Month March 2011

Month March 2011

Welbeck’s dilemma

March 30, 2011 Tags: Opinion 28 comments

Danny Welbeck is conflicted. No, not the choice Manchester United’s 20-year-old striker has between England and Ghana – surely any sane footballer would have chosen the West African World Cup quarter-finalists – but that of his club future. Welbeck, recently returned from a two month spell on the sidelines with a knee injury, must decide whether to stay at Old Trafford next season or seek another move out on loan. It is a choice that could define a career.

Sir Alex Ferguson, long a vocal admirer on the Longsight-born striker, says that Welbeck will return to Old Trafford after an “excellent” season on-loan at Steve Bruce’s Sunderland. The forward has scored six Premier League goals in 26 appearances, often from a wide position that demonstrates not only the player’s potential but flexibility to boot. It’s a quality that is highly admired by Ferguson.

Yet Welbeck could find himself one of six front-line strikers at Untied next season, potentially behind Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Dimitar Berbatov and Federico Macheda in the pecking order. That is without factoring in Bébé and Gabriel Obertan or the – admittedly remote – possibility that Michael Owen may sign a new one-year contract.

By contrast Welbeck admits he has made rapid progress under Bruce’s tutelage. Not least because when fit the youngster has played more often that not. There’s nothing like experience to accelerate the development curve in a raw player.

“I am delighted with my progress,” says Welbeck.

“[Making an England début] was invaluable in terms of my progress and I’ll take that in my stride. It is nothing to sit on because I’ve not done anything at all yet and I’m really looking to push on and keep improving as a player.

“I’m pretty happy with the progress I’ve made this season and I feel being at Sunderland this season has really helped me. The manager, Steve Bruce, and coaching staff have been really terrific and I’ve learnt a lot.”

Welbeck’s England début marked another destination in a sometimes rocky road the striker has travelled. Long admired at Old Trafford, Welbeck has suffered both from injury and growth spurts that hampered his development. At times devastatingly inventive and skillful; on other occasions seemingly ill at ease in his own body.

The best of Welbeck was arguably seen at Stamford Bridge earlier this season when the 20-year-old, in tandem with Ghanaian striker Asamoah Gyan, was instrumental in the Wearsiders’ 3-0 win over Chelsea. It was a performance that demonstrated both Welbeck’s appreciation of his teammates, the geometry of football and his goalscoring prowess.

The latter is, of course, an area in which Welbeck must develop if he is to force his way into both the England and United teams on a more permanent basis. The striker’s six goals this season represent decent progress but nothing more than that. The forward has just five goals in 24 appearances in a United shirt, while at international youth level the striker has scored at less than one in three games in the under-17, under-19 and under-21 age groups.

Meanwhile his club manager Bruce was understandably delighted for the player, not least because Welbeck played for the under-21s last Thursday too. The international minutes should accelerate the striker’s return Sunderland’s first team picture, if not help Bruce’s long-held wish to take Welbeck to the Stadium of Light permanently.

“It was great news for Sunderland, and for the boy who really deserves the accolades,” 50-year-old Bruce told TalkSport.

“It’s testament to what he’s achieved since being here We’ll try our best [to get him] but Manchester United have got another really, really good fantastic player and it’s not often you can buy a very good young player off anybody.

“I need to go and get Sir Alex and get few bottles of red wine down him. Before he got injured a couple of months ago he had seven goals in nine appearances and was starting to produce performances which were way above his age.”

Not that Sunderland would be the only suitors should Ferguson allow Welbeck to move on, either on loan or permanently. Indeed, recent tabloid newspaper reports have mooted Welbeck as a make-weight in United’s long-running pursuit of Everton’s midfielder Jack Rodwell.

Indeed, leaving Old Trafford on loan afforded Welbeck an opportunity to play that would not have been so at United this season, especially with Hernández’ rapid development and Berbatov’s goalscoring. It is a dilemma that Welbeck may need to overcome again this summer: return to Old Trafford and be part of a squad system, or leave on loan and continue to progress.

It is a choice that will define a players short and long-term future.

Poll: Glazers ‘to speng big’ – do you believe it?

March 29, 2011 Tags: , , , Polls 64 comments

Today’s Daily Telegraph claims that Sir Alex Ferguson has been handed “substantial funds” to improve Manchester United’s squad this summer. The article is one of several in recent weeks suggesting that the club will spend heavily after more than five years of parsimonious ownership under the Glazer regime.

History suggests that Ferguson will be handed funds solely to buy younger players who retain a sell on value, rather than established stars. Yet, British newspapers continue to speculate that high profile signings will join United, including Inter Milan’s midfielder Wesley Sneijder, goalkeeper David de Gea and Roma’s Daniele de Rossi. The Manchester Evening News was even moved to claim Ferguson has £165 million at his disposal.

The stories may or may not be with foundation. What is not in doubt: the source of the rumours, with United happy to let speculation mount ahead of June’s season ticket sales deadline.

The question is – do you believe the spin?

Will the Glazers "spend big" this summer?

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Fergie’s right, friendlies worthless

March 28, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 15 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has again condemned international friendlies as a “worthless waste of time” in a week that England reserves play Ghana in front of more than 80,000 duped fans at Wembley. And the 69-year-old Scot surely has a point, with neither players, nor club coaches taking friendlies seriously – normally prompting a host of withdrawals and minor injuries. Although there is no little irony in Ferguson’s proclamation coming in the week that Manchester United announces another extensive tour of the US.

“I am all in favour of the competitions,” Ferguson told Sirius radio today.

“The players should play in the major competitions; the European Championship, the World Cup. But friendlies are a waste of time as far as I am concerned. It is understandable for the coach. They have the players for a period when they can influence them and can build and shape their team. I can understand that completely.

“But every time there are friendlies you get six or seven call offs. It is sometimes worthless for the manager to build on that because of the lack of players.”

Indeed, Ferguson has long-held international friendlies in contempt, with matches adding to his players’ fixture burden during the season and the risk of injuries high.Ferguson is increasingly not alone in this regard, with major European clubs all keen to end fixtures that are not FIFA sponsored qualifying or tournament matches.

Perhaps little surprise then that Fabio Capello released four key members of his squad this week, mindful that he must keep club managers on side. United’s Wayne Rooney joined new England captain John Terry, Michael Dawson, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Aaron Lennon in returning to their clubs.

Yet the withdrawals make a mockery of England’s fixture against the World Cup quarter-finalists, with an FA spokesperson today forced to spin the game as a good opportunity for some of Capello’s lesser-lights. Former Ghana captain Stephen Appiah came closer to the truth, branding the late withdrawals as “disrespectful”.

“A lot of Ghanaians have travelled from America, Canada, from around the world. It’s a dream come true. It’s huge, it’s big and Ghanaians are going to follow the match,” added the 30-year-old.

“Ghanaians are disappointed. They really wanted to see those players. The players wish they could play against JT. It’s their dream to play against Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and all these players. Maybe some of them will not play in that stadium again.”

In truth the FA, burdened with over whelming debt incurred during Wembley’s reconstruction, is forced to fill every date on the international calendar, no matter how pointless the game. And this is as pointless as international friendlies come, although presumably not to the sell out crowd, including 21,000 Ghanaian fans who might have expected a full-strength England team.

Still, Ferguson will remain open to charges of hypocrisy when he announces a money-spinning but lengthy five-date US tour on Tuesday. The Scot flew to the US to unveil the summer 2011 tour, which follows United’s trip to Canada, the US and Mexico in 2010. That tour earned the Reds more than £3 million in revenues, with large crowds at many venues including Houston where United beat an MLS All Stars team 5-2.

The club today pre-briefed media on the 2011 tour, which will include another fixture against the All-Stars, this time in New York. It’s a match so ‘friendly’ that it takes place against a team that is neither a regular club, nor owns a home ground. Meanwhile, the club’s fortnight-long tour will also take in Boston on 14 July before ending in Washington with a fixture against Barcelona on 30 July.

“We’re delighted to have been invited to play the MLS All-Star game for the second year running,” added Ferguson.

“Last year’s game was a special occasion in front of a noisy, passionate crowd. Obviously we’ll be looking to repeat the performance and the score line.”

… and raise revenues for much-needed summer replacements, the Scot could also have added.

It is, of course, a sign of the times, with profit now the primary consideration during the summer break and not players’ recuperation or preparation for the coming season. Indeed, it is more than a decade since United last remained in Europe during the summer, where trips to Scandinavia were once commonplace.Those were the days before United strove to ‘break America’, open new Asian markets or extend the club’s ‘brand value’.

Nostalgia perhaps. Not unlike recalling England’s distant international glories.

Reds’ Brazilian deal pushes boundaries of taste and legality

March 27, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 38 comments

Manchester United’s path to young Brazilian talent is now well beaten. In recent seasons Anderson, Rodrigo Possebon, and the da Silva twins have all appeared in Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team – to varying degrees of success. While Anderson arrived via Porto at astonishing expense the latter trio joined directly from their homeland for little more than loose change in compensation. It’s a policy that legendary coach Carlos Alberto called the “rape of Brazilian football.” The 1970 World Cup winning right-back has demanded that FIFA outlaw youngsters moving abroad before the age of 21 but to United it is a simple financial equation; the club spent €30 million on Anderson and less than 10 per cent of that on the da Silvas.

Far from heeding the 66-year-old’s words, United expanded the policy in 2009, inking deals with sports management firm Traffic and the agency’s Porto Feliz-based ‘academy’ Deportivo Brasil. Squaring the circle through a partnership with Dutch club FC Twente Enschede, United now intends to bring young Brazilians to Europe and enable them to qualify for either a European passport or a UK work permit if selected for the national team.

Indeed, in the past fortnight five Traffic players attended United’s 1-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford. Alongside coach Osmar Loss, midfielders Gladstony, Rafael Leão, Agnaldo and Lucas Evangelista, and striker Aguilar watched the match. That, quite laughably, the nation’s leading journalists couldn’t tell this group of Brazilians from Shakhtar Donetsk’s Douglas Costa is another matter altogether.

The quintet has pedigree too, with Aguilar recently breaking into the same Brazilian under-17 side from which both Rafael and Fabio graduated three years ago. The striker played for Twente’s youth side this week along with Lucas Evangelista and Agnaldo, while Rafael Leao and Gladstony also joined training at the club in eastern Holland. It was the first match in a long road that heads inextricably towards Old Trafford.

There is no hiding United’s attempt to bypass the UK work permit system either. Non-EU nationals are required to have played in 75 per cent of their country’s internationals over the past two years or pass a special “exceptional talent” excemption that is now widely abused.

“Twente are a partner, helping United to resolve the problem of their EU passports,” Jochen Losch, president of international business for Traffic, told

“For two reasons it’s good that a player goes first to Holland. First, after two or three years he’s considered to be European. And of course it’s easier to play in the Dutch league than the Premier League.”

It’s a road United has not required for the da Silva twins, who have Portuguese passports, while Possebon obtained Italian citizenship before returning to his homeland last summer. Anderson and Mexican Javier Hernández each qualified under the exceptional talent provision. It’s a wonder why the work permit rules exist at all when leading clubs so openly flout them.

Moreover, the quintet is not the first group from Deportivo Brazil to attend training at United over the past two years. The Brazilian ‘club’ has more than 120 youngsters aged between 13 and 20 on the books, with Traffic maintaining 100 per cent ownership of the boys’ economic rights. It’s the kind of third-party ownership that is now banned in the Premier League.

Traffic, whom those of a more cynical bent might conclude is an appropriate name for the agency, boasts on its website of “total control over assets” prior to players’ sale to “big-spending markets” in Europe and the Middle East. “Players are loaned out to top-clubs in Brazil, while Desportivo Brasil (= Traffic) keeping (sic) the transfer rights of those players at all times,” concludes the agency.

Some might argue that this is the meat market for players that Roy Keane so voraciously complained of, played out to the ultimate globalised degree. United’s policy is, after all, one aimed at delivering not only talent but saving on transfer fees, with the risk to the club minimised. While the financial terms of the club’s involvement is unclear, United will have to pay Traffic a transfer fee should any of the five – or other boys – actually sign at Old Trafford. It is also not unreasonable to assume that the club is already paying Twente or Traffic, or both, in lieu of the boys’ wages.

Yet the Dutch club claims there is no agreement to fast track the players into the first team, where the standard is presumably higher than at Royal Antwerp: “Our technical staff will determine whether a player is good enough to come to Twente and also whether he plays or not. Manchester United will not interfere,” Twente chairman Joop Munsterman told the Daily Mail this week.

Antwerp acted as a proving ground for more than a dozen United players over the past decade but has not served the Reds well in terms of circumventing UK work-permit laws. Danny Higginbotham, Ronnie Wallwork, John O’Shea, Phil Bardsley, Danny Simpson, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Fraizer Campbell, Jonny Evans, Ryan Shawcross and Darron Gibson have all served time in Belgium before making a career in the Premier League.

But the dream of bringing non-EU nationals to Europe and successfully integrating them into the United set-up largely failed. Hence, United’s agreement with Twente is seemingly different. Ferguson is not expected to send fringe players out on loan but a stream of young Brazilians could well work their way through Twente and on either to United or other European clubs.

Many if not most will fail though, thousands of miles from home and without a local support network. United’s response will dictate history’s judgement, not solely how many players make it into Ferguson’s team. Football’s ability to discard the unwanted player without a moment’s hesitation suggests the club will behave with monentary considerations above all else.

How Reds will shape up in 2012

March 27, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 79 comments

There is little doubt that the summer 2011 transfer market will be one of the busiest in recent Manchester United history, with at least a quartet of players leaving club, possibly more. The quality of players coming in will depend on how parsimonious the Glazer family remains but with Gary Neville now retired, Edwin van der Sar due for the same fate, and Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves out of contract, a similar number will surely join as replacements.

In addition to that quartet it seems more than likely that both Gabriel Obertan and Wes Brown will also leave the club. Obertan’s failure to progress after two unsuccessful years at Old Trafford is unlikely to provide a return on United’s £3 million investment but there is little value persisting with a player who has made just three Premier League starts this season. Meanwhile Brown, who has been at the club for 15 years, reportedly fell out with Sir Alex Ferguson on last summer’s pre-season tour to the United States.

Moreover, with Dimitar Berbatov and Darron Gibson out of contract in 2012 there is no guarantee that the pair will remain at Old Trafford beyond the summer. Certainly the Irishman has shown little progress this season and at 23 may at least fetch a decent transfer fee.

However, any transfer planning will include Tom Cleverley, Mame Biram Diouf, Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, who Ferguson confirmed will return to the club when the current season ends. The quartet has experienced mixed fortunes away from Old Trafford on loan, with arguably only Welbeck and Cleverley adding to their burgeoning reputations. Welbeck scored six Premier League goals before sustaining a serious knee injury. Meanwhile, Cleverley has performed well at struggling Wigan Athletic when fit.

“They’ll come back into the squad and they will get plenty of games next season,” Ferguson told club mouthpiece

“They are part of the band of young players coming through at this club. They will all come back in. At that point, we will then review our squad because that’s the important thing. But we will always put players out on loan.

“Cleverley has done very well, particularly in his spell at Watford and then at Wigan. He has improved in each case and he is going to be a top player. Welbeck has been fantastic too, it’s just unfortunate that he picked up a bad injury. But they will all be ready for next year. Mame Diouf has done well at Blackburn too and he’ll come back in.”

However, Diouf’s failure to command a regular starting spot at Blackburn Rovers, where he has scored just three times in the top division, and Macheda’s patchy form on loan at Sampdoria, where he has scored just once, will also factor in the manager’s thinking.

van der Sar’s retirement and Tomasz Kuszczak probable departure means that United will buy at least one ‘keeper in addition to Anders Lindegaard. The Dane, a £3 million purchase from Aalesund in January, has made just two FA Cup appearances to date but is expected to compete for a place in the first team next season. Meanwhile, Ben Amos may return from loan at Oldham Athletic to once again take up position at Sir Alex’ third choice stopper.

As for additions United has regularly watched David De Gea, Manuel Neuer and Rene Adler this season. Indeed, each is available for transfer, although none will come cheap. While Neuer has talked up his chances of remaining in Germany where known admirers Bayern Munich normally get their man, Adler is desperate for a move to Old Trafford.


Ferguson has little call to make sweeping changes to his defensive department, although the 69-year-old Scot must recognise that injuries have decimated his resources for two seasons in a row. Brown’s likely departure, Rio Ferdinand’s ongoing injury problems and Jonny Evan’s poor form may well prompt the purchase of a new central defender. Chris Smalling’s progress is a bonus though, with the former Fulham defender actually making more appearances than Ferdinand this season.

With Patrice Evra signing a new contract, Fábio da Silva may depart on loan unless Ferguson now considers the 20-year-old Brazilian his brother’s understudy.


Midfield is by far United’s weakest department and although Ferguson will bolster his options with Cleverley’s return – and Antonio Valencia’s renewed fitness – the Scot will surely seek out a central midfielder of the highest quality. It is a challenge the United manager shirked last summer, repeatedly declaring that ‘no value’ exists in the market while spending more than £8 million on Bébé. The fee was, by contrast, more than Tottenham Hotspur spent on Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart. And although United is reportedly keen on brining the former Real Madrid midfielder north this summer it is far more likely that Ferguson will again seek solace in youth or at the bottom of the market.

Much will depend on Paul Scholes’ future – will he, or will he not retire?

Ferguson may also wish to strengthen his left-sided options, with Park Ji-Sung’s form and fitness failing him this season, Obertan unlikely to remain in Manchester and now Ryan Giggs in his 38th year.

Then there is the Hargreaves question, with United essentially missing a destructive force in the centre of midfield for the past two seasons. Tabloid rumours of a move for Daniele de Rossi, Lassana Diarra continue, although at 27 and 26 each is at the upper end of United’s age/cost profile under the Glazer regime.

Ferguson will at least retain a wealth of options in attack even if Owen departs. The injury-prone former Liverpool front-man has contributed little to the Reds’ cause this season and is out of contract in the summer,. However, should Diouf, Welbeck and Macheda all return Ferguson will still have six strikers on his books. It seems unlikely that the Scot will invest in further forward options this summer.

Ferguson also has a number of youngsters who may push towards the edge of the Scot’s squad in the coming year, although few gained experience in the Carling Cup before United’s humiliation at Upton Park. However, Corry Evans – on loan at Hull City – Ravel Morrison, Will Keane, Joshua King and Paul Pogba will hope for more opportunities in the minor cup competitions.

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When club turns on fans what does support mean?

March 25, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 45 comments

The relationship between club and supporters is a nuanced one. In recent years many clubs, save for those actually owned by the fans, have sought to change that relationship. No longer one of homogeneity – fans turned up, paid at the gate and the team performed – to one that emphasises commercialism. In short, from fandom to custom. Indeed, since the Glazer takeover at Old Trafford the American family has not only raised prices by close to 50 per cent but revelled in the fact, boasting of its ability to do so in last January’s bond document.

Support is, of course, both ephemeral in nature and what economists call price-inelastic. That is, while the casual supporter – the 300 million ‘fans’ David Gill so often boasts of – will come and go with good times and bad, regulars will accept increasingly high prices before removing their custom. The Glazer family has traded on it for more than five years.

Yet, when Thomas McKenna last summer allegedly leaked details of companies whom purchase executive facilities at Old Trafford, amid one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns ever undertaken by the club, he retained the support of many fans. After all, dismayed by the Glazers debt-fuelled ownership of United, disenfranchised through price rises and arrogantly dismissed by the club’s management, fans were rightly angry.

Today, the club filed long-expected papers in the high court, suing McKenna for “losses and damages” that the club claims was brought about by the Tameside resident. The now defunct website published a list of more than 400 customers, mostly local businesses, alongside a press release claiming the leak came “with the assistance of senior employees of MUFC who oppose the Glazer family’s asset stripping of our club.”

United has previously denied both that a senior executive could have helped McKenna or indeed that the action had any effect on the bottom line. Yet today the club followed Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s precedent and is taking a United supporter to court. The Glazers’ NFL club sued supporters locked into lengthy season ticket bonds. Hardly surprising given Malcolm Glazer’s predilection for litigation with his own family.

“The defendant’s express purpose in publishing the list was to embarrass and exert pressure and to incite others to exert pressure upon the clients,” the papers said.

“The theft of data led to some of the companies named on the list having their property attacked and suffering significant personal distress. The club has a duty to demonstrate to all our fans that we will not tolerate that and will take action against the perpetrators. We take data security very seriously. Doing nothing was not an option.”

Yet, no evidence has ever been filed that supports these claims and while Greater Manchester Police last August claimed to have arrested “a 43-year-old man from Tameside … on suspicion of an offense under the computer misuse act” no charges were ever filed. McKenna, under any definition, is innocent of a crime.

Why then, with no material losses, no evidence of criminality and no mole uncovered within the club, has United chosen to take legal action? After all, it will be almost impossible to place a value on the club’s supposed losses that were once strenuously denied by Gill. It is a decision that “smells horribly of action being taken out of spite” concludes blogger Andersred.

Legal details aside, there is a question of whether fans can ever have the same relationship with a club that turns on one of them. What is it that fans actually support – the club? The team? Players, manager, or simply a concept? Some will brush off the club’s latest assault on supporters, just as too many fans have ignored David Gill’s regular insult of their collective intelligence. That Sir Alex Ferguson once told a fan to “fuck off and support Chelsea” is now largely forgotten.

Indeed, some United fans will support the club’s action against McKenna too. After all, those apologists for the Glazer family often react as if criticism of the regime’s business model is an attack on ‘their’ team. Partisanship, it seems, has few boundaries.

Others will view McKenna’s actions as this of a martyr; not dissimilar, perhaps, from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. If knowledge is power then control of that information has the power to cause considerable embarrassment and change.

In court United must prove not only did McKenna knowingly act with the malice apportioned to him but that the damages done are monetiseable; that businesses failed to renew their executive facilities not because of the economic climate, nor the Green and Gold campaign, but because of intimidation brought about as a direct of the fan’s actions.

Victory will bring little of value to United, except retribution for the embarrassment caused. A marker perhaps; a show of power. It is little more than the actions of a bully. Then again, the club has been arrogantly doing that for years.

When it comes to money, it’s all spin

March 23, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 52 comments

Manchester United has £165 million in the bank and is bent on spending all of it strengthening Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad this summer. At least that’s the conclusion reached by the Manchester Evening News and 1,000 blogs today after director Joel Glazer broke a five-year silence to claim that the club has “sufficient cash reserves…for investment in the playing squad.”

The proclamation came just 24 hours after the club’s holding company posted £109 million losses at Companies House. Not that supporters should worry, despite the huge losses and near £600 million debt on the books, the Payment in Kind (PIK) loans “have been paid off.” It is the near universally repeated line in media coverage of Red Football Joint Venture’s finances this week. Proving once again that when it comes to United’s finances there’s lies, damn lies and the Glazers.

The massive losses included a £64.7 million charge to set up the bond last January and £30.2 million paid in interest on the PIK debt, which has since been mysteriously financed to the tune of £242 million. Indeed, the figures are in stark contrast to those of a year ago, which included income from Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million sale to Real Madrid.

Yet key questions remain unanswered before supporters believe the Glazer family is to invest heavily in Ferguson’s squad. Not least the bizarre fashion in which the PIK debt was “paid off,” although it is almost certain that the family refinanced the debt through an American holding company and then subsequently moved the company to super-secretive Delaware to hide the transaction from the British media. Whatever the source of funds, the family retains the right to take dividends from the club; £125 million and counting if the Tampa-based clan chooses to do so.

Then there is the question of spending, with the club investing far less under the Glazers than the previous PLC regime in both absolute terms and as a percentage of EBITDA. The much reported, yet never actually promised, £100 million plus summer transfer fund would break a five-year habit set by the family. Not least the club’s strategy of investing in young players with a high resale value.

The third strand conspicuously missed by MEN, whose contacts within the club are near non-existent according to those in the know, is UEFA’s financial fair play regulations that effectively come into play this summer. With United’s EBITDA revenues tempered by £45 million per season in bond interest payments it is inconceivable that the club will spend a hundred million or more on summer transfers. Unless there is a departure or two of course.

The spin is in marked contrast the strict ‘no value’ line oft-repeated by Ferguson last summer when the club invested in promising youngsters and not established stars. Indeed, the Scot has been fulsome in his praise of United’s scouts who picked up striker Javier Hernández for around £7 million up-front and further performance-based bonuses. It has been a brilliant piece of business. The less said about the £8.3 million spent on Bébé, the better.

Yet, invest United surely must, with domestic rivals Manchester City and Chelsea likely to spend heavily in pursuit of glory. And even if Ferguson’s reserve team is packed with promising talent, the squad will be at least a quartet short come the summer. With Edwin van der Sar retiring, Gary Neville already picking up his pension, Owen Hargreaves likely to be released and Michael Owen out of contract, a wealth of experience will be lost to Ferguson’s cause. Paul Scholes’ future is as yet undecided, with the 35-year-old mulling retirement.

Moreover, a second defensive injury crisis in as many seasons says much for the fragile nature of too many United stars. Rio Ferdinand’s injuries now fall into the chronic camp, Nemanja Vidic has an unfortunate fragility, Jonny Evans’ ankles seem unable to keep up with the Premier League’s rigours and Wes Brown has troubled the physio more often than the opposition in a decade at the club. Then there’s the immensely talented da Silva brothers, who have each suffered multiple injuries in the past two seasons.

The question of quality – one that Ferguson strongly rejects – is one that many supporters have asked too. It is, after all, hard not to conclude that this United squad suffers poor comparison with others during the Scot’s time in Manchester. Indeed, while Ferguson’s squad has performed admirably at home this season the greatest challenges now lie ahead. Recent defeats away to Liverpool and Chelsea surmised the Reds’ performances away from Old Trafford, with United’s record of four wins joint seventh best in the Premier League.

Not that United supporters should be concerned. After all, the Glazer family is about to lavish £165 million on the transfer market. MEN has said so!

Berbatov still Reds’ square peg

March 22, 2011 Tags: Opinion 36 comments

When, with just seconds left on the clock, Dimitar Berbatov poked home Manchester United’s winner on Saturday it was hard not to recall events of nearly 20 years ago. Then, with six games to go in the Premier League title race, United came from behind to beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 at Old Trafford. Such was the confidence victory brought that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men concluded the campaign winning all the remaining games to take a first title since 1967.

While United’s victory over Bolton Wanderers was hardly as dramatic as the 1993 stoppage time win, where Steve Bruce scored two late headed goals, it could prove just as decisive. In a three-horse title race the loss of confidence from a third league game without a win could have been catastrophic. Momentum is, after all, everything.

Yet, it seems inconceivable that goalscorer Berbatov will end his United career revered with the same esteem as Bruce. The problem, it seems, has nothing to do with the Bulgarian’s talent. He is as ever the right man in the wrong place.

In raw numbers the campaign will almost certainly go down as the striker’s finest in a career that has spanned more than a decade at the top. Indeed, Berbatov’s 20 Premier League goals is now just one short of the total he scored five years ago at Bayer Leverkusen. Yet, Ferguson can find no room in his team for the 30-year-old, with the inexperienced Javier Hernández having supplanted the club’s top goalscorer in the Scot’s plans.

One viewpoint – that Hernández’ growth has simply demanded a place in the United team, whatever the Bulgarian’s early season form – is valid to a point. Berbatov’s goalscoring this season has come in bursts, with eight goals scored in two games against mid-table opposition.Yet, Ferguson’s decision is really no surprise either – the Scot has rarely trusted Berbatov in the so-called big games; those fixtures against the top four or the Champions League knockout stages.

Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s almost instant partnership with the Mexican has something to do with Berbatov’s fall from grace too. Hernández’ ability to play ‘on the shoulders’, spin and run behind defenders has allowed Rooney to drop deeper, simultaneous prompting a return to form and providing United with a creative spark from midfield. Conversely, Berbatov’s need to have the ball at his feet, whether facing goal or more often away from it, both slows United’s play and impacts on Rooney’s natural game. There is presumably no doubt who the Scouser would rather play with.

Ferguson has hardly aided his £60 million pair in the past three seasons, consistently – and with much frustration – changing both Berbatov and Rooney’s role in the team. After all, the Scouser has played both on the wing, then as the lone forward and more recently in a deeper role. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian has rarely been deployed in his natural position leading the line until, with some irony, this season.

It leaves United with a highly paid and very expensive 30-year-old depreciating asset that is not a fundamental part of the club’s strike-force. After nearly three seasons at the club Ferguson’s viewpoint is hardly going to change on this.

Moreover, Berbatov is out of contract in the summer of 2012, with a new contract as yet unsigned. While United has traditionally offered just a one-year extension to the over-30s, the Bulgarian is reportedly after both a hefty pay rise and a three-year deal. After his finest season at the club the former Tottenham Hotspur player should be entering negotiations in a remarkably strong position. It says much that he is not.

The result: Berbatov remains Old Trafford’s square peg. Supremely talented, a United star to his core, if only the stars were aligned. Or the Bulgarian was the player Ferguson hoped he would be.

Of course there is little value in allowing the Bulgarian’s contract to run down, with the smart money on an announcement before the season’s end. Yet, nothing in a new deal will ensure seven time Bulgarian Footballer of the Year becomes indispensable to both Ferguson and United should he last at the club beyond this summer. There remains the suspicion that Berbatov will forever be the greatest enigma in United’s modern history.

With eight games to go in the Premier League, a cup semi-final and a European quarter-final double-header with Chelsea there is still much to play for. Berbatov, a £30 million signing on deadline day 2008, should be driving Untied to ever greater glories. In truth it is inconceivable that the striker will be Ferguson’s first choice come the crunch ties in the coming two months.

Now Ferdinand’s England career should come to an end

March 21, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 92 comments

Rio Ferdinand’s humiliation at the hands of Fabio Capello this week is not only total and deliberate but it should also lead to the 32-year-old defender’s international retirement. After all, Ferdinand’s pride at being made England captain in the wake of John Terry’s affair with Vanessa Perroncel has been shattered at the hand of Capello’s boorish mismanagement. Publicly defenestrated with no just cause, Ferdinand can now achieve little by remaining with the national team.

Capello’s decision to return the England captaincy to John Terry after “a year of punishment” – as the Italian put it – is not only deeply insensitive but threatens to split the England camp. Not every player under Capello’s management, it is said, shares the former AC Milan coach’s predilection for Terry’s peculiarly British form of captaincy.

“One year is enough punishment for anyone,” Capello said on Friday.

“In that time, Terry has come to understand the mistake he made. And I have come to understand the importance of the England captain in this country. Now is time to forgive. From the moment I came in, he was always my number one choice as captain.”

Yet, the crass manner in which the news was leaked to the media without so much as a phone call to the now former England captain is seemingly typical of Capello’s bumbling handling of the England team. That the manager first failed to inform each party of his decision before telling journalists – and as it turns out lying to Ferdinand over the permanent nature of the switch – is grounds for dismissal in itself. It can do little to foster a camp spirit that will take England beyond the severe technical limitations inherent in the squad.

It begs the question of what Ferdinand is likely to gain by adding to his 80 caps in a subservient position to Terry, and under Capello’s unique leadership. England, drawn in a favourable group for Euro 2014 qualification, will surely reach the tournament in Poland and Ukraine only to be knocked out of the tournament at the hands of the first decent outfit it faces. The truth of this predication was amply demonstrated last summer in South Africa – a tournament that Ferdinand was retrospectively fortunate to miss.

Even more importantly Ferdinand should now consider his place in the Manchester United squad as his priority. Indeed, Ferdinand’s position at Old Trafford is devalued by persistent injuries over the past two years. Now into his 30s and beset by ongoing physical problems, Ferdinand would surely do well to follow the lead set by Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and Park Ji-Sung in retiring from the international game. After all, retirement has prolonged the United careers of Scholes and Giggs, and prompted the best campaign of Berbatov’s time at Old Trafford.

Predictably, Sir Alex Ferguson refused to be drawn on the issue when meeting the media at Carrington on Thursday morning. Privately, it is seemingly inconceivable that the 69-year-old United manager will not have raised the spectre of international retirement with Ferdinand.

And while some elements of the nation’s media might position an early retirement as ‘throwing his toys out of the pram’ Ferdinand is well within the bounds of reason to no longer work with Capello on principal alone. Indeed, the former West Ham United player is reportedly deeply insulted with the Italian coaches actions – as he should be.

Yet, far from apologise for his handling of a delicate matter Capello has – quite unbelievably – chosen to lay the blame at Ferdinand’s door, accusing the United defender of not meeting his at Old Trafford following the Reds’ victory over Marseille last Tuesday. It was a meeting that was never formally arranged, according to the player. It’s not for the first time Capello has played fast and loose with the truth some might add.

This, of course, is Capello all over. The man who, under pressure during the World Cup, turned the England hotel into a monkish prison camp, heaping pressure on his players. Capello also chose the post World Cup period to launch another crass invention – the ‘Capello Index’ in which the Italian would publicly rate and slate his players. Then, in a crime perhaps on a par with his humiliation of Ferdinand this week, the coach ‘retired’ David Beckham to the nation’s media without consulting the player himself.

Ferguson would never treat a player in this matter – at least not one that mattered to him. And that is an important point. Capello is not blessed with a swathe of proven defenders in Ferdinand’s class. Indeed, Terry has been repeatedly exposed at international lever, no matter how forceful the British Bulldog bluster.

This fact offers Ferdinand the opportunity to leave the international game with his pride and dignity intact, head held high, self-esteem stronger than ever. The Londoner has fought to build his reputation both as a respected member of the footballing community and a campaigner. For his many faults and mistakes, Ferdinand is worth more than the lack of respect shown by Capello this week.

Hargreaves back for Bolton clash

March 19, 2011 Tags: , Matches 150 comments

Injury-plagued midfielder Owen Hargreaves could return for Manchester United’s clash with Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford today. The 30-year-old has played less than 10 minutes this season, after missing three months with a hamstring strain suffered on his comeback in November. But the Canadian-born player could be drafted into United’s back-four as Sir Alex Ferguson’s has just four fit defenders for the clash with Owen Coyle’s Europe-chasing outfit.

Captain Nemanja Vidic joins Rio Ferdinand, Rafael da Silva and John O’Shea on the sidelines for Saturday’s match. Northern Irish defender Jonny Evans could make the bench having missed nine games with an ankle injury, although the 23-year-old is unlikely to start given Bolton’s physical threat.

In total up to 10 United players will miss the game, with midfielder Anderson also out, reserve goalkeeper Anders Lingegaard having undergone a knee operation and Paul Scholes suspended. Meanwhile Darren Fletcher is suffering with a virus and Park Ji-Sung has only recently returned to training.

The injury crisis comes just prior to the international break, with Ferguson hopeful that key players will return over the next forthnight. However, the boss admited that Ferdinand could miss much of the run-in, with the 32-year-old still not training.

“Rio has plenty of years ahead of him,” said Ferguson, who will start the first of a five match FA-imposed touchline ban against the Trotters.

“He has had a few injuries over the last few years I am sure that are a concern for him. Calf injuries can be troublesome and we are not looking at this as a short-term situation for us. He has been out for a few weeks now anyway and has not started training yet. It looks to me as if we will be lucky to get him back for some point of the season. But he is still capable of coming back and playing at the top level again.

“Anderson is doing OK running-wise, he is getting closer. Owen Hargreaves has trained this week, which is good news. There are some promising things going to help us on the run-in.”

The lengthy injury list means that Wes Brown and Chris Smalling will probably continue in the centre of United’s defence, with Hargreaves or Fabio da Silva occupying the right-back slot. Ferguson also has limited options in midfield, although Nani and Antonio Valencia are both fit. Darron Gibson could make a rare start alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield.

Manchester United v Bolton Wanderers, Old Trafford, 19 March 2011Ferguson must also choose between top-goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov and in-form Javier Hernández to partner Wayne Rooney in attack. Although Ferguson says he will not continue to play the former Evertonian in midfield, Rooney is likely to continue in a deeper role that has prompted a return to better form in recent weeks.

“We only started playing Wayne deeper because of the injury situation before the game against Arsenal last Saturday,” added the 69-year-old Scot.

“We were forced into trying to organise a team that gave us a chance of going through. In that particular game it worked. But Bolton are a completely different team and I may change it.”

Coyle’s high-flying Bolton side is chasing a Europa League spot on two fronts, lying seventh in the Premier League and facing Stoke City in the FA CUp semi final at Wembley in three weeks. Bolton’s improved standing, allied with United’s injury list, means Coyle will hope to end a run of seven conscecutive defeats at Old Trafford. The Reds’ home record the season suggests otherwise of course, and Bolton has not won on the road since November.

“The way the lads have progressed this season has been enjoyable, accepting that there have been little dips or lulls along the way,” Coyle said.

“Every time we enter the field we feel that we have a chance of winning the game and we will certainly need that on Saturday, going to what I believe are the champions elect and a team that are truly outstanding on every front.

“We will be setting our lads out very positively as we look to achieve what would be a big result at Manchester United. It’s an opportunity to mix with the very best players in world football and show that they can play as well. We have done that all season and we will try to do it again in an unbelievable footballing arena on Saturday.”

However, the Bolton manager is without Mark Davis, Zat Knights, Ricardo Gardner, Sam Ricketts and Jay-Lloyd Samuel for the clash. Coyle welcomes back key defender Gretar Steinsson for the short trip across Lancashire.

However, United’s striker Rooney believes last weekend’s victory over Arsenal has given the Reds a confidence boost after consecutive Premier League defeats to Chelsea and Liverpoool.

“It was a difficult week with the Chelsea and Liverpool results and we knew that if we could beat Arsenal it would give us that edge to push for the title,” he told club rag United Review.

“You can’t wait for the games to come at this stage of the season and we’ve got another important one on Saturday. We have to make sure we get the job done.

“A lot has been said over the last few years about them being a long-ball team, but I think they mix it up well and like to pass the ball around. They’re a physical side who work hard as a unit and they’ve got themselves into a great position in the league. We know we’re in for a difficult game and we need to make sure we get in amongst them.”

With an inexperienced back-four and lightweight midfield it’s a challenge United could fail. It is perhaps only the Reds’ transformation at home that will take Ferguson’s side to three vital points.

Bolton – 451 – Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Cahill, Wheater, Robinson; Muamba, Holden, Petrov; Elmander, Davies, Sturridge. Subs from: Taylor, Klasnic, Lee, Lainton, Moreno, Blake, Cohen, Alonso, O’Halloran, Eaves.

United – 442 – van der Sar; Hargreaves, Brown, Smalling, Evra; Nani, Carrick, Gibson, Giggs; Rooney, Hernandez. Subs from: Kuszczak, Fabio da Silva, Valencia, Owen, Berbatov, Bébé, Park, Obertan, Tunnicliffe, Morrison, King.

Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant referees: Mike Cairns & Jake Collin
Fourth official: Eddie Ilderton

United – DWLLWW
Bolton – LWWDWW