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Retrospective #3: The making of Darren Fletcher

Darren Fletcher celebrates scoring for Manchester United against Everton on Saturday

Sunday, 6 November 2005 and it’s the 19th anniversary of Sir Alex’s appointment as Manchester United manager but the celebrations were on hold. A look at the league table made grim reading for any Manchester United fan. An unusual pallid gloom had descended in and around Old Trafford following the events that had transpired over the seven days preceding a pivotal encounter.

It all began on 29 October. A Saturday afternoon trip to the Riverside seemed not too difficult but ended in a manner even the most cocksure Boro fan would not have prophesied. A chagrined 4-1 defeat after a Gaizka Mendieta-inspired performance left United reeling at 6th place in the league table, a staggering 13 points behind leaders Chelsea (albeit with a game in hand). A defeat many fans remember to this day.

Two days later, United’s season plunged into a more atrocious crisis. Roy Keane, clearly enraged with the team’s tepid display against Middlesborough, purportedly disparaged some of his team-mates in an interview on MUTV which was banned from being shown. Some called it a plausible criticism while the others disputed that it went over the top. It was a rant that eventually led to Keane’s exit from United and disintegrated what once seemed an indissoluble bond between him and the club.

On Wednesday night, Manchester United were up against Lille away from home in the Champions League, hoping for a swift change in fortune. Consecutive losses are just not United’s thing and Lille, at least on paper, appeared to be a mediocre opposition waiting to be thrashed. However, the outcome was synonymous to the events of the past few days. United’s season hit an appallingly new low as they capitulated to the French side going down 1-0 which left them 3rd in their group. It was hard to recall the last time United endured such a catastrophic phase. As the press indulged themselves in criticism of the entire team, the manager and the largely unpopular 4-5-1 formation, Sir Alex was facing one of the most daunting challenges of his career. There were even a few murmurings that he had lost it and his time was up.

Up next was a league match with Chelsea who were on a veritable 40 match unbeaten run in the Premier League and managed by Jose Mourinho, the canny Portuguese, who Fergie had never beaten before. Probably the last team United wanted to face at that moment.

And now on this Sunday afternoon, United were desperately searching for a beacon of hope to rejuvenate their season. The memories of the tumultuous last seven days must have been rotating inside their minds. Adorned in their red home shirt and white shorts, Ruud van Nistelrooy led the team out on to the pitch against the then-champions. Cheered on by the fans, United dominated most of the early parts of the match. Cristiano Ronaldo’s early effort from outside the box went high and wide. Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney both went close to breaking the deadlock but their shots were off-target.

Then on the 31st minute…

Cristiano Ronaldo put in a cross with his left foot into the Chelsea penalty box. It first seemed he would fail to find a team-mate. It was just at that moment when a lithe-bodied and blonde-haired Scot appeared at the back post to seemingly nod the ball across the goal. However, the ball looped over Petr Cech’s head. Cech turned back and hoped John Terry would head it away. The ball looped over Terry too. And it ended up at the back of the net.

The crowd erupted in unconfined joy. Darren Fletcher had picked the best possible time to score his first goal of the season. It was the goal that eventually won United the match and was a boon to United’s chances of salvaging their season. And it was the perfect way to celebrate Fergie’s 19th anniversary in charge of the club.

Fletcher played at a sumptuous level rarely seen before. His desire to prove his critics wrong was manifest in his performance and he achieved it with aplomb. Another star-performer on the night was Alan Smith who marshalled the midfield brilliantly. Alas, his career did not proceed the way it should have as discussed here.

Few realised at the time the sheer significance of Fletcher’s goal on his career.

Injuries, quite a few of them, impeded Fletcher’s development at the early stages of his career. There was a time when he was heralded as a prospective surrogate for David Beckham in the Manchester United midfield. Fletcher, the United Reserves Player of the Year in the 2002-2003 season, initially started his career on the right side of midfield before switching into a central position. In 2005, he was a player who polarised opinions amongst fans. He was reportedly one of those players who Roy Keane targeted in his banned MUTV rant. There were many who doubted his ability and felt he was not ‘good enough’ to be in the team. His continued presence in the first XI despite his underwhelming displays elicited waves of frustration and discontent from a majority of the Manchester United fans. He was often the subject of their derision and mockery:

“I’m not sure one goal changed people’s view of me. It takes a longer process than that to show them what you’re about. I’d like to think so anyway,” said Darren Fletcher in the Mail last December. You have to concur with his quotes. One single goal certainly did not completely change people’s perceptions, but it was the much-needed catalyst that helped him to resuscitate his career and made the fans believe in him. It was the beginning of many good things to come eventually.

The quondam criticism of Fletcher has now been replaced with lavish praise and appreciation. He has become indispensable part of the team and is considered as a “big-game” player. While he is enjoying the fruits of his labour, when you look back, you cannot help but think that goal against Chelsea was the turning point of his career.

This was written by Abir Ahmed. Abir’s work has recently appeared on the likes of In Bed With Maradona, Back Page Football and World Soccer. You can read his enlightening piece on Bangladesh’s daunting road to the 2014 World Cup here. You can follow him on Twitter.

Retrospective #2: The beautiful goal with an ugly beginning

Andy Cole 53’. Barcelona 3-3 Manchester United, Champions League fifth round group phase 1998/99.

Great goals always stand the test of time. The initial feeling of awe and ecstasy they induce, not to mention the artistic brilliance that make them unique, mean that they can never be replicated. But there’s one goal, despite its emotional sentiments and aesthetic beauty, that is unlikely to be repeated again because it fails to do just that: stand the test of time.

Andy Cole’s goal against Barcelona in 1998 stands as one of the best goals scored in Europe. Indeed, it’s one of Manchester United’s best goals ever, worthy of sitting alongside some of George Best’s finest or Bobby Charlton’s one-two against Liverpool. We’ve all seen it. A nonchalant dummy by Dwight Yorke is followed by a quick exchange of passes between them before Cole coolly finishes off the move. It was a magnificent moment in a thrilling European tie and the apotheosis of a legendary strike partnership. Throughout their Manchester United career, there appeared to be some sort of telepathic understanding between the two players and here Cole and Yorke seemed to be connected by an invisible tin can phone, whispering to each other their next moves. The rapidity, simplicity and, at the same time, audacity of it all means it is still talked about to this day. That’s the story that’s more commonly told but there’s a moment in the lead up to the goal that if it happened today, would ensure that the goal would never stand.

As we pick it up, the celestial Luis Figo – the captain of Barcelona who and at the time, was playing the best football of his career – looks set to embark on one of his trademark dribbles. But as he takes on Jesper Blomqvist, he inexplicably over-hits the ball thus relinquishing possession. In a desperate effort to get it back, Figo suddenly lunges into a horrible two-footed tackle on Jaap Stam which, for all the world, looks a leg-breaker. There is a pause for half a second for which the whole world holds their breath and fears the worst; Jaap Stam rolls over, completing three full revolutions on the floor but as quick as a cat, flips up and gets back on his feet. There was no real reason for the referee to wave play on as United were still on the edge of their own box but he did, thus setting the motion for one of the greatest goals ever scored.

It seems extraordinary now that tackle would be ignored as casually it was then. The tackle by Figo was at worst, a potential leg-breaker; the studs were fully on show and Stam’s shin was exposed. But he sprang up, in what was fully in keeping with the match as it was played with so much mutual respect and a will to win that Stam never gave any thought of gamesmanship. In today’s game, and probably quite understandably too, the victim would lie on the floor, more from the shock of it all than the impact, clutching their shin and screaming Bloody Mary. Figo would almost certainly be red-carded for it too because any tackle, with that much ferocity and the feet that much off the ground, would automatically accrue a straight sending-off. It’s refreshing then, that both players and teammates made no histrionics out of the tackle as what would happen now. The will to win just overpowered the situation and the intensity of the battle prevailed. What’s more, this use of the advantage came from what us British would have regarded a notoriously stingy European referee but Austria’s Günter Benkö read the situation and waved play on. It shows you just how much refereeing has changed, particularly in continental football although even in the league these days, the tackle would just as much have been punished regardless of the contact. The “benefit of the doubt” no longer counts and 50/50 challenges have almost been outlawed, typifying the risk-averse nature of today’s game.

The goal also marked what was renowned as the most effective double act in the game. Cole and Yorke were universally feared as a strike partnership; regarded as the best in Europe at the time. At its peak in the treble winning season of 1998/99 they contributed a mammoth 53 goals between them – and it was this goal in the Nou Camp which came to symbolise the deadly duopoly. Howard Wilkinson, England’s caretaker manager at the time, observed: “Cole and Yorke have developed a terrific relationship,” he told the Guardian in February 1999. “Their movement, their understanding of each other, their link-up play, touch, perception, are excellent.”

The strike partnership worked because both players knew each others’ game and despite on the face of it looking decidedly similar, helped refine skills too. Cole became not just a goalpoacher as he was wrongly pigeon-holed for England; he developed an all-round game to complement Yorke’s already multi-faceted skill-set. “There was a time when people saw Cole just as a finisher but now he gets involved in the build-up as well,” Wilkinson added. It shouldn’t have worked because it was felt at that time that strike-partnerships should always follow a standard template: little and large or creator and finisher. Neither player was overwhelmingly one nor the other and that made it difficult to defend against. (They also expunged that racial stereotype in the 90’s that black forwards were chiefly athletic types but the fact that they juggled both roles showed how short-sighted that notion was.)

“They were a fantastic partnership that year with I think it was 52 goals between them,” Sir Alex Ferguson commented recently. “I think they were the best in Europe, they were unbelievable. It was a partnership that just took off immediately. I don’t know why, the chemistry or something just clicked between the two of them but it developed into an unbelievable partnership. So much so that I found difficulty, great difficulty, in keeping Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer warm and happy, that’s how effective Cole and Yorke were. I was very fortunate to have four great strikers like that when you think about it, really fortunate. And yes, it created headaches at time, you know, picking the right two but that season Cole and Yorke were unbelievable.”

For Cole and Yorke the goal at Camp Nou stands as the symbolic moment of a brilliant partnership; the memory of the magic moment etched in time – untouched. But it’s often forgotten that this most beautiful of goals originated from the most ugliest of tackles. It’s better that way.

Retrospective #1: Alan Smith and his struggles as a Keane replacement

From the outside, the life of a footballer seems very alluring but for those whose potential is never fulfilled, the riches never compensate for the lingering disappointment. Alan Smith, at 23, had the world at his feet. But his club at the time, Leeds United were relegated. Banished from the top flight. Gone. And with that, it was the end of an era. For the club and for some of the players. Dreams faded. But not Smith’s. Not yet anyway.

“I have never been more impressed with a young player, his desire to play for Manchester United is fantastic,” said Sir Alex in 2004. “Certain young people come along with a special determination, and after speaking to him I expect that from Alan Smith. That desire will take him a long way.” For a player of such promise, a £7million price tag would be seen to be a bargain in present day and indeed he’d have cost so much more had Leeds avoided the drop. His talent shone at Elland Road and, sporadically, for England.

The feeling amongst fans when United unveiled their new signing wasn’t exactly met with great enthusiasm – for he had just moved away from their bitter rivals and his boyhood club. Others saw the humour in the situation, as Leeds were no longer a force, and so Smith in a red shirt certainly was a way in which United’s fans can gleefully poke fun at the enemy. Naturally, he’d take some getting used to but that’s not taking anything away from Smith. What was clear was that Smith, with the weight of expectation on his shoulders, had to make a good start. They say first impressions are everything – something, it would appear, Smith believed in.

In his very first competitive game for his new club, the season curtain raiser – the newly renamed Community Shield – Smith scored with a sumptuous, curling volley against Arsenal. The team lost 3-1 but it was an encouraging debut nonetheless. But the rest of his season was hampered by injuries. Still, he did score 6 league goals from 22 and ten overall – not exactly great, but there were reasons to be hopeful for the next campaign. The general consensus was that “he’ll do better next year,” but, in fact, the 2005/06 season was where it all went wrong for a wealth of reasons.

Since Roy Keane left the club, Manchester United had searched for a like-for-like replacement but had ultimately failed (some might still argue that, coming into the 2011/12 season, that void has yet to be filled). Owen Hargreaves might have been that man to fill it, but injuries cut short a career which, at one point, looked destined for better things. He enjoyed a solid campaign in 07/08 and was inspirational in carrying United to a famous Euro/League double that season. But it all went downhill from there – but actually through no real fault of his own. Instead, it was the ‘I’ word which meant Hargreaves can now only be regarded as a ‘would be’ player in Manchester United’s history; who would only succeed at the club in a hypothetical sense. Smith, who was affectionately nicknamed “Smudge” by teammates, can relate to Hargreaves. He was also plagued with a long-term injury and similarly tasked with replacing Keane.

If you had told Smith before he began his second season at the club (05/06) that he would only score a single league goal out of 15, he would have shaken his head in disbelief (and perhaps tell you to get off his lawn). Firstly, how can a forward of such quality have such a horrid strike rate? And play just 15 games? The latter question is perhaps easier to explain; he faced stiff competition from both Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney – and so was resigned to the role of first substitute rather than partnering either. Then, on February 2006, heartbreak. He suffered a horrific injury in a cup game against Liverpool – and his description of it said it all. “My ankle was pointing towards Hong Kong so I knew I was in serious trouble.”

In truth, nothing for Smith that year was synonymous with ‘luck’ – even before his afternoon of misfortune at Anfield. He was largely ineffective rather than ‘poor’, and perhaps it wasn’t his fault. He was being modelled as the Next Roy Keane. That, we would all later know, is pretty impossible as the Irishman proved irreplaceable. The anchor role in midfield would take some time getting used to and, in fairness to Smith, how could he be expected to adapt in such a short time? That sentiment was not shared; during one of United’s rough patches that season, he was used as something of a scapegoat. Most extraordinarily, he was even (quite cryptically) dismissed by his predecessor Keane in a television interview. This was rather strange, as only months earlier, Sir Alex said: “Roy sees characteristics in Alan that he saw in himself as a young player, which could help Alan develop into a very good player in that position.”

There were indeed some similarities. Smith tracked back willingly to win the ball. Like Keane, his tenacity and persistence bode well for him and he was a decent tackler, too. But the conversion was ill-fated. With an added twist, another player vying for a starting place was John O’Shea, also given the task of replacing Keane. That was to result in failure, too. O’Shea was also out of position. Like Alan Smith. This isn’t blaming Sir Alex in particular; but it was certainly an ill-fated miscalculation. (It is quite curious that he still went on to play in that anchor role for Newcastle, but to little avail. Alan Smith’s peak was not at 27 or 28, instead earlier when he had played for Leeds. As a forward. Now, he’s a free agent.)

Sometimes, a position conversion in football works. Ashley Cole is recognised as one of the best left-backs in world football right now, but he had played as a centre-forward in his early days. Striker Jason Euell prolonged his career by becoming a central midfielder. But Smith’s story was a tad different; he was not so young nor was he past his peak. At 24, he was still in England contention and his best days were still thought to be ahead of him (not to be, as we’ll find out). The midfield experiment was ended by Smith’s leg break; a career-defining setback. It was thirteen months before he would start another game.

When he did return for the latter part of the 06/07 season, things had changed. He was to be become a forward again. Hurrah? Not so much. Smith’s story was similar to former Southampton and Everton man James Beattie, who had once also dazzled with his prolificacy. They both came back to a different league, faster and more skilful; they were stranded in the past. Smith was reaching an anticlimactic end. It wasn’t how he’d have hoped it to happen.

“THE FORGOTTEN MAN IS BACK!” screamed ITV’s Clive Tyldesley as Alan Smith beautifully finished past Roma’s Brazilian goalkeeper Doni after a rapid interchange from Manchester United. That goal was later to be recognised as one of the best to have ever been scored in Europe. The Red Devils were 2-0 up thanks to Smith, and would later go on to sweep aside the Italian side 7-1 (agg. 8-3). For a moment, things were looking up for the Englishman. He would collect a league winner’s medal along with Henrik Larsson (despite both falling short of the ten games necessary) and then an FA Cup runners-up medal as well. Still, the inevitable happened. He left United.

The real Alan Smith was nifty, talented and clinical and United fans saw little of that beyond his debut season. He did not fulfil potential – the midfield experiment failed and injuries were devastating. He was supposed to excel at Manchester United, attain brilliance. That was the plan. But, the forgotten man wasn’t back. And he never would be.

We are accepting submissions for the Retrospective series. To find out more, click here. 

Introducing ManUtd24’s ‘Retrospective’ series

Retrospective is a nostalgic series set up to celebrate Manchester United’s great past but with a twist; looking at the smaller things that cumulatively add (or negate) to the club’s illustrious history. Gradually, over the coming weeks and months, these pieces will appear on the blog – but we cannot do it without you. This is a collective project and we require submissions from readers.

The sort of pieces we’re looking for:

  • Posts about forgotten, under appreciated players or even perceived flops; e.g Louis Saha, Juan Sebastian Veron or even Mark Bosnich. And then you also have the option of opening up about your affection with past heroes such as Ole Solskjaer or Ruud van Nistelrooy.
  • Classic encounters – for example, Manchester United’s 6-1 drubbing of Arsenal in 2001 or even their drab 0-0 first leg draw to Barcelona in 2008 which had a significant meaning as it led United on their way to European success. Or you might want to recall the Red Devils’ ill-fated run in the Club World Championship in 2000. If you really want to.
  • Classic duels that are now history – for example, the Roy Keane-Patrick Vieira battle that went to symbolise the great rivalry of the two dominating clubs of English football in the early 00’s; Manchester United and Arsenal. Or Fergie’s rivalry and mind games with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez or maybe the gobby Kevin Keegan.
  • Tactical trends, great individual performances and more; for instance, United’s daring 4-6-0 in the 07/08 campaign which allowed Sir Alex’s team to become the envy of Europe. Great kits of yesteryear or magical individual performances, a la Roy Keane in the ’99 semi final versus Juventus. Perhaps, the Yorke-Cole duopoly? You might even choose to reflect on the effect former no.2 Carlos Queiroz had on the team.
  • And, of course, we’re open to your suggestions and ideas that aren’t mentioned here. Just give us a shout.

If you want to submit a post for this exciting project (it is exciting, right?), all your have to do email us your submission idea to manutd24.wordpress[at] Alternatively, you can enter your name, your (real) email address and your suggestion in the comments section. That’s it. Simples. And we’ll get back to you in a jiffy with further details, making it as easy as possible.

Obviously, ur ritten inglesh hass to bee good as well as prose. Why not give it a go? Good luck!

Wes Brown: The legend that never was

Clive Tyldesley has lost his voice. Having screamed for 90 minutes, he has nothing but a croak but it’s all worth it, he thinks. It is May 2013, at Wembley and he’s just witnessed one of the great European finals of the modern era – Manchester United; proud recipients of the most desired trophy on the continent. “And Wes Brown holds the trophy aloft!” he bellows, before allowing himself a deep breath. He’s seen it all now. He watches the celebrations and almost runs out of superlatives for this side; and then announces: “And our reporter, Gabriel Clarke, is with the skipper…”

“Wes, simple question, how does it feel?!” and United’s captain forces a chuckle. “Well, I mean, er, it feels great. I’ve been captain for some time now and been very fortunate but this is one of my greatest moments, for sure,” Brown says, nodding. Gabriel then poses another question – this one immediately lights up Brown’s face. He wants to know the secret to his longevity. He laughs. “I’m just fortunate…I play for the biggest club in the world with the best players. And, you know, my fitness has always been great. I think that’s it…that’s my secret, really. I guess I’m just one of the lucky ones.”

Sometimes, great authors use fiction as an outlet for their fantasies; a place where hyperboles and superlatives can live and co-exist without bother. It’s an ideal way to also express feelings and turn hypothetical situations into reality. And that was the objective of the italicised account above – an exaggerated account of Wesley Brown, Manchester United legend*, attempting to imagine a career where he was not prone to injuries.

In Brown, Manchester United had a player who was so obviously talented that you couldn’t, at one point, foresee a future where it all goes wrong; indeed, we witnessed the great (and not-so-great) moments of his early career and tipped the rugged defender for big things. In simple terms, Brown’s tenure at the club was successful in comparison to many others with a mighty 362 appearances to his name; but we know, and so does he, that it could have ended much better.

Back in 2001, Sir Alex Ferguson boldly claimed that Brown “is the best in England”, adding that “he’s better than Sol Campbell, he’s better than Rio Ferdinand, [and] he will be a fantastic player.” And, in fairness, he wasn’t wrong. Brown had talent in abundance and was continuously tipped for and expected to do things even greater than unsettling England’s first choice paring in central defence. But luck was not on his side – knee ligaments, strains and numerous other spells later, he soon faced competition even more stiff than his hamstring.

However, in between the many injuries that had been inflicted on him by the unkind footballing gods, there were moments of magic. He’d often have Man of the Match performances in between the heartbreak and Sir Alex was most definitely his biggest admirer, once dubbing him the “best natural defender in the country.” He was consistently excellent during the 01/02 season and then again during the latter part of 03/04, but was not able to continue that good form in the following season. “My injuries have always stopped me achieving something,” said Brown back in 2004. “It’s always halted my progress for six or eight months at a time.”

Ironically, the setback of Gary Neville was a sort of reprieve in the 07/08 season, where he had helped United to a Euro/League double. It was his cross, of course, which led to Ronaldo’s opener in the Final at Moscow against Chelsea which was eventually decided on penalties. In that game, he was assured and read the game perfectly; finding the balance between defence and attack that other full-backs can only be envious of. “It was a great season,” said Brown a year after. “The team the whole way through the season was flowing and we always thought we were in contention to win trophies. It was a great feeling to be involved in what was a great achievement.” And then again, inevitable happens. In truth, he didn’t quite recover – that glorious season was his last notable campaign of any significance.

This story, unfortunately not fictional, had a depressing pattern. Have a good spell in the first team, then get injured. And that kept happening. Again and again. For all the smiles and jubilation and the winners’ medals, there was something almost anticlimactic about his stop-start career. OPTA found that Wes Brown had averaged 17.8 appearances per campaign in his 13 years at the club. A derisory amount (like his price tag), come to think about it. He deserved to play more.

Wes Brown's injury history - click to view

21 cases of injuries were recorded by between 2002 to 2010; yet, tragically, he has had more before the time frame. While it is very true that injuries are just the norm in football – the article doesn’t dispute that – it is still very clear that it has blighted a good career which could have been so much more joy that it had. Instead, like an amazing firework display, it fizzled out after a while. And now he’s gone, with a legacy left not as great as it really could have been.

*‘United legend’ has connotations of something that has been recognised internally and had Brown’s career not been ravaged by injuries, which is saying a lot I know, he’d have almost certainly be regarded as highly. (The word ‘great’ suggests something decided from a wider consensus and so it must be stressed that this article isn’t particularly saying that, as if he would have become a Paulo Maldini. That debate is for another day…)

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