Looks like Summer 2012 isn’t shaping up too well for Manchester United fans. In a few weeks, the Ugly Cousin that is Euro 2012 will be coming to stay for a few weeks and down the road, the nouveau riche neighbours from Eastlands and Stamford Bridge have finally bought their way to success and will be celebrating with hideous new conservatories and extensions that will destroy the character of the neighbourhood. As for the Olympics……don’t get me started on that. Somewhere in amongst all this United have a pre-season tour of wherever buys the most Nemanja Vidic oven gloves. At this point, it’s looking as though the Carrington tea ladies could be at the heart of our touring midfield on the basis that everyone else will either be recovering from the Euros, participating in the Olympics or curled up in a foetal crouch behind their sofa due to system overload.
It has been said that ‘Class is Permanent’ and we saw that with Tevez and his ‘R.I.P. Fergie’ placard during City’s victory parade around Beswick. Just a reminder – if one were needed – that even at the moment of their greatest success since The Black Death, they remain obsessed with their more illustrious neighbours. It’s because of this that they will probably always be a small club – ultimately, it’s about more than trophies; it’s a state of mind and whilst City fans can justfiably bask in their new-found status this summer, they will know that all Mancini’s talk of establishing ‘dynasties’ remains just that – talk….for now, at least.
Even so, if United start playing the History and Heritage card, they will be making the same error that Liverpool have been doing for many years now. History and Heritage are important but they need regular top-ups of success to be something other than fading newsprint and photos of former heroes who simply remind us how much better they were than the current crop.
United’s end of term report would undoubtedly say ‘Could do better’ because that’s the truth of it; for all the transitional nature of this year’s squad, there were sufficient ‘old heads’ on board to ensure that we should have been celebrating # 20 instead of casting bilious glances towards our noisy neighbours. The truth is that City’s stage fright in March and early April handed # 20 to us, but all we did was wrap it up in a nice sky blue ribbon and hand it straight back to them. The rest of the country might be in raptures about the dramatic denouement at the Etihad on the final day, but United fans know that it should have never been allowed to get that far. It was the results away to Wigan and (in particular) at home to Everton that really did for us and as I said to a mate during the final afternoon’s dramas, if we had won it after all, there would have been something faintly embarassing about it, given all that had gone before.
All downhill from here: Pienaar scores Everton’s late equaliser
And what of our Glorious Leader in all of this? The reality is that speculating on Fergie’s tenure has really become nothing more than an academic exercise. Even if he’s become Yesterday’s Man, we are now stuck with him until such point as he decides to apply for his free bus pass. For what it’s worth, I don’t think he had a vintage year, any more than the squad did. The main problem is that this year we finally reaped the harvest that has been sown over the last six or seven years. Key players like Ronaldo, Keane, Beckham and van Nistelrooy have been allowed to leave without really being replaced, like for like. What’s more, the love-in surrounding Scholes and Giggs has been so busy marvelling at the fact that they could still contribute at such an advanced age that no-one has really asked whether or not they should. Is it not the case that a truly outstanding prospect like Paul Pogba is now on the verge of leaving the club because he has never been afforded the opportunity that his talent deserves?
The standard club rhetoric is that ‘youth always gets its chance’ but they need to add a codicil that says ‘but only if Fergie agrees’. Fergie, having established his reputation as a promoter of young talent during the Butt/ Beckham/Scholes / Nevilles era has now become curiously reluctant to offer the same chance to some of our more talented youngsters, preferring to buy in players like Phil Jones and Ashley Young at a premium. The loss of Ravel Morrison in January was perhaps inevitable given Ravel’s off-field problems, but losing Pogba as well hints at a loss of nerve. Of course, Pogba is still a very raw talent and tends to play for himself a little bit too often, but the guy is only 19 and should this season have been groomed to play the United way, probably by sitting on the subs bench and getting on for 10 minutes here and there. It didn’t happen and it appears that we are now about to suffer the consequences of Fergie’s short-sightedness. United diehards can and will rant on about how Pogba should be proud to play for the club and the usual one-eyed rhetoric, but Pogba isn’t from Northenden or Middleton or Salford and his loyalty is to whichever club will give him the most cash and the greatest opportunity to display his undoubted talents. For him, the black and white stripes of Juventus appear to have more allure than United red and who’s to say he’s wrong? Mario Balotelli could no doubt inform Pogba that playing in Italy can be difficult for black players, but Pogba would probably reply that it would be no more difficult than turning out in front of three men and a dog at Altrincham for United’s reserves.
Pogba made what looks like being his final United appearance at the Etihad last Thursday as United’s reserves took on their City counterparts in the Final of the Manchester Senior Cup. The first half was a crashing bore as both teams flooded the midfield and cancelled one another out, though United did grab a lead thanks to a typically predatory piece of finishing from Will Keane. By contrast, the second half was excellent, with both teams really going for it. In the end, United grabbed a second goal when sub Luke Giverin intercepted a pass inside his own half and then raced away to finish coolly past the advancing keeper and with most of the City defence breathing down his neck. Thus concluded another really successful season for what was essentially the bulk of last year’s F.A. Youth Cup Winners – they have snapped up every trophy they were competing for – Reserve League North, Reserve League National Play-Off (where for the second time in three years they defeated Aston Villa in a penalty shoot-out) and, now, the Manchester Senior Cup. They also take on Accrington in the Final of the Lancashire Senior Cup at the start of next season.
United’s reserves celebrate at the Etihad with the Manchester Senior Cup
The question is, how many of these youngsters are ready to step up to the first team and how many of them will get the chance? With Morrison gone and Pogba likely to follow, Will Keane now becomes the jewel in the crown and he is likely to be sent out on loan next season, which may or may not prove to be a positive thing. One of the star performers when this bunch won the F.A. Youth Cup was midfielder Ryan Tunnicliffe. He spent most of this season on loan with Fergie Junior at Peterborough, but returned early from the loan, looking a shadow of the player he had been. Thankfully, by the end of the season, he was looking more like his normal self, but it does emphasise that loan deals do not always work to the player’s advantage, so we will have to see how they handle Will Keane. In my view, there are a number of others in this group who might not quite be ready for regular first-team action but could eventually break through. As ever, the question is will they get a chance?
Further up the food chain, there are a number of questions to be resolved ahead of what is going to be a key season for the club. Another trophy-free campaign like this year’s will see Ferguson under increasing pressure to step down, so United have to bounce back and show that they can respond to the gauntlet City have thrown down. Over the last two seasons, United’s football has largely lacked the glorious freedom of expression that has characterised Ferguson’s better teams. There have been moments, such as the 8-2 mauling of Arsenal, but by and large they now play a kind of calculated, methodical style, doing just enough to win games – the away game to Norwich this year epitomised this approach; United played tremendous football for the opening ten minutes, scored through Scholes and then retreated into their collective shell, being content to just keep Norwich at arm’s length. Norwich equalised about ten minutes from the end, after which United turned on the afterburners again, scoring a late winner through Giggs. Some would applaud this, but I think it’s contrary to the spirit in which Manchester United teams are supposed to play. It might be effective against most teams, but it didn’t help us win the title in the end.
Ryan Giggs scores the winner at Norwich in his 900th appearance
The one good thing about losing the title to City is that the fans are now demanding a strong response and that means that Ferguson will have to abandon his ludicrous ‘no value in the market’ mantra and his make-do-and-mend approach in favour of some serious transfer action this summer. Unfortunately, the initial signs are that he is going to be doing his shopping in Poundland rather than at Waitrose, as we are being linked with a Japanese midfielder and a Polish striker from the Bundesliga that I have never even heard of. The question is, does he have an eye for a bargain or is he not being given the ammmunition to compete for the likes of top talent like Eden Hazard? Many United fans perceive the dead hand of the Glazers on the tiller here; forever trying to cut corners and do things on the cheap so that they are better able to service their debt by taking money out of the club that should be used to strengthen the squad. I remain unconvinced by this argument; after all Fergie spent nearly £50 million last summer bringing in Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea. I’m sure that the Glazers remain well aware of the dangers of killing the goose that has laid little but golden eggs for the last 25 years, but would accept that they do seem to be sailing rather close to the wind here. By August, we will know rather more about that issue.
In conclusion, here are are some positives and some negatives to have come out of the season. I make no apologies for the fact that there are more of the latter than the former.
1. The continuing development of the Reserves (née 2011 F.A.Youth Cup Winners), as discussed above.
2. The form of Antonio Valencia, who rightly hoovered up all the awards at last week’s ‘Player of the Year’ glitzfest.
3. The Indian Summer of Paul Scholes’ career. (Although, see # 2 below)
4. The resurgence in the form of David de Gea after a patchy start.
5. The ‘rebirth’ of Jonny Evans, who confounded his critics (mea culpa) and had a very good season.
1. Fergie’s inability to find a role for Dimitar Berbatov in the team and his refusal to promote talented younsters like Pogba. Wasteful, on both counts.
2. Our continuing over-reliance on Giggs & Scholes in midfield
3. The whole Suarez/Evra affair, which left a nasty taste in the mouth. At least Dalglish has finally been called to account for his deplorable behaviour.
4. Losing Vidic for much of the season.
5. The loss of form of Javier Hernandez. Let’s hope that a summer of rest does the trick for him because he has had a wretched season, by and large.
6. Our ongoing lack of a leader in the Roy Keane mould. Not sure where you find another Roy Keane, but I hope Fergie has his eyes peeled for one.
7. Our poor European form. We were shocking this year and a severe re-think of strategy is needed for next season.
8. Anderson. Time for him to move on, methinks.