Opinion

Opinion

Harsh on Fletch but its the law not ref that is wrong

May 6, 2009 Tags: , , Opinion 1 comment

We’ve been hit with a nasty strain of Flu here at Rant Towers this week but despite spluttering our way through last night’s superb 3-1 Champions League semi-final win at the Emirates, we’re definitely not feeling as sick as Darren Fletcher this morning. His red card means that he will miss the Rome final in three weeks time, which he may have started.

The sending off and subsequent ban is incredibly harsh on The Scottish Player given his performance on the night but the referee probably got it right. Fletcher can rightly point to the fact that in challenging Cesc Fabregas he got a touch on the ball as the Spaniard bore down on goal. But referees’ normal interpretation of the law these days is to look at a challenge in the round. The ball may be taken but if the follow-through takes the man (and Fletcher clearly did just that), then a foul will be given anyway. In this respect referee Roberto Rosetti made the correct decision by the letter of the law to award a penalty and send Fletcher off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.

The aim of this modification in the rules was to outlaw dangerous tackles that can potentially injure players, even if the ball is taken. Indeed, United benefitted from this interpretation when awarded a penalty against Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month – Heurelho Gomes got a touch on the ball but clattered Michael Carrick anyway and a penalty was awarded, to much dismay in the press.

The main problem is the lack of leeway in refereeing flexibility. The powers that be should give referee’s more room to interpret the law depending on the circumstances.  

Clearly, Fletcher’s tackle was a brilliant piece of defensive work, not a potentially dangerous challenge. It also summed up why the Scot has become such a big game player for United in recent seasons. The midfielder could have let Fabregas take the goal without challenging – after all United were home and dry. But the Scot’s ultra professional performance in last night’s match – and over the season – meant that he was always going to put in a tackle. It is a credit to how much Fletcher’s game has developed over the past couple of years. He’ll always be a water-carrier, but is better at doing the dirty work than he used to be.

There is absolutely no chance that UEFA will overturn Rosetti’s decision – there isn’t even an appeals process except in cases of mistaken identity. And the irony is that Fletcher’s suspension may leave room in the team for Paul Scholes, who was famously banned from the 1999 Champions League final. Fittingly, it was  The Ginger Prince who was first in the dressing room last night to console the Scot.

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.

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.

Return of the Rant

April 23, 2009 Tags: Opinion 30 comments

Sometime in 2004 a blog was born. Not from some misplaced desire to earn web 2.0 blogosphere social media wealth and notoriety. Nor a genuine belief that the site would actually attract any readers, let alone ones that cared. But a basic primeaval urge embedded into the DNA of every football fan. The need, when things aren’t going your team’s way, to rant and then rant some more.

For Manchester United fans 2004-5 wasn’t a pretty time. United lost the league to Chelsea by 18 points and were beaten in the FA Cup final by an inferior Arsenal side. United also went out of the Champions League at the first knockout stage, somewhat meakly, to eventual finalists Milan. Worse still the winners were our great rivals from down the M62. The word that dare not speak its name.

But fans suffered not solely because the team was (I’ll be kind) in a period of transition but because our leader, Sir Alex Ferguson, was undergoing a period of mental transformation too. From a coach whose genuine belief was that his team could ‘score one more’ than the opposition, to a pragmatist tactician. The end result was a second, glorious, Champions League victory in May 2008 for which all United fans are grateful. The original Rant called for his head, and has been proven wrong.

But travel is just as much about the journey as the destination and this road was far from smooth. A website found its voice.

And while the site didn’t make a dime, at its zenith around 1,000,000 pages per month of editorial were read. That’s 1,000,000. More than 15,000 fans received the site’s newsletter twice a week and there were 5,000 registered users on a rabidly active forum. Your editor was asked to write for national newspapers and became a regular pundit on both broadcast and Internet radio. It was a surreal, if shortlived, experience.

Sadly, love rarely lasts forever. A little over two years after it’s inception the site died. It had to. It wasn’t pretty, nobody’s proud about it and you’ll forever be spared the details.

Now it is time for Rant to rise again. While we can’t promise to bring you the depth – or length – of analysis, or frequency of editorial we once did, but we’ll try our best. It’s the same editorial team, back from the dead.

Step aside immitators, fakers and haters (there were many). Rant is coming through.