All posts by George Kyle

Brilliant Beckham

Beckham has an enduring place in my heart, as he was a truly magnificent player whose quality at United and contribution during our period of success cannot be undervalued. He was a quite superb dead ball specialist whose corners and free kicks created havoc for opposing defenders and goalkeepers alike. He was the sort of winger that strikers thrive off, who had an unerring accuracy in knowing the position to place the ball so that they had maximum potential to be able to supply the finishing touch. He was a member of the Class of 92, one of the elite youngsters who when combined with more seasoned professionals would sweep all before them during a period of domestic dominance which culminated in the Holy Grail of the Champions League trophy in 1999. During that famous night Beckham was the key ingredient which first salvaged and then secured a trophy which had been on the brink of escaping, the final piece in the magical Unprecedented Treble. Firstly a whipped delivery into the middle of the crowded box for his initial corner where Schmeichel’s green jersey lurked and could cause the most havoc, from which the result was a prodded Sheringham finish. Secondly, a near post corner which found Sheringham to flick toward goal which Solskjaer rammed home to spark raucous celebration. Had we the current crop of United players, these corners would more than likely have been wasted, the delivery either overshot or failing to evade the first man. Beckham’s potency gave an edge that almost seemed like cheating, in a time where we were festooned with strikers who would score all types of goals if given such a cavalcade of ammunition to utilise. This is summed up aptly here by goalkeeping legend Peter Schmeichel:

“You only have to go on MUTV and watch programmes like ‘Ruud van Nistelrooy: all the goals’, ‘Andy Cole: All the goals’ and so on, and see how many goals they scored came from his crosses. A cross from him is as good as a goal. His crossing was unbelievable. ”

Beckham’s early life was typical of that of a precocious boy who dreamed of playing football, whose soul ambition was to secure a playing role in the beautiful game. When asked the arch old question of what career he wished to pursue, Beckham remained obstinate beyond castigation that he would indeed fulfil this dream. Fortuitously for him, as all United fans know, he had the talent in abundance in order to make this dream a reality and was signed up for United after impressing particularly as a youth who had come to prominence whilst attending one of Sir Bobby Charlton’s football schools. As Neville remarked during his own recollection of Beckham’s arrival into the group of fledgling prodigies that were to become later known as the Class of 92, there was a real sense that Beckham’s presence acted as catalyst for the others who were envious of the sheer natural football talent that he (Beckham) had at his disposal even at such a young age.

He was the final member of the greatest midfield quartet to grace the Premier League, providing the width and demanding the pressure of the Number 7 shirt. In Keane’s autobiography, Keane recounts that Sir Alex wanted to give Keane the shirt but that the Irishman thought that Beckham better befitted that jersey. It proved to be an inspirational choice, particularly as Beckham was charged with filling the shoes of the King, Eric Cantona. On the first day of the 96-97 season Beckham scored a goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, it was a goal which propelled the youngster straight into the nation’s consciousness. It was the season where Beckham cemented his place as a first choice starter for United and was voted to be PFA Young Player of the Year by his peers. Though the following season was disappointing, it was during the Treble season that Beckham came alive; this flying in the face of the widespread condemnation Beckham had received for the infamous petulant kick which many felt was the direct contributing factor to England’s early exit in the previous summer’s World Cup. It was here that Beckham demonstrated his endeavour and bravery by succeeding when many prayed for his failure. He finished the season, as arguably United’s most valuable asset, an assertion given credence by him finishing runner up to Rivaldo in both the European and World Player of the Year award.

As Ryan Giggs pointed out, the remainder of the United squad knew Beckham’s value to the team and the squad pouring the following praise upon his team mate:

“The best crosser of the ball I have ever seen. You would make a run and he would put the ball into your path without having to break stride. A brilliant footballer.”

His fine form was carried into the next season as United won the Premier League by a handsome 18 points in the 99-2000 season. In particular though it was Beckham’s extracurricular activities which were giving Sir Alex the biggest headache, the fact that in 2000 he was given permission to miss out on training in order to take care of his son, Brooklyn who had gastroenteritis. However, Victoria was then spotted at the London Fashion Week Night that day which meant that she could have looked after the sick child. As Ferguson was quick to admonish:

“He was never a problem until he got married. He used to go into work with the academy coaches at night time; he was a fantastic young lad. Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing – from that moment, his life was never going to be the same. He is such a big celebrity; football is only a small part.”

United though were still in a period of great dominance and this was reflected when they secured their third successive league title in 2000-1. He scored nine goals that season, all of which came in the Premier League. In the following season Beckham scored 16 goals in 42 games in all competitions which was the best of his career, it demonstrated a player whose capabilities were at an all time high in terms of end product. However, Beckham lost his place the next year, following an early season injury, to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and struggled to get back into the team. In February 2003 following an FA Cup defeat to Arsenal Beckham was infamously then the victim of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ire receiving a football boot to the head which really sparked the beginning of the end for the winger. All in all, Beckham made 265 league appearances for Manchester United and scored 61 goals. He also made 81 Champions League appearances and scored 15 goals. His medal total was quite remarkable accruing 6 Premier League Titles, 2 FA Cups, 1 UCL, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 Youth Cup in a 12 year period with the club.

When Beckham left he moved to Real Madrid, his dream of continuing to play for United was in tatters. As he has said before, he couldn’t bear to watch United for two years following the swap. He had a heartfelt connection to his boyhood club and ultimately didn’t want to leave, though he then enjoyed the remainder of his career sequentially with Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and Paris St Germain which amounted to quite an illustrious spell of globetrotting. There are those including Sir Alex who felt that Beckham could have made more of himself had he really applied his full talent to his craft rather than what some might refer to as his brand and the celebrity where he really excelled, becoming a global phenomenon in how he marketed himself. However, it is hard to forget how much Beckham had worked to get to where he was and also that he was a quite incredible footballer first and foremost. He had a natural engine which few could match, often covering great distances and was very much an athlete which gave him the extra longevity that only the footballers who take the greatest care of themselves can hope to achieve. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, himself an undisputed legend of the game was quick to praise Beckham’s personality and ethics with regard to how he handled himself even at a mature age, when he went to play for Paris St Germain:

“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”

For me David Beckham is a United legend, a man who won many trophies with us and contributed sublimely at many key times. He will forever belong to the greatest exclusive club in football, those who have worn the hallowed United Number 7 shirt and his football prowess justifies that he is within that pantheon, a player who played with grit, style, determination and panache in equal measure. Without Beckham’s efforts United fans would not have so many enduring memories with which to comfort our souls during this barren period of true domestic success. Beckham will remain interwoven in the rich tapestry of United’s history, the member of the Class of 92 with abilities so unique and special; they even made a movie about one of them. Indeed, nobody could bend it like Beckham and precious few in United’s history have been as good as he was, a legendary player, never forgotten.

King Cole

Every top side needs an outstanding forward, a man who leads the line, who holds the ball up for his team mates when necessary, who finds space and links the play and who scores freely at the top level, contributing to the team and taking the pressure associated with the obligations that the role demands.  In Andy Cole, United had a rare gem of a player, someone who was excellent in all aspects of the forward role and above all had a mentality, resilience and fortitude in the face of so many denigrators over the course of his career. He talks of the sacrifices he made during his career, including some he regrets such as missing the birth of his eldest child to play a match but this is a by-product of the edge and resolute focus which all top professionals need to succeed in their walk of life.  Cole was not someone who welcomed the media spotlight that his talent invited; he was someone who was completely focussed on the game, a single-mindedness that helped him to cement his place as one of the greatest Premier League strikers of all time.  Indeed there can be few strikers even amongst that illustrious pantheon who can compare with his aptitude in so many facets of the striking position, in particular his shooting ability off both feet was remarkable and spoke volumes for his special talent.  As a United fan privileged enough to watch Cole at his peak, there can be no doubting the striker’s place at the top table, as he won his way into so many hearts with his desire and passion, the honesty and integrity with which he threw himself wholeheartedly into battle for the club to secure us the trophies which we craved.

Andy Cole’s childhood, as for so many footballers, was totally based around football, his love and passion for the game was evident from an early age. His background as is typical of many footballers’ was one of hardship, struggle and strife with money, or the lack of it, prevalent. In 1985, Cole joined the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall, which he himself admits was an extremely tough experience for him as a youth, leaving home at just 14 years old. Cole’s first club was Arsenal, when he signed schoolboy forms for George Graham, the Gunner’s then manager. Cole reflects with a wry smile on his time with Arsenal where he had just a couple of starts that there was a personality clash with him and the boss which doomed his fledgling career with the club. Cole was loaned out during the 91/92 season to initially Fulham and then Bristol City, with a permanent move to the latter cemented by a club record fee. In 1993 on the back of tremendous goal scoring achievements with Bristol City, Andy joined Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. Cole’s price tag again was large for its time, especially for someone still so young but Keegan’s faith was vindicated as he once again scored freely for the North East side. The following season with Newcastle promoted Cole enjoyed the most prolific season, scoring 41 goals in all competitions and winning the Golden Boot, he was simply outstanding. In October 1993, Cole was accused of walking out on Newcastle after once more his fiery temper flared and he was involved in a training session flare up with Keegan. Cole recounts how his stubbornness and pride allowed the situation to develop when Keegan told him that he could leave if he didn’t feel up to it and Cole complied in a fit of self righteous pique. The following week, Cole was brought back into the team and the episode was consigned to history. Cole’s strikes secured Newcastle a 3rd place spot in the Premier League and his efforts were rewarded on a personal level as he secured the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.

In January of 1995, Manchester United broke the British transfer record to bring Cole to the club in a deal worth 7 million pounds. Sir Alex recounts that United at the time, needed someone with the spark and electricity in the box who was two footed which were certainly in Cole’s locker in abundance. The publicity that Cole’s goals brought was unwanted as alluded to previously; he was someone who was economical with his words, who resented the media attention which his career brought from the journalists and there was a degree of animosity between the two parties. This since his career has proved something of an enduring legacy since Cole seems almost the forgotten man, when other great strikers of the era are mentioned there are people with fewer goals and less impact who are more prominently represented consequently. Cole talks about how he enjoyed the diversity and range of personalities in the United dressing room and also how he loved Roy Keane as captain, describing him as phenomenal. On the pitch, though at the end of the season, United needed a win to claim the Premier League but were held to a one all draw with West Ham, a disappointing climax to Cole’s first few months in a United shirt. Cole received the majority of the flack, following the grief at not obtaining the prized crown, having missed a few chances in that match. Nevertheless, Cole, being the tenacious and determined individual that he is, accepted the criticism and determined that this one game would not define his playing career. Indeed, it was around this time that Devante his son was born and adoration of his family shone through in Cole’s motivations as he mentioned lovingly:

“My little boy said it would be nice if I got a hat- trick to celebrate my birthday, so I dedicate my two goals to him”.

His faith was rewarded as United were successful the following season with a League and FA Cup double and then in the 96/97 when they retained the league with Cole contributing a fabulous 25 goals in all competitions. Cole was on an upward trajectory in terms of his development as well, he improved upon how he held the ball up, how he linked up with his team mates and other key facets which make up a striker’s job description. This was helped in no small part by the excellent relationship which he enjoyed with Sir Alex Ferguson, who Cole believes was the only manager he worked with who truly understood what he was about and appreciated him fully.  Sir Alex realised Cole was someone who demanded respect and honour when dealt with and they held an accord on this.  Cole’s striking partnership with Teddy Sheringham, during the first part of his United career, was strictly professional since there was no love lost on a personal level but it was one that thrived nevertheless. It stemmed from when Sheringham snubbed Cole on the touchline of Wembley on the latter’s England debut, it was a slight that Cole cannot abide given his strict rules on respect especially in such a public forum. The pair’s striking partnership proved fruitful with a combined 54 goals together as a duo.  Cole, throughout his career, is perhaps not appreciated enough for his ability to combine in a strike partnership, his selflessness and ability to work cohesively with others was a hallmark of his career. The enmity with Sheringham is so bad that Andy Cole has famously said he would rather meet Neil “Razor” Ruddock again, the uncompromising defender who broke both of his legs than his former striking partner but as always despite journalistic revelations about a poor temperament, Cole proved that on the football field with the serious business of matches and trophies to be won the greater good triumphed, where he was a constant thorn to the opposition.  As Robert Laurent summed up perfectly:

“With Andy Cole up front they can score at any time. We’ll be watching him”.

However, in August 1998, Cole was to get a partner whom he got along with famously both personally and professionally as Dwight Yorke signed, the players would strike up an instinctive, telepathic understanding of one another, providing the scoring basis for the greatest season in the club’s history, the Unprecedented Treble. Cole himself puts undoubted emphasis on the off the cuff aspect of their bond, playing what they saw and how they felt as they put defences to the sword on countless occasions with their rapier sharp exchanges and interchanges. Yorke too when interviewed replies that there’s was a natural synergy, not contrived through training regimes or drills. Unlike Sheringham, Yorke can be nothing but complimentary about Cole whom he shared so many magical moments with during a season where they became the most feared strike partnership in Europe. During the Champions League group stages, at the Camp Nou, Yorke and Cole combined to their most memorable degree exchanging passes and leaving the Spanish giants’ defence torn to shreds as Cole finished deftly. This summed up their quickness of thought and action perfectly; it was a goal that was simply majestic in its poise and execution. Cole was to score many important goals during that season, one of which was the winner in an enthralling against all odds victory in Turin, another in the final match of the Premier League when he again scored the decisive goal against Tottenham, a moment Cole describes as euphoric as he chipped Walker to win United the first of their trio of trophies that term.  Cole describes his incredible relationship with Yorke thus:

“When we started playing together, it was like meeting a special woman and falling in love. Everything felt right. We never had a cross word.”

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Cole’s career was how infrequently he was used by England; something which the striker admits never worked out and just wasn’t meant to be. It was Glen Hoddle who’s infamous words that Cole took five chances to score which seemed to mark a death knell on his credentials at international level. As Sir Alex and Cole both articulate the fact that Cole scored goals in Europe at the time, showed that on a continental basis he could be trusted as he had the pedigree at the highest of levels. Much like Scholes though England’s refusal to use the talent which they had at their disposal was United’s gain as the striker continued to find the back of the net with the regularity needed to fire them to the numerous trophies we accumulated during our period of dominance. Sir Alex, like all the best managers, was not one to take notice of what others thought or felt and continued to believe and trust the striker who paid him back handsomely. It was not within Cole to be anything but motivated to prove his doubters wrong; he becomes emotional particularly about the struggles which his father had to combat regarding racism when he moved to the United Kingdom and that desire to succeed when all hoped for your failure made Andrew a chip off the old block.

In the 99-2000 season, Cole was once again United’s top scorer with 19 goals in 28 Premier League matches. Another title followed in the season afterwards, despite an injury plagued year which saw his appearances restricted, he scored 13 goals but it was to be the final full season of his United career, due to the arrival of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and he was sold in December 2001 for 8 million pounds.  It had been an incredibly successful stint with Manchester United for Cole where had won an astounding 5 Premier League medals, 2 FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League, he had contributed in no small amount to these successes, his United career ending with 275 United appearances and 121 United goals, putting him 17th on the club’s all time list of record goal scorers.  For Cole there are records and numbers which prove he was an accomplished finisher, in the history of the Premier League he has the third most goals in history, and he also boasted 73 assists in the Premier League which puts him right up there with the best in that regard as well. He was an extremely well rounded footballer who was equally accomplished on both feet and possessed an unerring heading ability to boot.  He was the blueprint for the striker that was to come later, one who possessed a complete repertoire of talents and not just a predatory finisher and as such deserves the respect and recognition which his talent justifies. Cole regards his time at United with the fondest of memories and he will always deserve recognition for the memories and trophies which his extraordinarily diverse range of goals helped acquire, an underrated and underappreciated legend elsewhere but not in United fans’ hearts.  As Sir Alex Ferguson says:

“I’ve been very fortunate having these fantastic strikers but I would say without question he is in the top part of the pantheon of the greatest strikers I’ve ever had- absolutely no doubt about that in my mind”.

Fearsome Ferdinand

These days it seems that the art of defending has lost its lustre, gone are the times of the truly great defenders who attracted such plaudits and accolades for their style, panache and professionalism.  It is often forgotten that titles and cups are won on the backbone of a solid defence, a universal truth that is not lost on Mourinho who likes to build his teams from the back. How then, he would welcome the subject of this piece, back to the club in his heyday. Rio Ferdinand, by all accounts, was a simply exceptional defender. When United bought him from Leeds for a world record fee for a defender, there were those who would have baulked at the price tag, Sir Alex’s faith and judgment was rewarded with peerless, fearless service from Ferdinand. Our dominance over Sir Alex’s latter years was built on the bedrock and foundation of the defensive solidity of this man’s partnership with Nemanja Vidic. Whilst the Serb was the uncompromising warrior who put his body on the line where necessary, Ferdinand was the thinking man’s defender, calm, cool and composed when on the ball, capable of the quality and skill necessary to bring it out and set willing runners ahead of him free.  Ferdinand, above all, was also a consummate winner whose failure to win an FA Cup during his United tenure, still irks him to this day. He talks like Roy Keane does; of the nature of having good characters in the dressing room and it is perhaps his leadership and personal characteristics combined with his supreme playing style which make him the best Premier League central defender of all time. As Ryan Giggs praises he had a myriad of talents which put him above his peers:

“He was a brilliant leader, brilliant in the air and a great defender.”

When Ferdinand came to the club, as I have already alluded to, it was under the weight of expectation which a hefty transfer fee brings. He had shown already at Leeds that for one so young, he had rare leadership skills, having secured the captaincy the previous year.  However, Leeds’ precarious, perilous financial position at the time necessitated the sale of their prized asset and their loss was certainly very much United’s gain.  He had the balance and grace which we associate with him already in abundance, as in his more youthful days he had trained as a ballet dancer which gave him an enhanced flexibility, extremely beneficial in dealing with all of the exertions one has to as a Premier League defender. In the first training session, Ferdinand was understandably at his most nervous surrounded by stellar household names and in particular was devastated when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, during a game of piggy in the middle, was teasing him about his large transfer fee and whether he was really that talented or not.  Ferdinand also recounts how in one of his initial training sessions, he was introduced and inducted in the United way of playing when he passed the ball sideways to Gary Neville. Roy Keane was apoplectic, raging that Ferdinand wasn’t at Leeds or West Ham now and that at United you took risks if you wanted to win trophies. Ferdinand spent time mulling over his words, before realising Keane was right, it’s all about the details at the highest level, those extra ingredients make the difference between sweet victory and agonizing despair.  He started off though extremely well in his first season at the club, winning the Premier League and showcasing some of the excellent form which had justified Sir Alex Ferguson’s faith in bringing him to the club. However, in the following season, Ferdinand became embroiled in a drug test scandal which was to mark one of the lowest points in his United career.

Ferdinand had been said to have gone shopping for some sheets for his new home, when the testers called but missing these was not something which was condoned for any reason. He was then banned for 8 months as a punishment, which seemed a rather harsh sentence given the other punitive measures that were being utilized at the time. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertion that he was being punished as a high profile player does hold some credence. Ferdinand returned for the 2004/5 season, dusting himself off and enjoyed a superb run which earned him a spot in the Premier League Team of the Year. However it was to be in January of 2006, that Ferdinand was to meet the greatest defensive partner he ever had when United signed Nemanja Vidic, the Serb and he were to form the greatest defensive partnership that the Premier League has ever known. Ferdinand with his communication and organisational skills was the perfect complement to Vidic’s aggressive, no nonsense, and physical defending style. Ferdinand was so masterful, his intelligent reading of the game and ability to intercept at crucial points made his disciplinary record exemplary, where he could go months without picking up a yellow card. In 312 Premier League appearances for United he committed a paltry 68 fouls. His effectiveness made him a joy for his fellow team mates to play alongside as Mikael Silvestre articulates:

“Rio Ferdinand was so calm and composed. He read the game so well and his technique was superb. There is no panic from him and that is what you need at the back. If the defence is shaky, it brings negativity to the whole team. Rio’s main attribute was bringing a balance to the side.”

Ferdinand was like a well oiled machine, he seemed able to assess any dangerous situation and work to snuff it out in an efficient and conscientious fashion. There were so many imperative blocks or defensive actions where he required all of his nous and know how to pre-empt threats, he made movements which other lesser defenders never would have done because he was so adept at predicting how the play would unfold, and he was blessed with perfect vision and anticipation. Currently, United’s defensive contingent is not blessed with anyone who can hold a candle to his ball skills, he was expert at bringing the ball out of the defence and spraying it to forward players, he had all of the composure and finesse that our current crop of defenders so evidently lack. There had been much discussion earlier in his career about whether he was world class or not but in the late Noughties, there were no longer questions, only accolades and epithets about what a superb player he was. Alan Hansen, in particular, (a defender by trade), glowed with praise for Ferdinand during the 2007-08 season when although Ronaldo was the one who was taking the world by storm,  said that when Ferdinand had been at the top of his game, he’d been better than anybody in the United team.  This had been further reinforced with captaincy for the Champions League final as Ferdinand skippered us to glory in club football’s most prestigious trophy.

From a young age, he had always set himself new targets and aspirations of what he wanted to achieve and this represented the pinnacle of all of those hours of hard graft and effort which had been extolled. He had a fear of failure and of complacency which was to make him deeply insatiable for success, a fierce competitor and a relentless winner. He talks of how he had to learn how to win when he came to United, how he was a student who was like a sponge, soaking in the knowledge and wisdom of his new team mates who were serial winners. From then on it was all about self sacrifice, about having full clarity on what he wanted to achieve and working tirelessly to achieve his goals and dreams in football. He had become so incredibly consistent during his late twenties that it was truly remarkable, his continual drive and desire to succeed had propelled him onto a level that was simply magisterial. Even after just winning the Champions League his first question to the higher ups, at the celebratory feast was who were they signing, he needed some reassurance and comfort that they would enjoy further continued success the next year.  This aura and expectation of the highest standards attainable transmitted to the entire United defence in 2009, when they combined to secure goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar a new clean sheet record, the hallmarks of a defence firing on all cylinders indeed.

In 2009-10, Ferdinand was to suffer a series of injuries as age began to take its toll on his body as a knee injury ruled him out of the 2010 World Cup with England and he suffered further time on the sideline at the beginning of the following season. Over the next few years, Ferdinand still showed that when used he could do a great job for United but the successive injuries he suffered plagued his career which became very stop start. A highlight in 2012-13 was scoring the final goal of Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial reign in a 2-1 win over Swansea, with a finely struck volley, exhibiting more of the admirable skills that he possessed for a centre back. He had shown these throughout his career which was in truth somewhat pioneering during the early part, given that previous generations centre halves were required to be tough tackling hard men, Ferdinand brought an elegance and sophistication to the role which Gerard Pique describes here:

“Now the position of the centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession. This is something that 10 years ago [in England] they didn’t understand. Rio was the first one who did it.”

Ferdinand was to leave the club in 2014, having not been offered an extension when his contract expired amid a season of mediocrity, following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the short tenure of David Moyes. There is no doubt that he had been unbelievably successful as he came away with a staggering medal haul of 6 Premier League Titles, 2 League Cups and 1 Champions League, as well as being named in the PFA Team of the Year 5 Times whilst in United colours.  He had been a defensive rock, a defender who was cultured but who knew when to use brute force if need be. He had shown such incredible composure and had been feared by many opposing strikers who had struggled to get by on the limited service they received with Ferdinand’s interceptions minimizing their goal scoring opportunities with style and class. He has received well deserved acclaim from pundits, fans and players alike for his fantastic career where he proved that he was truly world class and a United Legend to boot. He dominated all types of strikers whom he faced, he provided a platform for his defensive partners to be better by influencing them with his communication and leadership attributes, he was a leader not only of the back line but in the commandeering way he galloped forward.  He was incredibly consistent for a long period of time for United, bringing us the stability and reassurance that one needs in a back line and always performed outstandingly in big games, in particular in shutting out Barcelona for 180 or so minutes in the 2008 Champions League Semi Final legs.  Ferdinand was incredibly brave, and when called upon would throw himself in front of the ball to prevent shots or goals. He could pass incredibly well for a defender, finding team mates and would play forward, running with the ball seamlessly and effortlessly, gliding over the pitch like a swan.  It is fitting that Scholes, who Ferdinand cites as the best player he played alongside, has the final words on the legendary central defender:

“He was a great player, without a doubt the best centre-half I ever played with. I would say for a time as well he was the best centre-half in the world. He was such a pleasure to play with and play in front of. To play in front of him, he made your job so easy.”

The Great Dane

Having a superb goalkeeper is integral if a team wishes to be successful and compete for all the major trophies. In particular, if said team plays with the attacking potency and abandon which United did over the 1990s, where he will often be left isolated as the entire team swarmed forward in a marauding and cavalier fashion in search of goals, points and ultimately, trophies he has to be of the greatest quality.  Peter Schmeichel is considered by many as the greatest Premier League goalkeeper of all time because of his match winning contributions through saves and also the peerless way in which he distributed the ball with feet or with one of his infamous, pinpoint, accurate long throws.  A save from an Ian Wright header which would have beaten lesser mortals was quite simply supreme, the striker going so far as to acknowledge it by clapping his own hands together in appreciation for the athleticism and ability showcased. The goalkeepers whom we had subsequently to Schmeichel which included the likes of Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi and Roy Carroll before Edwin Van Der Sar arrived showed, in particular, the irreplaceable quality and assurance which Schmeichel offered United.

For most people, the crowning moment in Schmeichel‘s United career was the penalty save against Dennis Bergkamp in the FA Cup Semi Final in 1999. Although Giggs’ incredible wonder strike stole the headlines and remains the enduring moment of the match, had Schmeichel not kept out the Dutchman’s penalty in injury time the unprecedented Treble would have never been.  I have watched the save multiple times and still get the goose bumps at such a poignant moment, where a historic achievement could have been thwarted. However, the Great Dane clawed us back from the precipice of defeat and also ensured that the widely regarded best strike in FA Cup History took place.  Schmeichel has since revealed that he was unaware that it was the final minute of the match and of the immense import of the save. United down to ten men at that juncture, famously rallied driven on from the precipice of defeat, former national team mate Brian Laudrup explains his influence and personality on those he played with:

“The best ever. Peter’s charisma and character could change the game. His spirit spread to the rest of the team. Strong in the air, great reflexes and brilliant in one-on-ones. A true winner.”

Schmeichel was a colossus; a leader of men who would bark instructions at his defenders to ensure they remained vigilant and reinforce he was the unquestioned commander of his own penalty area. Schmeichel had a combative personality which intimidated strikers he faced and bred the respect that his immense talent deserved.  Opponents often recount how Schmeichel’s presence gave United an aura of invincibility and impregnability, he was a giant of a man physically who knew how to fully impose himself upon those around him. As Roy Keane recounts, Schmeichel was one of the rare few who stood up to him which flared up into the infamous scrap between the pair. Simply put, Schmeichel possessed an innate bravery and drive that earned him the immense respect and esteem which his team mates held him in. His defenders allowed him to vent so vehemently when they made mistakes because of his prodigious talent which so often saved their skins and atoned for their errors.

When Schmeichel was bought, it was for £505,000 which Sir Alex Ferguson was to describe later as “the bargain of the century”. Although his first season with United was tinged with disappointment given that we finished runners up, this was mitigated by League Cup glory and that summer Schmeichel was to play an integral part in Denmark’s greatest international football achievement, winning Euro 92. This cemented Schmeichel’s reputation and standing as the world’s premier goalkeeper, as he made his usual string of important saves. Furthermore, in the following season, 92-93, United were to break their title hoodoo, finally vanquishing demons and ghosts with their guardian between the posts contributing significantly, accruing a total of 22 clean sheets.  Schmeichel was a keeper who was worth his weight in gold and indeed in points as Ryan Giggs attests:

“Goalkeepers win you games sometimes, and Peter Schmeichel won more games than any other goalkeeper I’ve ever seen.”

In the following season, Schmeichel again showed his fiery temperament and tenacity when he argued strongly with Sir Alex Ferguson. The words exchanged were so terrible indeed that Sir Alex fired the Dane but subsequently reinstated him when he eavesdropped on Schmeichel’s apology to his colleagues.  In training, these colleagues had all experienced Schmeichel’s wrath, of course, in particular over any aberrations which might cause him to face a shot, never mind having to pick the ball up out of the back of the net. Absolutely inexcusable in his book were players who attempted to chip him, he would retaliate to such affronts venomously and with interest, hurling the ball straight at the offending miscreant who dared to commit such a cardinal sin.

Schmeichel was an unorthodox keeper in many regards, part of his speciality was in making the ridiculous look stupendous, for instance the classic star jump save which he counted amongst his goalkeeping repertoire which although looked decidedly ungainly came to the rescue on more than one occasion, most notably for the incredible save to deny Inter Milan striker Zamorano in the Champions League Quarter Final in 99.  Schmeichel’s clean sheet was of paramount importance and other concerns were of secondary relevance in the serious business of winning matches and trophies for the Great Dane. For someone who was so tall, Schmeichel could also be devastatingly quick and agile which really helped in those one on one situations, a striker looking to set himself would already find Schmeichel upon him before he had time to blink many times. This asset was very beneficial for United, as was an unparalleled shot stopping ability where he saved shots which he had no right to, tearing up and rewriting goalkeeping manuals on theories of the possible and impossible. Schmeichel’s method of communication with his colleagues whilst on the pitch is infamous, straining his vocal cords, every sinew in his neck showing as he marshaled his troops from the back. As he recounts himself in a game situation usual social niceties and graces had to take a back seat, with the fast paced nature of the beautiful game necessitating urgent actions at critical times. Some players who played with Schmeichel recount that he seemed almost managerial in his shouting, especially sometimes when the volume on the pitch was so loud the manager could scarcely be heard. Schmeichel explains that he felt it helped to reassure his team mates that he was there and fully engaged and ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice.

In 1996, Schmeichel became involved in a controversial incident where he was accused of making racist remarks towards Ian Wright during a typically heated game between Arsenal and United. However, eventually after much speculation and consideration no evidence was found and the case was dropped.  Schmeichel was someone who was outspoken and wore his heart on his sleeve. There would be no shirking his duty or hiding from situations. In training, he would play with the outfield players in control and dribbling drills, it was very important not only to foster greater camaraderie with his fellow United players but also so that they could appreciate and rely upon his ball skills. Schmeichel himself has often said that intelligence, knowledge and understanding as a keeper is the greatest skill which one can have in that position, knowing what your role is and appreciating the role of the team and their objectives. As the seasons of Schmeichel’s United career wore on he inevitably gained greater experience of what his job entailed and knew what permutations or eventualities he would encounter.  As former team mate Teddy Sheringham describes, even in training Schmeichel’s ability seemed absolutely supernatural:

“Awesome. He’s one of those players you didn’t like facing, but loved having in your team. Peter just fills the goal. Thinking back to my first year at Man United, when I struggled, maybe I should have trained against the reserve keepers instead. It’s so hard to score against him, psychologically it might have boosted my confidence to get away from him for a while!”

Schmeichel’s focus was legendary, he had a singular frame of mind during a game, he likens this to a kind of arrogance where you tell yourself you have never made a mistake, this mindset means you have a subliminal expectation or anticipation that your game will be flawless, lending itself in turn to a supreme confidence in your own abilities. However for opponents this mentality bred a respect and appreciation of Schmeichel, as John Barnes, who whilst playing for Newcastle had had a superb header somehow clawed out by Schmeichel miraculously, effuses:

“Simply one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time. [ . . . ] There are goalkeepers with presence who aren’t much good, but Schmeichel had both presence and raw ability. He was a great shot-stopper and a fine taker of crosses, he read the game superbly, he commanded his box. There hasn’t been a better player in the Premiership.”

In Schmeichel’s final season for United, he achieved ultimate glory as the club won the unprecedented Treble, securing him the greatest send off he could have hoped for. During key matches as ever, Schmeichel was omnipresent, making save after save and showing immaculate distribution as the United team cut down all foes that stood in their way. In particular his long throw was absolutely sublime, almost like a regular keeper’s kick such was its power and panache in launching some of the devastating counter attacks of that season. In the Champions League Final Schmeichel was to make save after save, including one where he had to use every inch of his towering frame to tip a Effenberg lob over his goal, keeping the score to within a goal, before the most amazing injury time the European Cup has ever seen. For the Sheringham equaliser, Schmeichel finally caused a chink in the legendary German organisation of Bayern Munich, when he raced up to join in with the corner. As the ball came across, he leapt for it but the ball evaded him and was half cleared to Giggs’ whose right footed shot was turned in by Sheringham grabbing the equaliser from the jaws of defeat. Of course moments later United won another corner and Schmeichel this time stayed in his own box. As Solskjaer gleefully prodded the ball into the roof of the net, the Great Dane, captain for the night, allowed himself a momentary exhilarating celebratory indulgence with joyous acrobatics which make up another piece of the glorious tapestry of that season and the night no United fan will ever forget.

It must be said that Peter Schmeichel is a United legend, he was simply an absolutely outstanding goalkeeper who provided the resolute foundation for the unparalleled success which the club enjoyed during the Nineties with so many Premier League and FA Cup glories, as well as the jewel in the crown of the Champions League in his final game for the club. He provided an inspiration to all young goalkeepers amateur and professional, including Oliver Kahn, for example and was someone who had a plethora of talents that beggared belief but which United fans and his colleagues adored and revered.  He was someone who had exceptional standards and who achieved those every day with a drive, desire and commitment which puts him in the ultimate bracket of goalkeepers who played the game, it is so singularly rare to find a keeper who has so many extraordinary talents and who showed a calmness and composure at the highest level reaching the pinnacle in his final outing for Manchester United. United were to struggle for many years to find a goalkeeper once the Great Dane had left, before Van Der Sar came along but in truth they would always find it hard to replace the greatest goalkeeper the Premier League has ever seen and arguably as Sir Alex Ferguson extols here the greatest there has ever been:

“I don’t believe a better goalkeeper played the game. He is a giant figure in the history of Manchester United.”

Ruthless Ruud

During my time watching Manchester United, there has been one goal machine that stands above all others, a man who had a finishing style unmatched by others who have worn a Red Devils’ shirt. When he first arrived in a United shirt, he wondered why fans were booing him whenever he scored before he was informed that there were merely acclaiming him through his first name. This was to be a sound that would punctuate United matches with an alarming regularity and alacrity. The man, of whom I speak, is indubitably, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Dutch striker was simply a phenomenal finisher, a man who was born to score goals, who knew how to garner an extra yard of space at the key time to arrive precisely when he needed to, in order to supply a deft finishing touch to a move.  When you listen to him talk you are aware that he is a clever man and that it is perhaps this quality married with his astonishing finishing ability which led rise to his iconic and legendary status at Manchester United. Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in only 219 games for United, which is quite simply extraordinary, demonstrating how easily and repeatedly he found the net and how difficult it was for opponents to prevent him scoring. This goals per game ratio of 0.68 is superior to any of the top ten all time United scorers currently, showing his efficiency and effectiveness as a goal scorer.  As Louis Saha articulates Van Nistelrooy was an unbelievable striker with a wide arsenal of skills:

 “He has the ultimate mentality of a striker. He’s always concentrating so he can be in the right position to anticipate a pass or be in the right place to receive it. That’s what makes him so effective. There is nobody in the world like him. David Trezeguet is a similar player but he doesn’t have the same quality, control and technique. Ruud keeps control of the ball with three players trying to get it off him. He is the complete forward.”

 

Van Nistelrooy was first rumoured to come to United in 2000 however injury difficulties made the move impossible at that juncture and he made the transfer a year later, for a then hefty sum of 19 million pounds. His scoring form at PSV Eindhoven, albeit in the Dutch league, had already gained him a fearsome reputation, having bagged 62 goals in 67 appearances for the side.  In his first season for United in 2001-2 he enjoyed incredible success, scoring in his debuts in the Charity Shield and the League and scoring 23 goals in 32 league games, form of such a high calibre which earned him the PFA Players’ Player of the Year accolade on the back of his sterling efforts in his maiden season. He was always looking to improve, as Van Nistelrooy admits it was important for him to visualize where he wanted to go and what he wanted to achieve and this would have helped to spur him onto greater heights in the following seasons. Often, he would look at his abilities and achievements in a self critical way as only the top players will do and he particularly admires those players who had this kind of authentic, down to earth mentality. Players who did not get too hung up on the materialistic riches which football had to offer but instead conducted themselves in a professional and considered manner, with the game their primary focus. To this end, the player Van Nistelrooy mentions to exemplify these traits is Paul Scholes, someone who didn’t conduct interviews and whose stylistic approach was a simple hoodie and jeans for training, yet a player whom Ruud describes as one of the best the world has ever seen.

The following season, he won the Golden Boot, one strike ahead of his erstwhile rival for the award Thierry Henry and won the Player of the Season, as he appeared to be going from strength to strength. In particular it was his passion, desire, drive and determination to score as many as possible which further outlined his appetite for goals, scoring three hat tricks in the League that year. When we contemplate our current predicament, that it is now four and a half years since someone in a United shirt scored a league hat trick, you truly begin to appreciate what a remarkable and skilled striker Van Nistelrooy truly was. His goal against Fulham where he ran from the halfway line from this season is a moment Van Nistelrooy himself admits was the most exceptional point of his career, as a footballer he says you had to know what you were good at and what your limitations are and focus on those strengths, that was why he concentrated on scoring inside the box, where he was at his most dangerous and ruthless. Van Nistelrooy opines that the best player he played with was Brazilian Ronaldo at Real Madrid, as those types of goals were more of his standard and that Ronaldo had a far more natural ability in those types of situations that he did. Another noteworthy aspect of Van Nistelrooy’s scoring efforts was his Continental strike rate, in other words how predatory he was in Europe. He had further improved upon his ten Champions league goals the season prior with another twelve which earned him UEFA’s seal of approval with the epithet of the best striker in Europe.

By scoring in the first couple of matches of the 2003-04 season Van Nistelrooy had scored in ten consecutive league matches, a record which was to stand for over a decade before Vardy overtook it. At the time, Van Nistelrooy couldn’t have been more gracious in ceding the record to the Leicester front man publicly saying that records were there to be broken. This shows what a classy, considerate and thoughtful gentleman Van Nistelrooy truly is, in how he portrays himself through his intelligent words and actions.  Of course, Van Nistelrooy was also at the centre of the Battle of Old Trafford, missing a last minute penalty which would have won United the game; he was then attacked by Martin Keown as tempers bubbled up and players were caught up in the cavalcade of emotions of the fierce rivalry between Red Devils and Gunners. Vieira, who had been sent off earlier for a second bookable offence on Van Nistelrooy accused him of cheating and many players received censure for their part in the proceedings. Van Nistelrooy recounted later that he was scarcely aware of what was happening around him so devastated and surprised at missing the penalty.  Roy Keane sums up the respect and standards to which Van Nistelrooy held himself to and the esteem in which he held him:

“I would never have expected Ruud Van Nistelrooy to miss a penalty. Because Ruud Van Nistelrooy was brilliant. Ruud was the best finisher, ever, but especially in one on one situations, just the keeper to beat. When Ruud was going through one on one, I never doubted him. Some players would be going, “******* hell – hard and low? Or dink it over?”, but when Ruud was through there might as well have been no goalkeeper.

The season ended in FA Cup glory with Van Nistelrooy bagging a brace, once more showcasing further proof of his big game mentality and temperament.

Although the 2004-5 was one hampered by injury problems for Van Nistelrooy which were to dog him through the remainder of his career, he still continued scoring regularly and there can have been fewer goals sweeter than the penalty he scored against Arsenal at Old Trafford which ended the Invincibles’ unbeaten run.  Redemption of the highest quality had been rendered and the misery of the previous year had been replaced with the sweet joy of victory over the bitterest of rivals. As he recounts later when he reviewed his celebration it was slightly embarrassingly vociferous but in taking the penalty Van Nistelrooy provided further firm substantiation that he had a superb mentality, resilience and fortitude in the most important moments. Van Nistelrooy was retrospectively suspended for three games due to a foul on Ashley Cole which the officials had missed but the feeling of accomplishment could not have been dampened by such trivialities. The season was a disappointing one in terms of trophies accumulated, with a rare year where none were gained due to United somehow contriving to lose an FA Cup Final against Arsenal which we absolutely dominated in every aspect until the penalty shootout.

In the final season, 2005-06, of Van Nistelrooy’s time at United despite considerable time on the bench, he finished second highest scorer in the league to Henry. He was being punished for a falling out with Cristiano Ronaldo where had told the Portuguese to “Go crying to your daddy”. This had been a thinly veiled jibe at the closeness of Ronaldo’s bond with assistant coach Carlos Queiroz, but Ronaldo having lost his father a mere 8 months earlier mistakenly assumed it was in reference to his and, understandably, burst into floods of tears.  That summer, Van Nistelrooy made the move to Real Madrid to the despair and disappointment of his team mates, notably Rio Ferdinand who had this to say regarding the Dutchman when picking his all time United eleven:

“[Van Nistelrooy] was the most devastating finisher I have ever played with. We could win a game by three or four goals but, if he hadn’t scored, he would sulk. But in order to become a world-beating striker like Ruud, you need to have that attitude. He lived and breathed goals. I tried to make him stay through speaking to his agent but it was too late. One of the big disappointments in my time at Manchester United was seeing the club let him go.

When asked directly about whether he regrets moving to Real Madrid at the time he did, given the incredible success United were to enjoy in the years directly following this, Van Nistelrooy is quite honest in saying that he wouldn’t have missed out on the opportunity that Real Madrid presented him with. This he says was a new, fresh challenge, an opportunity to test himself once again, since he had fallen into a comfort zone at United. His levels he believes were 1 or 2% lower than they had been, particularly in his final season and for a footballer even such small increments are vital at the highest level of the professional game. What is obvious when he talks of United is his understanding of how we are meant to play, with an attacking adventure and verve that was characteristic of time at United, when players were allowed to express themselves and there is a clear understanding of the United way of playing and how much he reveled in how this particular style allowed him so much service to supplement his incredible goal tally for the Red Devils.

Ruud Van Nistelrooy was a hero for many fans during his time at the club, not least my brother who purchased his shirt. He was so intelligent, so reliable, composed and unique, a special talent whom United were incredibly lucky to have.  He epitomized everything that you could want in a striker, someone who’s myriad of abilities and attributes were coupled with an understanding of a forward’s role in terms of runs and spaces which was simply outstanding. Not just that but Van Nistelrooy helped fire United to success during a relatively lean period, between Champions League successes, with Premier League, League Cup and FA Cups won, whilst Sir Alex was in the middle of a rebuilding process centred around the two prodigious young talents of Rooney and Ronaldo.  Sir Alex Ferguson himself thought Van Nistelrooy was in a class of his own and it seems fitting to allow our legendary manager the final words on the greatest goal machine United have ever had:

“Ruud van Nistelrooy has been the best – without doubt the best finisher we have ever had at this club. We have had some brilliant centre forwards at United…….But van Nistelrooy has been the best, absolutely the best finisher. If I had played alongside Ruud the problem would have been getting a chance ahead of him.”

 

Red Nev

Right back is a position which is often derided, right back in the changing room is a common joke and Jamie Carragher, a centre back by trade, once said that no one grows up wanting to be a right back; they’re just failed centre backs.  However, right back, like any other position, is integral to how the overall team functions and when you have someone as consistent and ferocious as Gary Neville there it makes you appreciate and understand the value and impact which a strong right back can have. For years, Neville and Beckham developed an almost telepathic understanding with one another down the right flank before he then formed a strong bond with Cristiano Ronaldo on that side. He became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most trusted lieutenants, a member of the Class of 92’ who filled the position so well he would gain widespread acclaim and recognition to such a degree that when the BBC drew up its best Premier League eleven recently, he was named the right back of choice. Above all though Neville was a fans favourite, someone who was a United fan first and foremost and who essentially would put maximum commitment and effort into his work and became a legend of the club. Above all, he would come to be adored by his team mates, including Ryan Giggs who espoused:

“He was England’s No 1 for so many years and he was so consistent. His biggest quality was his positional play; he was always in the right position.”

When Gary grew up he was an excellent sportsman, indeed he played cricket to a high standard and was even photographed with Australian cricketer Matthew Hayden at one point by the newspapers. Football though was his real passion, like many youngsters during the eighties his support of Manchester United was much derided, particularly given the success that Liverpool were achieving during this decade. Neville would retain his hatred for Liverpool throughout his career, his passion and glee in defeating the enemy was evident on many occasions. Sir Alex was lucky to have someone so motivated to knock Liverpool off their perch as he was during his tenure.  Neville’s idol when he was growing up was Bryan Robson, an ideal hero to have since he was a player cut from the same cloth as Neville, someone who gave blood, sweat and tears, these virtues became synonymous with Neville over his playing career. As Neville grew up, United were making poor buys and spending a great deal of money, Neville was forced to tell himself that one day the glory days of Best, Law and Charlton would return.

Neville initially saw himself as a central midfielder, the position of his boyhood hero Robson when he joined the United Centre of Excellence. It was here that Neville would meet two of his illustrious compatriots in Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes; in particular Neville would form an incredible friendship with the latter that he would join in a Manchester cafe before matches to converse with. In those days with such fierce competition to be picked by United, Neville was unsure whether he possessed the requisite skill to be taken on. However, to the luck of all United fans, he was signed up just at the time that Sir Alex Ferguson was particularly keen to promote youth talent, as Sir Matt Busby had done previously.  David Beckham has also arrived, on the back of winning Bobby Charlton’s soccer schools competition. Instantly, he raised the level again, with the deliveries and passes that United fans would come to appreciate for their incredible unerring accuracy and venom.

The Class of 92 had begun to form, players who would go on to have incredible careers, picking up medals and trophies that most players cannot even dream of. Neville cites the incredible work ethic and endeavour that the group had as to why they were phenomenally successful, the fact that they played from such young ages into their mid thirties at the highest level is testament to how driven they were to maximise their careers in longevity and glory. Gary Neville, perhaps less naturally talented than some of his more illustrious peers gained the nickname “Busy” because of how regularly he trained and worked upon his game. He led an almost puritanical life in these early years cutting out women and drink entirely so that he could focus entirely upon succeeding on the football pitch. It was an example to others as they began to join in his little training regimes and a close knit group was formed. They were further moulded by tasting success in the Youth Cup; it created a winning mentality at a very young age, players who developed an innate craving for success and who demonized failure.  The perfect demonstration or example of this for the youths was the United side at the time, bristling with hardened, ferocious winners such as Robson, Schmeichel, Ince and Hughes.

Neville’s debut came in 1992, against Torpedo Moscow when he came on as a substitute, it was to be the first of many glorious caps and Gary relished it enormously at the tender age of seventeen years old. He was further delighted when he was praised in a newspaper by Bryan Robson, his idol, compliments like these gave him hope that he could really succeed in the exacting environment which the manager had created, where losing was unacceptable.  At eighteen, Gary made the move to a full back since his opportunities into the first team were blocked by the towering twin behemoths of Bruce and Pallister. Neville had the ideal player to learn from at full back in Denis Irwin, incredibly two footed, reliable and able to work offensively and defensively potently.  Additionally, the extraordinary Roy Keane has added his own unique mentality of excellence par none with his vehement disgust when Gary made an error. The titles had begun rolling in and the period of unbridled success had been initiated. However, when United lost the league on the final day to Blackburn, Neville admits that he felt inconsolable and desolate above all other moments in his playing career. The failure of that season was compounded in the FA Cup Final when Everton defeated United and it was to spur on Neville and his cohorts to further efforts to restore their place atop the English game.  The words of Alan Hansen “You’ll win nothing with kids” at the beginning of the following season were to become immortalised forever, especially given some of the high profile exits from the club like Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis and Mark Hughes.  In 1996, United chased down Keegan and won the league but Neville is quick to say that Cantona’s influence on that title win was the most defining factor, coming up with countless match winning contributions but the kids had succeeded. Neville had made the sacrifices he needed to, during the season engaging in a strict dietary regime which would further enhance his performance levels. Stuart Pearce commented on this dedication:

“He had a wonderful hunger and desire to succeed, which kept him where he was in the game… a Manchester United icon.”

Indubitably, United and Neville cast their eyes on the next gargantuan prize to achieve which was the European Cup. It had been so many years since 68 and Cantona in particular wanted to achieve the grandest prize in all of football in 96, as he confided in Neville and the others. When Cantona said something the others listened, the respect and admiration for his ability was immeasurable. When he retired after another season of domestic success but European failure at the age of thirty, United fans were shocked and so were Neville and his team mates. The talisman had gone and they needed to move on without him, even if his charisma was irreplaceable. Gary and brother Phil, showing their faith in the club’s path committed themselves to long terms deals of seven years apiece. The season of 96/97 dogged by injuries to key players like Keane, United ended up giving up the title to Arsenal who possessed in Marc Overmars, a winger who Gary admits was the toughest direct opponent he faced. He was lightning quick and able to beat Gary in any foot race, either coming to the ball or when it was pumped long over their heads.

In the 98/99 season, everything went right for Manchester United and Neville, in the season of the unprecedented Treble. At the end of it Gary couldn’t have been prouder that he had helped his beloved team to win the ultimate club prize, especially on the parade back in Manchester. He had helped to face some of Europe’s elite, including the legendary Luis Figo who had kept him incredibly honest with his incredible skill and ability. The camaraderie which had united the youth players ran through the whole team, as Neville and the others embodied a never say die spirit that enabled them to achieve the unachievable. Neville showed his tactical awareness and nous in the quarter final when he pocketed Roberto Baggio,”The Divine Ponytail”.  His other chief contribution in the final matches of that unforgettable season was the assist for Andy Cole’s winner against Tottenham in the final Premier League game, which was delightful. Despite Neville’s fatigue having played so many games, he was still able to throw Alan Shearer a dummy in the FA Cup Final showing that he was at the peak of his powers. In the Champions League final of course, like the others, Neville had a tired game but it was him that won the corner that led to Ryan Giggs’ equalizer in the dying seconds.

The following season, Neville paid for the Herculean efforts of the Treble by missing the initial months with a groin issue and struggled for form on his return, the game against Vasco da Gama in particular in the Club World Cup, was a personal horror show from someone who was normally so reliable and consistent. Gary was suffering from one of the troughs footballers find themselves in during their career, where their performances are not of their usual high calibre and they find it hard to retain faith in their abilities. Against Real Madrid, United were undone with Gary having a subpar game by his own exacting standards. In the following few years, United dominated the league and Sir Alex reversed his decision to retire early, whilst Ruud Van Nistelrooy was the most notable of the recruits. Van Nistelrooy demanded that Neville play him perfect balls and stayed consistently in the danger zone for deliveries, getting into a heated exchange with Neville once over an errant delivery.  When Carlos Queiroz arrived in the summer of 2002, he wanted to get some more pace on the right flank, since neither Beckham nor Neville were possessed of lightning rapidity.  When Beckham left at the end of the season, Neville was understandably devastated losing his best friend and team mate for so many years, they knew each other’s game perfectly with an incredible synergy between the pair. As Rio Ferdinand notes:

“Young players nowadays should look back at the way that he played the game, not just in terms of his defending but the way he overlapped and attacked.”

With the Arsenal Invincibles, Neville had to face Robert Pires who complained that Neville would get stuck into him unfairly, this buoyed Neville who knew that he had to make his presence felt in order to contain the tricky winger. Neville exploited the mental fragility of Arsenal players, including Jose Antonio Reyes, despite calls that he had been overly exuberant. Of course, Arsenal players of greater mental fibre tried to retaliate, most notably Patrick Vieira but Roy Keane inevitably took over and United ran out winners in that game, delivering the perfect answer to the arguments on the pitch where it matters most. However, it was a Mourinho inspired Chelsea who were tearing up trees and winning the Premier League. Sir Alex began to ring the changes, getting rid of Gary’s brother Phil who wanted more game time which Everton could offer him, and, of course, the irreplaceable Roy Keane, a player Gary Neville could not be more effusively praising of. This allowed Gary Neville to be given the captaincy of United which was an incredible honour for him. This didn’t stop Neville from wearing his heart on his sleeve with a few effusive gestures to Liverpool fans following a late win over them, which landed him in hot water. However, Neville had come to relish playing with a young Cristiano Ronaldo, who although scarcely passing to Neville despite his runs, possessed such incredible talent that Neville was astute enough to let such idiosyncrasies slide, especially for a talent Neville considers probably the greatest attacking force in world football. Although Ronaldo shirked his defensive duties which affected Neville the most playing on his flank, he didn’t mind because he had a talent that demanded indulgence. Neville, for his part, as Gascoigne articulates here would never be so lax in his duties:

I was fortunate to play with some great right-backs [ . . . ] you see players today as wing-backs, getting forward, getting round the back and whipping in crosses and people say this is the new game, but he was doing it 10 to 15 years ago. [ . . .  ] He was confident, he was a really quiet lad but he got stuck in and he was a team player. He was a guy that you would never see jogging back – he was up and down that line. He was an honest player.”

Neville’s injury hampered his involvement in the 2007/8 season where United were to win another Champions League, playing hardly any minutes but as Keane had prophesised in a text to Gary, Rooney and Ronaldo had won them the Champions League again.  Neville was gutted once again when Ronaldo left to join Madrid, telling him he’d miss United more than he knew. Neville, himself was turning into a squad member, still playing a fair portion of games, but no longer the automatic starter he had been for so many years.  In 2011, Gary knew it was time to call it a day, that his body couldn’t offer what his mind wanted to, his final game for United at the Hawthorns.

Neville’s medal haul was simply staggering; he was a vital cog in the machine United built up, winning trophy after trophy. He ended his career with 8 Premier Leagues, 3 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and 2 Champions Leagues and was voted into the PFA Premier League Team of the Year five times. What made him truly special was his insatiable hunger and desire to succeed playing for the club he has supported all his life. It was this fervour, coupled with a tenacity and determination of the highest quality that made him the best right back of the Premier League era.  As United fans we were truly blessed to have a full back who showed such leadership and who played so consistently well for such a long period of time. He was a stalwart in Sir Alex Ferguson’s plans, someone whom he could trust implicitly and who gave his all for the cause. Sir Alex Ferguson best sums it up here:

“Gary was the best English right-back of his generation. He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent. As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club’s supporters everywhere.”

Magical Marouane

As we now head into the next international break in another excellent position, level on points with leaders Manchester City, there is plenty of time for reflection on what aspects of the season are working well and what areas we can ameliorate. Amongst the most pleasing and impressive reasons for positivity is the form of the Belgian maestro Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini has often been divisive amongst the United fan base, like marmite, it is often a case of a love/hate feeling but his excellent performances in Paul Pogba’s absence have ensured that  we have continued to blow teams away. Fellaini doesn’t offer the exceptional range of passing and all round game that Pogba does, but his spirit and desire are top class and his physicality as well as presence in the area have already paid handsome dividends. As Jose often points out Marouane’s work ethic and discipline are outstanding, he can rely upon him to step in and apply maximum effort to his role. Although his best position may well be at Number 10, where he can use his sublime chest control to its fullest potential, Fellaini has shown his aptitude in a more reserved role playing in the midfield two with Nemanja Matic. The physicality which he brings in partnership with the equally robust Matic gives our midfield an extremely strong base and allows our full backs, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to break forward and provide the width necessary to break down the sternest defences. Young, in particular, is enjoying something of a renaissance at left back. The crossing ability and trickery he lends to the role in particular good news for Fellaini who has benefitted from scoring 36% of his United PL goals from Young crosses.

Fellaini, it has to be said, has come a long way from the boos and jeers which he received not so long ago. It was only last term that a catastrophic intervention from the substitutes’ bench against Everton at Goodison had many fans calling for his head. Fellaini, in his over exuberance to assist his team mates contrived to concede a last gasp penalty which robbed us of a vital three points. Some portions of the Old Trafford faithful took exception to such foolishness, and saw fit to vent their frustrations towards the big Belgian. He became a scapegoat for the feelings of desperation and unhappiness which had seen us not only plummet out of any potential title challenge, but also such a yawning chasm between our placing and top four, a perilous standing which proved to be unassailable that season. Mourinho, as the exceptional manager that he is, took on all who criticised his loyal lieutenant and maintained that Fellaini was integral for the vision he had for his team and squad.  Fellaini went on to have important contributions in vital matches, his goals in the semi finals of our winning cup runs in the League Cup and Europa League, standout moments showing that his mercurial talents offered an extra dimension which other squad members cannot provide. Steven Gerrard talked about these special skills recently when he said:

“Sometimes you can try all the class and all the nice bits, but sometimes you need to go ugly. You need to go direct. You need to have a Plan B. He’s certainly United’s Plan B and he’s very effective.”

It is worth remembering that in previous seasons, Fellaini has proven that in the big games, he often has a knack of getting in the right positions at the right times to make essential interventions. In our winning FA Cup run in 2016, when Rooney set off on his jinking run it was Fellaini who created havoc at the back post and knocked it down for Mata to finish with his wonderful chest. A lot of Fellaini’s goals have been scored on the end of fabulous crosses, particularly the in swinging cross which curls to the back post, sumptuous deliveries which have begged the Belgian giant to supply the finishing touch.  He has proven lethal on many occasions when the ball is right, as in particular he shows great awareness and thought to target the full back, where his power and presence are so incredibly devastating. There have often been very derogatory words and polls that Fellaini has been involved in whilst at United, in April 2014 for example, he was named as one of the “10 Worst Buys of the Premier League Season” by the Daily Telegraph. However, it has always been the unflinching way that he follows the manager’s instructions which has allowed Fellaini to continue to be utilised. He said in an interview to Bleacher Report during the 2015-16 season:

“When the manager asks me to play somewhere, I play there. But my best position is midfield.”

However, Fellaini’s temperament and desire to succeed has often landed him in hot water on the field. Not only was there the flashpoint with Robert Huth in the 2015-16 season, but one cannot help but remember how he got himself sent off last season in the stalemate at the Etihad. However, not every footballer is perfect and Fellaini’s imperfections come from his tenacity and determination, key ingredients in any midfielder’s locker. No opposing player is given an easy ride by Fellaini; he makes his presence felt and inspires fear and trepidation of his hard, biting tackles. Fellaini has also proven himself at international level, managing over 70 caps for his nation, and all of this during a time when Belgium is revered for their golden generation. Fellaini, as one might already imagine, is extremely patriotic, vowing that should Belgium win the World Cup, he will cut his entire glorious mane of hair off. His goal scoring record for his country is impressive, scoring 16 goals in 76 games, which shows how deadly he is when given the opportunity to shine in a more advanced role. However, despite the archetypal Fellaini celebration, involving two thumbs pointed to his surname written on the back of his jersey, he is very selfless in ensuring that he best serves whichever role the manager sees fit for him, rather than having an agenda where he tries to engineer opportunities in a more favoured position.

Fellaini, at 29, which is often thought to be the prime of many footballers, has even garnered praise from the highest of sources, in Manchester United’s most decorated player, Ryan Giggs who told Sky Sports :

“I’ve worked with him and he’s a great lad to train because he does exactly what you want, and hasn’t let the fans bother him because he’s always had the support of the players and the coaches. He is effective, knows his strengths and limitations, and he’s somebody who Jose has put a lot of faith in and he has repaid that with some important goals.”

When someone of Ryan Giggs’ stature backs you, you know you’ve got some important supporters and his sentiments pertaining to Fellaini’s outstanding character remind me of Roy Keane’s exhortation that whilst talent is important, a character that is willing to work and be trusted by compatriots is absolutely vital when it comes to attaining some of the bigger trophies. Fellaini has all the best facets in this area, a sheer iron cast will to do his best and never let his team mates or the fans down. Even when he makes a gaffe, you know that he does it with the best of intentions, and there will never be a match where you can accuse Fellaini of being a ghost or a passenger, like some of his more esteemed peers.

During the summer, Fellaini was rumoured to be off to another club and was linked with rumours to Italy before a potential move to Galatasaray was postulated.  To the glee of Fellaini’s protractors and dismay of his detractors, Jose dismissed selling Fellaini saying that Galatasaray would be more likely to secure him than Marouane.  Yet again, the faith and loyalty Jose showed towards Fellaini has certainly seemed to inspire him to greater heights, the mutual respect and trust which has so far reaped rich yield this season.  In truth, even those who wanted Fellaini’s sale realised that we were desperately short in the engine room of the team in our squad.  Carrick’s performances are not of the same glorious standard as yesteryear, McTominay is relatively untried and with the sales of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, there is a lack of manpower in that area.  This was even further highlighted by Andreas Pereira’s decision to go on another loan spell in La Liga which has further exacerbated our dearth in the heart of midfield.  Fellaini’s form in plugging the gap has been such that Player of the Season Ander Herrera can’t get a look in, testament to the levels that Fellaini is reaching in games. David Moyes in particular looks almost prophetic when he said of Fellaini:

“For me, Marouane Fellaini has been one of the best midfielders in the Premier League over the last few seasons. If he continues to improve at United, we’ll have a really good player on our hands.”

His performance against Crystal Palace this weekend was simply masterful, not only did he contribute with two well taken goals but he also performed well in a defensive aspect, typified in the way that he harried a Palace player in the second half with the game already won.  Fellaini’s positional sense, knowing when and how to channel his run came spectacularly to the fore. His first strike, he anticipated where Young’s wonderful cross would arrive and provided the sheer grit and determination to finish with aplomb.  For a big man, Fellaini in this respect shows subtlety and cunning in knowing how to arrive unnoticed, he drifts in between or behind defenders like a wraith and then strikes like a viper. Fellaini is exemplifying the clinical nature of United so far this season; he has now scored three goals from four shots in the Premier League which shows that he has been ruthless when given the opportunity to bomb forward.  An albatross around United necks is that it has now been four and a half years since a United player last scored a hat trick- that was Robin Van Persie against Aston Villa at the back end of our 20th Premier League title achievement.  At one point, the ball bounced down invitingly in the penalty area and it appeared that much derided Fellaini would break the unwanted hoodoo. However, that particular curse will have to wait for another day to be lifted. It says everything though about the feeling of anticipation and havoc which Fellaini causes that he can almost score a hat trick from a defensive midfield position however. Jose Mourinho in particular feels vindicated for his staunch defence of the Belgian, following his glowing Man of The Match performance against Palace telling BBC Sport:

“I always trusted Marouane since day one. I try to give him confidence and show him how useful he is for the team.”

Now buoyed by his fabulous performances there are rumours that Fellaini is demanding a large pay rise in order to extend his tenure at United. The fact that he survives when others do not, in spite of widespread condemnation and vilification makes me think of him as an aspidistra. It’s a particularly apt reference to Fellaini as it was a hardy houseplant that thrives in harsh conditions and shows incredible resilience, growing to impressive and unwieldy sizes. It was in George Orwell’s masterpiece “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” where the protagonist talked ceaselessly of aspidistras and their import, indeed contemplating that the “aspidistra is the tree of life”. Fellaini has proven that he can be an extremely essential part of United’s squad and makeup, which is how he has survived the cull of many more exotic and aesthetic plants that have wilted when deprived of the sunlight and nutrients of good leadership under Moyes and Van Gaal. One thing’s for sure, if this aspidistra keeps flying through the air to deliver final touches in assisting and scoring integral goals he will continue to be as Gordon Comstock, the titular character in the Orwell novel, said “a dashed important subject”.

Mourinho the Mastermind

As the season begins once more this weekend of the Premier League, inevitably all United fans feel the buzz and anticipation given that there is a genuine possibility of winning the league. A major reason for these feelings and the fulfillment of our fervent wishes to this effect is the man at the helm of our ship. Mourinho boasts the enviable track record of winning the domestic league within the first two years of managing a team wherever he goes.  He is a serial winner who seems to thrive upon pressure, making him the perfect manager to cope with the stresses and strains of being vilified and lambasted by rival fans and journalists alike. Indeed, he thrives upon creating a siege mentality and pitting his wits against others with the ruthless winning mentality that separates the truly exceptional managers from the great ones.  Every United fan is praying that this year will not mark the exception to the rule where Mourinho is concerned and that come May time, we will be celebrating a Premier League title and a reprieve from the barren title spell since Sir Alex Ferguson left. After all I am sure that no United fan wants to become the running joke that Arsenal and especially Liverpool are, still praying for the title after over a decade or two since their last. It is imperative that we buck the trend before the cycle of failure is borne and we begin to succumb to the hideous chronic disease that Arsenal possesses, the Choking Syndrome of February and March.

Mourinho has already proven that he can make us resilient, and despite the humdrum nature of the six month unbeaten spell we strung together in mid season last year, it has built up a confidence and resoluteness within the squad. With the addition of Romelu Lukaku, if we can turn some of those stalemates into wins, then a title tilt is not so farfetched. Although most United fans would prefer us to play the glorious attacking football that Sir Alex advocated to win the title, they would also forget the many days where United ground out results on the way to the titles we won. Those games where our rivals would falter or fail, somehow we would grab the odd goal or score in the dying seconds to force a victory. The football was not always pure artistry but the silverware we attained was as much a result of pure grit, determination and doggedness as it was the skill and flair which we exhibited. Mourinho knows, as even his most ardent detractors would begrudgingly admit, how to win ugly and has shown through the trophies he acquires that often there is a very shrewd method in the madness.  When teams come to United and deploy defensive smothering tactics, it will be up to United and Jose to have learnt how to overcome these negative ploys, and demonstrate how to break down and dispatch them summarily. Learning from last season’s profligacy against the weaker teams will surely be an acid test as to how far we have come and our chances of becoming genuine title contenders.

Amongst the other major tests which Mourinho and United will have to negotiate this season, is our performance against our rivals, particularly away from home.  Mourinho had been accused of setting his stall out to defend and hit our opponents on the break but the lack of points and goals garnered showed that even the best laid plans of Mice and Men gang often go awry. Mourinho didn’t really have the personnel last season that he had at other clubs where this style had been more favourable.  After all asking Smalling and Jones to perform a forward pass of any great length or accuracy is a rather dicey proposition to say the least, given their questionable ball skills. Lindelof’s passing range will certainly prove beneficial whilst Matic is deceptively quick and also has a far superior passing radius that his predecessor Marouane Fellaini in central defensive midfield.  Also, Romelu Lukaku’s pace will prevent our rivals from camping in our half, since his pace and power will provide a threat opposing players will have to take proactive countermeasures to detain. Hopefully, with this quicker movement from back to front, with and without the ball, the counterattacking style will be far more productive than it was last year. Of course, defeating our rivals will not be the be all and end all of winning the title, but it will be important not only in taking points from them and adding to our tally mathematically but also psychologically compounding and confirming our serious title aspirations.  After all winning these big matches puts down a marker and crushes the spirit of the opposition, whilst reaffirming belief and desire to attain the Premier League trophy.

We know that Mourinho has the mindset to win any individual game, indeed one might argue that he is the greatest single match manager in the world; such is his meticulous care and attention to detail in understanding and studying the opposition and conceiving tactical masterstrokes.  In particular, last season’s two nil victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford in the Premier League illustrates this point perfectly.  Even the most optimistic fan would have felt a niggle of doubt when the champions elect strolled into town, especially given the way in which they had hammered us four nil at the Bridge in the autumn.  However, aided by the fact that Mourinho didn’t have Smalling to be at fault for all the goals this time around, he produced the sort of managerial lesson that even had the Portuguese grinning from ear to ear at its sheer perfection.  Chelsea did not have a single shot as United dominated the ball and the match, with Ander Herrera turning in a flawless performance managing a superb assist and goal whilst still managing to keep Eden Hazard firmly in his back pocket for the entire match, as one wag amusingly pointed out he made Hazard look like a BTEC Jesse Lingard.  Mourinho showed that he learns from his mistakes, he knew that he had to contain the Blues’ most dangerous player and that Phil Jones’ attempts at performing a similar role had proved ineffective in the FA Cup tie. Choosing Herrera who has the temperament and diligence to perform such a selfless task showed excellent judgment of his players and quite rightly Jose milked the universal acclaim and praise he had earned for his tactics. If we are to attain more points in these matches against our direct competitions we shall need Jose to showcase some more tactical nous of this wondrous calibre.

At least this season, Jose will have a slightly more manageable timetable; it is well recognised that the Europa League has been historically shown to have a detrimental effect on a team’s respective fortune in the league during that campaign.  With our return to the Champions League, at least for the autumn of this season, the chasm of points which opened up last term should hopefully not recur.  Often I feel like it was that period of the season where we stymied ourselves through poor results following the group matches typically and the corresponding lethargy which our players showed during the league matches evinces this.  Mourinho, like any mastermind, will look at the Premier League fixtures and work out strategies and ways to micromanage the calendar and where he can pick up points to secure the title.  With the slightly less compressed schedule, he will be able to work on players and ensuring they possess the necessary knowledge and fitness to commit more fully to each individual match. Hopefully, this will see an upturn in our fortunes and ensure we are top of the league at Christmas.  Some readers will wonder why I am making such an arbitrary point, after all why the fixation about Christmas? However, when you realise that in seven of the past eight Premier League seasons the team that tops the league on December 25th goes on to lift the trophy in May, you realise the import of being there at that point or thereabouts.  These are the sort of statistics which many might not be aware of but rest assured that Jose’s mastermind of a brain is fully cognisant of, as well as numerous other facts and figures which escape us mere mortals and laymen.

Lastly, Jose will have to indulge in the mind games for which he is also rightfully revered.  It will be his job to deflect any negativity which the press or the public try to foist upon the players to derail any potential title charge whilst also delivering stunning retorts to dismiss critics. Mourinho’s mastermind will be required to shield and motivate in equal measure, he will have to rely upon his choice of language and when to speak or stay silent.  The latter option is something which Jose has historically struggled with, but he showed signs of developing in this area. With the FA’s no nonsense approach where he is concerned, we shall need him to ensure he doesn’t get involved any misdemeanours which could land him retrospective action of touchline or stadium bans. He will be required to be the standard bearer and exemplify the behaviour and professionalism with which we must approach this season. Too often, some of our more important players picked up silly suspensions which could otherwise have been avoided; Jose will have to demand they carry out their tasks more cleanly and astutely this year.  I feel as though United fans would accept failure if we understand that he and his players have exerted maximum effort and left nothing in reserve by May. However, they will be far less forgiving if some glaring errors are repeated and will be outspoken in their admonishment.  For this reason, Mourinho will have to know when to use both the stick and carrot as motivational tools to ensure that we have the maximum potential of winning the Premier League title.

Conclusively, United will have to rely upon Mourinho to spearhead a title triumph this season. In this day and age, where managers are given precious time to achieve objectives and the Sword of Damocles hangs incessantly over their heads, Jose knows he must continue to succeed or risk being thrown to the wolves. Jose, advantageously, knows this situation more than most having worked for clubs where success is absolutely mandatory and owners will brook no failure, Chelsea and Real Madrid in particular. He will have to show he is the mastermind who can cajole and inspire the team to greater lengths, rotate the squad and team effectively and provide the tactics and suggestions to enable us to beat opponents. Mourinho has now had a couple of summer transfer windows to sign “his” players, whilst trimming some of the deadwood and will need this core of acquisitions to justify his faith in securing and paying so handsomely for their services with commensurate performances of quality. Jose knows that success is the yardstick upon which he will be measured, and that a title triumph is demanded by the institution which Sir Alex Ferguson built up through his tenure. A club of United’s stature demands that we regain our leading place among the English elite, not only in financial terms but in achieving major trophies to attract the best players and orchestrating renewed periods of dominance within the English game and on the Continental stage.  I’m sure that Jose wouldn’t have it any other way, as a serial winner himself; these are the goals and targets he sets himself also. In winning the Europa League and League Cup, last year with some of the injury and packed schedule woes we had to endure, he has proven he can succeed where lesser managers would wilt in the heat.  If he manages to bring the Premier League trophy to United once more this May then the self anointed “Special One” will surely have another epithet to add, that of “Mastermind”.

Galactico Guarantee

As the summer draws to a close, many United fans could be forgiven for feeling a sense of relief and respite that a rather arduous summer transfer window will be coming to a close at the end of the month. There have been many rumours that have circulated where it seems every Tom, Dick and Harry has had their name linked to a possible move to the club. How often must fans have their hopes raised only for them to be summarily dashed when rumours and fabrications are so rife, with minute grains of genuine transfer action so scantily available? When we rejoined the Promised Land at the end of last season, securing our Champions League berth in the most nail biting of fashions with Europa League glory, many United fans felt optimistic, fueled by a sense of overwhelming relief and euphoria. Surely, with the financial clout we possessed as the world’s richest club, the prestige and history that we held and our rightful place assured once more at Europe’s top table the sky was the limit in terms of the acquisitions which we could make to rejuvenate and bolster our squad?

Above all, there was one signing that we would definitely make. The one that we had been rumoured to have agreed with a player since the previous year, a player who had the magical stardust in his boots to not only inspire the team but provide a talismanic, magical figure who would elevate us into serious title contenders this season.  It wouldn’t take the most astute reader to realise that the player of whom I speak is Antoine Griezmann.  All but the most cynical of fans felt this was a deal that was a foregone conclusion, the player having spoken out that he was 6 out of 10 sure he would move to United prior to us securing Champions League football. Furthermore, the fact that Antoine had named David Beckham as a childhood idol and was a firm friend of Paul Pogba seemed to give further credence that the transfer was inevitable.  For United fans, still simmering at the ignominious departure of Memphis Depay, Griezmann also represented a chance at providing a rightful and fitting heir to the magical and hallowed Number 7 shirt, which had turned into something of a Siege Perilous for incumbents since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. However, the move hinged on Atletico having their transfer ban reduced to allow them to conduct business to replace their star man and, when the ban was upheld, Griezmann declared that he would stand with Atletico now more than ever.  Predictably, this generated a cacophony of hatred and abuse from outraged United fans who felt they had been led a merry dance by him, whilst others felt it showed a welcomed degree of loyalty at odds with the mercenary culture that football has become. Of course, this act would further be thrown into starker contrast by undeniably the most sensational move of the summer with Neymar swapping the glamour and prestige of Barcelona for the riches and new challenge of Paris St Germain.  Clearly, Neymar was an individual who didn’t really prescribe to Barcelona’s adage that “Mes que un club” which Griezmann seemed to be following when he tied himself to the Atletico colours.

Fresh from this disappointment, United were linked with many other star studded names including that of Neymar, who most believed was performing the classic trick of the stars of Real Madrid and Barcelona and merely prevaricating about unhappiness and discontent to secure himself a healthy raise in his salary. Among the names was Cristiano Ronaldo, who was said to be fed up of Spain and hankering for England once more.  As United fans, it is only right that when one of our favoured sons is rumoured to return that we were ecstatic, and personally since Ronaldo is my favourite footballer of all time, I would have been beyond delighted to welcome him back.  After all, in my opinion, this is the greatest footballer of all time and a man who proved last season against Bayern, Atletico and Juventus in the knockout rounds of the Champions League that he can single handedly win matches by himself with his goals on the biggest stage of all, against unquestionably some of the world’s greatest keepers (Neuer, Oblak and Buffon) and some of the tightest and meanest defenses in world football.  However, this transfer seemed to have very little genuine weight to it and, at this point of writing, appears to be Ronaldo acting angrily to accusations regarding his tax situation in Spain.

Whilst the glamour and glitz of the attacking options available to us had been discussed widely, it was to be in the heart of the defence that we made our first acquisition, that of Swedish defender Victor Lindelof.  Whilst many of us would have preferred a more stellar purchase like Raphael Varane it was understood that a young centre back of potential was an astute manoeuvre by Jose, who has garnered praise for his coaching and ability to work with defensive players.  I have often postulated that the reason for some of our defensive tactics last season was the inherent shakiness and instability at the back. Jones and Smalling are the sort of defenders who give fans nightmares and indeed provide the manager with no end of frustration in their limitations as footballers.  Jones may as well have his breakfast ordered to the treatment room and Smalling’s lack of technical passing ability even came up for approbation from Jose in the build up to the Europa League Final. Additionally, whilst I shall not bother to enumerate the various reasons why neither are what I consider to be good enough for United, it is their complete lack of composure that really does gall me.  For me, the best defenders are ones who make their work seem effortless or seamless, very often intercepting or judging astutely, reading the game and then acting in an unruffled manner to any hazardous situation.  If you are looking for an example of the complete opposite of this,  then look no further than the City pre-season game when Smalling tripped over his own feet in the first half and comically tried to regain his footing before De Gea came to his rescue. Whilst I have always been a strong believer in De Gea staying, I felt sure that bouts of despicably bad defending such as this would eventually wear his spirit down.  Although Lindelof has made a patchy start, I am genuinely hopeful that he can develop into the centre back that will render Jones and Smalling justifiably obsolete.

From a striking point of view we were initially linked with all and sundry but it seemed that the concrete interest was in Alvaro Morata, then of Real Madrid. Whilst Morata had been a substitute for Real Madrid for the majority of the season, his goals per minute record had been truly exceptional and he seemed to have that clinical edge that we could use to fire us to the title this season.  Additionally, having played for Juventus and Real Madrid, Morata was experienced in dealing with the pressures of top clubs such as United and seemed to possess well rounded stats without any major weaknesses.  Morata himself seemed to want the move and dyed his hair red but it was to be Romelu Lukaku who United plumped for when Madrid seemed hell bent on refusing any sum we offered to secure the Spaniard.  Whilst I felt some trepidation at the signing given some of the reservations I had over Lukaku, (namely his disappearance in big games and his leaden touch), it was extremely important to me that we not give them the goalkeeper whom I have often referred to, even on this website, as the “irreplaceable man” which is clearly what Los Blancos were angling for.  Lukaku’s physique and brutal strength, as well as his pace would at least assure us a formidable target man who could bully defenders and he did have that special knack of scoring against some of the lower teams who we had failed to put away last season.  Also, he does have an extremely prolific Premier League goal scoring record and certainly ticks the box of being “Premier League Proven”.

With these two signings complete we were once more obsessed with the search for our new anchorman at the base of our central midfield.  Although Cantona once used the position of “water carrier” disparagingly to denigrate Didier Deschamps, the position’s import cannot be underestimated, particularly when you realise the impact that a certain N’golo Kante has had on Leicester City and Chelsea over the past couple of seasons, deployed in this very position. When you compare the liveliness and sheer tenacity of Kante, whose running and energy is that of two men to Marouane Fellaini’s speed it wouldn’t take a genius to realise that we needed to upgrade in this position, particularly with the inevitable decline of an ageing Carrick. Many of us felt that Di Marzio would be proved right and that Fabinho would come to provide not only the high octane drive we needed in this area but also some much needed cover for Valencia at right back. However, for once, the English papers and journalists were correct and it was Nemanja Matic of Chelsea who was the real target for Jose Mourinho.  Matic is a player who is certainly a superior one to Marouane Fellaini and should grant us the balance to allow Herrera and Pogba to express themselves further forward.  Additionally, at 29 and with a couple of Premier League winners’ medals he brings some much needed experience and winning mentality which has been reduced through Rooney’s sale and Zlatan’s long term  injury.

Therefore, in summary, what will the remaining weeks of August bring us and what would each of you want them to bring us? There are some who feel that we should stick with the hardworking, honest and reliable players like Perisic and Aurier whilst others dream of bagging the Galactico signing of Gareth Bale should Mbappe move to the Spanish capital.  I feel like the correct choice, if available,  is Bale for many reasons. Firstly, we are still lacking true dangerous width which Bale would provide in abundance and would surely mean more limited time for Jesse Lingard who seems to be a starter for Jose in pre-season.  Secondly, despite some people wishing for the 3-5-2 formation I feel like we will be utilising the tried and trusted 4-3-3 and this would provide an instant berth for Bale to play in the same position as he does for Madrid, on the right hand side of the attacking triumvirate. With him, Lukaku and Martial as starters and the further attacking options provided by Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Mata and Lingard we would finally have greater quality and strength in depth to influence games from the substitutes bench. Thirdly, Bale’s price tag would likely exceed that of Paul Pogba which would finally dispel any of the lingering weight he seemed to feel last season as the man who was expected to work magic. Bale is used to shouldering the expectation of a world record transfer fee and also dealing with the bile and spite of Madrid supporters who boo and jeer at any opportunity.  United fans, by contrast, could never be as unforgiving or as venomous in their disgruntlement. Fourthly, unlike the others Bale is also Premier League proven, he knows the league and who can forget how he dragged an extremely average Tottenham side at the time to unrivaled heights a few years ago single handedly.  Finally, Bale would be the sort of player to strike fear in the opposition and create space and opportunities for others to exploit as defenders would be drawn like moths to his flame.  Over the last three seasons, Hazard twice and Mahrez in the interim year have shown us that typically the Premier League champions also have a wide player who provides those inspirational moments of goals and assists which fuel a title tilt.  Bale can be this player for us, who propels us to the title with those flashes of pure class and genius which can settle matches or turn one point into three in the blink of an eye.  In my view, we need this inspirational totemic figure and Bale would be ideal to solve not only our wide play but also the dearth of a true star to motivate and drive us to title glory. After all a Galactico is by definition an exceptionally gifted and celebrated footballer and we need someone of that ilk to furnish our team and exponentially increase our likelihood of achieving our title dreams this season.  At least if we signed this marquee player we can “guarantee” that we have no regrets come the end of the season and have made the investment in the star quality to assure we have the best possibility of realising our targets.

The Magnificent Seven

There have been many incumbents of the most iconic shirt in Manchester United’s history. Perhaps with the rather checkered final few years, the number 7 shirt’s lustre may have been briefly dampened from the days when it was worn by illustrious magicians such as Ronaldo, Cantona and Beckham.  The Manchester United Number 7 shirt has historically been worn by the best player at the club, the genius who has orchestrated and elevated his colleagues with his guile, wizardry and immeasurable skill. Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the dichotomy which the shirt has encompassed is the original number 7, who at times was simply unplayable in both senses, but whose enduring legacy is one of an astounding football talent that illuminated the world.

George Best was the original celebrity who paved the way for the others, who followed, a footballer who transcended the typical boundaries which separated footballers from celebrities. His looks and immense, peerless skill propelled him into a limelight that was unprecedented. A stardom that proved to be too effulgent to control for the young man who possessed a natural talent that rendered his playing opponents his puppets but who possessed other demons that proved impossible to prevail over.

When you watch the footage of George Best it is impossible not to be struck by the sheer balletic grace of him. The skill and dribbling capability were unrivalled because he seemed able to contort his body into unnatural stances to avoid the despairing lunges of opponents, before moving away again. Whilst it is unfair to compare players of different eras with one another, primarily due to the contrasting fitness standards, when you watch the players around Best, they seem mesmerised by his dazzling footwork. It’s as though Best has full ownership of the ball and has the anticipation to avoid the feeble pitfalls that his opponents seek to utilise against him. Spectators and critics alike were mesmerised by his plethora of talent:

“In terms of ability he was the world’s best footballer of all time. He could do almost anything – technically, speed, complete mastery of not only the ball but his own body. You could saw his legs away and he still wouldn’t fall because his balance was uncanny, almost supernatural. Heading ability, passing ability, I mean it goes without saying the dribbling – he could beat anybody in any way he chose. For fun he’d play a one-two off the opponent’s shins.” — Patrick Barclay, football journalist

Best came from Dublin to United at the age of only fifteen and showed the competitiveness necessary to survive the culling which crushed so many young boys’ futures in order to secure a professional football career with the Red Devils. He made his debut at the age of only 17 for United in 1963, against West Bromwich Albion in 1-0 win. He would go on to finish the 63-64 season with 6 goals in 26 appearances. However, it was his exploits with the Youth Team that really sets this year apart when he won the 1964 FA Youth Cup. This was particularly noteworthy because it was the first time the trophy had been won since the Munich Air Disaster. Already there were the first glimmers of hope that the rebirth and renewed success of Manchester United were underway.

Best was particularly lucky that he benefited from having Sir Matt Busby as his manager during this initial period, as the legendary manager ensured that the physical intimidation which could have thwarted Best with the regular rough and unscrupulous tackling became a minor irritant, through rigorous training regimes. Indeed, Best often seemed to relish these challenges and would invite them so that he could dance away from their clumsy provocations with the simplest, most beautiful of consummate ease.

In the following season, Best became more of a first team regular and would provide assistance in securing the league title, this time chipping in with 14 goals in 59 competitive fixtures. However, it was only the following year after scoring a brace in the European Quarter Final against Benfica that Best was propelled into the limelight as the next superstar. Best became a sensation and was dubbed “El Beatle”, his image and story had migrated to front page news which was relatively unheard of for the day.  His team mates had already begun to recognise that Best had a talent that was simply outstanding, as Sir Bobby Charlton extols:

“He was such an unbelievably gifted player. He had quality and control that was unparalleled, really.” 

In 1966-67, United claimed the league title and Best had proven himself an integral part of the United team by this juncture. This time he scored 10 goals in 45 games. However, it was the subsequent season of 67-68 where Best’s levels were raised to a phenomenal standard. All three of our European Cup triumphs have a striking similarity where our number 7 (Best ‘68, Beckham ‘99 and Ronaldo ‘08) elevate themselves to such an exceptional level that it drags the entire team to the greatest trophy in club football. Best was the First Division’s top scorer and was the youngest ever recipient of the FWA’s Footballer of the Year Award and scored and assisted at key points during the historic European Cup campaign. With the European Cup Final locked at one all, Best went on a trademark mazy dribble which ended with him selling the Benfica goalkeeper an audacious dummy and rolling the ball into the empty net. Strikes from Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton added further gloss on an emphatic 4-1 win.

Best received the Ballon D’Or in 68 recognising his unrivalled influence and ability at the height of his powers. At the age of 22, he had achieved prizes beyond his years; it seemed that the sky would be the limit for a player who ostensibly had so many years of playing career left to enjoy at the peak of his physical health. However, it proved to be the pinnacle of Best’s career, due to the fact that a lot of the older, better team mates were coming toward the end of their careers and their replacements would not be of commensurate quality. In the 68-69 season, United slipped to 11th in the league and Best had begun to feel like the rest of the team relied too heavily upon him, although his personal goal tally of 22 goals in 55 games was excellent, the team was not a healthy one.

In 69-70, United only managed to achieve an eighth placed finish with Best scoring 23 goals, however, the most notable match was when Best scored 6 goals in an 8-2 demolition of Northampton Town in the FA Cup. It was a record breaking feat which stands as one of the greatest individual performances from any footballer in a professional match.

Denis Law, himself an incredible goal scorer, best summed up Best’s goal scoring prowess through his career, which had been captured so perfectly that day:

“A beautiful player. He could score from whatever angle, right side, left side, centre. He was just a marvellous player.” 

Although Busby returned in the next season, it also ended without any silverware and Best’s dalliances with various women had begun to affect his commitment to United, picking up yellow cards for misconduct in addition.

In the 71-72 season, United again finished eighth and despite off the pitch indiscretions Best’s performances were still incredible, with 27 goals in 54 games and finishing the club’s top scorer for the 6th and last consecutive season.   The following year and a half before Best left the club was marred with Best raging against the dying of the light, both of the club and himself, threatening retirement before finally leaving in 1974. His final statistics reflect his incredible contribution to the club, with 179 goals in 470 appearances in all competitions for Manchester United.

When Best quit United at the age of 27, it was mainly due to his inability to cope with all of the pressures which he was under. The enjoyment which he had sworn he would always have for football had been diminished by the other unnecessary vices and the situation with United had become untenable. The subsequent nomadic way in which Best drifted through the remaining clubs of his career listlessly spoke volumes of how far his legendary status and star had fallen.  However, as Best said in interviews himself, the lure of Italy and other countries didn’t appeal to him, there was only 1 top club he ever wanted to play for, which was Manchester United.  A fitting statement then of loyalty from the most talented member of the United Trinity and the man who paved the way for today’s superstars and the iconic, magical status that the United Number 7 shirt now embodies.

Best will always be venerated at United as part of the Trinity of attacking players who facilitated the premier European Cup in 1968.  For Sir Matt Busby and Best, it presented the realisation of the Holy Grail, the trophy which they had become obsessed by but that prompted the dawning predicament of what next accomplishment could be achieved. For Busby, understandably, given the events of Munich, he had reached the Promised Land and stepped down, but much as the current United have struggled since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, it created an unavoidable drop in standards which impacted the young Northern Irishman as deeply as any.

Another feasible reason for Best’s downfall was the constant, relentless pressure which he felt to perform to the highest levels. As fans, sometimes, when we analyse sportspeople we treat them as machines or gods. We don’t appreciate their human frailties which a lack of proper respite and recuperative periods can illuminate and debilitate.  As many of Best’s teammates attest, Best’s levels were so beyond compare that the temptation to rely upon him heavily was unavoidable.  This sort of reliance would have put great strain on the talismanic figure that had been top goal scorer for so many consecutive seasons, and had been relied upon to provide the piece of visionary skill or technique to decide so many crucial matches.

 “There are rare players, touched by God and the Devil in equal measure, you cannot judge by mere honours nor statistics. Sometimes when you were with him it was easy to forget that you were in the company of an immortal.” — Jimmy Greaves

Although George’s fondness for alcohol and women are well documented his frustrations on the pitch seemed justified given that United had fallen far short of the expected standards that their premier European Triumph had set. Best allowed his resentments to boil over with officials, getting involved in incidents which had previously been analogous to his character.  Often this fierce desire to succeed is much admired but in Best’s case it smacked of the throes of a man whose unhappiness with his fortunes, professional and personal, had consumed him.

Best often spoke of how he wished to be remembered, what is clear is the revere and respect that his football prowess garnered him is undeniable.  It was a talent which places him firmly in the legendary status at our club, not just through his personal achievements but also the trophies he won for Manchester United during his term with us.  He is an undoubted legend of the club, someone whose playing ability was up there with the greatest to have ever played the game. The shame was that the maelstrom of pressure which proved too ferocious for the young man to handle with none of the protections that modern day footballers are now afforded. In many ways, Best was a trendsetter for the modern footballer with his business acumen in trying to enhance his earning power through advertising revenue but he was a footballer, first and foremost.  Best said that he wished to be remembered for this ability above all others citing Pele’s praise of him as a crowning glory.  Therefore, in homage and respect to Best, I leave you with the eulogy of Pele, the footballer widely regarded as the greatest of all time:

“The great football critics said that because of his technical skill, he was like a Brazilian athlete who danced the samba with the ball at his feet. George Best, until today is a footballer without comparison and his technical skills will never be forgotten.” — Pele