Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: In chronological order

Envy, GluttonyGreed, Lust, PrideSlothWrath

More to come … 

Sir Matt and Sir Alex the same, 1945 [&1986]

Manchester United’s two greatest managers have always, in some way, tried to play down their achievements, wanting not to be carried away. Those that know and knew both Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby would vouch for their humility, though not for their self-confidence; those things, which some make the mistake of thinking, are not mutually exclusive.

Indeed, they would have self-confidence in abundance. ”Call it confidence, conceit, arrogance, or ignorance but I was unequivocal about it,” Busby wrote in his autobiography Soccer at the Top. ”At the advanced age of thirty-five I would accept the managership of Manchester United only if they would let me have all my own way. As the manager I would want to manage. I would be the boss.”

There are some striking parallels to be had here with Alex Ferguson’s first programme notes in 1986, long before he was a ‘Sir’: ”I am not really interested in what has happened here in the past. I don’t mean any disrespect to the great achievements of Manchester United over the years. It’s simply that now there is only one way to go, and that is forward.

“Taking over a club of the magnitude of Manchester United is an awesome prospect,” he added. “But ultimately a football club is a football club and I shall simply try to run things at Old Trafford in what I believe to be the right way.” P

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. Gr

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. E

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.” E

George Best is sick of it, 1972

It happens even to the Best. In the 1971/72 season, with Manchester United’s challenge waning, George Best declared to a journalist that he was “sick of United”. The author of Sod This, I’m Off to Marbella, John Robertsrevealed that Best’s motives for leaving was the team: “It’s just not good enough. It’s just not going anywhere,” he would say off the record. “I could go right through the team and find things wrong. People knock me when I’m no doing it, but when I’m not doing it who is?”

1972 was not Best’s year. The problems that had existed in the first half — the bottled-up anger, absences from training, premature retirement for good measure — had worsened into the second. In December, he had enough. United were in the wrong half of the table, and Best, presumably in search of some joy, was spotted in a London nightclub when he was supposed to be up north. He was transfer listed (5th) the next day. On the 6th, the writer Eric Todd sided with the club: “He has shown a complete dis­regard for discipline, and several times he has been suspended and fined by his club for missing training sessions.” Eight days later, a u-turn, apt as it’s just one of the many to concern Best in his career, and the club no longer had him up for sale. Still, the damage was done. On the 16th, United were on the end of a 5-0 thrashing to Crystal Palace. On the 19th, manager Frank O’Farrell was sacked and Best had announced another retirement by letter. “I’ve had as much football as I can take,” he was reported to have written, citing United’s position in the table — last — as the reason for his decision.

George Best would play again in a red shirt. It remained that way for another two years, perhaps to everyone’s surprise. S

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. Gl

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.’” E

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. E

Keane vs Schmeichel, 1990s

A popular character of the small screen once bluntly remarked that “‘remember when …’ is the lowest form of conversation,” then immediately got up and left. He had a point: there’s a feeling of pathetic longing when you reminisce, an inclination to hyperbole and, when in company, a further feeling of desperation to keep the dialogue going. Those are the bad things. What can’t be said about the revisiting of the past is that it’s not interesting. All the best things happened in the past, of course.

Manchester United demonstrate this truth well. Were you to look in the right places, you’d find some of the best ‘remember when …’ tales from ex-United players who have too much to share. After a while, you’ll find common themes, subjects and you can start to narrow it down. Those that played in the 1990s, especially those lucky enough to have been involved in the treble-winning side, barely talk about anyone other than Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona. And then they start talking about things off the pitch.

Keane, the man some have dared compare to the very same television character named above, holds the unique honour of being even more interesting than Cantona away from football. Take this one: “It was 1997 and I was on tour with Manchester United when I heard the banging in the corridor,” Andy Cole told The National in 2011. “I went to investigate and saw that Roy Keane was rolling around fighting with Peter Schmeichel, the giant goalkeeper. They weren’t playing. ‘Typical Roy,’ I thought, and went back to bed smiling. The next day, Schmeichel was wearing sunglasses. There had only been one winner.” (Then there’s the story of when a drunken Keane took on a group of Liverpool players in Gluttony.)

The relationship between Schmeichel and Keane was well-documented. Dwight Yorke revealed in his autobiography Born To Score that in the dressing room at half-time with United level with Sheffield Wednesday, a game they would go on to lose 3-1, Keane “was having a go at Peter for having given away a soft goal. [They] had to be separated before coming to blows.”

Those that live in fear of committing the cardinal sins will tell you that to be unable to develop spiritually, to apply yourself, leads to the downfall of man, and that these people are sloths. In his own words, Schmeichel was not Keane’s “cup of tea”, and though he recognised the Dane’s talents, he would surely regard him as a sloth. On one evening in front of the television cameras, at the request of fellow-pundit Lee Dixon, Keane opened up about Peter Schmeichel, and told him what we had already sort of known. “When he did become cocky, that’s when he made mistakes. If you speak to the goalkeeping coaches, they say Peter wasn’t that technically brilliant but stopped the ball going into the back of the net. I felt there were times when he got a bit carried away and thought he was the bees-knees.”

Like Fabien Barthez then? Many were certain that he was the perfect successor to Schmeichel, a view that was reinforced by his impressive début season. The Frenchman, however, could not quite maintain the level of performance into the next campaign. The Independent‘s Matt Lawton wrote at the time that “some pros feel that his current difficulties stem from the degree of his success last season.”

“There’s a big difference between cocky and confident,” Keane would add, and let that be a lesson to sloths — not just those with gloves — everywhere. S

Cantona says hello to Leeds, 1993

Eric Cantona the footballer would strut around on stage accompanied by a spotlight — if it had momentarily focussed elsewhere, he would instantly demand it back. It was part of a package deal, but it was not something that hindered him, rather the opposite. Cantona, citing the “kick, and then rush” football at Leeds United as one of his reasons for leaving to FourFourTwo, would reveal that “if I don’t feel the environment is good, I don’t want to be there. I need to feel good.” It was this that made Manchester United, according to the man who had signed him, the perfect club for the mercurial Frenchman.

There’s no way Eric Cantona would have been a great player if we hadn’t allowed him to express himself, to be Eric Cantona,” Sir Alex Ferguson would reveal to journalist Philippe Auclair in an interview for The Blizzard. “I think we were a perfect club for him, a club where he was able to stick his chest out and say, “I’m the man here, I’m the king here.” Because he had this aura, this presence, this belief in himself.”

Auclair would never pass up a chance to talk Cantona, especially to the man who knew him better than most and doubly especially being the author of the wonderful Eric Cantona biographyThe Rebel Who Would Be King, for which credit goes to for this story. Auclair revisited Cantona’s return to Elland Road, his first since leaving Leeds United, and of his provoking of a hostile crowd. As the pre-match practice was coming to a close, Auclair writes, through the help of a friend present that day, when “the moment came to return to the dressing room, drowned in an ocean of noise, a sewer in full flow, Cantona took the ball, juggled it for a while and signed off with a volley into the top corner. The jeers doubled in ferocity but, as David [his friend] remembers it, intensified by the admiration the crowd couldn’t help but feel for such arrogance (‘We had to admit — this guy had balls’).” He had big balls. P

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.” Gr

United’s grey area, 1996

An invisibility cloak has its uses in the fictional world, but, as Alex Ferguson and his team realised, not in the real one. Trailing 3-0 to Southampton at half-time, Ferguson had told his players to ”get that kit off, you’re getting changed.” They had worn a grey strip for the first half, but came back out in blue-and-white. ”The players don’t like the grey strip. They find it difficult to pick each other out,” Ferguson explained. It was only after the kit change had they realised the bad guys were the ones in the red-and-white, and scored a consolation goal through Ryan Giggs.

“The shirt is probably a collector’s item now, for all the wrong reasons,” said Lee Sharpe a decade later, a ‘two birds’ purchase for any Manchester United fan who enjoys J.K. Rowling. S

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. Gl

When Andy Cole became Outstanding, 1999

Andy Cole made the unfortunate decision to release Outstanding (there could well be a full-stop here) in the same year as Manchester United’s treble-winning season, where everything could invariably be compared unfavourably — though apparently that was the intention. To put it kindly, it was an ambitious record, with lyrics that otherwise screamed the “do you know who I am?” line, including the fact that, apparently, he is ‘the host with the most / got clientèle guaranteed’ and that he’s ‘sharp like a razor / speed to amaze ya / beat ya like Ali did Joe Frazier’, which, though intimidating on the surface, would probably be laughed out of a recording studio in Harlem.

But credit to Cole for trying; he chose not to adopt a faux-American accent, only briefly touched on various actually-banal, actually-not-song-worthy tasks carried out in the early hours and made no unsuccessful attempts to rhyme ‘positive’ with ‘negative’. You could look at it another way: this was at the start of Britain’s short-lived hip-hop golden era. This one stayed true to itself, with lyrics that still resonate today (‘Tell the world my name, who’s that? Andy Cole’).

Can he kick it? Like every other ’7.5 mill record-maker’, yes he can. P

Di Canio outsmarts Barthez, 2001

Back when ‘mind games’ as a footballing concept was underground and credible, Fabien Barthez could call himself the undisputed King of the Games. He had virtually won 2002’s free-for-all when his famed eccentricities, history has it, saw him prevent a spot-kick and, with it, a Manchester United defeat. With Fulham’s Steed Malbranque set to take a penalty, Barthez thought it funny – it was, in fairness – and practical – that too – to scrape the soles of his boot on either post, importantly getting rid of some mud that might contrive to bite him back later on, and catch up with his thoughts, perhaps to contemplate the nature of Beppe di Marco’s relationship with Lynne Slater. This colourful Barthez moment, though the Loftus Road crowd saw it differently, delayed Malbranque from taking the penalty despite the referee’s approval by whistle. Duly booked, Malbranque could take his kick, but could not convert.

The BBC described this as “unsporting” and taking “gamesmanship to the limit”, which, isolated, makes the event sound like a one-off. Barthez had in fact done something similar thirteen months earlier, this time with Muzzy Izzet and Leicester City. Izzet, having initially put the ball into the empty net only to have it disallowed, saw his second attempt saved by Barthez. Of course it was.

Like another of United’s Frenchmen, Fabien Barthez quite enjoyed the attention he invariably got in his football career. Like Eric Cantona, this attention was the result of two things: performances and everything else, which covered all the interesting bits that made the characters. Unlike Cantona, the attention that came from ‘performances’ was largely unwelcome, perhaps somewhat unfairly. Goalkeepers are the lonely men of football, thrust into an unforgiving world, where only a small percentage, disproportionate to players of any other position, are ever held in high regard. Mistakes, those that can be comprehended, are magnified. Bad mistakes, those that can’t, even more. And then there’s instances like Barthez’s with Paolo Di Canio in 2001′s FA Cup. At the time, Barthez had not yet mastered his psychological manoeuvres.

Di Canio, through on goal having gleefully collected a Frederic Kanoute pass, struck the ball past Barthez, who, mostly in hope, put his right arm up in search of a flag. What Barthez had in this instance was time and the kindness of angles, and decided to use neither: rather deception. That failed and West Ham led 1-0; and not unjustly, either. Replays showed that Denis Irwin had played Di Canio onside, and there went Barthez’s defence. There was little time for United to recover, and Barthez, so desperate to atone, played the last minute as an outfield player.

On behalf of the Izzets and Malbranques of the world, and those opposition forwards unlucky enough to have been rounded and nutmegged by the crazed ‘keeper, Paolo Di Canio saw past the smokescreen those before and after him couldn’t see. “He tried to stop me. He tried to make my brain a little bit confused,” Di Canio would say post-match. ”But I have played 15 years at the top level and have a little bit of experience in these situations.”

Barthez later conceded to trying to put Di Canio off: ”It’s all part of the game!” There was no flag signalling offside, but there was, clear to everyone including Di Canio, a big white one in the goalkeeper’s right hand. S

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. Gl

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 millennium: 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. Gl


Scholes too good to be a reserve, 2001

Paul Scholes, they would tell you, is as modest as one of Chaucer’s maids, but with all the stories (or story, as it’s apparent that only Rio Ferdinand’s recollection is on record) of hitting trees from 40 yards in front of his impressed team-mates, he does at least recognise that he’s got a unique gift.

”I don’t know why I did what I did in 2001, but it is something I really regretted doing,” Scholes would say after his initial retirement in 2011. ”I wasn’t in a great mood. I had been left out the Liverpool game the previous weekend and I knew that the team going down to Arsenal in the [League] cup was basically a reserve side.” United were beaten 4-0 at Highbury, with arch-enemy Sylvain Wiltord scoring three, as if to foreshadow later events that season.

“I ended up getting fined and having to apologise, but I was lucky. The manager would have been within his rights to get rid of me.” Scholes’ loss, really; how many others could really say they played alongside Lee Roche and now-convict Ronnie Wallwork? P

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 forThe 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. Gr

Roy Keane threatens to play badly, 2005

This one could easily have been filed under ‘wrath’, but, no, it goes beyond that. In an interview with MUTV, Roy Keane criticised new signing Rio Ferdinand and other members of the Manchester United team (in Keane’s defence, he may well have been ticked off by Ferdinand’s white suit, in which case he is excused). Here are the highlights: “Just because you are paid £120,000-a-week and play well for 20 minutes against Tottenham, you think you are a superstar. There is a shortage of characters in this team. It seems to be in this club that you have to play badly to be rewarded. Maybe that is what I should do when I come back. Play badly.”

Keane is a proud man. Was he arrogant? Almost certainly. Sometimes we’d get hard-men like Keane (some might say) and automatically assume that there are layers; that emotion isn’t supposed to come with what they might do — or say — and so that it’s natural they don’t brag about it. They just shrug it off, it’s what they do. Bragging shows character, a big head, a swagger and linked to that is some kind of twisted happiness. Not that he wasn’t hard — he was hard, he is hard — but to simply lump Keane with the hard-men would be unfair, because he had dimensions, plural, and because hard-men aren’t supposed to be this fun, rather generic, the template for wannabe Krays.

Keane didn’t explicitly boast, but he always appeared to be on the verge of it. He would tell Mick McCarthy that he didn’t rate him as a footballer, Jamie Redknapp, too — “You, Redknapp, are you happy with your Under-21 caps?” — and assume some kind of superiority by chiding those who wore gloves on the pitch. “Sometimes I believe the man upstairs has great plans for me,” he would say once.

Roy Keane has standards but only very personal ones, and appears to care little for reputation. That’s a good thing, probably. To think we were surprised that Keane, the leader of a team that desperately needed reassuring words after a bad run of form, would speak so openly!

Bless him — he went on: “There is talk about putting this right in January and bringing new players in. We should be doing the opposite — we should be getting rid of people in January.” Hands up if you love him. P

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 Quieroz, 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. E

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. Gr

Manchester United players enjoy burgers, 2008

In Alex Ferguson’s earlier years as a football manager, he held the beliefthat 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. Gr

Berbatov, 2008-2012

“I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well,” Wayne Rooney once said in an interview, presumably in full-kit before a non-stop 24-hour training session with himself. When Dimitar Berbatov played for Manchester United and scored goals or done well, he presumably visualised himself elsewhere, lay in bed.

Rooney and Berbatov were largely successful as a pairing, perhaps because, as they say, opposites attract. Rooney has the enviable attitude — on the pitch — of a footballer; in addition to his most obvious qualities, he is persistent in trying to win the ball, he takes the opposition on and tracks back to help out his defence, face hydrated and everything. Berbatov not so much, or so was the popular opinion. He cut a figure that didn’t seem to care most of the time, earning an unfortunate, though oddly cool, reputation of being the game’s most languorous player. Unlike Rooney, Berbatov seemed to expect the ball to come to him. There was no other way.

He best showed this in a 2-0 win over Manchester City in 2009 when Darren Fletcher sent a searching ball up field from the back and he just picked it out of the air, without relying on a bounce or five. He then turned away from his man and played a simple pass to Carlos Tevez, who struck it sweetly past the ‘keeper; it was a goal ordered by the Gods, at least as far as the man who would provide the assist. Some magicians can create the illusion of catching a bullet with their mouths. Perhaps Berbatov has the same sort of subtle trickery; indeed, West Ham’s James Collins found out as much when he was at the end of Berbatov’s infamous, audacious pirouette on the goal-line. There would be no excess body movement and he was better that way, doing special things his own half-arsed way. In this instance, he once again played a simple pass, this time to Cristiano Ronaldo. Statistical records will say nothing of either Berbatov moment, and that seems just right. He is exclusive to the eyes, and sounds better when spoken about. And yet people are still split over him. He is football’s Nessie.

Berbatov’s agent explained that the reason he left United was that he didn’t have what the competition offered. “The only thing … those players have more of than Mitko is speed.” In Bulgaria, where the Dimitar Berbatov Appreciation Society has more members than its populace, ‘Mitko’ is what they call affectionately call their most prized export, at least when we’re not talking about Stoichkov or Stilyan Petrov. What finally ended Berbatov’s prolonged stay at Old Trafford it turned out, far longer than he had deserved in the end, was his perceived weakness. However, it was this perceived weakness that made the man, to maintain the vague comparison, the myth.

If Berbatov was a sloth, then we must ask ourselves why we don’t instead have six deadly sins, and eight heavenly virtues. S

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. Gl


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