those beneath the wreckage? Those behind United barely neglected to tell their story, but shifted a lot of focus, somewhat surprisingly, on Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy, played by David Tennant, no less. James Strong, whose work includes the directing of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey, tells us: “Jimmy Murphy was the unsung hero of the club before and after the crash,” he says. “In dramatic terms to tell a story effectively you often need to narrow your focus and tell a bigger story by concentrating on an individual, or in our case Jimmy and Bobby; this doesn’t mean their story is any less important than anyone else who was involved, but to tell the story of everyone just isn’t possible.”
It doesn’t take long to gain an impression of Murphy, and it’s usually a good one — he’s a players’ coach, and an active one judging by his off-coloured tracksuit and his spontaneous shouts of motivation (‘the ball’s round to go round’, ‘football’s a simple game’), his beady eyes showing an engaged motivator during a talk with Charlton where he then tells him, eyes suddenly withdrawn, smiling, ‘it’s all there for you, I promise’. Strong says: “I was struck by Jimmy’s integral role in the development of the youth players and harnessing their raw talent – many of whom went on to become known as the Busby Babes and then his key part in ensuring the team and the club would survive the disaster. His selfless work and determination to honour those who had been lost I felt was an amazing and untold story.”
While many were impressed with the portrayal of Murphy, some were less pleased with how manager Matt Busby appeared, as perhaps croaky, grumpy, and according to Busby’s son, Sandy, like a “gangster”. However, Strong is happy with the end result: “As the public face of the club and well known and widely respected figure, lots of people have a memory of what he was like,” he says. “For our part again we made great efforts to get our portrayal accurate. The actor playing him, Dougray Scott, listened to hours of interviews to get his speech patterns absolutely correct.
“Interestingly, when we showed the film to a group of survivors and relatives, one of the players, Kenny Morgans, told me afterwards he had closed his eyes and thought he was back in the room with the ‘boss’.
“We also studied photographs to see how he dressed, held himself and, of course, talked to lots of people who knew him to really get a picture of what he was like but, of course, it’s never going to be the real person — it’s only ever a portrayal and all you can do is try to do your best – which I know we did and the overwhelming majority of people felt we’d got him spot on.” While criticism is inevitable for a film, those who did for this one were almost exclusively unhappy at the character detailing, rather than the way the show unfolded. The audience, mainly Manchester United fans, would not object to aspects that cannot rationally be objected to.
Even with deep, detailed knowledge of how it all unfolded, nothing can quite prepare you for the scene prior to where it happens; the build-up slow and rapid, merciless and ominous; created partly by the visuals, the showing of angst and sharp eyes, and partly by sound as the gentle patter of snow, ticking of clocks and a haunting piano cumulatively creates something dark, perilous and — then — it hits you hard. United succeeds in the use of all these techniques — the film notably enhanced.
It’s a dramatisation, we know, but they should have at least put that in big, bold letters, repeated every once in a while to catch the audience off guard. The reality is that the immediate wreckage of the disaster, the shouts and the tears, the blooded bodies, is so moving purely because it’s all true; this genuinely happened. It is powerful because we’re familiar, even if that is vaguely, with the extent of what happened in ’58.
It’s only after it all subsides, and that takes a while, that the extent of the creators’ attention to detail can be fully acknowledged; the film draws on first-hand interviews, doing its best as it strives for accuracy. James Strong wrote in a column for the BBC that United was ‘as true to the real story as possible’, ‘for example, we know the exact fabric that was used on the seats of the plane’. “With our extensive research (interviews with the survivors, relatives, archives etc) we attempted to be as accurate to the events that occurred and respectful as possible to the real people involved, while still telling a story that was dramatically of interest to a wide audience,” Strong says.
This film is emotional, unforgiving, absorbing and inspirational. It succeeds in detailing the horrors of the air crash, the reasons for its happening and its eventually glorious aftermath, and a whole lot more. But it is obvious that this isn’t just about the Babes and loss of Babes, and that this is not the film of the Munich Air Disaster; but also about growing up, borrowed from the popular ‘from boys to men’ angle that few films successfully pull off with conviction, and moving on, building relationships (one of the purposes of Murphy) and bridges from what little you have and being united. It becomes resoundingly clear by the end that this is more about football — heck, there’s hardly any football shown. And that’s important: once you realise that this isn’t just another cheesy flick that tries to be safe, you’ll be able to appreciate a timeless masterpiece.
United is available on Amazon and on demand through iTunes and your local cable/satellite provider.