Owen, Pogba and the Damned United

During last year’s football season, I wrote at some length about the United Academy team who ended up winning the FA Youth Cup.  Most of those players have now moved up to the Reserves, though one or two of the younger ones have remained with the Academy and a couple – Ryan Tunnicliffe and Sam Johnstone – have gone out on loan.

MUTV’s generous coverage of the United Academy meant that I was able to watch these youngsters virtually as often as  I watched the first team and – if I’m honest – watching the Academy was often a more rewarding experience on a number of levels.  I suppose a lot of it is to do with the excitement of watching a young player suddenly ‘find himself’ – something that happened quite dramatically last season with Ryan Tunnicliffe. 

At the start of the season, Tunnicliffe was a typically harem-scarem defensive midfielder of no obvious distinction.  He had plenty of energy but seemed unable to focus it to any coherent effect.  It was extraordinary to watch the Academy games through the autumn as he finally seemed to understand how to perform more effectively in his assigned role.  The penny had well and truly dropped and by the latter stages of the Youth Cup run, he had become one of the most important players in the team.  Peterborough are currently the beneficiaries of his talents, though Darren Ferguson seems to be using him  sparingly thus far.

Many of the remaining players from the Youth Cup side are now playing regularly for the Reserves, though strikers Will Keane and John Cofie are finding their opportunities limited due to the overspill of strikers from the first team squad.  They have had to compete with the likes of Mame Biram Diouf and ‘Kiko’ Macheda, both currently occupying that limbo where they are too old and – possibly – too good for the Reserves, but not good enough to force themselves into the first team.  To be honest, I don’t think either Macheda or Diouf have any long-term future at the club and it surprises me that they haven’t yet been shipped out on loan or sold.

Other players from last year’s Academy aren’t finding it so tough.  French midfielder Paul Pogba has been a regular for the Reserves this year and has been singled out by Fergie as a potential first-team player.  This is perhaps as much a reflection of where Pogba plays as anything else.  With Scholes retired, Hargreaves released, Tunnicliffe loaned and Sneijder not signed, people are still looking hard at United’s midfield.  The club have made an impressive start to the Premiership season and one of the young guns Fergie has introduced to the team has been midfielder Tom Cleverley, back from a year on loan at Wigan and clearly a better player for it.  However, Cleverley got injured at Bolton, so it’s back to the old guard of Carrick, Fletcher and Giggs for now.  With European and domestic games now coming thick and fast, a first-team debut for Pogba in last week’s Carling Cup adventure in Leeds was therefore always likely. 

Paul Pogba prays for a first-team chance….

The Carling Cup is a trophy that United have won several times in recent years and is increasingly seen as a tournament where old lags and fringe players get a run-out and promising youngsters are blooded.  The draw for the third round this year, however, set up the unappetising prospect of a trip to Leeds, with whom United have a long and acrimonious relationship.  Some of this is the usual trans-Pennine ‘War of the Roses’ stuff that characterises most Yorkshire/Lancashire sporting encounters, but with United and Leeds it all takes on a different and more sinister aspect.

The roots of the bile that now exists – between the 2 sets of fans at least – has its origins in the 1960’s.  During that era, both clubs had successful teams; United under Matt Busby and, subsequently,  Leeds under Don Revie.  United’s success coincided with the whole Beatlemania/youth explosion of the mid-60’s and with England’s 1966 World Cup win.  United had Bobby Charlton, the epitome of old-style Corinthian values and a survivor of the Munich air crash.  They had the mercurial Denis Law; Britain’s most expensive footballer and one of the greatest strikers this country has ever seen.  Finally, they had George Best; ‘El Beatle’, the mop-haired Belfast Boy with extraordinary talent on the pitch and a Hollywood lifestyle off it.

Up until this point, football had always been the working man’s game; flat caps and muddy pitches, dubbin and Bovril, all played out under lowering skies.  But with England’s World Cup success, English society as a whole ‘rediscovered’ football and the non-sports media began to join up the dots between football, pop music and fashion.  Best was at the forefront of this, but the London media worked very hard to create a metropolitan version, based on the Chelsea team of Osgood, Hollins, Venables, Hudson et al.  Football was suddenly ‘cool’ and United were the coolest show in town.  George Best posters adorned thousands of  teenage bedrooms and he and the other Young Turks of the English game began to crop up in the ‘society’ and gossip pages of the tabloids with increasing regularity.

Of course, it didn’t last, either on or off the pitch.  For United’s golden team, the 1968 European Cup win over Benfica was not only the culmination of that era, but also pretty much the last throw for both Busby and quite a few of his stalwarts.  Charlton was ageing, Law was increasingly injury-prone and Best was unable to cope with the pressure of his celebrity.  By 1970, Busby had gone and the glory days were over – for the time being.

United v Leeds in the 1960’s; Paddy Crerand demonstrates his mastery of the Glasgow ‘throat-lift’ on Billy Bremner.  Law and Stiles lend their support. Impressive.

The next great team to come along in United’s wake were Don Revie’s Leeds.  They, too, had some gifted players – winger Eddie Gray and striker Allan Clarke were particularly impressive, though not quite at the Best/Law/Charlton level.  However, they were – overall – probably a better team than United, reliant more on a collective will to win than on flashes of individual brilliance.  Also, none of them except Clarke had achieved much in the game prior to going to Leeds.  Revie made them his own, inspiring them to two League Championships, a few cup victories and quite a lot of ‘near misses’.  However, the media hacks who had fallen in love with United couldn’t take to Leeds at all.  United was an ‘open’ club with lots of personalities, whilst at Leeds, outsiders were viewed with suspicion.   Busby had a laconic soft-spoken charm that put journalists at ease, whilst Revie was twitchy and – frankly – weird.  Manchester was full of banter and patter whilst Leeds was full of dour Yorkshire-ism.   Then there were Revie’s ‘enforcers’; destructive players like Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton plus the Scottish firebrand Billy Bremner, and Irish midfielder Johnny Giles, who ensured that the likes of Gray, Lorimer and Clarke were free to do their thing.  It was powerful football; not always pretty to watch but often effective.

Leeds.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised…..

‘Dirty Leeds’ scoffed the dilettantes, but whilst Leeds did often employ a fairly cynical and physical approach and were the first team I can remember who systematically employed the diving and ‘simulation’ that is now so widespread, their detractors had seemingly forgotten that Busby’s golden boys featured the roughhouse specialist Nobby Stiles, from whom Hunter at least took considerable inspiration.  However, just as United’s mid-60’s team basked in the reflected glory of England’s World Cup win, so Leeds and their ever-combative support were seen as being in the front lines in the growing wave of hooliganism which began to creep into English football in the late 60’s.  The lunatics re-assumed control of the asylum and the hacks fled back to Fleet Street , their 5-year love affair with football ending as George Best’s career crashed and burned and the braces-and-boots brigades rampaged through Middle England.  Now, football was on the front pages for all the wrong reasons and the chattering classes turned their back on it once more.  Football would languish until Gazza and the whole Italia ’90 World Cup campaign re-awoke the nation’s interest.

Busby and Revie went on to very different destinies.  Busby was knighted and became a revered elder statesman at United.  Revie – a prophet without honour in his own country according to Leeds fans – left the club to take over the England manager’s job in 1974, failed to qualify for any major tournaments, then jumped ship in 1977  for the petrodollars of the United Arab Emirates.  When he died in 1989, there was no minute’s silence at any football ground and the FA failed to send a representative to his funeral.  When Sir Matt died in 1994, Leeds fans took a pasting in the media for chanting Revie’s name throughout a minute’s silence at Ewood Park. 

The rivalry had already been stoked by a couple of high-profile transfers in 1978, when two of Leeds’ best players, Gordon McQueen and Joe Jordan, swapped Elland Road for Old Trafford. McQueen memorably remarked that Manchester United was the club that 99% of professional footballers would like to join and that the remaining 1% were liars.  Gordon Strachan and Lee Sharpe made the reverse trip and although Sharpe’s time at Leeds is best forgotten, Strachan re-invented his career under Howard Wilkinson, leading Leeds to their last major honour, the final pre-Premiership League Championship in 1992.  An enigmatic French striker called Eric Cantona was also on the fringes of that 1992 team, but he soon became the latest trans-Pennine export, joining United for a pittance in time to inspire them to their first League win in 26 years and to a veritable raft of trophies during the ensuing years.  Leeds fans clearly felt that Wilkinson had made a mistake in selling Cantona at all and it was the enthusiasm with which United’s fans embraced him as much as the bargain-of-the-season  transfer itself  that rankled.

The final, crucial ingredient in Fergie’s recipe for League success

In the ensuing period, Leeds and United seem to have become clubs headed in opposite directions; Leeds had a brief renaissance under O’Leary and Ridsdale, but the fact that this edifice was clearly built on shifting sands was demonstrated when Leeds went into financial freefall after failing to maintain a presence in the Champions League.  In the ensuing fire sale of their assets, United plucked Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith from Leeds, further stoking the animosity between the fans.  The most recent instalment in this grim saga came a couple of years back when a solitary goal from Jermaine Beckford gave League One Leeds a shock victory in a 4th round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford.  Fair play to them; they wanted it far more than we did and we were a bit complacent on the day.

These days, Leeds have made it back up to the second tier of English League football and narrowly missed out on the play-offs last season.  However, there are still financial problems at the club, leading to the summer sale of some of the club’s more promising players.  Beckford had already left on a ‘Bosman’ to Everton and both Bradley Johnson and Kasper Schmeichel were moved on.  Their results this year have been mixed and some fans are already questioning whether young manager Simon Grayson is the right man to bring back the glory days to Elland Road.

So, United turned up on Tuesday for a 3rd round Carling Cup tie, amid the kind of security usually reserved for Barack Obama.  On the basis that he wouldn’t want to lose successive cup ties to Leeds, many expected Fergie to play an experienced side.  He did that, but it was one of his strangest ever selections.  Most of the squad who’d played in the preceding weekend’s 3-1 victory over Chelsea were rested and Fergie named a team with 4 strikers and no recognised centre-backs.  Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov were flanked by Macheda and Diouf up front, whilst Michael Carrick partnered debutant Zekky Fryers (normally a left back) in defence with Antonio Valencia and Fabio de Silva occupying the full-back roles.  Giggs and Ji-Sung Park were in central midfield.

The game kicked off in a predictably rancorous atmosphere and Leeds at first seemed up for the battle.  United had to hack the ball away a couple of times early on, but  when Michael Owen turned his marker and scuffed a shot just inside Lonergan’s left-hand post after 15 minutes, the air was already starting to leak from the Leeds balloon.  Owen added an expertly taken second just after the half-hour, controlling Diouf’s driven low cross with the outside of his right foot before driving a sweet shot high into the top right hand corner of the net.   

Michael Owen: Still showing occasional flashes of brilliance

It’s this kind of finishing that once made Owen one of the most feared strikers in Europe and there is something poignant about it these days.  Like sunlight briefly breaking through cloud on a stormy day, these momentary glimpses of Owen’s former glories remind us of what a great striker he was when he played for the Dippers.  Any manager who’s had Owen in his team knows that he won’t contribute much elsewhere on the pitch, but with the goal in his sights and the ball at his feet he can still deliver.  Like many, I was of the view that he would be allowed to leave United in the summer, but Fergie was apparently prepared to give him another season whilst denying the same opportunity to City’s new midfield dynamo, Owen Hargreaves.

For all his protestations to the contrary, Owen’s fitness is a fragile thing these days and he might have played more often at United had he been fit more often.  With the emergence of Danny Welbeck, he now effectively finds himself as fifth choice striker at the club, ahead of Keane, Diouf and Macheda, but behind Hernandez, Rooney, Berbatov and Welbeck in the pecking order.  It’s a curious situation for a player who is still only 31, but he seems happy enough to warm the bench and still seems to enjoy his game whenever he does get on the pitch.  With a huge roster of racehorses, I suppose it does give him more time to devote to his main off-field interest.

Mind you, Owen wasn’t the only one rolling back the years.  Ryan Giggs, who had been getting some severe stick from the Leeds fans, added an impish third goal just before half-time and the game was as good as done.  The fans were trying to outdo one another with the offensiveness of their chants.  United’s raucous awayday fans unfurled a Galatsaray flag to remind the Leeds fans of the two fans who got stabbed in Istanbul back in 2000, whilst the Leeds fans responded with the inevitable Munich songs.  A lot of commentators have taken the moral high ground about all this, saying how shocking it all is.  Hmm, well and good, but how are you going to stop it?  At least with the Dippers, United fans have a modicum of respect for what they achieved way back when, but with Leeds, it’s just mutual loathing and no respect at all. 

(L-R) Carrick, Macheda, Giggs, Berbatov, Valencia and Fryers celebrate United’s third goal

I have two Leeds painter stories to illustrate how deep this runs over there on the dark side.  Both are probably apocryphal, but if they’re not true, they perhaps should be.  Around the time of the fire sale when Rio Ferdinand joined us, there was a story that there was a Leeds-supporting painter who lived in the town, who did a great job, but absolutely refused to paint anything red and would actually cover over red paint with white for free.  I’ve actually heard a more recent variation of this which is even better.  Apparently, around the same time, Leeds Council decided to paint some of the town’s many bus shelters red.  Seemingly, a local Leeds-supporting painter (perhaps the same one) got hold of a job lot of white gloss and he and his mates  went round systematically re-painting the shelters white.  It’s a bit like the Blue Ketchup syndrome at Wastelands…..

Anyway, into the second half of Tuesday’s game and finally, a first team debut for Paul Pogba, who replaced Ryan Giggs.  As a supporter of United’s Academy team, this is really what you want for the youngsters; the dream made flesh, running out to play for United in a competitive game.  Not that competitive, mind you; the 3 first-half goals had seen to that, moving the United fans to enquire “Where’s your famous atmosphere?”

Gone with the wind, frankly, and the sullen assembled hordes looked on as United did a professional job of keep-ball for most of the ensuing 45 minutes, which probably suited Monsieur Pogba just fine.  He did most things really well, only gave the ball away a couple of times, linked play effectively and produced one superb raking 60-yard pass for the overlapping Valencia.  On the downside, he did manage to balloon one shot from the edge of the area high into the Leeds night.  Nonetheless, it was a competent and effective debut and he showed quite clearly that he is more than capable of holding his own at this level.   Also, in terms of his physique, he at last seemed at one with the players around him.  I actually saw his first ever game for United’s U-18’s at Crewe back in 2009 and he literally towered over every other player on the pitch, looking like a man among boys.  Here he showed good strength in his tackles and didn’t seem out-of-place at all. 

As for the other youngsters, Ben Amos had little to do in goal,  Zekky Fryers  played well for the entire game and the diminutive Larnell Cole also looked lively for the last 15 minutes when he replaced Macheda.  Larnell does need to grow a bit though;  at the minute, he’s reminiscent of  Shaun Wright-Phillips and  at 18 it’s debatable how much more he will grow.

It will be interesting to see who United get in tomorrow’s fourth round draw.  If they get a ‘weaker’ side at home, I can see more of the youngsters getting a run-out, but if it’s Chelsea away, it might be a different story.

Meanwhile, back at United’s Academy, Coach Paul McGuinness, ably assisted by Jimmy Ryan and others, is bringing through the next batch of United Under-18 youngsters.  They began the season with 2 defeats, but have since recovered to win two and draw one.  Already, you can see things starting to come together a bit more as they grow into their roles.  Whilst there are no real stand out performers like Pogba or Will Keane yet,  players like winger/striker Jack Barmby (son of Nick) and striker Tom Lawrence have already caught the eye, as has defender Sean McCullough.  Watching their development through the season is going to be, as ever, fascinating.

 Postscript: Seemingly the Leeds painter not only exists, but has produced a book about supporting them. I don’t endorse pornography, so  I won’t mention his name or the title of the offensive/offending volume.   Apparently, he’s seen every Leeds game since January 1968, which, apart from being a wretched waste of a human life,  surely puts a new slant on the concept of something being so dull it’s like watching paint dry.

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