Fergiewatch # 5: Old Trafford’s Glass Ceiling

Most sizeable football clubs in this country have a myth or two associated with their name: Everton operate ‘The School of Science’, Liverpool fans are apparently so fair-minded and such acute observers of the game that they will applaud good football, no matter who is playing it, West Ham have a commitment to playing elegant, progressive football and Manchester United have it programmed into the very fabric of the club that they will always give youth a chance.  There are probably more of these urban myths knocking about, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.

How much of this rhetoric actually bears any close examination these days is debatable.  Like most United fans, I would raise my eyebrows at the idea of ‘fair-minded’ and ‘Liverpool fans’ being used in the same sentence and as for the West Ham commitment to elegance and progession…….having watched a clinical Arsenal put them to the sword last night, I think that idea can be safely despatched to the dustbin of ancient history.

As for United, another ‘oldie but goldie’ that is regularly trotted out is that ‘the fans’ expect United to play progressive attacking football.  When I first started going to Old Trafford regularly in the late 1970’s, the thoroughly likeable Dave Sexton was manager, but no matter how nice a guy Dave was, his teams often played cautious, pragmatic football that left the Old Trafford crowd restive and twitchy, so maybe there is something to this after all.  Having said that, it’s not as though the Stretford End were going to rise up as one and walk out if the football on show sometimes failed to meet their expectations.

However, supporter power can still play its part; once Anfield attendances began to drop (as they did), Roy Hodgson’s days as Liverpool manager were definitely numbered.  Conversely, the highly effective job done by Chris Hughton at Newcastle cut no ice with Mike Ashley (or ‘My Cashly’ as he’s known up there) despite the fact that Hughton was hugely popular with most Newcastle fans.  It would have been nice if they’d boycotted the games until Hughton was re-installed , but like most fans, they ultimately support the club, not the manager, and that’s probably about right.

At United of course, with Alex Ferguson into his 25th year on the Papal throne, club & manager have become almost indivisible in the eyes of many.  Grown men with young families of their own have lived their entire lives with Ferguson as United boss.  Ryan Giggs made his first-team debut at 17 and has played out his entire 20-year career under Fergie’s baleful glare.  When Fergie does finally walk away from the job, the impact will be seismic.

As a United fan, it’s obviously my fervent hope that once this happens, the club moves on swiftly under new management in order to prevent the kind of ‘Spirit of Shankly’ navel-gazing that has hamstrung successive Liverpool management regimes since the late 1980’s.  Yes, Fergie has been a revelation, United’s most successful manager ever despite his obvious shortcomings as a human being, but there again, maybe it needed a dictatorial sociopath to do what he has done.  What is to be avoided at all costs is too much regret and introspection.  The show must go on and the recent history of Liverpool FC should offer an object lesson in what can happen to a club if they spend too much time wallowing in past glories.

As for Ferguson’s legacy, I think that can safely be left to the man himself, to MUTV and the club Marketing Department.  There will be no shortage of book deals and after-dinner speaking engagements for Fergie if that’s what he wants to do.  Fine, but now let’s get on with ensuring that the tradition of success he has established isn’t all frittered away. 

Regarding the myths associated with the club, I think it can be said with some certainty that Fergie’s teams have largely honoured the commitment to play attacking football, to the extent that when they went to Barcelona in the first leg of the 2008 Champions League semi-final and ‘parked the bus’ (as Mourinho might say) to get a 0-0 draw, it was one of the first times I can remember pragmatism winning out over romanticism during Fergie’s tenure.  Credit to the old grouch for that, at least.

Rafael da Silva knows how to win over United fans….

The much vaunted ‘commitment to youth’ sees us on much shakier ground.  Much is made of the ‘Golden Generation’ of young players now in the twilight of their careers who came through in the 1992 FA Youth Cup team – principally, Beckham, Butt, Neville, Scholes and Giggs.  Even Ryan Giggs, who generally manages to avoid the empty psychobabble you get from most footballers in interviews, dutifully parrots the company line about how youth will always get its chance at Old Trafford.  Try telling that to a substantial number of promising youngsters who have progressed through the United Academy system and moved on to other clubs since the late 90’s – often without ever really getting a chance to cement a place in the first-team squad.

Apologists for this approach would say that whilst the best of these players might look like world-beaters in the Reserves or Academy teams, becoming a United first-teamer is a different kettle of fish.  I wouldn’t disagree, but would cite Darren Fletcher as an example of the inequity of whatever selection process goes on inside Fergie’s head.   For the early years of his United career, it was perfectly clear to all who watched his occasional first-team forays that Darren Fletcher was simply not good enough to play for United on anything other than an occasional basis. 

Darren Fletcher has learned to recognise what goalposts look like…

Fletcher, a player of modest skills but boundless energy, has since cemented a place in the squad without ever offering much except effort.  He has done so, at least partially because he was given an almost infinite number of chances to overcome the prejudices of the ever-critical Old Trafford crowd and realise whatever talents he does possess.  To some watchers, this is just further evidence of Ferguson’s ability to turn base metal into something shinier, but there are many former United youngsters who have buzzed around the fringes of the first-team squad but never had a fraction of the opportunities accorded to Fletcher.   To roll out a few names; if the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Richard Eckersley, Giuseppe Rossi, Chris Eagles, David Jones, Phil Bardsley and Ryan Shawcross had been given as many chances as Fletcher has been given, who knows what they might have achieved?

The fact is that Ferguson obviously has his favourites and Fletcher is paramount among them.  Of the current squad, Darron Gibson and Federico Macheda are being accorded a similar degree of tolerance.  In flashes, Macheda has shown considerable promise, but he remains an irritatingly moody performer, selfish and petulant for much of the time.  If he ever becomes half as good a player as he thinks he is, we may be on to something.  Gibson has shown some facility for hammering in spectacular long-range goals but offers little else in a midfield currently bereft of much in the way of creative guile.

The concern is that United are currently nurturing a crop of particularly talented youngsters who are just making the transition from the Academy to the Reserves.  I have previously waxed lyrical in this blog about the likes of Joshua King, Will Keane and Paul Pogba and to that list you can probably now add Tom Thorpe and Ryan Tunnicliffe as being players of huge promise.  It is possible, without too great a stretch of the imagination, to see all of these players being an integral part of United’s first-team squad in the years to come.  Will they get the chance, though?  To say that Pogba evokes memories of a young Patrick Vieira and Keane a young Dennis Bergkamp is high praise, I know, but that’s the current reality of the situation and a true indication of their promise.  The problem is that their future at United is likely to be determined by how they fare in a handful of Carling Cup games and whether or not they are going to get the Fergie seal of approval in the way that Fletcher, Macheda & Gibson have done.

If you go right to the root of it, the transfer fees brought in by the youngsters like Eagles, Rossi, Jones and Kieran Richardson who don’t make the Old Trafford ‘cut’ probably pay the Academy bills for a season and the club may feel that this is justification enough for their policies in this area.  Even so, all of those players must necessarily have  become  aware of the ‘glass ceiling’ that exists between the Reserves/Academy and the first-team squad.   What is galling, frankly, is the thought that journeymen like Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson, not to mention so-called ‘squad’ players like Michael Owen, Wes Brown and John O’Shea (all injury-prone and well past their best, frankly) are occupying first-team slots that could be used to draft in these youngsters and give them the opportunities their skills deserve.

Come in # 7; your time is up…..

No doubt, the folklore about United’s promotion of young talent will persist because it’s a comfortable myth that everyone connected with the club would like to believe in.   In reality, though, the emergence this season of Rafael da Silva as first-choice right back is the first evidence of a ‘home-grown’ player really breaking through since O’Shea and Fletcher about 4-5 years ago.  Let’s hope that in due course, Pogba, Keane, Tunnicliffe et al get a decent run at staking their claims to greatness.  Of course, by the time that happens, there may even be a new Sheriff in town…..

Update: Ironically, yesterday’s ‘Observer’ carried a feature on United’s ‘re-investment’ in youth.   Amongst other things, it suggests that Fergie gave up gambling on expensive foreign imports after getting his fingers burnt with the likes of Eric Djemba-Djemba.   Where does that leave Bebé, a player who Ferguson had apparently never seen ‘in the flesh’, but for whom we allegedly paid £7.5 million?

Here’s a link to the article:

 http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2011/jan/16/manchester-united-alex-ferguson-transfers

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