Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #1 – Envy

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.”

Sir Matt Busby envies champions City, 1968 

“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.'”


12 responses to “Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #1 – Envy”

  1. Muhammad says :

    love it. wonderfully constructed and I can’t agree with the closing line enough, either. (while we’re at it let’s throw some envy Dortmund’s way for playing an absolutely electric 4231, the kind Fergie would be proud of).

    looking forward to the rest of the series.

    ALSO: the Barça story is just superb. because when Laporta and co. took over at the Camp Nou in 2003, and the club was a mess, whose organisation did they envy? whose example did they seek to emulate?

    why, Manchester United, of course (skip to 25:05):

    it’s an envy echo.

  2. mubeen says :

    there’s a good chance……van persie will be in one of these, in a few years time. wont be a happy ending, that one.

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