Fletcher proves value of patience

September 9, 2009 Tags: Opinion 1 comment

Darren Barr Fletcher has come a long way since FA rules precluded Sir Alex Ferguson from including him in United’s squad for the Premier League trip to Aston Villa in May 2000. Fletcher, gangly 16-year-old schoolboy, the next great creative talent to follow David Beckham and Paul Scholes into United’s midfield. Nearly a decade later and Fletcher has transformed himself into the vital destructive heartbeat of the United side. No longer the love that dare not speak its name.

Injuries meant that Fletcher wasn’t able to make his full United début until 2003, making 35 appearances in the following season. Through the following four seasons Fletcher flitted in and out of the United side, often appearing out of position on the right flank. Fans, unconvinced, cruelly dubbed the Dalkeith-born Scot The Scottish Player. Roy Keane went further and singled out Fletcher in his now infamous 2005 MUTV putdown: “I can’t understand why people in Scotland rave about Darren Fletcher.”

The signatures of Anderson and Owen Hargreaves in the summer of 2007 came close to ending Fletcher’s time at the club. Fletcher’s loyalty to United and Sir Alex tested by years of warming the bench. Few fans would have blamed him for leaving, or indeed shed many tears.

But injuries to Hargreaves and the inconsistent form of Anderson have offered Fletcher a chance in his favoured central midfield role. How the Scot has taken it – Fletcher made 42 appearances in all competitions last season and is now almost always picked for the biggest games. That the Scot missed last season’s Champions League final was not only desperately unlucky for the player, but for the team too.

“People ask me why I do well in those games but I don’t think I do anything differently,” Fletcher told The Daily Mail in an interview earlier this season. “I think I always play like that but it is only when you are up against the best teams that people notice the work being done in midfield.”

From gangly teenager, to midfielder pariah, to an “automatic pick,” according to United legend Paddy Crerand. Such is Fletcher’s current form that Owen Hargreaves will struggle to get back into the United side should he ever return from fitness.

“For the big games I think the manager would pick Fletcher, he’d be first on the team sheet. Darren has made the point that he wants to be the number one choice in midfield. And he’s playing well enough to be number one. I almost don’t need to make the point for him, he’s making a strong enough case himself.”

Indeed, Fletcher has started the new season in outstanding form with man-of-the-match performances against both Wigan Athletic and Arsenal. “He’s been playing like that for quite a few years now. I think the fans are starting to appreciate him, that’s the only difference,” says Crerrand.

While fans have long underestimated the merits of Fletcher’s passing, the Scot was too often used out of position on the right flank, without the requisite pace or skills to make the best of the role. When Fletcher did get the chance to play in central midfield, he often played as if he had yet to find his true vocation. Fletcher the gifted teenager took time to mature into the midfield terrier of his mid-20s.

Crerand goes further, claiming that United fans unfairly placed Fletcher alongside the greats of United’s midfield of the early naughties.

“For a long time Darren was a scapegoat. When he came through he played alongside Roy Keane and Paul Scholes and there aren’t many players in English football, never mind for United, who’ve been as good as those two,” argues fellow Scot Crerand.

“He’s a tremendous passer and doesn’t get the credit for that sometimes. All you hear is that he gets in at people. But he is enthusiastic and whole-hearted, and fans love that,” said Crerrand.

Indeed they do and Fletcher is winning over more by the week. Fletcher puts his improved performances down to hard work and the right attitude.

“I’m the only one still here from my year group. There were others who could control, pass and shoot the ball as good as me but I think football is played in your head,” Fletcher told The Mail.

“It is the way you deal with everything: being at Manchester United, the expectation, the crowd, the nervousness, all of that pressure. The game is played up there before you go on the pitch, and I had that strength.”

Roy Keane would approve and Fletcher deserves huge credit for his improvement.

Le Harve has no case – agent

September 9, 2009 Tags: , Shorts No comments

Manchester United has no case to answer in the transfer of Paul Pogba from Le Harve, according the player’s agent. Speaking to The Times Pogba’s agent, Gaël Mahé, claimed that no wrongdoing had taken place and that the French Ligue 2 side has several pieces of crucial documentation missing.

“No money had changed hands up front, though Paul will get a very good contract when he turns professional,” Mahé told The Times.

“All he has from United is a flat in Manchester for him and his mother to live in.

“The problem is that there are three things Le Havre do not have. They do not have a contract aspirant, they do not have convention of formation and they do not have a late-trigger contract. All they have is a contract of non-solicitation, which is invalid outside France.

“We spent a long time ensuring that the document we signed with Manchester United was legally watertight.”

Mahé contradicts reports that Pogba signed a contract aspirant – a blunt pre-contract agreement in France.  Instead, Mahé’s comments back up claims that the contract aspirant was not signed by the player himself.

Lucky devils, but for how long?

September 8, 2009 Tags: Opinion 5 comments

Manchester United fans can be forgiven if they are unconvinced by the Red Devils, despite two impressive wins – at least on paper – over Wigan and Arsenal. They say it’s great to win when not at your best, especially when beating a Gunners side that is playing some of the best football on the planet right now. But is it asking too much for good football and three points to go hand-in-hand?

Maybe United fans have become spoilt; too used to injury-time winners and breathtaking goals that we are underwhelmed when beating Arsenal with a penalty and a ridiculous own goal.

But part of the problem is with United’s playing staff. The team still lacks a midfielder that can dictate play. Ryan Giggs is not that player and neither is Michael Carrick, who for all his Hollywood passes is still unable to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

Why Sir Alex Ferguson failed to show interest in Wesley Sneijder is baffling. The Dutchman, who left the Real Madrid circus for Inter Milan for a measly €15 million, was an absolute bargain in today’s transfer market. Anyone watching the Milan derby last weekend would surely have been impressed by the difference Sneijder made to Jose Mourinho’s side, despite the Dutchman having arrived in the city just 24 hours earlier.

On a brighter note, the Arsenal match sealed Darren Fletcher’s status as United’s leading midfielder. The Scot has come a long way since the time when his inclusion in the team was largely due to being Sir Alex’ love-child (as yet unproven). Against Arsenal, Fletcher ran his socks off, covered every blade of grass, and made decisive interceptions that kept the Gunners midfield trio of Diaby, Denilson and Alex Song busy, and stifled their creativity. Fletcher is no longer the headless chicken of his youth.

Granted, Cesc Fabregas was missing from the Arsenal team but recalling last season’s Champions League semi-final encounter, Fletcher was just as influential and successful against the Spaniard. The Scot’s passing has also improved leaps and bounds to the point where Carrick’s effectiveness within the team has been reduced.

But Ferguson’s decision to start with Giggs floating behind Wayne Rooney against Arsenal was frustrating. Why spend £30 million on Dimitar Berbatov – whose ability to hold up of the ball is second to none – only to leave him on the bench for the big games? United should have been more positive – a problem of tactical negativy that was the main reason the team had such a poor record against Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool last season.

Rooney is more than capable of playing ‘in the hole’ – the role that he fulfils for England – dropping deep and threading balls through to the striker. Instead, Giggs – a legend no doubt – but no longer in possession of his once blistering speed, lost the ball far too often in the final third. Far too much was also expected of Antonio Valencia, who looked out his depth on such a big occasion.

Over the course of the season, this type of performance will gain United many points against lower ranked sides. But will it be good enough for a 19th top flight title and a third successive Champions League final appearance? It seems unlikely.

United must keep on par with the other top sides in Europe but after this summer’s comings and goings, fans might be right to think that United is further adrift of Barcelona than on that fateful night in Rome.

The Champions League will be the real litmus test of strength and character for Sir Alex’ fledglings this season. The group stage draw handed Fergie’s side some tricky encounters, from the icy conditions in Moscow, to the hellish atmosphere generated by Turkish fanatics, to the impregnable home record of the German champions. It should bring out the best of United’s top players and the worst from those who just can’t cut it at the highest level.

United has ridden its luck at times in the past, supplemented by great performances on the pitch. The team may depend more on the former this season, than the latter. Have faith in Wayne Rooney and company, but this is the first season in a long time where fans will follow without full confidence that the team in red is the better side.

Sir, I challenge you to a duel

September 8, 2009 Tags: , Shorts 1 comment

Manchester United managing director David Gill has accused French club Le Harve of insulting the club in the increasingly bitter row over 16 year old midfielder Paul Pogba. Le Harve, which hasgone on a media offensive in the past few days accusing United of poaching the player, is yet to officially complain to the world governing body FIFA.

“It is an insult by Le Havre to suggest that Manchester United and the employees of Manchester United have paid the players’ parents and bought the parents a house,” said Gill.

“We will not accept the good name of Manchester United being trawled around on websites and the press to say that we have done these things which we are not allowed to do and we would never do. We’ve done everything, we think, by the book.”

United yesterday issued a written warning to Le Harve, which was relegated to French Ligue 2 at the end of last season, of legal action if the club continues to make accusations about the transfer of Pogba in the press.

Gill denied the warning was an attempt to intimidate Le Harve from making an official complaint to FIFA.

“We are not intimidating Le Havre. We have no intention of intimidating Le Havre,” said Gill. “They can do whatever they feel is appropriate. We can defend our case in the football bodies. We are very comfortable doing that.”

Gill apparently stopped short of demanding satisfaction.

Macheda “must grow up”

September 8, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Italian under-21 manager Pierre Luigi Casiraghi, the former Chelsea striker, has slammed the childish attitude of Manchester United’s 18-year old Federico Macheda. ‘Kiko’, who burst onto the scene with goals against Aston Villa and Sunderland late last season, is yet to figure for United this campaign despite the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.

“He needs to grow a lot, both on the pitch and off it, if he wants to remain a part of this squad,” said Casiraghi.

“As a player he has many qualities, but they are yet to be expressed fully. If he wants to be a football player, then that is a fun job, but he needs to learn to be a real professional.

“At the moment, that is not the case with Macheda. I say this above all in his own interest. An 18-year-old boy has to throw himself around and give himself completely to the case.

“The job of an Under-21 Coach is also to help the players grow. I told Kiko clear as day, these are the rules and it’s his choice on what to do next.”

Macheda’s role in the United team has not been without controversy this season after a very public spat with team-mate Anderson.

A question of youthful ethics

September 8, 2009 Tags: Opinion 7 comments

The debate about the transfer of under-18 players, while raging at football administration level for some time, was finally brought to the public attention in the past week following Chelsea’s heavy sanction by FIFA. The London club’s two window transfer ban for inducing Gaël Kakuta to leave Lens for England is perhaps the first shot in a war that is being incited by continental European clubs enraged principally by the actions of England’s major teams. At the heart of the debate are complex issues of youth employment, contracts, players’ rights and predatory clubs.

Motivated both to seek the best world talent and reduce their transfer fee burden, English clubs have been exploiting differences in employment law between the United Kingdom and European territories. Whereas the Premier League’s finest can sign a player onto a trainee contract before 16 years of age and enjoy the protection that it offers, clubs in France, Italy, Spain and Germany generally cannot.

Indeed, many continental clubs such as Barcelona, who lost Fabregas at 16, are able only to offer full professional contracts to players once they reach 16 years old, thereby risking losing the player on their 16th birthday. It’s a loophole that brought Cesc Fagregas, Federico Macheda, Giuseppe Rossi, Gerrard Pique and many others to England over the last few years. It is also this situation that has driven many clubs, especially those in France, to place their youth players on a ‘contract aspirant’ – a crude pre-contract agreement that is largely unenforceable in British law.

However, FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Committee ruling on Thursday last effectively ruled that not only did Kakuta’s pre-contract agreement stand, but that it was an enforceable contract with his club Lens. By offering Kakuta a wage Chelsea had thereby induced the player to break that enforceable contract.

One proposed solution – sponsored by both UEFA’s Michael Platini and FIFA’s Sepp Blatter – is a blanket international ban on player transfers under the age of 18. It’s a proposal seemingly endorsed by players’ groups too. Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers Association chair and FiFPro president, today called for such a measure.

“There’s been a general feeling that a ban on movement of players under the age of 18 would be better for the game,” Taylor told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Sportsweek programme.

“Football is about competition. You can’t have all the best youngsters at the biggest, richest clubs.”

“You need to encourage clubs, if they’re going to have youth development programmes, to be able to pick out the lads and have some time with them.

“If they do move on, which may be inevitable you need a system whereby proper, effective compensation is paid. At the end of the day you can’t stop people moving but it’s about fair compensation.

“I don’t think this situation with Chelsea would have reached the stage it has now if compensation had been agreed between the two clubs.”

While a move to ban the transfer of under-18s may appeal on a superficial level, thereby negating the predatory instincts of rich powerful clubs, it is not a situation that is legally enforceable in any other industry. In Kakuta’s case the contract aspirant he signed at 14 would turn into a full three-year employment contract at 17. That’s a total legally committed time of six years for a player barely into his teens. In any other industry it would be deemed modern day child slavery.

A ban would, in theory, promote the continued development of the best youth talent. Why should clubs invest in training players, it is said, if they are allowed to leave without compensation?

But Taylor castigates the market for enabling the richest clubs to hoard youth talent, while the exact same processes are alive and well and enriching his members once a player is no longer deemed a ‘youth’. Under the current rules that dichotemy is not sustainable.

It is unsuprising that clubs such as Lens and Le Harve feel cheated by larger clubs which remove their better youth players without paying a transfer fee. But the problem with youth transfers highlighted by the Kakuta and Paul Pogba cases is surely a symptom of an industry that has become bloated at the very top level. Football as a community has allowed wages, transfer fees and the perpetual supply of money into the industry from the media inflate to truly unsustainable levels. At 18 Kakuta will earn close to £1 million per year without having kicked a ball for the Chelsea first team.

Firstly, football must become financially sustainable – spending only what it can truly afford. While the industry’s leading clubs are so heavily indebted it seems unlikely that UEFA or FIFA will act but act they should. Manchester United, despite the £700 million debt handed to the club by the Glazer family, are one of the few European elite clubs to rigidly stick to a rule that says wages (and bonuses) will not rise above 60% of revenues. It’s a sensible and enforceable cap that would simply require clubs to submit audited accounts prior to entering European competitions.

Only then will the game’s governing bodies have the moral authority to strip the industry of out-dated ‘tapping up’ and youth contract rules that are ignored by the leading clubs, overridden by market forces and unenforceable in European law.

It is a fact that large clubs will always attract the best talent, seeking the biggest wages. Why shouldn’t clubs speak to whomever they want, if the player is keen to have a conversation? This is after all the employment market that the majority of fans live in.

But an enforceable system of compensation based on both current player status and future success would meet the needs of ‘smaller’ clubs such as Lens when it comes to transfers, encouraging them to invest in youth. It would not enslave players who want to move on and – perhaps most importantly – it would continue to redistribute wealth from the top.

It’s obvious but then football it seems is yet to grow up.

Gill voted to ECA board

September 7, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Manchester United’s David Gill has been voted to the the European Club Association’s (ECA) 15-man board, beating CSKA Moscow president Evgeni Giner to the seat. The ECA the 53-nation pan-European club lobbying association that replaced the G14 on the latter group’s dissolution in January 2008. Gill’s election to the group, which is chaired by Bayern Munich’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, increases the power base that United enjoys at the game’s top table. United is one of the founder-members of the organisation.

“I’m obviously very pleased to be elected,” Gill told The Associated Press. “The ECA has a very important role to play in the relationship with UEFA and other bodies within European and world football.”

Gill is one of only two new faces on the board along with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. It is perhaps ironic then – with a combined debt of the two clubs being close to £1,500 million – that one of the group’s main priorities is said to be cost cutting to ensure that football remains sustainable.

“We are the people who run the clubs, we understand the issues. All parties need to work together to come up with a set of rules and regulations that everyone buys into,” said Gill.

There are 144 clubs in the ECA, which holds its six-monthly general assembly tomorrow. The transfer of young players from continental Europe to England is sure to be a hot topic!

United to take action against Le Harve

September 7, 2009 Tags: Shorts 2 comments

Manchester United has threatened Ligue 1 side Le Harve with legal action if the French side continues to make allegations against the reds over the transfer of teenage Paul Pogba. In a letter to Le Harve, United denies offering money or houses to the player and his parents in return his signature.

“In response to the wholly unfounded comments widely reported in the media of Le Havre AC President, Jean-Pierre Louvel, Manchester United wishes to categorically confirm that as a matter of club policy, and in accordance with the applicable football regulations, it does not offer inducements to the parents of players that sign for the club, such as monetary payments or the purchase of houses,” United said  in a statement released on the club’s website ManUtd.com.

“Manchester United has today written to Le Havre AC to put it on notice that action will be taken if such allegations are repeated in relation to the transfer of Paul Pogba.

“Manchester United is entirely satisfied that the transfer of Paul Pogba has been conducted in accordance with the regulations set down by the world governing body, FIFA. Manchester United is ready to defend any claim brought against it by Le Havre at FIFA.

“It is to be noted that all contractual documentation relating to the player’s registration with the club has already been fully ratified by The Football Association and the Premier League.”

Le Harve’s outspoken president Jean-Pierre Louvel has accused United of offering “€100,000 to the player’s father, €100,000 to the mother and a house” in Manchester in return for the player’s  signature.

Kidd joins City cashwagon

September 7, 2009 Tags: , Shorts No comments

Brian Kidd, the former Manchester United player and assistant manager, has joined the oil-fuelled revolution at Manchester City as technical development manager for the club’s academy. Kidd will act as both coach and mentor in the club’s academy, returning to the game after a brief spell as Portsmouth’s assistant manager under Tony Adams and Paul Hart last season.

Kidd played more than 200 league games in an 11-year playing career at Old Trafford, scoring in the 1968 European Cup final as a teenager. He later had three seasons as a player across town at City, before spending a decade in coaching roles under Sir Alex Ferguson, eventually becoming the manager’s assistant.

But Ferguson voiced his doubts about Kidd’s ability to succeed him at Old Trafford in the book Managing My Life. Kidd responded by damning the book as a fantasy. The row, which erupted in 1999 when Kidd was manager of the soon-to-be relegated Blackburn Rovers, ruined a successful relationship between the two men.

Later Kidd took on coaching roles at Leeds United, where he suffered significant abuse from the club’s fans, England, Sheffield United and Portsmouth.

Ways to follow Rant

September 7, 2009 Tags: Opinion No comments

If you’re new to United Rant, here’s the lowdown. The website is a Manchester United fanzine, offering daily news, opinion and analysis on Manchester United. Rant was born in early 2004 , during the difficult times of the 2004-5 season. We once called for the manager’s head. Not for the first time, Sir Alex Ferguson proved the doubters wrong. Today, Rant continues to promise honest commentary on Manchester United in good times and bad.

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