Archive | November 2012

Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #3 – Gluttony

Gluttony: Wanting Dante’s share. 

When Ferguson signed Veron, 2001

“I want this chess set. Isn’t it beautiful, this set?” In Living With Michael Jackson, the infamous 2003 documentary which gave an insight into the life of a troubled star, there was a segment where, in a vase and furnishing store, Jackson binged on the nice, shiny things, buying expensive urns, vases and even a large golden chess set. He had the money and it all looked good: whether he could better use his money elsewhere was irrelevant.

Like the chess set, Juan Sebastian Veron was the ultimate luxury. He cost a lot and was difficult to accommodate. United fans, however, are fairly revisionist when it comes to Veron; he was not a flop, instead a good player who had many good moments, outstanding in Europe, but held back by expectation and an unfamiliar setting. It would, of course, be delusional to think Veron was anything better: he himself went as far as calling his debut season a “catastrophe”. He was played in a number of positions because, ultimately, there were others who fit into the side more easily. “Sometimes he may put Paul [Scholes] in the middle and I’ll be elsewhere. I’d much rather have Roy [Keane] in the team,” Veron would say in 2002.

In an article about Foodies (those crazy types who like food), Steven Poole of The Guardian wrote that the original definition of ‘gluttony’ wasn’t simply the excessive consumption of food, but the interest in it, too: “the theologian Thomas Aquinas agreed with Pope Gregory that gluttony can be committed in five different ways, among which are seeking more ‘sumptuous foods’ or wanting foods that are ‘prepared more meticulously’.” In buying a player that he really appreciated, and to an extent, over the needs of the team, Sir Alex Ferguson committed the sin of gluttony.

The signing of Robin van Persie in August 2012 is another example of this excessive interest. It was adding to a single position that was already embarrassingly strong. He did the “I want that one; and that one,” thing Jackson had done in the pricey store; Van Persie was not absolutely necessary, but it’s always better with than without.

And also Blanc, 2001

While a defender was necessary when Jaap Stam left the club in 2001, it could be argued that it was not in United’s interest going forward to buy a player whose main selling point was simply the experience he had gained naturally through age, because, in reality, Laurent Blanc was no longer as good as he once was. Ferguson had always shown an interest in Blanc that should have ideally waned as we reached the Millenium: it was perhaps, as suggested by Greg Johnson when these Deadly Sins started to take shape, a case of the Scot’s preferences overruling “the true needs and functions of the team.”

It was instead important to sign a player that could be relied upon to deliver and develop, as well as having adequate experience anyway. Like Rio Ferdinand a year later: one of Ferguson’s most astute acquisitions to date, even if he did cost the equivalent of twelve 35-year-old Laurent Blancs.

Ferguson wants an end to the drinking culture, 1986

When Alex Ferguson became Manchester United manager in 1986, he made it clear that things would be done his way, imploring those concerned to trust his judgement in moving the club forward. One thing standing in his way was alcohol — and, more precisely, the players’ attitude towards it. In his autobiography, Managing My Life, Ferguson wrote that it had always been a “blight on the discipline of British footballers.”

And so he established his very own Volstead Act. “When I arrived at United, I was astonished to find that there was a club rule forbidding players to drink alcohol ‘less than two days before a game’. I replaced that feeble prohibition instantly with a rule that made it an offence for any player to drink while he was in training. Of course, I knew there was no way that ban would be observed but at least the new wording was a declaration of my attitude.”

He was right. He would encounter a problem in the shape of Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside. “It was with my two wayward Irishmen that alcohol would eventually become an unmanageable problem for me.” McGrath revealed that, because of the amount of time the two spent together in the treatment room, that both he and Whiteside would use the afternoons to drink. “We had serious injuries together at the same time which compounded the problems.”

Both left the club in 1989, with Ferguson uncertain and impatient over fitness. “I was saddened as well as infuriated by the way they abused themselves,” he wrote.

Darron Gibson meets Rangers, 2010

When people first wrote about Darron Gibson the Manchester United player, they would go at length in explaining why he simply wasn’t good enough for a team that has seen better and can do better. But “he can shoot at least,” they would admit, placing a pillow in front of the gun before pulling the trigger. Though, along with something about how he still has potential, that was apparently all that was good about Gibson. But then it stopped. It turned out that he couldn’t even do that any more.

Gibson would find that the thing he was renowned for — “shooooot” — the thing that gave him added worth in a cruel game was exactly the same thing he would be repeatedly chastised for. “Shooooot” would become ironic, a revoking of permission, a cry of displeasure. “Shooooot” would become “boooo” and “booo-urns”. Gibson was not fully deserving of the backlash, but it existed because the same thing over and over … is the same thing over and over.

It would be at its worst against Rangers in a scoreless Champions League group game in the 2010/11 season. “We didn’t really make too many chances,” said Sir Alex Ferguson post-match. “All the attempts were from outside the box from Darron Gibson.” Gibson would have six shots in that game — five of which were off target.

When Roy Keane drank, 1996

“There was a social culture in football at the time,” Jason McAteer would say in 2001, by then ex-Liverpool and, more importantly, ex-Spice Boy. “We were doing nothing more than the players at Arsenal or Manchester United.” McAteer was right: the Nineties witnessed another kind of footballer, or, even if footballers remained the same, they were different because off the pitch activities were all of a sudden being highlighted. Tragically. And Liverpool would suffer most as a result as the likes of Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and even Robbie Fowler (or “Ugly Spice” according to McAteer) were made celebrities of. The thought of the country’s most decorated club underachieving was relatively new and with the level of expectation, players’ lifestyles were being contrasted with apparent failures on the pitch.

Of course, as McAteer pointed out, these types could be found elsewhere; Dwight Yorke, simultaneously footballer and playboy, was overwhelmingly one of them. David Beckham, too, and not just for being Mr Spice. It wouldn’t be right to put Roy Keane in such a category — because he’s Roy Keane — but he did enjoy what the nightlife had to offer. “[He] regularly used to punch and puke his way through the city’s nightspots,” wrote The Guardian‘s Daniel Taylor, for whom credit, along with Lee Sharpe, goes to for the following anecdote.

Liverpool’s tribute band would arrive at the same bar Keane was in and — predictably — trouble would ensue. Because it is sometimes too difficult to distinguish hyperbole from anything Keane is even remotely a part of, you didn’t have to witness it, or read it in the newspapers to believe it. You just knew it to be true. This was classic Keano.

The refreshingly blunt Keane would remind this group of Liverpool players that they were indeed underachievers, going at them like the wooden targets in a shooting range, one by one for verbal practice. Phil Babb would get it. John Scales, too: “You’re rubbish as well, with your England B cap, you’re nowt, rubbish.” And then Redknapp who, like Scales, tried to make peace and failed. “What the hell have you done in the game?” Keane would ask, most likely rhetorically.

“He had this blackness inside him I never understood, and it came out when he drank,” revealed Sharpe, which is interesting, because any poor soul oblivious to Roy Keane the footballer might just assume he was an angel when sober.

Rafael da Silva, the best of the second bests

If it has been established that the ‘second best bed’ for Anne Hathaway (the other one) was not an insult nor an example of a fractious relationship, then surely we’ve got it all wrong. ‘Second best’ is a good thing — or, at least, it should be. Certainly, being second best at Manchester United is. Robin van Persie has been so good this season that he is the outstanding candidate for all of the awards; and so good that, in imagining a ranking, those that follow him in second, third, fourth would not feel inclined to be aggrieved by his superior position.

Who, then, would place second? Tom Cleverley perhaps; but, right now, it’s only been satisfactory going on good going on very good. There hasn’t been a distinguishable level of performances and, as if it hasn’t been said already, United must persevere in being patient — not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Just look at Rafael da Silva.

Now, football, as a a general rule, is too slippery and erratic to form premature opinions: when Manchester United started 2011/12 beating all of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea, scoring three, eight and three goals respectively, few stopped short in hailing a return to the attacking football the club had practically deserted the year before, and foresaw a dominance that season that would never really materialise. In September, with Arsenal the only of the 92 league teams to have not conceded, Amy Lawrence of The Guardian wrote that Steve Bould’s presence in the dugout has “had a remarkable effect on Arsenal’s approach to defending,” which not only made sense at the time, but was such a widely-held view that it is unfair to make an example out of that particular one. Still — swiftly moving on — this could be Rafael’s season. Or not. No, it definitely could be. Maybe.

Resisting the late charges of Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and the renascent Patrice Evra, Rafael places second in the Imaginary But Definitely Important Rankings. But it is worth wondering how many others see that to be the case; Carl Jenkinson was preferred to Rafael when a couple of BBC pundits — the best of the judges — sat down to devise a Team of the Season So Far. It isn’t so much a case of Jenkinson not deserving it all, but Rafael perhaps deserving it more. Thankfully, this is easy to shrug off; this was just one instance, after all, and an instance in which the alternative view isn’t one exclusive to Robbie Savage: Jenkinson has been good enough to be in contention. The problem here is not what’s not been said in the present, but what has in the past and what might in the future. It would be predictable of badly behaved football to change its tune and for Rafael’s form to taper; but, in imaging some twisted sort of football utopia, where things reassuringly remain the same, what would be said of him then at season’s end? (Hint! Say good things!)

Rafael is a full-back and he’s Brazilian. Godspeed. He may never truly be appreciated in this regard because the notion of an accomplished, flawless Brazilian full-back is almost an impossibility; as if this is limited to just Brazil. It is true that there is an extra emphasis on what could be offered going forward, the reason, according to Brazil-based Tim Vickery, why Rafael and his twin brother Fabio left for Manchester United so early in their careers. “Taking them across the Atlantic before they had ever played a senior game for Fluminense followed a simple logic — left in Brazil, it wasn’t likely they’d have much chance to refine the defensive side of their game,” Vickery wrote. But not everyone has fallen into the trap. Indeed, the two prime examples are among their greats: Roberto Carlos and Cafu. The two were so good in going forward that it was assumed that their weakness was in defending: but, at the risk of sounding revisionist, it only compared unfavourably. Carlos, impressively enough, was twice UEFA’s Defender of the Year.

The world, however, dislikes full-backs just as much as they do goalkeepers, because so many of them cannot find a balance between defence and attack … well, obviously. The full-back is, in general terms, the only player tasked with two jobs. And that’s never going to end well.

Rafael, though, after four years of enthusiastic bouncing around ‘There’ and ‘Not Quite There’, has finally made firm his place in the starting eleven. He has even been able to show up others; while Nani and Antonio Valencia have been floundering, Rafael continues to respond to situations such that he’s a part of the United attack that has played so well this season, and for whom most credit goes to for the club’s league position. Against Aston Villa, he was refreshingly insistent and was rewarded when his cross had set up the second. The hotheaded Rafael is still there, but is often suppressed, and with an improved head, sees his defensive game, his tackling, his willingness to compete and get at the other player, go up a level.

“Maybe he had rashness and the impetuosity of a young boy but somewhere along the line that maturity comes along and the rashness disappears,” said Sir Alex, suggesting that Rafael could emulate Gary Neville. “His form this season has been brilliant.”

Injuries elsewhere have helped and, forced away from tinkering, Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to get the best out of the right-back, his self-belief burgeoned. He has played regularly, often twice in a week, and has not yet suffered from burnout or a loss of form — not to jinx it, but the lack of any of that so far is a sign of wonderful progress. Of course, fitness will always be a worry; as are all the things that have happened before.

But to find evidence of actual progress, you can point to Arsenal’s Andre Santos — if you’re not doing that already. A decent left-back until now, once on par with team-mate Kieran Gibbs, Santos is now apparently miserable and hopeless. In Rafael and in Santos, you have players of contrasting fortunes. One has been exceptional, the other an exception. If that makes sense. For a full-back, a bad case of defending is usually shown as not being there at all, an exploited space. That problem is barely ever their problem; a team should be able to cover. What Santos has done wrong, not Rafael, is his inability to do something when posed against it. Match of the Day, though admittedly not at the forefront of football analysis, showed several examples of Santos’ failure to deal with the opposition threat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, where he would show reluctance in doing anything about it. He would let play as well as an out-of-form Antonio Valencia to bypass him. What constitutes a bad full-back, or one out of form, or one learning, is surely one that makes the same mistake over and over. Rafael has not done that. Not this season, anyway.

Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #2 – Pride

Pride: Wanting a mirror that isn’t Dante’s. 

Cantona says hello to Leeds, 1993

Eric Cantona the footballer would strut around on stage accompanied by a spotlight — if it had momentarily focussed elsewhere, he would instantly demand it back. It was part of a package deal, but it was not something that hindered him, rather the opposite. Cantona, citing the “kick, and then rush” football at Leeds United as one of his reasons for leaving to FourFourTwo, would reveal that “if I don’t feel the environment is good, I don’t want to be there. I need to feel good.” It was this that made Manchester United, according to the man who had signed him, the perfect club for the mercurial Frenchman.

There’s no way Eric Cantona would have been a great player if we hadn’t allowed him to express himself, to be Eric Cantona,” Sir Alex Ferguson would reveal to journalist Philippe Auclair in an interview for The Blizzard. “I think we were a perfect club for him, a club where he was able to stick his chest out and say, “I’m the man here, I’m the king here.” Because he had this aura, this presence, this belief in himself.”

Auclair would never pass up a chance to talk Cantona, especially to the man who knew him better than most and doubly especially being the author of the wonderful Eric Cantona biographyThe Rebel Who Would Be King, for which credit goes to for this story. Auclair revisited Cantona’s return to Elland Road, his first since leaving Leeds United, and of his provoking of a hostile crowd. As the pre-match practice was coming to a close, Auclair writes, through the help of a friend present that day, when “the moment came to return to the dressing room, drowned in an ocean of noise, a sewer in full flow, Cantona took the ball, juggled it for a while and signed off with a volley into the top corner. The jeers doubled in ferocity but, as David [his friend] remembers it, intensified by the admiration the crowd couldn’t help but feel for such arrogance (‘We had to admit — this guy had balls’).” He had big balls.

Roy Keane threatens to play badly, 2005

This one could easily have been filed under ‘wrath’, but, no, it goes beyond that. In an interview with MUTV, Roy Keane criticised new signing Rio Ferdinand and other members of the Manchester United team (in Keane’s defence, he may well have been ticked off by Ferdinand’s white suit, in which case he is excused). Here are the highlights: “Just because you are paid £120,000-a-week and play well for 20 minutes against Tottenham, you think you are a superstar. There is a shortage of characters in this team. It seems to be in this club that you have to play badly to be rewarded. Maybe that is what I should do when I come back. Play badly.”

Keane is a proud man. Was he arrogant? Almost certainly. Sometimes we’d get hard-men like Keane (some might say) and automatically assume that there are layers; that emotion isn’t supposed to come with what they might do — or say — and so that it’s natural they don’t brag about it. They just shrug it off, it’s what they do. Bragging shows character, a big head, a swagger and linked to that is some kind of twisted happiness. Not that he wasn’t hard — he was hard, he is hard — but to simply lump Keane with the hard-men would be unfair, because he had dimensions, plural, and because hard-men aren’t supposed to be this fun, rather generic, the template for wannabe Krays.

Keane didn’t explicitly boast, but he always appeared to be on the verge of it. He would tell Mick McCarthy that he didn’t rate him as a footballer, Jamie Redknapp, too — “You, Redknapp, are you happy with your Under-21 caps?” — and assume some kind of superiority by chiding those who wore gloves on the pitch. “Sometimes I believe the man upstairs has great plans for me,” he would say once.

Roy Keane has standards but only very personal ones, and appears to care little for reputation. That’s a good thing, probably. To think we were surprised that Keane, the leader of a team that desperately needed reassuring words after a bad run of form, would speak so openly!

Bless him — he went on: “There is talk about putting this right in January and bringing new players in. We should be doing the opposite — we should be getting rid of people in January.” Hands up if you love him.

When Andy Cole became Outstanding, 1999

Andy Cole made the unfortunate decision to release Outstanding (there could well be a full-stop here) in the same year as Manchester United’s treble-winning season, where everything could invariably be compared unfavourably — though apparently that was the intention. To put it kindly, it was an ambitious record, with lyrics that otherwise screamed the “do you know who I am?” line, including the fact that, apparently, he is ‘the host with the most / got clientèle guaranteed’ and that he’s ‘sharp like a razor / speed to amaze ya / beat ya like Ali did Joe Frazier’, which, though intimidating on the surface, would probably be laughed out of a recording studio in Harlem.

But credit to Cole for trying; he chose not to adopt a faux-American accent, only briefly touched on various actually-banal, actually-not-song-worthy tasks carried out in the early hours and made no unsuccessful attempts to rhyme ‘positive’ with ‘negative’. You could look at it another way: this was at the start of Britain’s short-lived hip-hop golden era. This one stayed true to itself, with lyrics that still resonate today (‘Tell the world my name, who’s that? Andy Cole’).

Can he kick it? Like every other ‘7.5 mill record-maker’, yes he can.

Scholes too good to be a reserve, 2001

Paul Scholes, they would tell you, is as modest as one of Chaucer’s maids, but with all the stories (or story, as it’s apparent that only Rio Ferdinand’s recollection is on record) of hitting trees from 40 yards in front of his impressed team-mates, he does at least recognise that he’s got a unique gift.

”I don’t know why I did what I did in 2001, but it is something I really regretted doing,” Scholes would say after his initial retirement in 2011. ”I wasn’t in a great mood. I had been left out the Liverpool game the previous weekend and I knew that the team going down to Arsenal in the [League] cup was basically a reserve side.” United were beaten 4-0 at Highbury, with arch-enemy Sylvain Wiltord scoring three, as if to foreshadow later events that season.

“I ended up getting fined and having to apologise, but I was lucky. The manager would have been within his rights to get rid of me.” Scholes’ loss, really; how many others could really say they played alongside Lee Roche and now-convict Ronnie Wallwork?

Sir Matt and Sir Alex the same, 1945 & 1986

Manchester United’s two greatest managers have always, in some way, tried to play down their achievements, wanting not to be carried away. Those that know and knew both Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby would vouch for their humility, though not for their self-confidence; those things, which some make the mistake of thinking, are not mutually exclusive.

Indeed, they would have self-confidence in abundance. “Call it confidence, conceit, arrogance, or ignorance but I was unequivocal about it,” Busby wrote in his autobiography Soccer at the Top. “At the advanced age of thirty-five I would accept the managership of Manchester United only if they would let me have all my own way. As the manager I would want to manage. I would be the boss.”

There are some striking parallels to be had here with Alex Ferguson’s first programme notes in 1986, long before he was a ‘Sir': “I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past. I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward.

“Taking over a club of the magnitude of Manchester United is an awesome prospect,” he added. “But ultimately a football club is a football club and I shall simply try to run things at Old Trafford in what I believe to be the right way.”

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