Wednesday 12 June 2024

Erik ten Hag, Nottingham Forest, and the start of a dynasty

After two weeks of intense will-he-won't-he speculation, Erik ten Hag is going nowhere. The United boss will stay on and together with minority shareholders INEOS, will hope to steer the ship named HMS Manchester United into calmer waters.

You cannot help but think of the striking parallels between ten Hag and his illustrious predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson, surely the greatest manager ever to do it. Sir Alex is, of course, associated with the most glittering and successful era in United history, sweeping up trophies left, right and centre as his swashbuckling United sides cut a swaggering swathe through English football. One that is unlikely ever to be repeated, no matter what Pep Guardiola might think.

Sir Alex Ferguson with the treble in 1999

But it wasn't always like that. For those of you old enough to do so, cast your minds back to January, 1990. It's the FA Cup third round weekend and Ferguson is a man under siege. His expensively assembled Reds are languishing in the lower reaches of the old First Division. We would finish 13th and Ferguson - then just plain old Alex - was one game from the sack. Mercifully, this was an age before social media, before smart phones, before radio phone ins. It did not stop the United fanbase from growing restless, though. An early FA Cup KO at the hands of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest - unlikely champions of Europe a decade before - would prove the final nail in the coffin. United's greatest ever manager would be up in flames before he'd even had a chance to cook. 

Enter, Mark Robins. A man never mentioned when it comes to some of United's most exalted stars. A man never mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Mark Hughes, Gary Pallister, Bryan Robson and Viv Anderson et al. Yet a man, without whom, the name Manchester United would not be the club we are today. Without Mark Robins, the greatest story our sport has ever seen simply would not have happened. 

Robins goal on that cold January day in 1990 changed the course of history. We won 1-0 and embarked on an FA Cup run that culminated in winning the trophy. It not only provided Ferguson with much needed breathing space, but also marked the beginning of his unbreakable dynasty. Robins match winning moment saved Ferguson's job (although United's incumbent chairman Martin Edwards has always denied this), and laid down the bedrock for an unprecedented period of success.

It is with a delicious twist of irony, the kind only top level sport can deliver, that - 34 years on - both Robins and Nottingham Forest have helped play a part in ten Hag's next chapter. Had Viktor Torp not stayed offside by the width of a toenail, the now Coventry manager would have found himself in an FA Cup final, at the expense of his former side. 

Coventry manager Mark Robins 

But history will ultimately tell a different tale. Just as Ferguson did, ten Hag eked out a narrow, edgy win at, you guessed it, Nottingham Forest, to set us on the way to Wembley glory. Casemiro's 90th minute  fifth round winner may have lacked quite the same do-or-die jeopardy as Ferguson's own flirtation with danger, but it was no less important.

In the superb 1998 film Sliding Doors, the plot follows two different storylines both based around the same scenario. In the first, Gwyneth Paltrow's character misses a train, but catches the same train in the second. To cut a long story short, the course of her life differs depending on the path she takes. Still with me? Good. 

That is a situation ten Hag now finds himself in. This is his own sliding doors moment. Just as Ferguson did, is this a classic example of a manager hanging on by a hair's breadth to then go on and build a dynasty? 

Or is it merely delaying the inevitable? If things are still bleak at Christmas, is it then just another wasted season? The fact he's in talks over a new deal, as per the Telegraph, suggests the ownership think he is the man for the long term. If they had no faith, they surely would have sacked him and definitely wouldn't be considering an extension. 

We cannot know the answer. But ten Hag has shown signs he can succeed here. He has proved he can be successful. But, just like Ferguson all those years ago, he needs time and backing to do it. He must seize his Mark Robins moment and build on it. 

INEOS have made the right call - now let's get behind them

And so it's official: Bald is still very much best. News broke late on Tuesday night - and it was the news we'd all been waiting for: Erik ten Hag is still the man for Manchester United. I hope he will still be the United manager for many years to come. I'm delighted for him, even if it could have been dealt with better. 

Sir Jim Ratcliffe has made his first big decision
The decision to retain the Dutchman is the first big call INEOS have made since they bought a minority shareholding in the club back in January. It is the right one. Not just because of the lack of alternatives - I mean, Gareth Southgate or Thomas Frank, really? - but also because it may now finally put an end to our endless, exhausting rinse and repeat managerial raison d'etre. It also suggests our new boardroom regime want to build a long-term project rather than just change tack at the first sign of adversity. 

You can't blame INEOS for carrying out due diligence in casting their net elsewhere: but how much of what we've read and heard over the last few weeks was simply the media, or perhaps manager agents, stirring the pot and looking for trouble? Whether Sir Jim and his men DID actually hold talks with any potential managers, we shall never know. But none of that matters now. 

ten Hag is only the second permanent United boss since Sir Alex to go into a third campaign at Old Trafford - David Moyes got ten months, Louis van Gaal two seasons. Mourinho was out on his ear by Christmas after his infamous 'third season syndrome'. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was caretaker manager in 2018-19 and only had two terms as the full-time gaffer. 

Almost three weeks on from United's logic defying, against-all-odds victory at Wembley which delivered a second trophy in two seasons, we finally have clarity. The post-season review is done and dusted. Now we can put all the rumours, all the malicious, agenda-driven sphiel by some of these wasters in the media, behind us. United can plan for next season with ten Hag. It's an important summer as INEOS embark on their first transfer window as part owners. There will be some journalists with egg on their faces this morning. Let's give a shout out to David Ornstein, though, the brilliant journalist with The Athletic whom broke the top tier exclusive ten Hag  was to stay having previously stayed quiet and merely stated not to have known rather than spreading misinformation. David, we salute you. 

There is no doubt that cup win played a part in the decision to stick with ten Hag. INEOS are also said to have liked ten Hag's faith and trust in developing youth players with Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho two of the standout stars last season. 

It is difficult to argue the Cup win changed the course of the ownership's trajectory. ten Hag almost certainly would have been out of work by now had we lost to City. It is what INEOS seemed to be expecting and, to be fair, they certainly weren't the only ones.

That ensured ten Hag has become one of only four Reds bosses to win trophies in successive seasons and, despite all the noise, he has carried himself with dedication, dignity and professionalism. 

ten Hag will now have a proper boardroom structure to work with and under, more in keeping with what he had at Ajax. A factor acknowledged by INEOS - they felt it was difficult to judge ten Hag properly because the club did not have the right structure above him - in short, he was set up to fail, just like every manager before him. 

With Omar Berrada as chief executive and football director Jason Wilcox calling the shots, to be joined by Dan Ashworth as sporting director, there are football people in football positions. ten Hag's workload will be lessened, he will have more help with recruitment and will perhaps now be more of a 'head coach' than a manager per se.

But as much as this is a blessing, it could also muddy the waters for ten Hag. It narrows the margin for error. He will know there are no excuses now, no second chances, no repeat of last season. He's shown enough to earn another season, but he's got to understand what went wrong last year, and why. He's got to learn those lessons and make the changes we need. We can't be conceding 30 shots every game this time. In-game management has to be better, we need a more sustainable style and cannot allow a few injuries to completely destabilise our season. Last season's struggles came with an asterix and compelling arguments of mitigation. That's not the case now. 

Erik ten Hag with the FA Cup 

But ten Hag is smart enough to acknowledge this. He's not stupid, and he knows last season wasn't good enough. He will know better than anyone we have to hit the ground running come August. A fast, strong, start to 2024/25 is crucial. Anything else and those questions will resurface. Last season, salvaged at the death by Wembley, has to be a freak one off.

ten Hag's contract is up at the end of the next campaign. I wouldn't be against him getting an extension, but that should be on hold for now. Let's see where are at Christmas and go from there. He needs to earn the chance of an extension on his current deal. 

It would not surprise me if his retention as manager comes with certain conditions - maybe he won't get as much of a say in recruitment? Perhaps there's a certain points target from a set number of games.  INEOS will set him targets he has to meet. While the spectre of Southgate has been banished - at least for now - INEOS are huge admirers of the soon-to-be-out of work England boss. If United fail to get off to a good start, Southgate's shadow will hang heavy over the hotseat. But that's a discussion for another day. 

The vultures have stopped circling, the summer's will-they-won't-they saga is finally over, and now the real hard work starts as ten Hag prepares for pre-season and his third campaign in the Old Trafford dugout. For the men above him in the corridors of power, their first real test has been passed. 

Sunday 26 May 2024

Manchester United FA Cup winners 2024

Manchester United certainly took the scenic route to a 13th FA Cup victory, delivered in improbable and unlikely fashion at Wembley on Saturday.
In one of those deliciously unexpected twists top level sport so often delivers, United and their erudite manager Erik ten Hag produced an all-time performance for the ages to defy the odds and cause one of the biggest shocks in the history of this iconic competition.

It was United's finest hour under the Dutchman and perhaps our best since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson - watching from the posh seats up in the Gods at the national stadium. It was a performance of spirit, grit, hunger, desire, resilience, discipline and work rate and, indeed, at times United even went toe to toe with and dominated their more illustrious cross-town rivals. Qualities conspicuous in absentia this season and a performance which begs the question: where has this United been for the last ten months? 
Out of the wreckage, from the very nadir of United's worst ever Premier League era-season, came the undoubted zenith. 

I saw a team out there with every player singing from the same hymn sheet, all battling and fighting for each other, not just showing ability but the desire and attitude to win every tackle, header and second ball. This was a team giving everything, fighting and scrapping as if their lives depended on it, for their manager, fans and club.
City's all conquering juggernaut - this imperious, pre-eminent and magnificent trophy winning machine - found themselves in the rare position of chasing shadows.

Their uncharacteristic carelessness was epitomised in United's 30th-minute opener. Diogo Dalot's long ball forward should have been dealt with by Joskvo Gvardiol. Instead, the Croatian left-back headed the ball back to his onrushing keeper Stefan Ortega. A breakdown in communication had seen City's usually unflappable stand in stopper come too far off his line and Alejandro Garnacho gambled to seize on the loose ball and pass into the empty net.

If the Reds first goal had needed an element of luck, when Kobbie Mainoo steered in our second nine minutes further on, it was at the culmination of a sweeping move Pep himself would have been proud of. At that stage, we dared to dream. 

And so Manchester United's FA Cup triumph of 2024 will go down in the annals as perhaps the greatest of them all. Consider our opponents, our season, the off-field shenanigans, the crippling injury crisis which has brought the squad to their knees, and just about everything in between. Consider the fact we were written off as no hopers, outsiders, lambs to the slaughter, a mere fly on the window for City's march to the double double. Odds as long as 40/1 with some bookies. The fact we finished 31 points behind Guardiola's side in the league. I felt we 'could' win, I believed we 'might'. 
But you can surely count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who actually thought we would. Surely even the swathes of red descending on Wembley did so more in hope than tangible expectation.

As the old adage says: sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination and United's road to FA Cup redemption in 2024 certainly won't be forgotten in a hurry. Perhaps, looking back now all these months on, our name was etched on the famous trophy from the start. Some things are just meant to be. 

Whilst our 2-0 third round win at Wigan was relatively routine, what followed was anything but. Our FA Cup rollercoaster encapsulated this madcap season in microcosm. For 21 minutes in round four, Newport County's Rodney Parade was rocking to the beat of an inspired fightback from the League Two team. For 21 minutes, United were facing humiliation, a 2-0 lead gone in front of the BBC cameras and the fourth tier minnows on the cusp of surely the greatest upset of all time. And didn't the ABU's let us know it. Newport's David had his foot firmly on the throat of United's Goliath. For those 21 minutes, United were reeling, ragged and on the ropes. In the end, though, as we have so often, this confusingly chaotic United side kicked and screamed their way to victory.
By comparison, our 1-0 win in round five did not carry the same jeopardy, but how we still needed Casemiro's late intervention at the death to edge out Nottingham Forest.

Then came the quarter final, and THAT game with the old enemy. We've talked about  that here - quite simply the best game of football I have witnessed in my 30-odd years on this earth. Words still cannot do it justice to this day. 1-0 up, 2-1 and 3-2 down, we seemed dead and buried not once but twice, then seconds away from penalties. Amad went on to write the final chapter of that particular story.
Yet incredibly, the Liverpool thriller was only the aperitif. United would serve up an Eton mess entirely of their own making as the semi final's comfortable 3-0 lead eviscerated at the hands of Coventry's climb-off-the-canvas comeback. This time, only penalties spared our blushes.
The Championship side had been the draw everyone wanted and it looked like being a rare day of comfort until United lost their heads, the lead, and - almost - the tie. Arise Victor Torp's toenail. Frame it and put it in the Old Trafford archives.

And so it was: an FA Cup final victory for the annals. For United and ten Hag, a silver lining at the end of a desperately poor season. A victory so out of keeping, so unexpected, it almost seems to have come from another world. 
ten Hag has now delivered two trophies in two seasons.. Indeed, he stands in esteemed company alongside only our great Scots and Ernest Magnall as the only United managers to win trophies in successive campaigns at United. 
That's impressive enough, especially in this era of ultra-City dominance. Not only that, but he's done so with the best core of young talent I've seen at this club for years. Two teenagers promoted on his watch proved our match winners at Wembley. If that's not proof of this man's work at United, I don't know what is. Indeed, if that WAS his last game in charge, and I honestly hope it isn't, then what a legacy he  will leave us. 

Not just Mainoo and Garnacho but Amad and Willy Kambwala too. Rasmus Hojlund signed as a 21-year-old focal point. He's earned the chance to have another season and develop them further, to build his project and take us forward into next season. 

It would be very harsh to sack him. He's building something and deserves to stay. The last thing we want to do now is ruin his project by ripping it out and starting again. Let's now hope INEOS make the right call. 

Thursday 23 May 2024

United facing football's Everest against derby rivals

Manchester United head to Wembley for the FA Cup final as probably the biggest underdogs English football's showpiece match has ever seen.

United are as long as 17/1 to win with some bookmakers, simply staggering odds in a two-horse race. Off the back of United's worst season in living memory it is easy to see why. The very last thing you'd want in that situation is to face a side who have just achieved something you never did, not even during your heyday. Namely win four Premier League titles on the bounce.
For context, relegated Wigan, probably the biggest Goliath-slayers in final history, were shorter odds in 2013. 

It begs the question: Just how do you beat the unbeatable? Exactly how do you stop this rampant, all-conquering Manchester City juggernaut? A side who haven't tasted defeat for 35 games as they put together the second longest such streak by a top flight team in history. A side hoovering up silverware left, right and centre and - despite the cloud hanging over the Etihad - staking a claim as the finest English football has ever seen. 
Another FA Cup on Saturday would see Pep Guardiola's side become the first team to complete successive league and cup doubles and give the Catalan manager his eighteenth piece of major silverware in his eight-year stint across the city. 

All this whilst United have endured our worst ever Premier League season. Fourteen defeats, eighth place and a negative goal difference. A manager seemingly on the precipice. We got into the final by the very skin of our teeth - or, more pertinently, Victor Torp's toenails. Maybe, in hindsight, elimination would have saved us from complete annihilation at the hands of this mob on Saturday. It looks akin to the task of scaling Everest in slippers and without supplementary oxygen. Getting past this City side looks to be football's toughest challenge. Arsenal's 2024 record reads W16 D1 L1 but Guardiola's men hit that achingly familiar groove of nine straight wins to surge to yet another title. City would become the first side since the Gunners (2013/14&2014/15) to take back to back FA Cups. Surely Pep must get bored? Does he not wake up one morning and think everything is all too easy? 

But there are plenty of reasons for optimism. We don't have to look far for an example of an unfancied  side usurping the overwhelming favourites and defying the odds. Give it up for Atalanta. 
The Serie A side took on a Leverkusen side pushing for an unbeaten treble, a run of 51 games, but prevailed with ease. Proof, if it were needed, than anything can happen in football. Pressure can effect you in different ways, especially in a one off game, a final, with the world watching against your fiercest rivals. It's eleven footballers against another eleven footballers. 

United are further boosted by the return to fitness and form of Lisandro Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Raphael Varane and Rasmus Hojlund. Varane got 20 minutes at Brighton whilst Licha got 60 minutes under his belt suggesting both are likely to start. Having your two best centre-backs available for your biggest game of the season comes as a boost. United - despite that eighth placed finish - finished with successive wins to boost momentum and confidence ahead of the final. 
We'll need City to have an off day and if they miss opportunities whilst playing at a level we haven't seen all season (even that might not be enough) but the fact we've been so poor during the campaign does, in itself, give us hope. We have a chance, a puncher's chance, in this one off game, a derby final, but you would fancy City 99 times out of 100. 

The players will want to salvage something from the season, it's our last shot at securing European football and the Reds will, as ever, be backed in numbers and volume at Wembley. The players will want to restore some pride and give something back. For City, it's just another game, but for us it means everything. We want this and need it more. The chance to end a dismal season with a silver lining and stopping City's slickers in their tracks. To follow in the footsteps of our Women's team and lift the world's oldest domestic knockout cup for a 13th time.

If this will be Erik ten Hag's last game in charge of United then what better way to bow out with a win in his third domestic cup final in two seasons. ten Hag's compatriot Louis van Gaal was sacked despite winning the famous old trophy, and it seems INEOS could make a change regardless of Saturday's denouement. Of course this is merely rumour at the minute but if he does leave, he will do so with an impressive cup record akin to Ron Atkinson's sides of the 80s. 

It's a well known fact of nature wild animals are more dangerous when they're frightened or wounded. They become more aggressive because they're scared and confused and believe predators may take advantage on their vulnerable state. It feels the need to protect itself at all costs and so lashes out aggressively and viciously at its nearest rival. It is the fighting survival instinct of that wounded creature United will need to conjure up from somewhere inside them in this final. 

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Groundhog day for Manchester United - again

Two years ago to the very day, Manchester United suffered one of our worst defeats in recent memory as an abject showing at a rampant Brighton put the seal on our worst ever Premier League season. 
Two weeks later, interim boss Ralf Rangnick was gone, replaced by United's number one target - the name at the top of everyone's list - Ajax's visionary, revolutionary manager Erik ten Hag.

Twenty four months and 731 days on, and here we are again. Only the opposition was different this time. United need four points from our last three games just to equal our lowest ever total of 58 from 2021-22. We have lost 13 times already (it was 12 in the Solskjaer/Rangnick season) and currently occupy eighth spot - one place lower than we finished even under David Moyes a decade ago. 

We've conceded 81 goals in all competitions across the season, the most ever in a single campaign since the mid 70s. 55 of those have come in the league, only two fewer than our all-time Premier League worst two seasons ago but still with three games to play. 

With title-chasing Arsenal and revitalised Newcastle still to come to Old Trafford, and a final day trip to bogey side Brighton, I cannot see us getting another point never mind winning another game. That's before we even discuss the FA Cup final. Throw in 62 injuries (perhaps a discussion for another day), a boardroom takeover not completed until December, corrupt refereeing and the form of a few players falling off a cliff, and it has simply been a disaster of a season. It's end cannot come soon enough. 
Even taking into account the mitigating factors, there was simply no excuse for yet another humiliation on the road on Monday night. 

The type of performance ten Hag was supposed to eradicate reared it's ugly head again and, perhaps even more worryingly, he seemed powerless to prevent it.

From the moment a ragtag United conceded the first goal under the slightest of pressure, the game was done. From the moment Michael Olise received a throw in on half way, walked into the acres of space in front of him and kept going to finish well, there was no way back. What a great idea it was to allow one of the best goalscoring wingers in the land to simply cut a swathe through the middle of our non existent midfield without tracking him, closing down or squeezing the central area. Maybe we should have allowed him a few more yards to run, just in case. It was a goal so spectacularly shambolic it was almost impressive. United could do a lot worse than to sign Olise in the summer.  He was the best player on the park by a considerable distance. 

Wherever and whenever Palace fancied attacking, there were allowed to at will by a team lacking fight, skill, energy, attitude and any cohesion whatsoever. Under Oliver Glasner, the hitherto unknown Austrian appointed by the Eagles in February, Palace were dynamic, direct, pacy, penetrative and powerful - everything ten Hag's United were not. This is Glasner's first foray into English football, he has been in charge at Selhurst Park for a little over two months and there's already an identikit, a vision and a plan. A completely new way of playing against whatever this is meant to be from ten Hag's United.

The fact nine of the eleven starters at Palace are ten Hag era players was most damning of all. If the players have downed tools for yet another manager, then what does that say about the recruitment? Ther are his boys, his signings. Only the full-backs Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan - Bissaka pre date ten Hag. Andre Onana, Casemiro, Antony, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund were all acquired for hefty sums of money. Jonny Evans and Christian Eriksen were free signings. Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho are this side's future, the two players we should build the team around. Both have risen to prominence under ten Hag. But without the injured Bruno Fernandes, they looked around for leadership where there was none. This was a day where even two of United's better performers in a desperate season got dragged down to their colleagues levels. 

Whilst we're not in the business of singling out any individual for criticism, we need to talk about Casemiro. None of United's apparent superstars covered themselves in glory, but the Brazilian was perhaps the most abhorrent culprit. The five time Champions League winner was reduced to nothing more than a spectator as Olise and his partner in crime on the opposite winger, Eberechi Eze, with Jean - Phillippe Mateta the kind of powerful, physical presence even a regular centre-half has nightmares over.
Casemiro, signed as the figurehead of United's revival as a totemic and transformative serial winner, instead epitomised our cowardly, spineless and gutless surrender. He dived in needlessly instead of holding his position to allow Olise as much room as he needed for the opener. Then he was meekly barged off the ball on the byline by Daniel Munoz  to cross for Olise to score  his second, and Palace's fourth. In his defence, he is not a centre-half but has looked devoid of energy and industry, sinking under instead of stepping up as United have floundered of late. Casemiro looks leggy, he looks done and is fully checked out as a United player. 

An offer from the mega rich Saudi league or MLS will surely be coming his way in the summer - he is our highest earner and is meant to be one of United's leadership group. After a stunning debut season at Old Trafford, it is alarming to witness how quickly even the basics seem to have deserted him. Is he a victim of United's implosion, or part of the cause? Alongside him, Jonny Evans looked every inch his 36 years as he was caught flat footed by Mateta to saunter through and slam in the second. It is not Evans fault - he was the only centre-back we had available and was thrown in at the eleventh hour despite failing a fitness test. United's thirteenth different centre back pairing of the season was, unsurprisingly, found wanting. 

If something ceases to function, can it be said to exist at all? Christian Eriksen is another - like Casemiro - who was signed to herald in a new era but he was upstaged by his less heralded, but supremely more mobile and progressive counterpart Adam Wharton. 

All eyes have been on United's talented youngster Mainoo, and rightfully so, but even he was overshadowed by the performance of his young compatriot. The Englishman seemed drawn to the ball like a magnet, always in the right place at exactly the right moment for Palace. He was excellent positionally and caught the eye with his combative energy and slick, between the lines passing. The obligatory gap in United's midfield became a gaping chasm as Wharton seized control of everything around him, the standout player in a midfield consisting of Mainoo and Mount. In stark contrast, none of those in Red ever seemed to be where they've needed, with time and space granted to each and every opponents in midfield, on the wings and in behind. 

Up front, Hojlund toiled admirably but again got no service and was hooked after 80 minutes of nothing. This current mess is not his fault and he should be absolved of blame. 

So where does this leave us? Are we going to sack ten Hag and simply restart the same rinse and repeat cycle? Or do we put this down as a freakishly bad one off and build again with the Dutchman next season? A new manager doesn't make these players any better. A new manager doesn't de-age Casemiro or make Eriksen mark properly. If we do decide to part ways, most of the squad need to go with him. I would only definitely keep Garnacho, Hojlund, Mainoo and - dependent on fitness - Martinez. The rest I would not be against moving on. When are we going to stop pinning all the blame on our manager and look for the players to take responsibility. There is no doubt ten Hag is a good manager. He overachieved in his first season at United and has not suddenly lost his mojo overnight. He is just at a club where no manager can succeed. 
It is a mystery how you can go from that brilliant, exciting young Ajax side which took Europe by storm, to this. A side which is everything and nothing. If he does indeed go to recently deposed German champions Bayern Munich, I've no doubt he will do well there. 
Each time United have opted for a change in the Old Trafford hotseat, there has been a clear front runner to be the successor. This time, Thomas Tuchel is probably the best of a bad bunch but there's no one as a very obvious upgrade on ten Hag. 

As INEOS approach their first summer in control of all football operations, the job facing them - and United - is one akin to climbing Everest in slippers. For the first time in almost 20 years, I have confidence the men in the corridors of power at Old Trafford will get this right. 
Two years on from United's battering at Brighton, nothing, on the pitch at least, has changed. 

Tuesday 19 March 2024

It's honour and glory the great man, he said...

The FA Cup quarter-final is precariously balanced on the precipice. A stonking, superbly see-sawing contest has swung one way and then the other as English football's two most successful and famous clubs have served up an all time classic. 

It is a tie befitting not only of Manchester United against Liverpool, but also of the world's oldest domestic competition. For all those naysayers who no longer value the FA Cup, this has been the epitome of everything it has to offer.

Perched up in the stand bearing the name of our now sadly departed knight of the realm Sir Bobby Charlton, I watch on with one thought uppermost in my mind: here we go again. I was preparing for the mental trauma of that footballing nuance we all love to hate or, maybe, hate to love: the penalty shootout. 

For a man still suffering from Villarreal-induced PTSD, it is all too much to bear. I begin to go through United's five penalty takers in my mind: Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, maybe substitute Christian Eriksen. Perhaps the excellent Diogo Dalot? Scott McTominay? Who will be the hero? Will lady luck smile on us this time? Please, someone somewhere, help us through this. I can barely watch, yet at the same time I'm held completely in thrall.  

Only Manchester United can put you through the wringer the way they did on Sunday. From the ecstasy of McTominay's early opener to agony as Liverpool hit the front and took control of a cup tie that suddenly looked out of our reach.  I experienced the entire gamut of emotions, twice over and back again. It felt like being on a 120-minute rollercoaster: a twisting, turning white knuckle ride with just about everything chucked at you en route. This club, man...

Delight as Antony - a much maligned figure written off as the main example of United's poor recruitment policy - scores with his right peg to drag United, kicking and screaming, into extra time with four minutes left. Despair as Marcus Rashford pulls wide with the goal, and the semi final, at his mercy, and Harvey Elliott put them ahead once more (with the aid of a deflection, just to really rub it in).

I thought that was it. We were done. There seemed no way back. We'd already got out of jail once: twice was too much to ask, surely? Even for a club as renowned for its last gasp acts of derring do as ours. Especially against this Liverpool side. With this manager. A manager who will be leaving in a few short months and his players finding an extra 5% within themselves as a result.

The FA Cup and a season that had promised so much but delivered so little was slipping away. To make matters worse, it seemed as if United would be merely a footnote on Liverpool's road to relentless, quadruple chasing history. 
Yet United dug in and found hallmarks once commonplace but sorely conspicuous in absentia over these last eight months. Fight. Courage. Character. Guts. Resolve. Back we come again as, in the blink of an eye, Rashford makes it 3-3 and this madcap game is thrown wide open once more. Now what? How often do you see one goal in extra-time, never mind two. I barely have time to think as my rapidly diminishing voicebox does it's best to rouse the players for one final big effort. 

Of all the live games I've been to, this is already the most memorable by far. I think of the journey this magnificent club, this huge part of my life for nearly 30 years has taken me on. The good times, and the bad, the rough and the smooth. The memories, the heartbreak, the friends I have made. But on this day I've seen nothing yet. 

And so to the denouement: 3-3, in the final minute of a sensational cup tie up there with the finest Old Trafford has ever seen. Whatever happens, United deserve credit. Written off by all and sundry, we have never given in, defended well when we had to and taken our chances when they've come. Liverpool may be ahead in terms of quality but the Reds have more than played their part in keeping them at bay. We almost won it, we could have lost it: either of those things could still happen. 

It's a strange feeling I can't explain, but football fans get an inkling, a sixth sense almost, that something is about to happen. As the Liverpool corner is swung in, Elliott sticks out an outstretched leg but the ball breaks loose. I get that feeling, somewhere deep inside. What happens next will live with me forever. Amad Diallo, the forgotten man thrown on perhaps more in hope than expectation, gets a foot to the ball. Alejandro Garnacho, United's jet-heeled teenage tyro two years Amad's junior, bursts clear and leads the charge towards Liverpool's penalty area. Old Trafford holds it collective breath as Conor Bradley - inexplicably the only man left covering - backpedals furiously as Garnacho runs. And runs. And runs.

Amad has kept up with his team mate in support and acts as a decoy as Garnacho shepherds the ball into his path. Amad changes his body shape side on to the ball and rolls it across goal beyond the diving Caoimhin Kelleher. For what feels like an eternity, the ball trickles across the famous, iconic turf before kissing the post and rolling in. On ITV, Sam Matterface manages to convey the moment brilliantly: "Amad for the semi final" he purrs succinctly but superbly - five small words that said everything. 

Cue some of the greatest scenes Old Trafford has ever witnessed. Cue sheer, utter and unadulterated joy. Bedlam. Hysteria. Scenes of wild jubilation not seen on this scale for many a year. The substitutes and coaching staff race from the bench to join the heaving throng of players and supporters alike. On the touchline, Erik ten Hag cavorts with delight. Inject that sound, the sound of our great theatre in full voice, erupting to it's collective core and roaring to the heavens.  Never have I hugged so many random strangers. The lad behind me has tears in his young eyes. I was not far off. His father throws his arms around me in celebration.  I hug anyone in sight, bellowing to the sky as all those pent up emotions come pouring out. Worry, nerves, excitement, hope, fear, joy, pride, happiness, you name it. It's all there. It's all in that roar into the Old Trafford rafters. This may 'only' have been a quarter final, but it feels like so much more. Winning this game in this manner means so much. Especially given the season we have had. I fall to my knees, like the dejected Liverpool players sprawled on the turf in front of me. I am spent. This is why Sir Bobby Charlton called it the Theatre of Dreams.

For everything I've seen, everything my beloved team has won, this is up there as one of my greatest days supporting this club. That's saying something considering the 20 league titles, the Treble, the 2008 Champions League and all that has come before or since. This club is gonna be the death of me one of these days but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Who writes these scripts? A peripheral figure starved of game time, sent on to rescue a game slipping from our grasp, becomes an instant hero. A 21-year-old forced to the fringes by his manager writes himself into Manchester United folklore forever. The calmest man in the ground scores with almost the last kick to finally settle a totemic, titanic tussle and send United to Wembley. A player with only 13 United appearances to his name with the biggest goal of his career.  

A name to talk about for the rest of time. A young Ivorian to go down in the annals as a man who won his side arguably the greatest FA Cup tie we have ever seen. Against his side's biggest rivals in the final seconds. A lad who sent 400 million across the globe into delirium. As the man who sits high up in the posh seats in the stand that bears his mighty name once said: Football, bloody hell. 

In the chaos, I do not even not notice the red card brandished to the goalscorer. My scarf goes flying. My voice and any semblance of dignity or normality has gone with it. I am lost in a world of tumult, a world where nothing else matters, a world that I feel on top of. I am emotionally exhausted, mentally wrecked. I cannot think straight. Only football, or perhaps, indeed, only Manchester United, can do this to a man. I will never forget this day. Being there in the flesh making memories to cherish and to last a lifetime. Whenever the United vs Liverpool game of 17 March 2024 is mentioned in future, I will be able to say 'I was there'. 

As the Stretford End banner in tribute to United's first Great Scot Sir Matt Busby proudly proclaims: "It's honour and glory, the great man he said, there's nothing on earth like being a Red." 

Sunday 9 July 2023

Farewell David de Gea: 12 years a Red and forever a legend

And so football's worst-kept secret is officially official: David de Gea departs Manchester United after more than a decade between the sticks.

De Gea signed from Atletico Madrid as a rangy, nervous 20-year-old with the task of replacing United's best since Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar (all the very best to him, by the way). A giant of a man in every sense, van der Sar quite literally left big boots to fill and, initially at least, it looked as if Sir Alex Ferguson had dropped a rare clanger in bringing this relatively unknown rookie as his next in line.

Such a wiry, raw and youthful was always going to be an easy target for the drama-hungry English media and so it proved, In truth, some media outlets have never truly left de Gea alone even in the intervening years. 

Yet he leaves Old Trafford with his place in club history assured. Certainly as van der Sar's equal, maybe even his superior. Despite criticism of his distribution and a supposed weakness in commanding his box, de Gea was - and always will be - one of the finest shot stoppers the English game has even seen. 
de Gea has been unfortunate in the fact his United career has run parallel to some of the club's most barren years. With one Premier League, a Europa League, an FA Cup and two League Cups, as well as two runners up medals, five trophies in twelve years isn't so bad. But a keeper the quality of de Gea deserved to be playing in a team existing in the throes of challenging for the biggest prizes in the game. 

For that alone, he deserves a place among United's pantheon of greats. As the last great bastion of Ferguson's title-winning alumni, his departure also marks the passing of one generation to the next. 

The turning point of de Gea's United career came at Stamford Bridge in those fledgling early days. Ironically a save from compatriot and soon-to-be team-mate Juan Mata as a flying flash of green to paw away Mata's dipping free-kick left incredulous jaws in many a collective lap.

From then on, he was the manager's favourite and our undisputed no.1. That save was voted our greatest ever of the Premier League era and it earned de Gea a spot in that season's Team of the Year.

That would pave the way for what was to follow. At times, de Gea was a one-man showreel, a man who made the seemingly impossible look easy and almost single-handedly kept a floundering United side afloat. Times were bad enough with him there - you just shudder to think how bad things would have been without him. 

With United in a seemingly permanent state of flux following the retirement of Sir Alex, de Gea was the one constant, the one shining light, the man with four Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards in five seasons. That simply tells us everything we need to know about how influential, how utterly vital, he was even through some of United's darkest moments. 

Some of his showings defied logic. Think of the now famous game at Arsenal in late 2017 when a record-equalling 14 saves will go down in history as the finest ever by a United keeper. Even as recently as this season, De Gea was keeping opposition forces at bay in remarkable fashion. His simply sensational save when he changed direction in mid-air to tip away Kelechi Iheanacho's point-blank header  against Leicester was voted the best of the season by his peers. Another similar save in the same game, this one from Harvey Barnes, again showcased the very zenith of the man from Madrid.

There will be mixed reactions to the news, including from me. It's always sad to see a legend leave. Especially a man who has done so much for the club and stayed loyal when it would have been easy to jump ship. But, ultimately, the time is right. De Gea's style is simply not compatible with modern day top level football now. Even his biggest assets - his superhuman reflexes, anticipation and fleet of foot - have started to dwindle. Saves which were once routine have now become difficult. His bread and butter is now as sticky as treacle. 

But despite all that, he still won the 2022-23 Golden Glove for the most shutouts in the season. No overseas player has made more appearances than his 545 in all of the long and storied history of this magnificent sporting institution. 

He is seventh on the overall all-time list and has kept more clean sheets (190) than any other United stopper that has come before him - van der Sar, Schmeichel and Stepney et al. The fact he will forever be discussed as among only the most exalted of company is testament indeed to how that callow young keeper we signed in 2011 turned out. 

Thank you for everything, David de Gea. For your service, humility, brilliance, personality and that amazing agility. Some of the saves have to be seen to be believed. It has been an honour.