Hello!: The difficulty in attempting a series such as this is that nothing is ever definitive; and that probably, all judgements are instinctive. The deadly sins overlap, where someone’s idea of ‘wrath’ could conceivably be filed under ‘pride’ by another, ‘lust’ for ‘greed’, ‘greed’ for ‘envy’ or ‘gluttony’ and so forth. Perhaps by committing another one of the cardinal sins, ‘sloth’, could one example lazily appear multiple times under multiple categories, which sounds more tempting the longer the fingers are flexed. But the aim of this series is not so much about the sins as it is covering aspects of history (a lot, understandably, recent history that is easier to access) but delivered in a way that, hopefully, doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Envy: Wanting to be like Dante.
Ruud van Nistelrooy wants the ball, 2006
Ruud van Nistelrooy’s final season as a Manchester United player reads much like a tragedy. It peaked at the very start; Van Nistelrooy scored eight goals in as many games. And though it appears so, this story is not merely a parroting, a repeat of those in past seasons. This one was different.
The striker could put so much down to the influence of David Beckham when he had first joined the club; it was Beckham, after all, arguably more than any other player, who had helped elevate him into such a position, and he surely longed for him years after the midfielder had left: “I think he is missed here as a player and as a person,” Van Nistelrooy would say in 2004, and no doubt would have muttered to himself a couple of years later. The partnership between the two was outstanding and well-noted, but so very ordinary. Beckham would swing in a cross, and Van Nistelrooy would meet it (“When Beckham left United I was very sad … because of the way we connected on the pitch”).
However, it wasn’t so much the manner of goals that was the problem because he coped without him, sometimes easily, and received regular service (and was already in an early two-horse with Thierry Henry for the Golden Boot), but Beckham’s replacement, Cristiano Ronaldo, would get better, become the star and play an altogether different game from his predecessor, one that placed less emphasis on others, more himself. Van Nistelrooy did enjoy his presence, but only ever to an extent. With Beckham, the predictability was at least comforting.
Tensions would gradually increase between the two before the turning point at the very middle. “In January, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo, who literally cannot stand the sight of each other, traded punches in training, and Van Nistelrooy left Ronaldo with a broken face,” reported Setanta’s Graham Hunter. The situation would worsen as time wore on. The rise of Wayne Rooney, Louis Saha and the Dutchman’s nemesis, Ronaldo, would mean prolonged spells on the bench, even in the most vital of games, and then the nadir, where, in not being selected for the season’s final game against Charlton, he walked out, taking his Old Trafford career with him.
“On Sunday, Van Nistelrooy was not named in the team, and as we all now know, he walks out,” Hunter said. “The roots are from a serious bust-up on the training pitch the day before, over a perennial row between the two. Ronaldo held onto the ball too long in training, and Van Nistelrooy asked again: ‘Why do you keep onto the ball, why don’t you pass to me? I am in position, I am the striker. Get the ball to me.’ Ronaldo gives Van Nistelrooy some lip, it ends up in a fight, and Van Nistelrooy as he always does, needles into Ronaldo, and says ‘yeah, yeah, go running to your Dad.'”
Sir Alex Ferguson has never disguised the fact that some players require more attention than others — he was always relaxed in disciplining Eric Cantona, and would practically do the same for Ronaldo, though partly because his Portuguese assistant, Carlos Queiroz, was so accomplished at man-management and shared a unique bond with his counterpart.
“He means Carlos Quieroz, Ferguson’s assistant,” Hunter continued. “Ronaldo’s own father had died during the season, and finally, in the face of this abuse, Ronaldo burst into tears on the pitch and shouts “I don’t have a Dad, he’s dead.”
Van Nistelrooy would soon make up with Ronaldo and they would play together again. Though it was at Real Madrid. So there’s no happy ending here.
Ferguson takes Gascoigne snub well, 1988
Sir Alex Ferguson has always maintained that Paul Gascoigne was, in his own words, “the one that got away.” The story goes that, even after agreeing to sign for Manchester United himself, Tottenham Hotspur came in late and won him over with a promise of a new family home. In 2012, Ferguson told Radio 5 Live. “I think I could have done something with him, he’s the one real world star England have produced.”
Time heals, though. According to Gascoigne, shortly after his transfer to Spurs, Ferguson wrote a letter to him calling him a “stupid fat bastard”. Of course.
Willie Morgan wasn’t George Best, 1970s
A footballer’s talent is deceiving because we can only ever imagine it growing, without so much as even a pause, to the point where we convince ourselves that an individual’s potential is so much that they can even emulate the greats. We’ve seen these players falter and drift away into irrelevance, or we’ve seen them achieve the minimum of our expectations, becoming a credible player in their own right, but a fact alone that is still not enough. Historical accounts and the written word will tell you the midfielder Willie Morgan fell into the latter, remembered fondly by some, while others believe that a comparison with a certain Old Trafford legend in some way shaped and undermined Morgan’s United career in the early-to-mid Seventies.
The following is from Brian Greenhoff’s forthcoming autobiography (pre-order here):
“Willie didn’t like the George Best tag even though he was a very good player; Sammy McIlroy was one who had to live with it as well but he never let it get on top of him. He just wanted to play and train; he loved the game and was great to play with. Neither were going to be the “new George” — Willie was a very good player doing what he did, he was a good winger who could beat people and cross the ball but he just couldn’t dribble like George Best — who could? Ultimately I agreed with the decision (for Willie to move on). After the initial fall out (with manager Tommy Docherty) way back when we played Portsmouth the previous autumn, Willie still played games for United. The Doc wasn’t daft, he picked him because he was a good player, [and] I think it was probably only when Steve Coppell came in that Tommy thought he could afford to let Willie go. For team spirit I think it was the right decision.”
“My sincere congratulations. I’m delighted even though we’ve been disappointed it’s gone to you,” said Matt Busby, lauding Manchester City manager Joe Mercer on winning the old First Division. “Joe, don’t forget … we’ll still be thinking and looking around for you, next year, you know.” Mercer’s response was to thank him, and then to announce that he hopes United would win the European Cup a few weeks later. Such diplomacy — despite Busby’s obvious, natural envy — between a United and City manager in the 21st Century would almost certainly be filed under ‘mind games': it’s perhaps that sort of talk that arguably justifies the feeling of envy.
Bobby Charlton wants to be like Barcelona, 1986
This is from a gem of an interview Sir Alex had with GQ in 2008: “A few months after I first came here in November 1986, Bobby Charlton and I travelled to Barcelona to try to get Mark Hughes back. We walked around the stadium in the morning. We visited their basketball place and their amazing training facilities. Charlton turned to me and said: ‘You know – this is where we should be. We should be at this level, but we aren’t – and it’s crazy, when you look through the past 40 years of our history – back to the Busby Babes and all of those great teams.’ Then he said: ‘Let’s think about achieving that. Let’s think about being like Barcelona.'”
“We’re your first, last and only line of defence,” rapped Men in Black’s Agent J, assuming full responsibility in protecting the world from extraterrestrials. When the bigger tests arise, Manchester United’s back four will have to realise that they’re mostly alone in their battles, too; for the midfield, even in containing two largely defensive-minded players in Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, can only do so much.
It is very easy to point to the return of those on the sidelines as the solution to United’s current defensive woes; Saturday’s 4-2 win over Stoke City would suggest that they do need Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Nemanja Vidic back fit – and they do – but, in considering the quality of the (yes, depleted) back four they have to choose from, the reasons for conceding are not as clear-cut as they appear.
Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand were among United’s best performing players in 2011/12 but it is difficult to tell whether this season will be the same; for every bad performance like the one against Tottenham, there were wins over Liverpool and Newcastle United before and after. Against Stoke, a single error for Michael Kightly’s goal at 3-2 was enough to act against the two, but in reality it was a single blemish in an ultimately satisfactory performance. Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra, too, looked assured once United saw off Stoke’s early pressure.
United’s failure to prevent Charlie Adam’s £10million crosses from coming into the box were neither Evans’ or Ferdinand’s problem; in fact, as dangerous as Stoke were from the cross, United’s defenders and David de Gea made sure to limit the end result of them after Wayne Rooney’s early own goal. It is far too simplistic a view to lump everything with those easiest to blame; but when Stoke attacked, and attacked well, it was because they took advantage of the way the home side set up in attack where even the midfield had wandered forward: and the back four would then find that they are indeed the first, last and only line of defence. Sometimes, you can get away with it. They did at Old Trafford.
“There is no doubt our attacking play is the best part of the team at the moment. Our forwards got us out of trouble again because our defending has been slack,” Ferguson conceded, and though it would have been remarkable had he said any different, it is matter that must be explored further. When you have Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up top it shifts responsibility on the midfield — and Carrick and Scholes would have to pull the strings to make them of any use, which they did well, in knowledge that the visitors can hit them on the counter and expose any temporary imbalances, any gaps. Whilst potentially game-defining, it is the only real downside to United’s bold, bad-ass emphasis on attack.
United have now scored six goals in their last two home games, conceding five, losing one, winning the other. It is as if Sir Alex Ferguson recognises the risks that comes with it but is willing to keep going, especially when, sandwiched between the two games (Spurs, Stoke), was an impressive 3-0 away defeat of Newcastle. It is why, with leaders Chelsea coming up, we may see United retain the front three that have, nearly on their own, maintained the side’s credentials when pitted against Manchester City and also Chelsea.
“We should accept that he’ll try to build a team for the next three or four years,” said Dimitar Berbatov’s agent Emil Danchev in March 2012. According to Danchev, in selling Berbatov, Ferguson wants to “change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game“, which should translate into being less pragmatic, a style the team would adopt post-Ronaldo. Could it be that United want to have another go in being the team they were in 2007/08? Certainly, they have the players for it.
What makes the front three of Van Persie, Welbeck and Rooney so impressive is that they look comfortable no matter what the game demands of them; they respond well to the actions of the opposition, whether they are enjoying a lead or just a prolonged spell in possession, and use their initiative when required. The trio would pop up on the left and, crucially, appear not be fazed by it. Indeed, it was the impressive Van Persie whose stunning cross found Rooney in the box to make it 1-1 (and goals 2,3 and 4 would have the three scoring, assisting or both). Even Antonio Valencia was willing to let them in his home on the right and, fed up of being a recluse, found himself in the middle, and, in keeping with the theme, playing well. It’s just a little too similar (but it is important to stop short in danger of speaking prematurely) to the way the double-winning team of ’08 set up where Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney and Nani rotated positions and seemed so at ease with the whole thing. Of course, though, if it were so easy, every team would do it.
What United have to do now is now is find something resembling a balance that doesn’t hinder any of its stars. Failing that, they could always score one more than the opposition.
Cast your mind back ten years to 2002. We witnessed the broadcast of a tenuous and tedious Pepsi advert featuring David Beckham staring down a young Iker Casillas in a Wild West showdown. It was bad, camp and yet somehow, in someone’s mind, commercial; hawking carbonated drinks and brand Beckham through pastiche and golden ball’s very talented horse.
The summer of ’02 also saw Denis Irwin leave Old Trafford for Wolverhampton Wanderers, having played 511 games for United, scoring 33 goals and winning more trophies than he had fingers (deep breath … that’s seven Premier League titles, three FA cups, a League Cup, the Champions League, the Cup Winner’s Cup and the 1999 Intercontinental Cup).
Back to the ad. With Casillas downed and defeated, Roberto Carlos, the ultimate full-back glamour star, arrives ball in-hand, not seeking glory, honour or the defence of his team mates or colours, but to demand satisfaction for his interrupted haircut.
Had Irwin, so often trusted to take penalties in a team that featured the likes of Steve Bruce and Eric Cantona, interceded on Pepsi’s dustbowl shootout, he would have ridden in as if portrayed by Eastwood: a quiet yet formidable character whose unassuming, humble demeanour belies a lethal, quick-draw ability in a dead ball situation.
Carlos, the Brazilian rockstar wing-back with the ridiculously curvaceous free kicks, will probably forever be popularly remembered as the greatest full-back of Irwin’s era, but the Irishman’s considerable claims to such a title are not easy to dismiss.
He may not have looked the part of the superstar player, or boasted an arsenal of tricks and skills, but Irwin was an exquisite and clever footballer with an unfussy yet elegant style. He favoured the finesse of intelligence and functional technique rather than glossy, hollow flair. Genuinely two footed, he was potent and unpredictable going forward – happy to overload the flanks or cut inside – while also solid and dependable in defence. As a footballer, Denis Irwin had what some folks might call True Grit.
As the box-to-box midfielder fell out of fashion, and effectiveness, the tactically free and uncontested nature of the full-back position lent itself to complete footballers with the skill, imagination and fitness to marauder up field. While only five-foot-eight in height, Irwin was a stocky, square-built player with impressive stamina and a match winning appetite. Adept at left and right back, with the ball at his feet he could switch the play with ease, pass long or short, deliver from wide and offer a serious threat from set pieces.
Purchased from Oldham for £625,000 in 1990, the Irishman stayed at United for twelve years – an exceptional return for the outlay, especially considering the size and consistency of the club’s trophy haul during his years of service. No wonder Sir Alex believes the full-back was his greatest ever signing. In that time he endeared himself to Old Trafford faithful as a hardworking, no-nonsense professional toiling away – in stark contrast to the PR men whose powers and influence appear to grow in line with the game’s new-found appetite to consume itself and its integrity in exchange for profit.
If he were a Dutchman, or perhaps named Irwinho, his abilities may have been even more highly praised, although with his inclusion in a number of “best of the Premiership” team lists during the league’s 20 year anniversary it’s clear that many do remember the skill and charm of the Corkman bursting forward or harrying opponents from full-back.
Today Paul Scholes is United’s exceptional quiet man, lauded for his longevity at 38 – the age at which Irwin retired in 2004 when playing for Wolves. While the commercial travesties of the modern game have often run roughshod over the traditions and history of football’s institutions – Manchester United’s badge has been contracted and redesigned for branding reasons by marketing gurus – players such as these stand out as discreet honourable anti-icons.
Irwin is arguably Manchester United’s greatest ever left-back, one of the finest players to ever come out of Ireland and emphatically football’s answer to Eastwood’s Man With No Name.