Month April 2009

Month April 2009

United risk losing focus as Golden Generation prepares to bow out

April 29, 2009 Tags: , Opinion 2 comments

Paul Aaron Scholes, born 16 November 1974, is precisely one month younger than me. When the ginger maestro burst onto the scene in the mid-90s I quietly reveled in this fact; here was a guy at the heart of a new golden generation that was to dominate his profession for a decade. Fast forward almost 15 years – Portsmouth at Old Trafford last week – and Scholes stepped out for his 600th game in a United shirt, surely the last milestone before the curtain falls on a glittering career. Now the proximity of our birthdates is not such a good omen; It’s not nice to be reminded that you’re over the hill.

That Scholes deserves all the plaudits heaped on him is not in question. As is often noted, his quiet professionalism is in stark contrast to the celebrity-obsessed idiocy that afflicts most modern premiership players. But the passing of Schole’s golden generation is in danger of overshadowing a deeper problem at OT. When Scholes and co exit stage left, what’s the next act?

The opening game of United’s 1995/96 season – a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa – is chiefly remembered for Alan Hanson’s smug post match assertion that “you cannae win anything with kids.” United’s team that day included Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, players that were to lead United to unparalleled success later that decade.

This generation reached its pinnacle in the 1999 treble winning season. The team at this point featured arguably English football’s best ever midfield quartet: Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Beckham. This midfield was famously disrupted by the arrival of Veron (who managed one decent game for United in three years) and the exit of Beckham (who had become more interested in haircuts by this point). What followed was a series of rubbish signings (Djemba Djemba, Kleberson etc.) and good ones (Rooney, Ronaldo) but a new homegrown generation never materialised. This was never more evident than in the signings of Anderson and Nani, bought as long-term replacements for Scholes and Giggs, respectively.

It’s no surprise that the young, dynamic team that emerged in the mid-90s is held in such high regard at the club given the legacy of the Busby Babes, but both sides are the exception to United’s history, not the rule. Virtually the whole of the 70s and 80s was spent buying established players and it’s been pretty much the same since the treble winning team was broken up. The harsh truth is that United’s constant talk of investing in youth and nurturing young talent is mostly bollocks. For every Macheda that comes along, there’s a million Chris Eagles who are shipped off to the lower leagues and never heard of again.

As he proved with his pinpoint pass to set-up Carrick’s goal against Portsmouth in his 600th game, Scholes has his place in the current team on merit rather than sentiment. But OT will be awash with sentimentality as his golden generation retires over the next year or so, and that’s no good thing for a club that has built its success on a ruthlessness that keeps it moving forward at all costs.

This sentimentality will be evident again tonight when Giggs is expected to notch up an unprecedented 800th appearance for the club. As with Scholes, the newly-crowned player of the year deserves his swansong. But there’s already some silly talk of United retiring Gigg’s number 11 shirt; a proposal seemingly dreamt up by some United suit with no knowledge of the club’s history prior to 1991 (Norman Whiteside and George Best are just two legends to have worn the shirt before him).

So, let the golden generation bow out gracefully, but let’s now concentrate on developing a new one rather than celebrating an old one. I’m sure both Scholes and Giggs would agree.

Giggs backlash begins

April 28, 2009 Tags: , Opinion No comments

Ryan Giggs was presented with this year’s Professional Footballers Association award for Player of the Year on Sunday night. But the Welshman barely had time to place the gong is his overflowing trophy cabinet before the backlash began. Quel surprise!

“He’s only started 12 Premier League games this season,” argued the Daily Mail before putting up Andy Towsend and Jamie Redknapp to argue their point. Pundit Towsend said, while answering the rhetoric question whether Giggs deserved the award,  that the “statistics say no” before going on to have an opinion on the matter himself. He thinks too, you know. Redknapp then demanded that the voting system be looked at, clearly wondering why non-Liverpool players are actually allowed to win.

Even Giggs’ former Welsh teammate John Hartson, fresh from winning nothing of note in his entire career, put the boot in by saying “personally, he wouldn’t have got my vote.” Fortunately, Hartson would still have to be a professional footballer to vote. Clue’s in the title, John. Then Liverpool’s long-forgotten England failure John ‘Errr’ Barnes ‘ Errr’ weighed in too, lending his support for Gerrard.

Meanwhile, over at the Scouse-loving BBC, online columnist ‘Pop’ Robson claimed that “any right thinking person would’ve plumped for Gerrard or Vidic.” Guess the pros who face Giggs week in, week out, just weren’t right-thinking enough for you Pop?

Not that we should let statistics tell the tale but, for the record, Giggs has played in 40 of United’s 58 games this season – exactly the same number as Gerrard. Good job Andy didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good headline!

Or perhaps Giggs – who has been a superb creative force from central midfield this season – does actually deserve the award? True, there has been no obvious candidate this year in the way Cristiano Ronaldo stormed to the award in the past two campaigns. Vidic, van der Sar, Ferdinand and even Gerrard have been excellent this season. But that’s the point, the votes were always likely to be split pretty evenly and in all probability Giggs won a close run contest.

After failing to come up with an clear – or consistent – alternative our friends in the press have now taken to patronising Giggs. Lauding the PFA prize as some kind of ‘lifetime achievement’ award made out of sympathy for a player in his swansong.

The truth is, of course, while many players will recognise Giggs’ 18 years service to the game, and his spotless professional record (no Red cards for United, no barroom brawls, no tabloid preening) – many actually voted for Giggs because of the quality of his football. No longer able to sprint up and down the left wing, number 11 Giggs has transformed his game to become a classic number 10 – picking out passes with ease and finding space where others can’t.

The Football Writers’ Award is announced in a few weeks, and after the shortlist of Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea nominees is whittled down, Steven Gerrard will take home the prize. Giggs meanwhile will walk off with his 10th Premiership crown. The mark of a genuine legend.

Actually lads it was a penalty

April 27, 2009 Tags: , , Shorts 4 comments

Sometimes it seems there’s one media law for United and another for everybody else. Take this Sunday’s game for example. The media consensus is that United were given a penalty that should never have been and that Spurs were ‘robbed’ of a potential win as a result. In fact Heurelio Gomes’ foul on Michael Carrick was just that, by any interpretation of the law. Gomes took both man and ball – and it really doesn’t matter which came first for a foul to be given. Meanwhile, Wilson Palacios’ disgraceful two-footed knee high lunge at Ronaldo went unreported in many media outlets. It all goes to prove the old adage that it’s always better to print the story rather than the facts.

Ready to resume old hostilities

April 27, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

Do you miss the United versus Arsenal fizz of yesteryear? You know, the pizza throwing, tunnel shoving, all-out-21-man-brawling edge that seems to have been missing from recent encounters. It was that needle that gave the fixture its meaning over the past two decades. After all, while Arsenal aren’t traditional United rivals like City, Leeds and Liverpool, the tie had more than an air of ‘derby’ about it from the nineties to the early 21st century. But ‘Pizzagate’ onwards, when United ended Arsenal’s 49 match unbeaten league run, and the encounters have been tame. But with the clubs’ biggest meeting in a number of seasons taking place at Old Trafford this coming Wednesday, could old rivalries flare up again? Let’s hope so!

Perhaps its because messrs. Ferguson and Wenger have mellowed over the years that has removed some of the spark from the fixture in recent seasons.  After all, when was the last time either of them engaged in petty media-orientated ‘mind-games,’ name calling and put-downs? The arrival of Jose Mourinho and Chelsea’s huge spending certainly gave both clubs a new focus. And, horror of horrors, the pair even agree on certain issues now, such as a common enemy in universally disliked Rafa Benitez.

Or maybe its that the players have changed too. Neither side has the spikey characters that fueled the personal vendettas of the past. Without the incendury personalities of Keane, Viera, Keown, Winterburn, McClair, van Nistelrooy and others, what’s left to fight about? After all Viera hated – literally hated – Ruud van Nistelrooy; Brian McClair tried to cut Nigel Winterburn in half; and Roy Keane scared the aforementioned Viera so bad he probably had to run home to his mummy for a cuddle. Moreover, Cesc Fabregas aside, there’s nobody on either side who – to paraphrase – would gladly start a fight in an empty room.

Most of all the edge has gone because the clubs aren’t rivals for the Premiership title anymore, with the North London side now more accustomed to fighting it out for the fourth Champions League qualifying spot than actual trophies. By the time the two meet in the Premiership at Old Trafford on May 16th the title ought to be as good as wrapped up.

The Champions League semi-final this coming Wednesday, however, could change all that. At last a United versus Arsenal fixture worth getting excited about!

OAPs prove better than ever

April 26, 2009 Tags: , Shorts No comments

Wednesday night Ryan Giggs will don a red shirt for the 800th time in a competitive game. The historic milestone comes shortly after the Paul Scholes – the Ginger Prince – played his 600th game for the club. In that match, against Portsmouth last Wednesday night, Scholes slotted a sumptuous ball through the Pompey defence to release Michael Carrick for the second goal of the game. The Salford-born magician, it seems, may have lost much of his old zip and eye for a goal but none of his world-class brilliance on the ball. Giggs meanwhile is having yet another Indian-summer – 17 years after his debut. Aging the pair may be but they provide further proof, it were ever needed, that class is permanent.

Everybody sing! 5-2, even Berba scored…

April 25, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Dimi’s come in for quite a bit of grief lately, which is vaguely understandable, but there’s much to celebrate about the languid Bulgarian. When he scored against Spurs, his apparently nonchalant turn away from the goal masked the massive relief. When he was mobbed by his team mates (surely a sign about the esteem they hold him in) he couldn’t contain his delight any longer and broke out into a massive grin, and gave a double fisted pump of joy. Unless Rooney was media savvy enough to whisper “Berba, you big numpty, at least look like you’re pleased,” I think Dimi might actually have been displaying the commitment to the cause we all want to see from him.

Lay off Berba

April 25, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Does an – albeit dreadful – penalty miss really make a bad player? Dimitar Berbatov has always been a striker of the highest quality. True, he’s different. The Bulgarian doesn’t run around the pitch like a headless chicken; he’s always been a thinking man’s player. Moreover, the former Tottenham man has added composure and no little skill to United’s team this season. In a squad of Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez (not to mention Macheda and Wellbeck) there’s no reason for Berbatov to start every match. But equally, United’s squad desperately needs a player of his ilk. Calls by fans and former managers for the player to be sold this summer are way short of the mark.

Tevez set to leave Reds

April 25, 2009 Tags: Shorts 4 comments

It will be a great shame but it seems inevitable that Carlos Tevez will be leaving United this summer when his two-year loan contract comes to an end. Fans love his insatiable appetite for the game and the heart he shows every time he dons a United shirt. True, the young Argentinian’s statistics aren’t great this season. Three goals in more than 20 Premier League games for the club isn’t nearly enough. Especially for a man that will cost United €34m, minus the loan fees already paid. But Tevez is worth more than his weight in goals. Let’s hope the club find a way to keep the wee man.

Sorry really is the hardest word

April 25, 2009 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments

On Friday 4th November 2005 your editor called for Sir Alex Ferguson’s head. Frustrated by a crushing 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough in the Premier League, followed by a limp performance against Lille in the Champions League, I came to the conclusion that Sir Alex’ time was up at Old Trafford.

I made this call not because for one moment I believed Ferguson has lost any of his skill. Nor that a change of manager would guarantee success. And certainly not because I had become spoilt by success and expected nothing less (I supported United through 26 barren years too). But because the great man’s legacy was genuinely under threat.

At the time I wrote that Ferguson was “seemingly bereft of ideas to turn things around.” Fans will recall too many mediocre players in the United squad that season; frankly, too few good purchases. Inconsistent tactics but players consistently  used out of position were also common. Worse still, the excuses for defeat seemed more blinkered than ever. No Sir Alex, the pitch at the Stade de France that night against Lille wasn’t to blame; four central defenders in the starting XI were.

But taking the long view, your editor was wrong and Sir Alex was right. He has turned things around. United will be crowed Premiership champions for the second year running in May. The Reds may even add a European Cup double to the trophy won so gloriously in Moscow last year. Moreover, your editor’s suggestion that a young Paul Le Guen take the helm has been proven laughably off-base.

For that Sir Alex, you have my humble and grovelling apology.

As Scouse wilt, can United find their soul?

April 25, 2009 Tags: , , , Opinion 2 comments

As we head into Saturday’s match against Spurs, United are once again in pole position to take the Premiership title with Liverpool blowing their chance to beat a weakened Arsenal side at Anfield last Wednesday. Let’s be frank, Arsenal were woeful defensively and Liverpool not much better. While North London’s ‘finest’ helped themselves to four goals from four attempts on target, Liverpool simply bottled it. At this time of year, neves get to us all. Most of all the least experienced at winning titles. Now that’s a fact.

United meanwhile beat Portsmouth with a thoroughly professional but somewhat unsatisfying display on Wednesday night at Old Trafford. The visitors created little but as Sir Alex said in postmatch interviews, he “thought a goal was coming.” The match could easily have turned into a nightmare draw with a display that  was  muted at worst. Energy came mainly from the effervescent Wayne Rooney, until he was somewhat bizzarely shipped out to the left wing in the second period. But with just seven games to go, can United find the attacking fevour that will sweep them to the title and a possible quadruple?

This is no time of crisis. After all, the Reds have now won four and drawn two (penalties aside) of their last six matches in all competitions, despite the tabloid press’ best attempts to write off Sir Alex’ team. What we, the fans, would like to see now, of course, is the return of some trademark United fluency and flambouyance.

Spurs’ visit to Old Trafford this weekend could help. The team of Blanchflour, Ardiles, Waddle and Gascoigne has a history, much like United, of attacking attractive football. Will Harry Redknapp  send out his team, with little to lose, to make a game of it? Let’s hope so. 11 men behind the ball rarely makes for a good game at Old Trafford – or in the current environment – a decent United performance.

Sir Alex has his part to play too. On Wednesday his side nominally lined up as a 4-4-2, with Ronaldo joining Rooney in attack. In reality Giggs and Fletcher tucked inside and United lacked width and penetration. With games coming thick and fast, and tired legs commonplace throughout the squad, rotation is inevitable. But it was still a conservative selection.

With Spurs, ‘Boro, City, and Wigan to come before Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford for the May 16 Premiership fixture United could well be out of sight before Wenger’s boys hit town. Better still, United could take the title with a flourish that day. Now that would be the right style.