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.