Tag Archives: Manchester United

Sir Alex: A grateful tribute

Say it ain’t so, Sir Alex. Say it ain’t so. The man who provided more supporting glory before my 21st birthday than most people could ever imagine enjoying in a lifetime, finally retired last week – appropriately, taking his leave at the summit, with the Premier League trophy in hand. The tributes have tended towards the elegiac in tone, as though Ferguson had died rather than retired. While some questioned this outpouring of quasi-grief, for Manchester United fans, it is as though something has died within. An incomparable figure has departed us; and now the future will be forever uncertain.

To sum Ferguson up in numbers is to denigrate just how important he was to Manchester United; but nevertheless, to put the man’s value simplistically, his ludicrous roll of honour included: 13 Premier League titles, 2 European Cups, 1 European Cup Winners’ Cup, 5 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 1 European Super Cup, and 2 World Club Cups. It really does take the breath away.

It is also beautifully appropriate that Ferguson retires around the 30th anniversary of possibly his greatest managerial achievement. For all that he won at Old Trafford, and the momentous occasions became almost innumerable – defeating Real Madrid with Aberdeen, Aberdeen, in the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup final must be unsurpassable as a one-off accomplishment. His ability to get the most out of players – great, good and average alike – is surely unparalleled in the history of the game.

But it is Manchester United which Ferguson will be revered for the world over, as ruler of the most abiding regime football has ever known. In a way it was fitting that his last game at Old Trafford saw United ‘not making things easy for themselves’ and relying on a late winner; two of the enduring, eternal themes of Ferguson’s reign in red. The multitude of memories inspired by Ferguson includes, to name but a select few: Steve Bruce’s late double against Sheffield Wednesday, winning everything with kids, Cantona’s FA Cup final winner in ’96, the Ruud Van Nistelrooy-led title triumph in 2003, Moscow, knocking – in turn – Liverpool, Blackburn, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City off their perches. He gave us it all.

And the treble. The treble. An achievement worthy of a paragraph to itself. A season unprecedented and still unmatched in English football – possibly forever. Ferguson’s delirious reaction to victory in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich summarised an unfailingly dramatic season where United continually, consistently snatched victory from seemingly impossible positions. That team, made in the unflinching image of their manager, stared the twin beasts of defeat and failure square in the face and sent them home, whimpering. Yorke and Solskjaer against Liverpool; Giggs in the FA Cup semi-final replay; Keane at Juventus; Cole against Spurs; and the two substitutes in the Nou Camp. Never, ever to be forgotten by any United fan. And it was Ferguson who made it all possible.

To hear rumblings of a potential departure last Tuesday night – despite my prediction that this would happen back in Fios 368 – provoked a shudder. For said rumours to be confirmed on Wednesday morning left one utterly reeling. Though you knew it must, there was a sense in which you felt this day would never come. The signs were there: the stand, the statue, the staggeringly distressed reaction to defeat against Real Madrid. And yet it was still a devastating shock. The emergence of Wayne Rooney’s transfer request was rendered almost insignificant in comparison: like hearing your Mum’s died and the milk’s gone off, as one wag put it.  

The stories about the great man are abundant, but a personal favourite Fergie anecdote that illustrates his refusal to countenance anything less than the best comes from the aftermath of the 1983 Scottish Cup final victory over Rangers. This was before my time, admittedly; but is easily accessible on your favourite video-sharing website. Rather than drowning in a torrent of self-congratulation after vanquishing the Old Firm, again, Ferguson – his face as black as the ace of spades – began castigating his team in broadest Govanese on live television as they paraded in the background:  “We’re the luckiest team in the world. We were a disgrace of a performance. Miller and McLeish won the cup for Aberdeen. Miller and McLeish played Rangers themselves. They were a disgrace of a performance. And I’m not caring, winning cups doesn’t matter. Our standards have been set long ago and we’re not going to accept that from any Aberdeen team. No way should we take any glory from that.” One can only imagine what the players thought, but not many examples better illustrate the man’s extraordinary desire for perfection in victory.

Notoriously loath to suffer fools, another amusing tale occurred at the after-match press conference following Manchester United’s humbling by the great Messi’s Barcelona in 2011. “If the owners of Man United gave you a blank cheque over the summer and allowed you to bring in one, just one, of Barcelona’s team – who would you sign?” ventured the interviewer. Ferguson, with a look of incredulous disdain, responded: “That’s one of the most stupid questions I’ve ever heard in my life. Mascherano.” He is that rarest of men; someone who could conjure humour from the lowest form of wit.    

Ferguson could certainly be harsh, vindictive, irritable and aggressive, as any player, manager or journalist who encountered him in a dark mood would probably attest to. But this was merely part of the wider legend, a part that unfortunately obscured some of his more charitable work, including that as a patron of The Preshal Trust – a Christian charity founded by May Nicholson – in Ferguson’s native Govan. An unlikely partnership, granted; but one that displayed Ferguson’s softer side.

However, in the last days, it was also pleasing to see Ferguson indulge his vengeful streak and skewer the player who must have caused him more annoyance and irritation than any other throughout his career: Wayne Rooney. Their relationship fractured when Rooney asked for transfer in late 2010, with the implicit assertion that he, Rooney, had become bigger than the club. Ferguson indulged him then, realising that he needed the terminally unfit Scouser time in order to continue his dynasty at that particular time; before knifing him in the back the moment he became dispensable. And with Robin Van Persie’s signing and subsequent success, Rooney has become definitively dispensable.

As Rooney’s camp strived and strained to deny that he had handed in another transfer request last week – another transfer request, at Manchester United; the mind bogglesFerguson stated, live on Sky Sports, that: “I don’t think Wayne was keen to play simply because he’s asked for a transfer.” Simple, yet brutally effective; Rooney tossed dismissively to the fans like a Roman Christian to the lions.   

As for his successor, well, it is only fair, despite his apparent lack of credentials for the job, to give David Moyes – recommended vigorously by the departing Knight of Govan – time to prove himself. During his farewell speech on Sunday afternoon, Ferguson – perhaps sensing the unease – exhorted the fans to rally behind Moyes when he officially steps in on July 1st. Despite some murmuring and discontent over the appointment in the Twittersphere, I believe the supporters will unanimously back Moyes from the outset.

However, he probably has to deliver success within the first couple of years to retain that support. All the ingredients are already in place to contend for the league title and to challenge in the Champions League – a marvellous golden hello from the club. It is a sad but undeniable fact that the footballing landscape has altered dramatically since Ferguson was given an extended period of grace in the late 1980s. It is doubtful that Moyes will be afforded “three years of excuses and it’s still crap” as the infamous banner about Ferguson once so eloquently put it.

Ferguson’s dedication to family must be admired by even his greatest critics and listening to him speak on Sunday it became apparent that this was, undoubtedly, the right time to bow out, despite the appearance of health and potentially having several years left at the top. As he sheepishly shuffled through the Guard of Honour on Sunday afternoon, looking like a kindly grandfather rather than the widely-depicted hammer of referees and scourge of rivals domestic and continental, it was impossible not to feel more than a touch emotional. His like will never be seen again. The greatest of all-time, and a privilege to have supported. 

Advertisements
Tagged ,

Europe’s Last Great Footballing Sides: The Common Denominator

I’m unsure what exactly brought this thought to my attention – perhaps the turgid, ‘functional’ dross served up by Manchester United in the last two months – but I became intrigued by the change of footballing philosophy and the way that teams play in the Champions League generation. There have been great football teams in this era like the criminally underrated Milan side of 2003-2007 under Carlo Ancelotti and Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich at the turn of the century; but certainly a paucity of great footballing teams, of which there have only been three true immortals.

In slightly different ways, the youthful Ajax team of 1994/1995, Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998/1999 and the epochal, football-defining Barcelona of 2010-2011 all transcended the trophies they won by winning them with football as it was created to be.

Why were these sides able to break the monotonous predictability of the last fifteen years at the pinnacle of the game? Possibly because of each team’s reliance on a nucleus of home-grown talent who religiously followed a footballing ideology of passing, movement and high-tempo pressure.

Other teams occasionally came close to attaining this exalted status. Real Madrid’s Galacticos were probably able to reach even greater heights on their day, an utter evisceration of United in the first hour of the Champions League quarter-final in 2003 a particular highlight. That day; Figo, Zidane, Raul and Ronaldo ran riot, but a combination of maddening inconsistency and gargantuan ego slowly killed that team from within.

For those who might suggest one of Arsene Wenger’s incarnations of Arsenal; The Invincibles were still a fundamentally functional side usually reliant on magic from Henry, Bergkamp or Pires to win matches. For a single season they delivered these moments consistently, before they were extinguished permanently as a force at Old Trafford in 2004.

Teams who have succeeded in the Champions League in the last fifteen years have regularly relied on a combination of pragmatism, solid defence and reliance on a special player to bend matches to the force of his will. Examples of this include: Juventus 1996 (Peruzzi, Ferrara & Del Piero), Borussia Dortmund 1997 (Kohler, Sammer & Moller), Milan 2003 (Nesta, Maldini & Shevchenko), Porto 2004 (Carvalho & Deco), Liverpool 2005 (Carragher, Hyypia & Gerrard), United 2008 (Ferdinand, Vidic & Ronaldo) and Internazionale 2010 (Lucio, Samuel & Sneijder). Ultimately, I suppose the formula doesn’t matter as all these teams actually lifted the trophy, a staggering achievement in itself; but in order to be truly timeless, there must be something more.

All Champions League winning teams are equal, but some are more equal than others. Occasionally the afore-mentioned sides rose above this monotonous template for winning the tournament, but they are certainly a level below these particular merchants of buckle and swash: Ajax, Man United and Barcelona.

Man United 1998/1999

Manchester United 98/99, controversially, might be the least of these three teams; with the most imports (Schmeichel, Johnsen, Stam, Irwin, Keane & Cole) and playing a slightly different style of football to the totalvoetballing Ajax and Barcelona. Their home-grown stars: Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Neville Brothers, may have bestridden the peak of the game for nearly a decade but this was undoubtedly their Everest. While they may have been inferior to the other two sides in some regards, United regularly had to go to the very limits of endurance and human desire – a place where Ajax and Barcelona never had to venture.

Always true to United’s attacking heritage, the 1999 team might be the greatest British style team of all time. Fast, strong, powerful, quick in possession, devastating on the counter attack and from set-pieces, blessed with the most indefatigable self-belief and determination any side has ever had, and with the best balanced midfield in history (crosser, destroyer, passer, dribbler – work it out) they defined a generation of English football with their careering, cavalier, score-one-more-than-the-opposition philosophy. A reincarnation of Brazil in 1982, but with better results.

Ajax 1994/1995

Ajax of 94/95 were slightly different again. Their team was made up of Dutch disciples (and Jari Litmanen) of the Church of Cruyff at differing stages of their footballing maturity, who combined to produce one of the greatest seasons in football history. The youthful exuberance of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars; the footballing intelligence of the De Boer brothers and Edgar Davids; was all supplemented by a totemic goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar, and the immense experience of Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind.

Undefeated league champions and undefeated European champions in the same season; neither United nor Barcelona can match this. A late Kluivert goal helped beat an AC Milan who were probably improved on paper from the side who throttled the Dream Team 4-0 in the previous years’ final.

However, the piece-de-resistance for Ajax was an annihilation of Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League Semi-Final. According to The Independent’s match report Ajax were an ‘inexorable tide’ who ‘recalled the pomp of their 1970’s prime’ with a rampant display of attacking potency. A double from Litmanen and goals from Finidi George, Ronald de Boer and Marc Overmars in a 5-2 victory laid the foundations for their eventual success in Vienna against Milan.

Barcelona 2010/2011

Barcelona under the management of Pep Guardiola have taken the ideal of pass and move to another level. Their patented tiki-taka is Johan Cruyff’s footballing vision on speed. While I have previously suggested that their 08/09 version may have actually been slightly more effective, the Barcelona of 2010/2011 is received wisdom’s greatest Guardiola side – and at its absolute strongest, filled with eight academy products. An astonishing statistic.

The club academy La Masia produced the utterly supreme midfield comprising Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets; a talismanic captain in Carles Puyol; the best footballing centre-half in the world – Gerard Pique; ‘keeper Victor Valdes, a stopper and starter of attacks; and the hugely underrated Pedro – one of the best exponents of off the ball running and finishing in the world.

However, Barcelona have also been graciously blessed with that truly special player that neither United nor Ajax actually possessed. As one of the all-time greats – possibly just behind Maradona and Pele; possibly beside them already – the majestic Lionel Messi transforms Barcelona from a great club side into the greatest club side.

Conclusion

The argument is not that these teams produced their transcendent football on the biggest stage – Ajax needed a late winner to beat Milan in 1995 and United floundered for 89 minutes against Bayern in the Camp Nou – but that they sustained this elevated level of performance for a sufficient period of time for it to become trademark.

So why the lack of spectacular footballing teams in this Champions League generation? Is it the inclination towards pragmatism and the birth of the Dunga/Deschamps/Makelele position? Or possibly the exorbitant sums of money that clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Internazionale, latter-day United – spend striving to achieve the ultimate goals instead of promoting from within; something that Ajax, Manchester United and Barcelona all did with the reward of sporting immortality.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ruthless United Thrash Woeful Arsenal: Analysis

Playing with the handbrake off and careering forwards at every opportunity Manchester United put Arsenal to the sword yesterday afternoon. Recalling the famous ‘98/99 season when thrashings were routinely meted out (8-1 against Forest, 6-2 against Leicester, 6-2 and 5-0 against Brondby), United demolished an abject Arsenal 8-2 for whom serious questions must now be asked. Still, if yesterday’s embarrassment persuades Arsene Wenger to finally sign the leaders that his squad is crying out for then it might yet prove a silver lining in a very dark cloud.

Arsenal were deprived of several first choice players due to injury, illness and suspension but United had a similar number of first choice names on the sidelines, only they were able to call upon a higher calibre of replacement. That fault rests with Wenger and his inability to conclude transfer business before the start of the season. Of course, it may just be his trademark unwillingness to sign players that don’t fit into his mould that causes the problem. Park Chu-Young is expected to arrive from Monaco and they have been linked with Yossi Benayoun but this hardly represents a cavalry charge to the rescue. The deficiencies yesterday lay blatantly in the defensive ability and heart of the team.

In contrast, it should be a badge of honour for Sir Alex Ferguson that his recruits are settling in so comfortably. Ashley Young gave Carl Jenkinson a torrid time, David De Gea expertly saved Van Persie’s penalty and Phil Jones commanded the defensive line with authority and class. Other youngsters like Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Anderson also impressed again, with the Brazilian again dominating the midfield area, only to be upstaged by the carnage taking place in front of him.

It is necessary to travel back in time to the ‘06/07 season and the Champions League slaughter of Roma to remember a United performance that matched yesterday in terms of attacking intensity and panache. Against Roma, as yesterday, shots rippled the net from all angles. For Young’s curling beauties of yesterday see Carrick’s long range missiles of yesteryear. That night against the Italians the attacking impetus was seized early on and never surrendered; almost symmetrically United gave Arsenal a fearful hiding from first whistle to last. The margins of victory were identical and the flair with which they were achieved of a striking resemblance.

Arsenal had no answer for the whirlwind speed at which United attacked and the myriad of attacking options they utilised. Through the centre with Welbeck and then Hernandez, out wide through Nani and Young; from deep with Evra and Smalling and from virtually everywhere through Rooney Arsenal found it impossible to cope with this plethora of firepower that United attacked with.

The pillaging of trophies domestic and abroad from 2007 to 2009 obscured the fact that United were no longer playing The United Way. In ‘07/08 home thrashings of Villa and Newcastle were the stand-out victories but neither contained the verve of yesterday’s fluid masterpiece, or even the second half against Tottenham last Monday night.

‘08/09 was another season of workmanlike wins; the sole breathtaking performance coming when a 2-0 deficit at half-time to Spurs quickly became a 5-2 victory thanks to the spectacular fusion of the fab four: Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov. While a formation to accommodate those four is almost impossible to behold, it is a regret that they were not allowed more opportunity to create the magic witnessed that early May evening.

So while the current vintage has a distance to travel before measuring up to those teams in terms of trophies, they are already setting a higher standard of attacking potency and fluidity.

As United author Daniel Harris noted to me during correspondence regarding the treble team: “when there was a hammering to be handed out, it got handed out.” Yesterday was a refreshing return to those days, with United throwing players forward even as the scoreline ticked upwards into the realms of fantasy. The days of settling for one and two goal victories are hopefully a thing of the part. Now is not a time to worry whether this brand of total football is possible against Barcelona or Real Madrid, but one in which to savour the mesmeric beauty of it.

Tagged , , , , ,