Greed: Wanting to have more than Dante.
Law vs. Busby, 1966
If a tenner a week were to ensure a generous flow of goals for the next few seasons, any football manager in the world would — without a second thought — rummage through his jeans and pay it up himself. This, however, was 1966, and Matt Busby usually wore tracksuits. Denis Law made a mistake in asking for an extra £10-a-week, finding that his manager’s response was not to offer his hand, rather to deal Law a slap on the wrist. Law was transfer listed as a result with Busby telling Law, in the latter’s own words, that “he wouldn’t be held to ransom.” It didn’t stop there: “He gave me a prepared statement of apology to sign and he presented it to the press.”
“He might have looked like a cuddly grandfather, but step out of line and he had an iron fist,” Law told Champions in 2012.
Kanchelskis, bloody hell, 1995
There exists a few Manchester United fans, even now, that are reluctant to forgive Andrei Kanchelskis for the way in which he left the club in 1995, but the general lack of animosity can be easily identified through the simple fact that football was a different game then, and the whole saga caused far too much confusion that it probably wasn’t worth bothering with anyway.
When you look at United’s recent history for things that may constitute greed — Roy Keane’s contract wrangle in 1999 (“I am not naive enough to settle for anything less than a reasonable valuation of my worth”), Wayne Rooney in 2010 and others — few are on a par with this. It’s just that this one is better suited to the ‘oddball’ section of the news.
In ‘Football – Bloody Hell!’, a biography of Sir Alex Ferguson, Patrick Barclay writes that the United boss would have liked to have kept the winger, but the “Ukrainian had manifested a restlessness which Ferguson ascribed to a clause in his contract … guaranteeing the player a slice of any profit if he were sold.” It did not help that Ferguson was not initially wise to the clause, but, regardless, he had to be moved on. “I was fully aware that the removal of Kanchelskis … would leave us short in the wide right position but his attitude was so bad that there was nothing to be gained from keeping him,” Ferguson wrote in Managing My Life.
Kanchelskis’ agent caused further complications. Grigori Essaoulenko had rewarded Ferguson with £40,000 that Barclay writes was “inside a samovar … why the money had been put in United’s safe and not reported to the Premier League inquiry into ‘bungs’ which followed [George] Graham’s punishment was to become a pertinent question when the affair came to light in Ferguson’s autobiography. But it was returned eventually, when Kanchelskis finally went to Everton, after another colourful episode when, according to Ferguson, Essaoulenko threatened [Martin] Edwards and the United board decided to hurry the deal through.”
The threat, apparently, was Essaoulenko saying to Edwards, the then-chairman of United: “If you don’t sell him now, you will not be around much longer.” The Independent‘s Steve Boggan, a week after Ferguson’s autobiography release in August 1999, wrote that Edwards perceived Essaoulenko’s words to be a genuine threat to his life.
There could be no hesitation about Kanchelskis. “His pace and strength on the wing had been huge assets for us while he showing real enthusiasm for our cause,” Ferguson wrote. “But, given the transformation that had occurred in his behaviour, Merseyside was welcome to him.”
Ferguson responds to Rooney’s ‘other’ demands, 2006:
When Wayne Rooney has a bad game, the usual response is that he’s carrying a bit of holiday weight. Sir Alex Ferguson is just as blunt it seems. Beating Celtic in a Champions League group stage game in 2006/07 was a must if Manchester United wanted to progress sooner, but instead they contrived to lose 1-0. A below-par Rooney, in the middle of contract negotiations, was one of the players singled out by an angry Ferguson according to the player himself in his autobiography My Decade: “Players wanting more money from the club and new deals – you don’t deserve anything after that performance!” And his manager came down hard; Rooney had to make do with a feeble £100,000-a-week, and another four years — at least — at Manchester United.
Manchester United players enjoy burgers, 2008
In Alex Ferguson’s earlier years as a football manager, he held the belief that what his players ate before a game was “as important as what happens during the game.” Now, thanks to “advances in sports science and the expert nutritionists we have here at Carrington,” he told The Sun in 2012, he no longer has to worry about any of that. All very good. Except, perhaps those experts aren’t entirely devoid of any flaws, and are maybe prone to the odd oversight.
Gerard Pique has a lot of nice things to say about Manchester United but, for him, the diet was ‘outrageous’. “Everyone ate whatever they wanted to eat and when you think about the typical English diet, you can imagine what I am talking about,” Pique would say in 2008 as a Barcelona player, probably stick-thin by then. “Every fifteen days they would put us on what we dubbed the ‘spare-tyre machine’ to measure our body fat. You would be amazed at how many top players practically broke the machine because their diet was based on beer and burgers.”
‘Amazed’ would be an interesting choice of word for some.
Not just Ruud, but selfish, 2001-06
There is an idea that Ruud van Nistelrooy was moved on because the game had changed, and Manchester United needed a player with all-round capabilities. Nonsense! It soon became clear that he didn’t just stop being good when he later played for Real Madrid. He was injured for a lot of his time there, of course, but still scored goals at much the same rate he did in a red shirt. Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t stupid, even if he did go on record once to say that Van Nistelrooy could do more to improve his game. He left because of who he was, what he did and what he said. He was unhappy and had to leave; the belief, tedious but true, that no player is bigger than the club perhaps ruled here, just like it had done with a discontent Roy Keane a year previous, in 2005.
Before anything, the player we know. He was a goalscorer, above everything else. Like others fortunate enough to have been called the same, to score was Van Nistelrooy’s primary concern; he appeared not to be preoccupied with much else on the field if he was one of the names to feature on the score-sheet. Few wanted it any other way. Louis Saha, his former strike partner and one-time enemy, put it best in his autobiography: “Ruud was the most selfish goalscorer. But a goalscorer needs to be selfish, to be obsessed by scoring. Ruud was a killer. Like [Filippo] Inzaghi or [David] Trezeguet. Obsessed.” Ferguson agreed with the idea of man ‘obsessed’ with adding to goal tally; when the striker was going through a difficult spell during the 2004/05 season, he would become “angry with himself,” according to his manager, that by not scoring, he thinks “he is not contributing.” It’s accepted on the whole, however, that a selfish Van Nistelrooy was a good Van Nistelrooy.
Nobody talks about it now, or had ever really talked about it, but one of Van Nistelrooy’s great, actually-selfless performances came at Old Trafford against Real Madrid in 2003 in a game that had essentially been a lost cause when the world’s best forward player, the Brazilian Ronaldo, had been in the form that he was. In the first leg at the Bernabeu, Van Nistelrooy scored a typical poacher’s goal; and then again in the second. But where the first game, a 3-1 defeat, saw Van Nistelrooy largely isolated due to United’s cold feet, the second saw the Dutchman in his element, all a result of the desperate situation that had presented itself.
United could not waste time, and badly needed their key man to be involved. Indeed, Van Nistelrooy was ever-present, except it was mostly outside the box where a lot of his good work had been done. It was a night where he was able to liberate himself and banish the poacher tag — temporarily, but still — constantly harassing, tackling, passing, creating; basically, what the coaches from far-away lands call “getting stuck in”. There was a moment where he picked up the ball on the right-hand side, feigned a kick to cruise past a dumbfounded Ivan Helguera, shifted away from Roberto Carlos and then hit the ball hard at Iker Casillas who could only bat it away. It was a sequence that suggested Van Nistelrooy still believed the tie was winnable, all the weight on his droopy shoulders as he tried to lead the team. From a Manchester United perspective, David Beckham’s cameo in that game is most remembered, and that’s expected. Van Nistelrooy would always receive less credit than he had deserved for some of the other things he could do, but to play like had here, to this extent, was rare. This was a great one-off.
There was another kind of selfishness, an altogether uglier one, that possibly contributed to the Dutchman’s eventual departure. It’s funny, but considerably more tragic, to think that what had ultimately finished off Van Nistelrooy was his mistake in thinking aloud when he had that training ground bust-up with Cristiano Ronaldo (as discussed in Envy), the day before the final game in his final season against Charlton Athletic. There, the story goes, egos clashed and Van Nistelrooy apparently asked him why he seldom passed, especially when he’s the striker. Ronaldo’s own selfishness was noted but celebrated by this time; and celebrated enough for Sir Alex to pick his favourite.
Months earlier, Van Nistelrooy was left out of the Carling Cup final. United had beaten Wigan Athletic 4-0 and Saha, the man that had taken his place, would score the all-important second goal. Ferguson reasoned that Saha deserved to start because of form, but how Van Nistelrooy felt about this we can only guess. Those body language experts deduced that he wasn’t taking it very well, and Daniel Taylor wrote in the immediate aftermath for The Guardian that the winners’ medal he received was, in no time, “stuffed into his pocket.”
“In Eamon Dunphy’s Only A Game he recalls being made a substitute at Millwall and sitting on the bench wishing bitter misfortune on his replacement, secretly hoping that his own team would be thrashed,” wrote Taylor. “Even if he would never admit it, Van Nistelrooy has made a career out of that kind of selfishness. How must he have felt as Saha bundled in Gary Neville’s cross to continue his goal-a-round record: euphoria or resentment? Only the naïve would presume it was the former. Footballers, or the vast majority of them anyway, think of themselves first and the team a distant second.”
This is not presented as fact; yet it’s not at all out of place in what (though little) we know about Van Nistelrooy. If he really did tell Ronaldo to “go running to your dad” (Carlos Queiroz), does this suggest that here was a man that realised he was no longer the team’s most important player as his goal record probably demanded and, crucially, no longer as indispensable as he suspected? To drive home three hours before a game, the season’s last, suggested that all illusions had finally been shattered.
Manchester United 2-3 Real Madrid (agg: 2-3), 19.04.2000
The best goals are typically those that can be looked back on fondly; naturally, then, they have to be in a winning context. This one isn’t that. It’s an exception to the rule — my rule — that goals have to mean something.
It could be argued that it wasn’t a completely meaningless goal, even it did happen with Manchester United 3-0 down (at home in a game they were expected to win). Indeed, David Beckham’s strike had appeared to reinvigorate United at the time, and was perhaps one that would inspire the side to another late, famous rally. But, then again, they needed three more because of the away goal rule. And they managed just the one, a Paul Scholes penalty just before the clock struck ninety.
In isolating the goal, regardless of the result, it is clearly a very good one. But again, a goal needs something around it for it to resonate; just look at what placed 40th on an ITV show on the greatest Champions League goals: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ’99 final winner against Bayern Munich. That one was going to be special before it was even scored, no matter how it was scored. What does this mean for Beckham’s goal, then? No context, no nothing. Not important.
Except, maybe not. “The thing that was always said about David Beckham was that he couldn’t beat a man,” said Clive Tyldesley, as he introduced the show’s number 47. “Well, he beat a couple there.” It was a goal that was so unconventional, so surprising that it was oddly amusing, because it had come from Beckham, a player often accused of being fairly one-dimensional. George Best probably agreed with that, in typically Best-like fashion: “Beckham can’t kick with his left foot, doesn’t score many goals, can’t head a ball and can’t tackle. Apart from that, he’s all right.”
A proper, damning criticism of Beckham came weeks before the Old Trafford game, in the aftermath of the 0-0 draw in Real Madrid’s home leg, where the defending champions no longer looked a team to be feared. Roberto Carlos was most disappointed by United, calling them “just another team”. He didn’t see much in Beckham, either. “Against Real Sociedad, I had to face [Ricardo] Sa Pinto, who came at me one-on-one and put crosses in,” Carlos started. “But against Manchester United I had Beckham, who comes from centre-field and tries to cross, but he is not a player with speed or real ability and you seldom have to face him in one-on-one situations.” It would have been wonderful for United to have won that game and Beckham to score the goal that he did. It’s funny, but could have been infinitely funnier had the reds turned up, to think Carlos had been made to look most pathetic by the player he seldom faced in one-on-one situations.
Picking up a Scholes pass, Beckham looked up, saw a charging Carlos — and just eased past him. Beckham didn’t take a breather; he glided past Carlos’ Brazilian counterpart Savio, moved away from the approaching Aitor Karanka and smashed the ball hard into the top right-hand corner past Iker Casillas, who, for 154 minutes of the tie, looked nothing like what an 18-year-old goalkeeper should do. The finish would have made a fine goal in itself.
Carlos’ poked tongue at Beckham was nothing new around this time, especially with all the post-France ’98 revisionism, even though this moment fell not long after Beckham had the boast of being the world’s second best player, after Rivaldo, as those that voted in 1999’s Ballon d’Or agreed. Indeed, Carlos was quick to change his tune when Beckham joined his club a few years later, describing him as an “excellent player” that would soon “end all the rumours saying he is only an advertisement boy.” For the initial jibe, read: mind games. And as much a nothing concept as ‘mind games’ is, Carlos must have believed it, because he was unfortunately right. For over an hour with United trailing 3-0, Beckham could barely impose himself in the game. But, even still, that goal. It was pretty good (and one that surely would not have been scored had the game not gone from the hosts).
All of this, and it could just be that Beckham’s great moment wasn’t even the game’s best. Raul’s second, Madrid’s third, hasn’t even been mentioned yet. But everyone knows of Fernando Redondo’s 40 yard run, nonchalant flick through Henning Berg’s legs, then the manner in which he accelerated to the byline with a pass to Raul to seal it off.
It seems strange to say so now, but what Beckham did was surprising even in a game where Redondo did that; at the time, there seemed to be something romantic about Argentine and Brazilian players in Europe — they had an altogether fresh approach, and those that played for the top clubs played with an air of superiority and Redondo was one of them. He was one of those players we see these days as cool to like because, why not? Everything Redondo did seemed natural (far more expressive than your typical ‘defensive-midfielder’), while Beckham’s was just — not very Beckham.
The Redondo-Raul goal will forever be remembered, but Beckham’s own effort at least warrants a passing mention.