Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #5 – Greed


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.


2 responses to “Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #5 – Greed”

  1. Mr Scripto says :

    Impressively written.

  2. Alwyn says :

    Really enjoyable read.

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