In Through The Out Door

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Hello again. Been quite an eventful summer, really – and that’s before you even mention the football. Indeed, the Euros seemed to pass by as a bit of a non-event as the fallout of the Brexit vote took hold of the national consciousness. For the first time in decades, politics became the main talking point across the country for about 2 weeks, before the release of Pokémon GO gave people an excuse to chat about something else instead. Personally I’ve no issue with people crashing cars and walking off cliffs catching cartoon monsters on their smartphones, it’s certainly a more interesting spectator sport than watching England.

Since winning the FA Cup at the close of last season, United have undergone a bit of a transformation. I’m not referring to the new manager or recent signings either, I’m talking at boardroom level. Ever since the evening of Saturday 21st May, Ed Woodward has been doing a very good impersonation of someone doing their job competently. Van Gaal was quickly relieved of his duties, Mourinho appointed seamlessly and potential signings have been identified and completed within a matter of days. Compare this to the mess 3 years ago when one was left with the impression that Moyes wandered into the Old Trafford without having the foggiest who or what was needed to make improvements.

I’d hesitate to use the phrase ‘breath of fresh air’, but having Mourinho installed at long last does feel like a clean start. How long that feeling persists remains to be seen, as we’ve been here before when Van Gaal arrived and brought similar positive vibes into the job with him. Right now, however, I’m feeling quite content… he’s making all the right noises and it’s all been ultra professional and low key so far (as low key as someone so obviously box office can be, anyway.)

What’s proving very obvious even in these early days, is that appointing Mourinho has put United back at the very pinnacle of being able to attract players again. One senses that this summer we’re not hamstrung by the fact the manager isn’t an indecipherable lunatic, instead we’ve got more of a regular lunatic who despite being hard to please, might just turn out to know what he’s doing. Crucially, Mourinho needs this just as much as we need him at this juncture – his reputation was dented by the fallout at Chelsea and the United job offers him a shot at redemption on the biggest stage.

The other ego landing at Old Trafford this summer is Zlatan Ibrahimović, a man who previously rivalled José for the title of biggest bellend in world football, (obviously all that’s forgotten now they’re ‘our’ bellends.) Quite honestly, Christ knows how this one will work out. On the one hand, it’s got Falcao-style disaster written all over it. He’s too old, we’re not good enough to support an immobile, non-tracking striker and he’s capable of looking absolutely average with alarming regularity. On the other hand, if you can ignore all this and dare to dream for a moment, it could just prove to be a stroke of genius.

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United have lost that once innate ability we had to brutalise absolute dross – the sad truth is the likes of Southampton, West Brom and Swansea no longer fear us. We desperately need to get that back if we’re going to be challenging for the title any time soon. In Zlatan, we might hopefully have signed the ultimate flat track bully – someone who will clean up against journeyman defenders and start making us hated again. If he can score 20 goals, wind people up, get sent off 2 or 3 times and transmit a bit of arrogance back to the dressing room (Eric Cantona arrogance, not the ‘I’ve got 5 Lamborghinis’ type) then he’ll have done alright.

Talking of the dressing room, has there ever been a more depressing spectacle than the team bus getting bricked outside Upton Park at the end of last season? I’m not talking about the Danny Dyer-alike bottle chuckers either, I was more appalled at the sight of 20 adult men on board, cuddling each other and taking selfies mid-bombardment. Now as much as I would have gained immeasurable pride if they’d jumped off the bus and steamed into them, I’m aware that probably wasn’t a very realistic proposition. But lads, seriously, you’re representing Manchester United here. Cower a bit, keep your heads down by all means, just try to refrain from shrieking and posting OMG! reaction videos on Instagram.

The other big dawg who looks like he’s set to rock up at OT imminently is Paul ‘Poggers’ Pogba, a mere snip at ONE HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS. I suppose this figure will produce a fair amount of seethe within the AMF community, but quite honestly, who cares any more? In simpler times, I can remember my mum being appalled that Bryan Robson was earning 3-4 grand a week. The amount of cash pouring into football now means that silly numbers like the Pogba fee no longer hold any meaning. We live in an age where Watford can reportedly turn down £30M bids for Troy Deeney and Palace and West Ham are bidding £25M for players. The game is now awash with so much money, the people in charge literally don’t know what to do with it.

In any case, given Pogba’s age, the fact he’s a Raiola player and his oft-mentioned desire to play for Madrid at some point, there’s a very reasonable chance United will be seeing most if not all of their money back in 2-3 years. One suspects he’s being sold this move on the premise that he’ll be off again after a couple of seasons and this is just another step towards that. That’s how Raiola operates and always has done. At least his machinations won’t come as a surprise to United this time out, considering they experienced them first hand in 2012 when Pogba upped sticks for Juventus in somewhat hazy circumstances.

Finally, a couple of wishes for the new season. Can we ensure that none of this Icelandic slow clappy nonsense infiltrates the ground, please? Let’s leave that to Crystal Palace, eh? Also, I’m praying that some mind-numbing variant of the Will Grigg’s on fire song hasn’t already been dreamt up – it’s already well past its sell-by date but it’s kind of inevitable that some bright spark will try and introduce it. You managed to resist vuvuzelas, so you can swerve this too. Don’t let me down, reds.

Copyright Red News – August 2016

www.rednews.co.uk

We Are The Champions

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Typically, in a season that has become predictable in its unpredictability, United have settled into a decent run just as things are drawing to a conclusion. Whether we’re witnessing the final days of Van Gaal’s tenure or not (surely we are), there’s an excellent chance that as he departs for the sanctuary of his Portuguese villa in a few weeks’ time, he’ll be doing so as a ‘title’ winner. I can hear him now, his methods validated, all those hours of mind-numbing boredom a distant memory. “The English they never stop complaining, I won them a title! The FA Cup is a very important trophy in that country… they hadn’t won it for 12 years.”

Unfortunately, although silverware will be very welcome and moments like the goon that greeted Martial’s winner live even longer in the memory, it won’t be enough to save Van Gaal, ultimately. After a trying first year in which he at least delivered a top four finish, this season has been a backwards step and a huge disappointment overall. Although the final moments could well see him brandishing the cup and addressing an appreciative crowd in Albert Square, the dreadful monotony of the football witnessed between November and March shouldn’t be forgotten.

The quarter final replay at West Ham and the Wembley semi were stark reminders of what’s been missing far too often – genuine excitement. There are always peaks and troughs during a 60 game campaign, but barring a handful of moments from Martial and Rashford, the season mostly panned out as an excruciatingly long, uneventful slog. Win some, lose some, draw some… doing just enough to stay in the chasing pack without ever looking like we were growing in confidence and making progress. Wins were earned with scrappy performances, leads thrown away too frequently and the regular defeats didn’t prompt any kind of determined response or stunned reaction.

Van Gaal admitted himself that he’d run out of ideas at Christmas – a virtual resignation note – but he somehow survived and limped on. Since then, on each occasion his position has appeared untenable, a result has come along and bailed him out. The home draw against Chelsea, a win at Anfield, crushing Midjtylland, beating City away; all of these appeared as the sack seemed inevitable – but they still don’t mask the reality of where United find themselves. 9 wins out of the 17 league games since Christmas doesn’t demonstrate an upturn in form or provide any kind of justification for keeping him on next season. FA Cup or no FA Cup, it’s still not good enough.

During the Ferguson years, we used to hear a lot about players being selected to play for United based on personality as much as their abilities. Fergie spoke at length about youngsters’ family backgrounds being considered, and transfer targets being researched with a forensic level of detail level to ascertain whether or not they possessed the requisite character to fit in. Somewhere along the line we appear to have lost it because the team is now inherently soft. I don’t mean soft as in ‘crap in a fight’, it’s more about a lack of mental strength. The amount of times we’ve switched off in games this season or completely failed to impose ourselves for long stretches, demonstrates that something eludes us that we had in abundance previously.

Everton v Manchester United - The Emirates FA Cup Semi Final

The season was summed up for me at the end of January, driving home from OT having just witnessed a 1-0 defeat to Southampton. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a fair bit of time for Chris Smalling given how he’s one of few who have actually progressed in recent times, but his reaction to the defeat that day nearly made me switch to the opposite side of the road and plough into oncoming traffic. When asked about the result, he chirped up that the players were “disappointed not to draw”. Just consider that for a moment. Disappointed not to draw. At home. Against Southampton.

That, dear readers, said it all to me. The next captain of Manchester United went on national radio to express his feelings after another pathetic home defeat and the strongest response he could muster was to suggest the team were sad they didn’t hold on for a point. Seriously, if that was genuinely representative of the dressing room reaction then the whole team needs something very drastic. I’m not talking Mourinho, forget Fergie’s hair dryer – they deserve Roy Keane with full beard, coming off a 48 hour bender, mislaid his house keys so denied any sleep levels of rage.

If there is a managerial change in the summer, one hopes it helps to instil some desire and a collective sense of responsibility to the current group of players. I’m sure they’d be the first to proclaim “of course we care!”, but do they care enough in that crazed, siege mentality sense that turns disparate individuals into a team of serial winners? I just don’t see anything like that level of togetherness, currently. It’s hard to detect much of a bond between management and players, as Van Gaal’s methods appear to be tolerated rather than trusted. Admittedly this is speculation based on hearsay, body language and tersely conducted interviews – but the gloomy demeanour of everyone involved speaks volumes.

Van Gaal looked and sounded very subdued at the semi-final press briefings, both pre and post-match. Perhaps it was the pressure, maybe a sense of relief, but he no longer sounds in any way confident at the prospect of remaining in situ beyond May. Questions about the future were dismissed with a wave of the hand and he only wanted to discuss the performance. Fair enough, you might argue – but it’s very much a marked contrast from the indomitable bluster he’s come out with all season.

There will very probably be a number of people reading thinking, “what’s the problem?” Typically unappreciative fanzine scribe having a good moan and picking holes after his team has just reached a cup final. “Can’t you just be happy for once?” Well, clearly not. Winning the cup would be a great day out and a much needed fillip for everyone connected with the club, but that’s all it’ll be – a brief respite. Over the last 3 seasons we’ve strung 3 consecutive wins together just 10 times, whereas in Fergie’s last season alone we managed 8. Van Gaal is a good man who’s made hard work of a tricky rebuild, now we need someone to come in who’ll take us back to the top.

Enjoy the summer and I’ll see you in August.

Copyright Red News – May 2016

www.rednews.co.uk

Break From The Old Routine

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Another month gone, another predictable run of results. These may be uncertain times for United supporters, but our monthly cycle seems to have settled into a familiar pattern. There’s the deeply uninspiring pair of defeats, a dull home draw and then a semi-arousing, unlikely victory to take some solace from. LVG pontificates in his post-game interviews, Mata blogs about the importance of focusing on the next game and then the whole sorry sequence starts once more.

Getting knocked out of the Europa League wouldn’t have been too big a deal except for the fact it had to happen against Liverpool. A quick glance at the team sheet prior to the first leg was enough to suggest how things would pan out. Fellaini and Schneiderlin are not a midfield pairing in a million years, with the Belgian producing a performance that was absolutely pitiful even in comparison with his usual sub-par offerings. There’s not a single United fan I know who doesn’t simply grimace and shake their head at the mere mention of his name.

There’s not one redeeming feature about Fellaini’s game at all. Graceless, snidey, petulant, clumsy… for the most part he ambles round the pitch breaking up our play, instead of the opposition’s. How he managed to stay on the field for the full 90 minutes is beyond me, and Van Gaal’s enduring faith in the guy’s complete lack of ability speaks volumes for the sorry state of his team. Things aren’t ever going to get any better with him roaming round, clattering into people and then looking utterly bewildered when the referee blows for each blindingly obvious infringement. He’s simply an awful, awful footballer.

Anyway, that long-standing gripe aside, Liverpool turned up whereas United didn’t. Marcus Rashford found himself playing right back during the 1st half… which was never going to turn out very well. The goalie, once again, was exceptional and ensured we weren’t 3-0 down at HT; how many times has that happened this season now? Martial battled gamely up front but there was nobody else willing to commit… which they were unable to anyway given we were being so comprehensively outplayed in midfield. Meanwhile, you’ve got Herrera, Schweinsteiger and Carrick all sat on the bench. In short, it was a complete mess and we were lucky to get out of there with only a 2-0 deficit.

The 2nd leg at least tee’d up the potential of an all-time classic, and it briefly looked like it might be happening when we went 1-0 up. United battered Liverpool for 45 minutes and were unlucky to be only ahead by a single goal as HT approached… even the crowd woke up from its usual somnambulant stupor and there was something approaching a genuine atmosphere to savour. A hint of venom in the air, players flying forward, decent goon for the goal… this was how we used to live.

Unfortunately, Coutinho’s exceptional goal killed any giddiness stone dead and the tie was over with the last kick of the 1st half. What a great player that kid is, incidentally. City must be kicking themselves after being suckered into paying £50M for the overrated Sterling when they could probably have snaffled him for half the price. Anyway, instead of any further heroics, the players trudged off whilst the crowd went into silent contemplation mode. It was a very sobering HT break watching the scousers balloon about letting off flares whilst we stood cursing ourselves for being naive enough to believe it was actually possible for a few minutes. Still, it was a nice reminder of how things used to be.

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You know that it’s been a strange old year when a glance at the league table confirms that we’re 16 points behind Leicester City… whose closest challengers are serial bottlers, Spurs. They are more than likely going to win it with games to spare, which as an event in the football universe is about as likely as Fellaini edging out Messi and Ronaldo for the next Ballon d’Or. In these days of ‘big fours’ and plans for a revised, ‘closed shop’ Champions League, Leicester are a heartening reminder that football still has the ability to produce stories that contravene all common sense and perceived wisdom.

Ranieri’s team are being lauded as the nation’s sweethearts right now, and even a myopic old cynic like me finds it hard to wish them anything but the best. There was something on 5 live the other week inviting people to phone in and suggest sporting upsets that would rival them winning the title. Suggestions included Denmark or Greece winning the Euros, Wimbledon winning the FA Cup, some clown even proposed that Sheffield Eagles beating Wigan Warriors in the RL Challenge Cup bore comparison.

It doesn’t, of course – none of these events do. Cup successes of that ilk are simply based on a team stringing together 6-7 decent performances. Any underdog can win a one-off cup, whereas winning a title over the course of 9 months is a genuine test of nerve and endurance. Blackburn winning the league in ’95 doesn’t count, given they were buoyed by Jack Walker’s vast wealth. Leeds winning in ’92 is probably the closest in recent-ish memory, though they weren’t competing against the handful of billion pound behemoth clubs that inhabit the Premier League in 2016. 1992 was still a fairly level playing field in terms of competing teams’ cash and resources, nothing at all like the cabal that’s in place today.

So if Leicester do it, in team sports’ terms I reckon it’ll be just about the greatest upset ever – I can’t recall anything that eclipses it. I’ve never had any time for their frothing, little Inglunder support but if they end up winning it at OT next month, then I hope their team gets clapped off the pitch. They’ll have achieved something genuinely remarkable, putting like likes of Newcastle and Liverpool – teams who have squandered hundreds of millions over the years in pursuit of the title – to shame.

In 3 months time we’ll be sick of the sight and sound of them and they’ll be back to being a complete irrelevance, but in a season where watching United has felt like purgatory at times, Leicester have been a genuine breath of fresh air. Regardless of whether or not they implode on the final straight, the plaudits they’re currently receiving are richly deserved – they’ve been absolutely superb.

Copyright Red News – April 2016

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