Facing the final curtain…..

Last time out, I was blogging about how the Transfer Window had come and gone with little or no activity at Manchester United, but that’s not to say that significant changes aren’t afoot.

For a start, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has returned to Norway to manage one of his former clubs, Molde, whilst the last couple of weeks have seen two high-profile players announce their retirement from the game.  First of all, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar announced this season would be his last, whilst this week saw Gary Neville acknowledging that it was time to ring down the curtain on what has been an illustrious career.

Of the two, Van der Sar will be the one whose departure will have the biggest impact, mainly because there is no obvious successor to him currently at the club.  Young keeper Ben Amos is too inexperienced at this level, whilst long-time understudy Thomas Kuszczak is generally regarded as being a bit unreliable.  New signing  Anders Lindegaard made a solid debut in the FA Cup tie at Southampton, but rumours persist that United will bring in another more experienced keeper in the summer.

Van der Sar has undoubtedly been United’s best goalkeeper since we lost Peter Schmeichel in 1999.  His calm, typically laid-back Dutch personality informs everything he does; in fact the only time I’ve seen him truly excited was after the Champions League final victory over Chelsea in Moscow.  Gabriel Clarke, or one of ITV’s pitchside crew, grabbed him for an interview just a few seconds after his decisive penalty save from Nicolas Anelka in the shoot-out.  “Edwin!” gushed the reporter, “Tell everyone at home how it feels to win this trophy!”.  Van der Sar looked dazed but happy and adddressed the watching millions as follows……..”Well, err, fucking hell..err……”  was about all he managed to say before being rugby-tackled by Rio Ferdinand and half a dozen other delirious Reds.  Priceless. Frankly, his reaction made more sense than any amount of psychobabble from the talking heads in the studio.

“We’ll always have Moscow….”

Gary Neville will be missed far less on the pitch, if only because of the emergence of Rafael da Silva as a natural successor and Gary’s own decline over recent years.  Nev has been dogged with injuries for about the last four years and it seems a long, long time since he was at his best.  In common with many other United fans, I would have to say that the announcement of his retirement has probably come a year or so too late.  His occasional first-team appearances this year have demonstrated only that whilst the spirit was undoubtedly still willing, the flesh was having none of it.  I can understand his reluctance to quit; gritting your teeth and facing down your demons is almost a patented Gary Neville trait, but Fergie should have had a quiet word with him at the end of last season – you never want to see a great player embarass themself and Nev has come close to that on more than one occasion recently.

Media coverage of his retirement has been quite amusing as pundits have struggled to give Nev the credit he deserves without saying what we all know to be the truth .  That truth is that he’s been everything you would want a United defender to be – committed, loyal, brave.  However, he’s also a prime example of a player for whom hard work and dedication rather than any innate skill took him to the very top of his profession….and make no mistake about it, he was the best for a few years there, particularly when playing Sancho Panza to Beckham’s Quixote down United’s right flank.  For me, only Brazil’s Cafu and Argentina’s Javier Zanetti were his equal….

A lot of United fans will see Neville’s retirement as another sign that an era is drawing to a close.  There are already murky rumours that Paul Scholes will follow Neville into retirement at the end of this season and whilst Ryan Giggs must have a ‘Dorian Gray’-style portrait stashed in his attic, even he is unlikely to go on beyond next season.  I suppose that we should be grateful to have had the services of these great players for so many years – and more to the point, the most successful years in the club’s history.

Gary Neville – the badge-kisser who really means it…

What I’m wondering is, where does the club go from here?  Whatever Ferguson says about there being ‘no value in the market’, other clubs would beg to differ.  The whole Carroll/Suarez/Torres merry-go-round will not have troubled United fans too much as we are currently over-burdened with good strikers – Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov plus loanees Welbeck, Diouf and Macheda and strong prospects in the reserves – Morrison, Keane and King, in particular.  Oh, and then there’s Michael Owen, whose recent interviews on MUTV reveal a man with the demeanour of someone who’s just realised his ship sailed a few years ago now.  He, too, may retire in the summer, but his sharp instinctive finish at Southampton shows he still has something to offer, though probably not at United.

Midfield remains the problem area, with Scholes not as effective as in the early months of the season, Carrick not the same player since his achilles injury last year, Anderson, erratic to say the least of things, Fletcher running around a lot and Gibson lumpen.  Giggs has come on to save our bacon in the away games at Blackpool & Southampton, but to expect him to go on pulling rabbits out of hats indefinitely is wishful thinking.  Looking at the reserves, Paul Pogba  and Ryan Tunnicliffe are nowhere near ready to step up yet; they’ll need another year of occasional Carling Cup and substitute appearances at least.  No-one else there really looks up to it.

We really need a marquee midfield signing this summer, but no-one really springs to mind right now.  The problem is that we are still cruising along at the top of the Premiership and looking forward to a winnable tie against Marseilles in the next round of the Champions League.  Fergie would probably say ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ but whilst we may get away with it this year, time and tide – as Gary Neville would no doubt agree – wait for no man.

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