Category Archives: Sport – Football

Teething Troubles….

Today sees the staging of the traditional curtain-raiser for the domestic football season here in England.  The Community (née Charity) Shield will be contested at Wembley between the League Champions (United) and the FA Cup winners (Wigan) in what is generally regarded as the final warm-up game before the real business of the season begins.

However, Wigan were relegated after their FA Cup heroics against Citeh, so as a Championship side, they are already about 2 weeks into their season.  As for United, their pre-season form has been spotty to say the least and new manager David Moyes is finding it every bit as challenging a job as you might expect.  And, to be honest, he hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory either.

Fergie 2 Moyes

If only it were this simple…….

On the pitch, United have lost more games than they have won, which is not really that big a problem as long as you get things sorted by the start of the season.  However, in mitigation, it should be said that Moyes has been bedevilled by the unavailability of players, either through injury or due to extended periods of rest after their involvement in (for example) the Confederations Cup or other summer frolics.  Shinji Kagawa and Javier Hernandez have largely been absent and the likes of Jonny Evans have been sidelined with injury.

Then there are the off-the-field shenanigans, which I’d have to say have been somewhat more worrying.  This summer’s class clown has been Wayne Rooney who despite earning his weight in banknotes every week has decided that United just don’t love him enough and that he wants to play for Chelsea.  Rooney has not been seen in competitive action for United since April and made only a fleeting appearance on the pre-season tour before being flown home with an alleged hamstring strain.  He is smart enough to realise that he has pretty much burnt all his bridges with the United fans – no-one asks to leave United twice – but Moyes’ problem is that he knows that Rooney is still a very good player and he doesn’t want to sell him to a rival team, yet no overseas team seem willing to take Rooney on – wisely, in my view.

This toxic scenario is likely to drag on for the rest of the month and,  for once, United can find common cause with the derided Dippers  down the East Lancs Road who are going through an almost identical scenario with cute & cuddly ‘Goofy’ Suarez, who has decided he wants to move to Arsenal in order to play in the Champions League this season rather than the Lancashire Senior Cup.  I suppose there is some solace to be had here from the old saying that there’s always someone worse off than you – at least Rooney hasn’t tried to eat his way through an opposition defence yet.

It's my ball“It’s my ball and I’m going to London…”

Even so, Moyes will have to decide whether he would rather have Rooney poisoning United’s much-vaunted ‘esprit de corps’ or alternatively run the risk of seeing him banging in 25 goals in Chelsea blue next season.  There are rumours circulating that senior United pros like Giggs, Rio and Pat Evra have already told Moyes how fed up everyone in the dressing room is with Rooney’s antics, so I think Moyes will have to sell him in the end.  Let’s hope he manages to persuade Mourinho to throw in Juan Mata as part of a player + cash deal;  I think most Reds would drive Rooney to Stamford Bridge themselves if Mata was part of any deal – he’s exactly the type of player we need in our midfield.

And there’s the second problem for Moyes – and in some ways it’s even more of a worry than the Rooney situation.  The new manager very publicly nailed his colours to the mast in terms of identifying his summer targets – first of all it was Thiago Alacantara – now a Bayern Munich player, then it was Cesc Fabregas – still very much a Barcelona player – and of course, there was always the mirage of Ronaldo coming back shimmering in the background.  Now we’re on to Luka Modric, apparently, who, if we are truly after him, is about 4th choice – and he will be aware of that.  Ultimately, I fear that Moyes will end up going back to his former club Everton and being made to pay through the nose for Baines, a left-back we do not need and Fellaini, a midfield beanpole who is probably not good enough for United and certainly not the playmaker we have needed for years now.

What makes all this even more of a concern is that our main rivals – Citeh and Chelsea – seem to have had no problem in targeting and buying the players they wanted.  United are, after all, the reigning champions, so you would think that players would be only too keen to join the club, but it would seem that the uncertainty about the post-Ferguson era and Moyes’ relative anonymity in Europe is now working against us.

If there is any good news at all, it is that the young players who took part in the pre-season tour are all progressing very nicely.  Fergie’s final signing, Wilfried Zaha looks a real find and home-grown youngsters Jesse Lingard and Michael Keane are also likely to be pushing for first team action.  There was also much enthusiasm for 18-year old Adnan Januzaj, but he’s a little raw right now.  It would be nice to be able to report that two other promising youngsters, Will Keane and Nick Powell,  are close to returning from injury, but even MUTV have offered no definitive information about either.

WilfriedWilfried Zaha – one of Moyes’ few bright spots….

David Moyes needs a convincing win against Wigan this afternoon, just to quell the undercurrents of unease among United fans.  He also needs to identify a midfield playmaker who can make things tick – and sadly, he probably also needs to get Wayne Rooney out of the club.  It’s going to be a long season….

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The Folly of Youth……

Although the  football season is officially in abeyance right now, there is still some football being played, of course.  Most notable over the last week or so has been the European U-21 Finals which are being held in Israel this year.  Today’s web pages and newspapers will doubtless be sprinkled with discreet amounts  of can’t-really-be-arsed angst about how and why the England U21’s crashed out of the tournament after 3 successive defeats against Israel, Norway and Italy.

England defeatWell, at least their boots are in nice colours….

In case there are any regular readers here and in case they are under any misapprehensions regarding my attitude to International Football as played by teams representing a specific country, allow me to summarise…..

Essentially, whilst I will cheerfully watch some of the games in the big International tournaments like the World Cup and the Euros, I regard International football as a sideshow.  The pre-eminence of club football via the Champions League and the sheer volume of ‘overseas’ players in the Premiership/Bundesliga/La Liga/Serie A in Europe mean that we now get to see the best players on the planet every week.   It’s got to the point that if you switch on and see Lionel Messi wearing an Argentina shirt rather than a Barcelona shirt it  seems a little strange.  In short: International football? Who needs it?

Argentina v Venezuela - 2010 FIFA World Cup QualifierI know this bloke from somewhere…..

There was a time of course when the only time you would see players like Pele and Jairzinho was wearing a Brazil shirt in World Cups.  These days, FIFA try to puff up the international fixture list but they are undermined by the Champions League and major European Leagues and are in any case surely heading for a major PR and logistical car crash over the mooted  2022 Qatar World Cup.

Additionally, there is increasing friction between clubs and national associations regarding the availability of players for what are usually described as ‘meaningless friendlies’ in mid-season.  More and more players are retiring from international football once they have secured a place on the European club ‘gravy train’, reflecting an attitude to playing for one’s country which is, at best, pragmatic and at worst, completely cynical.   The old Corinthian values of the ‘honour’ of representing one’s country started going out the window around the time that Bobby Moore got arrested for allegedly stealing a bracelet from a Bogotá jewellery shop.  Nowadays, players will pay lip service to those ideals but it’s debatable how many of them are actually sincere about it.

As for England, winning the 1966 World Cup was – as Dickens would have said – the best of times but also the worst of times.  For all the gap-toothed glory of Nobby Stiles’ victory dance and Bobby Charlton’s combover angst, the fallout from that soggy Saturday afternoon at Wembley in July 1966 has become the cross that all England international players have had to bear ever since.  The chances of England repeating their 1966 victory have receded year by year until there is now some doubt as to whether they are going to qualify for next summer’s Brazilian beano at all – and even if they do, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to win the tournament or even come close?

Even the television companies – usually prone to the worst type of hyperventilated jingoism – have noticeably throttled back their expectation levels  during recent tournaments.  There is a general acceptance that we don’t really have a good enough squad and that  the most we can aspire to against the better teams is to be hard to beat and then (probably) lose in a penalty shoot-out.  During the same era,  from 1966 onwards,  English club sides – albeit girded by the addition of choice imports from ‘foreign parts’ – have won multiple European club trophies and reached many more finals.  Even ‘unfancied’ clubs like Middlesbrough and Fulham have had their moment in the sun.  Little wonder that the glory-hunters of TV scheduling have chosen to concentrate on tournaments where English teams do have a chance of winning.

Picles & PapparazziBack in 1966 when it meant something; Pickles the Dog that found the (stolen) World Cup with admiring paparazzi

There seems no way out of this conundrum and it seems only a question of time before there is a major club versus country confrontation – a confrontation in which there will surely only be one winner.  We are undoubtedly heading for a scenario where players signing up for the top clubs have ‘secret clauses’ in their contracts where they agree to ‘retire’ from international football.  Come to think of it, this has probably already happened.

And so back to the small beer of the latest Ing-er-land debacle in Israel.  Manager Stuart Pearce, who has always struck me as being a bit of a plonker,  has come out and publicly blamed the players for their dismal performances, something that rarely happens at this level.

pearceStuart Pearce tells it like it is…

Generally we get some managerial double-talk about the poor  standard of pitches, refereeing, facilities or (more realistically) the impact of a long season catching up on the players.  Not this time, though – Pearce has – for once – not pulled any punches.   The crucial phrase ‘already on the beach’ has been used to describe the players’ attitude, though not necessarily by Pearce himself.  Clearly his comments are those of  a man who does not expect to be in his current job for much longer – and probably rightly so.  If he cannot motivate the squad and get them playing together effectively then he has no business being in the job.  Then again, could anyone else have done better?

I am an avid consumer of U21 football at club level and thoroughly enjoyed watching United’s U21’s beat Tottenham to lift the National U21 League title, so I find it hard to understand why the only United player involved in the Israeli tournament was the incoming Wilfred Zaha, who isn’t really a United player yet as he’s only just arrived from Crystal Palace.

United U21's United’s victorious U21 squad – spot the England U21 player…

Having said that, 3 of that United squad – Sam Johnstone, Tom Thorpe and Larnell Cole – are in Peter Taylor’s U20 squad who fly out to Turkey today to participate in this summer’s U20 World Cup.  I would have to say that I am surprised that the likes of Jesse Lingard, Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe  have failed to make the cut and am equally sure that Michael’s  brother Will would have done so had he been fit.  Whether Taylor’s squad will be any more successful and how the media respond will, I suspect, be largely dependant on whether there are any big transfer sagas unfolding at the same time.  It says a lot that many English journalists will be more concerned about the destiny of a certain Portuguese superstar and whether he’s going to remain at his current Madrid address or relocate back to the glittering towers of Mancunia.  The omens don’t look that great right now, but I live in hope…..

RonnyCome in # 7 ; your time is up!

Positively the last game of Fergie Time…

Tonight Old Trafford played host to the National Reserve Team Play-Off Final  (or whatever it’s now called) between Tottenham Hotspur and United’s U21 teams.  This was definitely the final game of the Alex Ferguson era and in many ways it was a far more representative encounter than yesterday’s 10-goal thriller at West Bromwich.

For all that, Fergie wasn’t there – or if he was, he was keeping out of sight.  In point of fact I seem to recall him at his Press Conference on Friday saying that he was going to a League Managers Association Meeting where presumably he would pick up his umpteenth and final Manager of the Year award.  New boss David Moyes may well have gone with him; certainly  the two of them were at Carrington this morning as Fergie presumably helps to ease Moyes into his new job by introducing him to the coaching staff, some of whom may lose their jobs once Moyes takes over.

Albert plus 2Albert the United kit-man with 2 hitch-hikers he picked up

First team coaches Rene Meulensteen and Mike Phelan were at tonight’s game, as was Sir Bobby Charlton, looking a little frail at 76, but still able to present the medals and the trophy at the end of the game.

He would have been pleased to present the trophy to United skipper Tom Thorpe, something that looked pretty unlikely at half-time following 45 minutes of comfortable Spurs dominance, graced by two excellent goals from Jonathan Obika and Alex Pritchard.  Spurs could have been even further ahead as both Obika and his strike partner Harry Kane also hit the frame of the goal in the first period.  By contrast, United could offer little by way of response.  Reserve Player of the Year Adnan Januzaj was asked to play as a lone striker which isn’t really his forté; he’s a clever player but he doesn’t really have the physical presence to play this role and United found it difficult to get anyone forward to support him.

The dearth of strikers has been one of Warren Joyce’s major problems this season, with Will Keane out for the season through injury and others like Macheda and King leaving on loan or permanent deals.  However, something had to be done and early in the second half, Joyce withdrew U18’s  midfielder Ben Pearson (whose day will surely come) and sent on  Welsh striker Tom Lawrence to help Januzaj out.

And it worked.  Slowly but surely, United began to push Spurs back and to apply consistent pressure on the Spurs defence.  Lawrence was giving them an extra set of problems and Januzaj could now play with greater freedom.  On the hour mark, the young Belgian’s countryman Marnick Vermijl (my choice for Reserve Player of the Season) got forward from right back and picked up Ryan Tunnicliffe’s beautifully-weighted pass.  He cut in and fired a low shot across Spurs’  keeper Archer and into the far corner of the net.  From that point onwards, United stormed forward and equalised after 74 minutes when Larnell Cole fired home off the underside of the Spurs crossbar after Januzaj and Jesse Lingard had created havoc in the Spurs defence.

Larnell Goal CelebUnited players celebrate Larnell Cole’s equaliser

Spurs responded strongly as they began to see the game slipping away from them and substitute McEvoy fired into the side netting from an acute angle.  However the force was definitely with United and in a typical Fergie-era late finale, Cole drove home the winning goal after great work by Lawrence on the right.  United played out 4 minutes of added time without too many problems and the final whistle saw a good deal of jubilation from the team in red.

Larnell Goal 2Larnell Cole fires home the decisive third goal with  2 minutes left

So, after beating Aston Villa in a penalty shoot-out in the final of last year’s Play-Off, United retained the title, though the trophy is a new one, reflecting the new format for this U21 tournament this year.

Whenever Sir Alex gets back from his meeting and his trip to the racing at Newmarket, I’m sure he’ll sit down and watch the video of this match – the last match of his era as United boss and in many ways a typically thrilling and ultimately successful occasion.  Well done to Warren Joyce, Nicky Butt and all the young players.  Let’s hope some of them are given a chance in the first team next year by David Moyes.

Tom Thorpe & Reserve TrophyTom Thorpe lifts the U21 League trophy

5-5, and they’ll still be talking about this one in 20 years’ time…

5-5.

As scores in football matches go, this is one that would have been common enough in games involving my under-11 team or games of Subbuteo table football I might have played with my mates as a 12 or 13-year old.  But hang on, this is the deadly serious, all-grown-up world of the Barclays Premier League – and, not only that, but this was the 1500th and final game overseen by United’s retiring Svengali of a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

For the record, it’s United’s first 5-5 since 1895 and the first ever 5-5 in the Premiership since it began in 1992.  And I was there…..and it was fairly insane…and people will still be talking about it in 20 years’ time.

United SubbuteoUnited take to the field at The Hawthorns…

12 months ago, I also attended West Bromwich Albion’s final league game of the season against Arsenal.  I did so partly because my good friend and long-time Albion fan Serge offered me a spare ticket and partly because I simply could not contemplate the tension of staying home and watching United’s final game at Sunderland whilst hanging on the result of the City-QPR game from the Council House.

Like yesterday, it was a beautifully sunny day, but my mood was very different.  I am now fairly sure that I cracked a bone in my foot getting off a bus in Birmingham City Centre and having limped my way to The Hawthorns to meet Serge, we went in to watch what I didn’t realise at the time was Robin van Persie’s final game as a Gooner before joining United.  Behind us an Albion-supporting but United-hating young lady kept us informed of affairs in the United and City games and after she gleefully announced news of Aguero’s 94th-minute winner for City, I left The Hawthorns in a fairly bleak mood, to the extent that I cannot even remember the score in the Albion-Arsenal game.

Things were rather different yesterday.  Though I now have two dodgy knees to replace my foot injury, I was  feeling relatively sprightly as I walked up Halfords Lane past the occasional Mancunian chancer wanting match tickets – there were rumours of them changing hands for £2000.

Anyway, since that rather grim day of the Arsenal game, RvP has become a United hero and the Premier League trophy has returned to rather more familiar pastures in the United trophy room.  Even so, this was Fergie’s last game after a 39-year management career going back to East Stirling in 1974 , where upon his arrival, as he recalled, the chairman informed him that he had 8 players and no goalkeeper.  Things have improved a little for him since then.

Inside the ground, the atmosphere was febrile even among the Albion fans.  The e-Bay mentality ensured that the match programme sold out in record time as people bought 3 and 4 copies; after all, this was history in the making.  Out on the sun-drenched pitch, the United players were warming up and I was delighted to see Paul Scholes among them.  Scholes has now retired for a second time after a career of great distinction, making 717  appearances for United in all competitions.  He has been my favourite United player of the modern era and has been one of the game’s truly great players, though his tackling remained awful to the end.  I knew Scholesy would not have made the journey down to the Black Country unless Fergie intended to bring him on at some point – and so it was to prove.

Schole Final Game

There was a double ‘Guard of Honour’ before this game – all these pre-match ceremonials make me long for the days when players just used to run out of the tunnel on to the pitch and simply start the game after a cursory warm-up.  Not these days; I suppose that we should be grateful that the Albion mascots didn’t form a mini-Guard for the United mascots.  What we did get was a G.o.H. for the United players by the Albion players, followed by a joint extended G.o.H. for Fergie by both sets of players.  Albion have had a good season themselves, achieving their best position (8th) since 1980-1 under Steve Clarke’s thoughtful guidance and their fans were in largely benevolent mood in the late Spring sunshine.  The United players got a mixed reception, but the applause for Fergie was generous and general.  He emerged from the ruck of players and apparatchiks to wave to the United fans who had occupied half of the Smethwick End away to my immediate left.

FBL-ENG-PR-WEST BROM-MAN UTD

After all this ceremonial nonsense, there was a surreal atmosphere once the game started.  Fergie’s final starting XI left most of his experienced players on the bench, with only Michael Carrick holding things together and wearing the captain’s armband.  And of course, as a footnote, it should be observed that there was no Wayne Rooney at all.  He had allegedly been given the day off as his wife is due to produce Rooney Junior # 2.  I think most United fans are of the view that – barring another ludicrous volte-face – he has probably played his last game for Manchester United and that this is perhaps the best solution to his problems.  For someone who was until quite recently perceived as United’s lynchpin, it’s surprising how little he has been missed of late.

Certainly United set off at a fair clip and eased into a 3-goal lead within the first half-hour.  Goals from Kagawa and Alex Büttner were split by a Jonas Olsson own goal and the atmosphere was more akin to a testimonial match or pre-season friendly.  However, James Morrison prodded home from six yards out on the stroke of half-time and you sensed that Albion had finally decided that they were simply not prepared to accept a role as cannon fodder for the Champions.

Crucially, Steve Clarke brought on Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku for the second half and he scored a great goal on 50 minutes and generally looked to be giving Jonny Evans and Phil Jones a far harder afternoon than they had bargained for.  The truth is that having wrapped up the Premiership a couple of weeks back, the United players have been in party mode ever since and for all the blithe talk of beating Chelsea’s points total and seeing off the departing manager in the right fashion, they have – mentally – been on the beach for a while now.

So, even though sharp finishes from RvP and Javier Hernandez took the score to 5-2, there was still plenty of time left and in an extraordinary last ten minutes, Albion scored three times with Lukaku running at will through our increasingly porous defence.  Not even the introduction of Scholes (who inevitably picked up a final yellow card for a woefully poor challenge on Mulumbu) , Giggs and Ferdinand could stem the flow and in the end, it would be churlish in the extreme to deny Albion a hard-fought point in a generally crazy game that will live long in the memories of all who witnessed it.

RvP GoalRobin van Persie scores United’s fourth goal at The Hawthorns

The departing, conquering hero emerged  with a slightly rueful smile from the ruck near the tunnel to acknowledge the noisy United away support and then he was gone – for (presumably) the last time as the United manager.  Interestingly, the United fans were already airing a new song about David Moyes, encouraging the incoming manager to adopt the style of the Fergie era.

Hopefully he will do so – and let’s hope he adds the substance of those years as well.

Me and Fergie…..

Been quite a week at Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson announcing  his retirement, Wayne Rooney announcing his desire to escape from the club, Cristiano Ronaldo linked with a return to the club and Everton’s David Moyes unveiled as Ferguson’s replacement.   Unfortunately, I fear that Fergie’s retirement means that Ronnie won’t be coming back any time soon.  Pity, but there you go.

However, I think most United fans would be happy to see the back of Rooney.  This is twice in about the last 3 years that he has said that he wants to quit; few players say that once and get away with it at Manchester United and I suspect that if they can get a decent return on a player who has flattered to deceive for much of the season just ending, United will grab it.  Rooney has been at Old Trafford for 10 years now and whilst he clearly still has considerable talent, it is equally clear that he has fallen out of love with United, so a clean break for all parties may be the best strategy.

As for Ferguson, the world and his significant other have been queuing up to eulogise about ‘the Great Man’ and MUTV have been running blanket coverage of Fergie documentaries full of former Fergie players and even the likes of Tony Blair waxing lyrical about his achievements and his qualities .  Elsewhere Liverpool fans and some journalists have been staging street parties to celebrate his retirement.  The general line seems to be that no matter what you thought of the man, his curmudgeonly bile and hairdryer outbursts masked a fierce loyalty to those under his purview and were the outward signposts of an almost pathological will to win.  In short, you couldn’t have one without the other.  By general reckoning the late, great Sir Matt Busby was a much nicer man than Alex Ferguson and consequently a less successful manager in terms of trophies won. Hmmm, well maybe….

I once had the memorable experience of sitting in on a Fergie press conference at Old Trafford.  I was playing Sancho Panza to my mate Dominic’s Quixote and had squeezed into Old Trafford’s amazingly uncomfortable Press Box alongside Dom and his guest pundit on the radio that night – who may well have been Paddy Crerand.  As I recall,  the opposition were Charlton Athletic and following a tight game with a late Ole Gunnar Solskjær winner for United,  Dom was waiting to interview the principals, but to his chagrin both Fergie and Charlton boss Alan Curbishley showed up at more or less the same time.

Having cornered Curbishley, Dom thrust a minidisc recorder into my hands and told me to go into Fergie’s press conference and record it.  So, in I went, to find His Nibs sitting there about 2 yards away from me,  waiting for the latecomers like me to filter in.  Journalists were coming up and dumping their recorders on the desk  in front of Fergie, so I pressed record and did the same, then searched for somewhere to sit.  The media room at Old Trafford is like a small lecture theatre with raked banks of seats and the only place left for me to sit was – you guessed it – front and centre, right in Fergie’s line of sight.

Fergie press conf

“Who’s that bloke in the front row?”

It was a routine press conference.  He rambled on about the game for a minute or so then answered a few minutes-worth of perfunctory questions.  Was it just my paranoia that made me feel that his eyes kept drifting to me?  After all, he made it his business to know the Press Pack and I’m sure he pegged me for an unfamiliar face.  Every time that watery, blue-eyed glare came my way, my heart beat just a little quicker, but in the end I escaped with my recording and my identity intact.

Really, enough has been said elsewhere about the man and his astonishing trophy haul, so I will pass on that, stopping only to thank him for all that he has done for my club since 1986 and to observe that his replacement, Everton boss David Moyes, has got a hell of an act to follow.  Good luck to him.

#20

For Manchester United, it was very much a case of ‘Paradise Regained’ last night at Old Trafford.  A comfortable 3-0 victory over struggling Aston Villa saw United through to their 20th League Title, though in truth, the really significant result had come at White Hart Lane the previous afternoon when an erratic Spurs team struggled against City for 80 minutes before exploding into life and scoring 3 goals in 7 minutes.

It’s actually less than a year now since that 20th title was snatched from our hands by Sergio Aguero’s 94th minute goal against QPR at the Council House.  In that time, it’s pretty much been all downhill for the Berties;  a mixed bag of summer signings with Nastasic the only real success, an indifferent Champions League campaign in an admittedly tough group, too many under-performing players and a lack of the intensity that took them to their first title since 1657 or whenever.  City should finish 2nd in the table but that will be scant consolation for the Etihad crew, who, you feel, will not rest until their corporate colours are all over the Champions League trophy.

By contrast, Fergie’s team talks for this entire season were probably done for him before the United players trailed despondently off the pitch at the Stadium of Light with the jeers of the Sunderland fans still ringing in their ears.  In the aftermath, most United fans were unanimous in the view that we were in desperate need of some  midfield reinforcements.  We got one, though I doubt that many Reds would have cherry-picked Shinji Kagawa from a grab-bag of Europe’s finest midfielders.  In the end, his season finished pretty well, but we have to be honest and say that the best is yet to come from him.  Fergie may be right when he says that Kagawa will do better next year and by then,  hopefully,  he  and Michael Carrick will have some high-quality company, given that Giggs is really restricted to cameos these days,  Scholes (and maybe Darren Fletcher) will probably retire and the likes of Cleverley and Anderson are no more of an answer now than they were a year ago.  Maybe the time has come to promote the seriously promising Ryan Tunnicliffe and Jesse Lingard to the first team.  They probably deserve their chance.

Most talk of United’s 20th title win has obviously revolved around Robin van Persie,  last summer’s  high price, high-profile  recruit from Arsenal.  Whilst there is no doubt that the Dutchman came at a premium price,  it is equally certain  that he has justified the outlay.  His Premiership goals may have come at £1 million each, but for most United fans, they have been crucial in turning back the tide of opinion that said that United’s time was over and the future belonged to City.  History suggests that United’s time of dominance will eventually come to an end, but not, one suspects, on Ferguson’s watch.  With Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez,  Owen  and Berbatov on the books and some promising youngsters coming through , I suspect that few United fans would have seen another striker as a priority. Yet therein lies Ferguson’s special gift; an ability to see what someone like van Persie could add to the mix.  Exit the sadly under-appreciated Berbatov and the injury-prone Owen and in came our new # 20 to boost us to Championship # 20.

RvP Goal 2 v Villa

Robin van Persie volleys home his second goal against Villa

From the very beginning, it was clear that RvP, mercenary or not, was likely to follow in the footsteps of Teddy Sheringham and earn his first title as a United player – to the despair of most Arsenal fans.    However, it is equally clear that he had some key accomplices.

David de Gea probably began the season on a par with Anders Lindegaard, but over the season has gone on to establish himself as top dog in the goalkeeping stakes.  I feel for the genial Lindegaard, but the brutal fact is that United paid the best part of £20 million for De Gea, so it was always likely that they would persist with him unless he really screwed up.  He has had some dodgy moments, but then,  so has  Lindegaard and De Gea is finishing the season looking a far better goalkeeper than the one who began it so hesitantly.

Rafael da Silva has had a great season and established himself as United’s first-choice right back whilst Patrice Evra has bounced back after a wobbly season last year and also discovered a scoring touch that few of us suspected he had.

The centre of defence has resembled A&E at times with Vidic and Ferdinand having to be nursed through the season and Smalling, Evans and Jones all picking up injuries along the way – none of which has made life any easier for De Gea and Lindegaard as the line-up ahead of them has changed from week to week.  General view would be that all parties have done OK most of the time, but that Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones are the ones to emerge from the season with the most credit.

Rio Carrick 2013

Two of our mainstays – Rio and Michael Carrick – celebrate # 20

Our wide players have been hugely disappointing on the whole – here I am talking specifically about Tony Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani rather than players like Giggs or Welbeck who played out wide from time to time.  Ironically, Valencia seems to be recovering his form of last season just as this season is coming to a close.  Both Young and Nani could be out the door this summer if the price is right.

Central midfield remains a minefield with only Michael Carrick really enhancing his reputation.  Shinji Kagawa began by looking very lightweight, then got injured but has come back strongly in recent weeks.  Still not totally convinced by him though.  Ryan Giggs has had a good season on the whole, but Paul Scholes‘  final furlongs have been dogged by injury and he will surely retire (again) at the end of the season.  Elsewhere both Tom Cleverley and Andes Ron (Anderson) have done little to enhance their claims for regular first-team football and Anderson will surely be offloaded – finally – in the summer.

Of the front players, only Robin van Persie has really had a top season.  For Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, there have been problems of one kind or another along the way.  Rooney is starting to look more convincing as a midfielder than he does up front, Welbeck just doesn’t score enough goals and Hernandez  increasingly seems to be used as an impact substitute.  Mind you, at least none of them try to eat the opposition…

Pat & Arm

A friendly Stretford End-er offers Patrice a bite to eat…

With our interest in all other competitions at an end, it’s really just a case of waiting to see who Fergie brings in during the summer – my vote would still be for strengthening the midfield and maybe replacing Young/Nani with a better wide option.  We shall see……

Pond-life in SW6…..

Following on from the previous piece, it would seem appropriate to stop and take track of 2 wildly contrasting  Stamford Bridge encounters between Chelsea and Manchester United that have taken place over the last few days. 

Whilst it would be wrong to read too much into 210 minutes of 20-odd blokes chasing an inflated pig’s bladder round a grassy rectangle, these two matches have served to crystallise a few issues – some specific to football and, indeed to the contrasting philosophies of the two clubs, whilst some have wider implications outside the narrow confines of the national pastime.

 Wednesday’s  thrill-a- minute League Cup encounter went to extra time before Chelsea finally got the upper hand and won  5-4.  That followed on from Sunday’s more controversial Premiership encounter that saw Chelsea reduced to 9 players and United winning 3-2.

From a United perspective, the one to win was the Premiership game as Chelsea were starting to pull away at the top of the League.  Having said that, there will  be considerable irritation among United players & staff that we didn’t win the League Cup match as well.  We were probably within about 60 seconds of  a 3-2  victory in ‘normal’ time, when our erratic Portuguese winger,  Nani, decided – not for the first time in the game –  to try something clever when he should have just laid the ball off to a colleague.  Chelsea duly dispossessed him and briskly moved the ball to the other end of the pitch, where Scott Wootton’s clumsy challenge on Ramires produced Chelsea’s second penalty of the game.  Eden Hazard fired it home without undue fuss and we were off into extra time.

However,  I’m getting ahead of myself here….

Going into Sunday’s league game, the context was that Chelsea, newly-minted European champions, had – unlike United – invested heavily during the off-season in a couple of A-list creative  midfielders in the young Brazilian starlet, Oscar, and high-priced Belgian import, Eden Hazard, who joined from Lille.  Hazard was apparently coveted by United as well but ultimately chose to relocate to London rather than venture north in to dark, satanic mill territory.  Oh well, that’s his loss and any disappointment that United fans might have felt about his decision to opt for the nouveaux riches at the Bridge was at least partially offset by Hazard’s bizarre use of ‘social media’ to tease everyone about his destination for a couple of weeks before his transfer went through.  Talented? Undoubtedly.  Dickhead?  In all probability, yes. 

Eden Hazard: “Excusez-moi, mais qu’est-ce que c’est, le ‘Vimto’?”

Chelsea’s winning of the European Cup has caused some pained expressions elsewhere in London – particularly at the Emirates, where Arsenal’s self-proclaimed school of Wenger-driven cultured football has proved unable to deliver anything in the way of silverware for the past 7 years (and counting: see http://www.sincearsenallastwonatrophy.co.uk/.  )

Arsenal fans clearly saw their team as a natural fit for London’s first Champions League winners but have now found themselves gazumped by the spawn of Abramovich’s vulgar spending spree along the King’s Road.  Arsenal may have the history but since the Vieira/Henry era imploded, a succession of talismanic players have either failed to deliver for a  variety of reasons(Arshavin, Wilshere) or have jumped ship (Fabregas).  The latest Gooner icon to abandon north London’s culture club was Robin van Persie, who – to my considerable surprise – has ended up at United.

United’s strategy in recent years – according to their PR schtick – has been to invest only in young players who might have some resale value once they move on.  When Sir Alex Ferguson completed the purchase of 28-year old Dimitar Berbatov back in 2008, he said that Berbatov would be the last such player that United would buy and that they would subsequently concentrate on bringing in or bringing through young players.  Hence my surprise when van Persie,  injury-prone and cusping on his 29th birthday was brought in for big bucks on a 4-year contract in August.

Still can’t quite get used to RvP in United red!

Whatever reservations any of us might have had about RvP’s arrival, he has done his level best to assuage  anyone’s fears by beginning his United career like an express train.  To date, he has scored nine goals in League and European competition and has definitely added considerable menace to our forward threat.  Importantly, he also seems to have established a good rapport with Wayne Rooney, so if we can keep him fit, the portents are promising.

Van Persie also has a terrific goal-scoring record at Stamford Bridge, scoring a hat-trick there for the Gooners in a 5-3 trouncing last year, so he will have had few apprehensions about the game.  However, much of the pre-match chat at the weekend centred around the absence of  CaptainLeaderLegendScumbag John Terry, so beloved of this blog, who had finally deigned to concede that appealing a four match ban for racist remarks he made to Anton Ferdinand of QPR was not worth the extra negative publicity it would bring to him and his club.  He even managed an apology, which whilst extremely general in scope – never specifying Anton Ferdinand as the victim of his remarks –  was more fulsome than anything Luis Suarez managed.  So, Terry banned for both games against United and everyone hoping that with his destiny sorted  for now, football might take over from racism. 

For a while, this seemed a likely outcome on Sunday afternoon as United, generally dozy and dilatory in the opening  minutes of most games this year, came out the traps like greased whippets and opened the scoring after just 3 minutes thanks to a van Persie shot that smashed against the post, rebounded to strike David Lee Roth lookalike David Luiz and from there back into the net.  Just 9 minutes later and it was 2-0 thanks to an even better goal from van Persie. This one began with Rio Ferdinand; roundly booed all afternoon for having the temerity to be Anton’s brother, who scooped a great ball out to Rafael on the right.  The little Brazilian fed it further on for Tony Valencia to chase and once he reached it, he drove a low ball across the Chelsea area and into the path of van Persie, who swept home imperiously from about 8 yards out.

Robin van Persie & Tony Valencia celebrate United’s second goal

On this occasion,  it was Chelsea, not United,  who hadn’t really started playing, but towards half-time, they began to  get back into the game, with Jonny Evans lucky not to join Luiz on the own goal sheet as he deflected a cross against De Gea’s near post. The pressure built and built and just before half-time, the otherwise impressive Wayne Rooney, dispossessed by Hazard about 20 yards out, snapped back at the Belgian with a brainless foul which set up the impressive Juan Mata to curl home a free kick and reduce the arrears.  It felt like United had blown their great start and, sure enough, after the break, Chelsea continued to pressure us, with De Gea making some typically unorthodox stops to keep them out.

In the end, with United on the back foot and the ball pinging backwards & forwards across the goalmouth, it was the diminutive Ramires who got up above the largely disappointing Tom Cleverley to head home an equaliser. With over half an hour left to play, I braced myself for the Chelsea onslaught, so what happened next was more than a little surprising.  Picking up the ball near the halfway line, van Persie played a peach of a through ball into the path of the onrushing Ashley Young, who, as he shaped to shoot from the edge of the area was summarily upended by the uncompromising Branislav Ivanovic.  Clear red card for Ivanovic and a free-kick from a promising position which United duly wasted.  Down to 10 but largely unbowed, Chelsea continued to drive forward and the next significant action saw John Obi Mikel bursting forward into the United half before feeding the ball to Fernando Torres. Confronted by Jonny Evans, Torres pushed the ball past him as Evans went in for the tackle.  If there was contact from Evans, it was minimal and nothing like enough to impede Torres’ forward run.  However, with Rio Ferdinand coming across to cover, Torres could clearly see his options diminishing and – in my opinion – threw himself to the floor.

Referee Mark Clattenburg clearly agreed, rushing past an apprehensive Evans to brandish a yellow card at the kneeling Torres.  This was the Spaniard’s second card, having already been booked for a horrible chest-high ‘tackle’ on Cleverley in the first half.  So, out came the red card and Chelsea were down to nine men.  The atmosphere in the ground, already fairly volatile,  now became toxic as Chelsea fans,  already aggrieved by the John Terry Scandal, now became even more convinced that the world,  and in particular the FA & Mark Clattenburg, were against them.   Every decision in United’s favour was greeted with howls of dismay and anger by the Matthew Harding Stand, but Fergie has been down this road before and after a series of untidy fouls by Wayne Rooney, he was withdrawn in favour of Ryan Giggs – a wise move given that referees often try to ‘even things up’ by issuing a red card to the opposition, even when it isn’t really deserved. 

Javier Hernandez, fresh from scoring twice against Braga during the week, had also been introduced in place of the anodyne Cleverley.  The Mexican, like van Persie, has a terrific scoring record against Chelsea and his movement was soon creating problems for Luiz and Cahill.  Almost inevitably, it was he who scored what proved to be the winning goal on 75 minutes, but this, too, was mired in controversy.  Van Persie received the ball near the penalty spot and whipped in a shot that Cech partly blocked.  The ball spun slowly towards the goal line and a whole posse of players, including Hernandez, converged on it, but it was Cech who fly-hacked it away from the foot of the post.  The ball flew straight to the feet of Fabio, who advanced into the area and smashed in a wildly inaccurate right-footed shot which flew across the face of the goal rather than into it.  Hernandez had by this point disentangled himself from the Chelsea net and he emerged in time to deflect Fabio’s cross-shot into the Chelsea net.

Javier Hernandez wheels away after scoring United’s winner

What was obvious from replays was that Hernandez was either offside or had come back from an offside position before diverting the ball into the net.  He was also unwise enough to celebrate his goal in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, prompting a cascade of debris from the literati of that parish, one piece of which felled a CFC steward, which qualifies as ‘friendly fire’ I suppose.  Chelsea’s players protested the referee’s decision to allow the goal and it was at this point that he seems to have had some verbal exchanges with Juan Mata and John Obi Mikel which were to have further repercussions.  The remaining 15 minutes or so of the game were played out in a rancorous atmosphere where every decision that went against Chelsea was greeted with abuse and hostility.  Tony Valencia was booked for ‘simulation’ – a quite ludicrous decision and an obvious attempt by Clattenburg to redress the balance – and then missed a gilt-edged chance to make the result doubly secure, miscuing horribly when it looked easier to score.

And that appeared to be that; the final whistle went, the Chelsea fans booed, the United fans celebrated and the gap at the top was closed to a point.  However, in the aftermath, stories began to emerge about some of the verbal exchanges between Clattenburg and certain Chelsea players – specifically Mikel and Mata.  Said exchanges were allegedly racist in tone and though Mata’s complaint has now been quietly dropped,   Chelsea are pursuing Mikel’s accusation that Clattenburg called him a ‘monkey’.  Suddenly, the whole ‘racism in football’ issue, which the FA and numerous other bastions of the sport and the media no doubt hoped was about to recede into the  background, was back on the front page again.

Clattenburg and Mikel in discussions 

Various investigations are now under way, but there are suggestions that a deputation of Chelsea players and staff paid a visit to the referee’s dressing room 15 minutes after the game ended, in clear contravention of all the relevant rules.  It would seem that Chelsea are not only developing an almost Scouser-esque taste for self-pity and victimisation, but are also becoming a lightning rod for controversy.  Clattenburg has denied any wrongdoing and the assistants who could hear his remarks in their headsets have been quick to defend him.  Unless Mikel and Chelsea have some killer evidence, they seem likely to emerge from this self-inflicted scenario with their already tarnished reputation further diminished.  It’s good to see them wearing their European Champions crown with such dignity.

Anyway, whatever the outcome of the Clattenburg /Mikel affair, what was beyond doubt was that Chelsea and United had a repeat engagement just 3 days later in the League Cup.  United had a far larger ticket allocation for this cup-tie and a large and noisy entourage effectively took over the whole of The Shed end.  Mancunian wags had been busy producing posters, too, with this one parodying Chelsea’s John Terry love-in…..

This one, meanwhile, though a good deal less sophisticated, did a good job in celebrating Chelsea’s sudden conversion to the anti-racist lobby…

For this League Cup tie, Fergie fielded a team that had far more of a makeshift feel to it, with a mixture of fringe players and youngsters lining up against a  Chelsea team that was more experienced and featured a bench filled with  expensive talent. 

Chelsea had the better of the early stages with Sturridge tripping over the ball when in on goal, but it was United who took the lead thanks to some determined pressing high up the pitch .  Cech played a short goal kick out to Romeu, who dwelt on it, allowing Andes Ron to get a foot in and toe-end the ball away to Giggs. who had time to compose himself before curling a precise shot just inside Cech’s right-hand post.  An impressive finish to finish off some equally impressive work from Andes Ron, who had one of his best games for United.

Chelsea, however, were soon level, thanks to the pace and persistence of Victor Moses who was already giving Alex Büttner a tough time.  Another driving run and an injudicious lunge by Büttner  – a clear penalty, which  Luiz just squeezed past Lindegaard’s dive.

 Chelsea’s David Luiz

Despite this setback, United kept pushing forward in what was proving to be a breezily open encounter.  United retook the lead just ahead of half-time thanks to another great bit of work from Andes Ron, who sent Hernandez through with a precise pass after Poodle Boy Luiz had given the ball away in midfield.  A great first touch from the Mexican and a low shot made it 2-1 at the interval.

Andes Ron – impressive performance  from a guy I’d written off.

Into the second half and Fergie replaced the struggling Büttner with Nick Powell and the ex-Crewe midfielder soon brought Cech into action with a low drive that forced the Chelsea keeper into a sprawling save.

United’s makeshift centre-back pairing of Scott Wootton (21) and Michael Keane (19) had done pretty well up until this point, but the whole defence were looking shaky at set pieces, so Chelsea’s equaliser just on the hour mark came as no real surprise – Cahill arriving at pace to bullet a  free header  past Lindegaard.

Di Matteo now began to wheel out the big guns, with Hazard replacing the ineffectual Piazon.  Again, though, it was United who got their noses in front thanks to the goal of the night scored by the enigma-wrapped-in-a-conundrum that is Luis Nani.  A spectacularly slick interchange with that man Andes Ron saw Nani running free about 8 yards out on the angle and his dinked finish over the advancing Cech was just perfect. 

More big guns from Chelsea as Oscar replaced Romeu and with Andes Ron’s puzzling lack of fitness finally beginning to tell and the less experienced Ryan Tunnicliffe being introduced , it had really become a question of whether a substantially ‘greener’ United line-up could hold out.  Until Nani’s moment of unneccessary showboating United were close, but with Hazard drilling home the penalty with the last kick of the 90 minutes, we were into extra time and the momentum was definitely with Chelsea.

Poor Scott Wootton had already given away that penalty and he was at fault again early in the first period of extra time, trying to head a ball he should have left alone and simply playing in Daniel Sturridge for a routine finish.  With United looking stretched, Hazard broke away and dummied several United defenders before playing in Ramires for a simple finish.  At 5-3, that looked to be it, but then Hernandez was clattered by Spanish full-back Azpilicueta and Giggs slotted home another penalty to make it 5-4 in injury time at the end of extra time.

That was to be it, however; no more miracles and though United will have been disappointed to  lose having pushed Chelsea so close, they will know that Di Matteo had to wheel out most of his available ‘big guns’ to earn a hard-fought victory.  Youngsters like Michael Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe will have learned a great deal from such a defeat and it will probably help them mature and progress.   Keane, in particular, played brilliantly for much of the game and once his brother, Will, is fit again, I think we can look forward to another set of brothers as first-team regulars, as with the Nevilles and the Greenhoffs in earlier years.

Chelsea can look forward to a period of controversy as the Clattenburg Fiasco is resolved, but their cause hasn’t been helped by the long lenses of the tabloids, who captured a particularly noxious piece of pond-life named Gavin Kirkham in the Matthew Harding Stand making monkey-like gestures towards United’s Danny Welbeck, albeit at some distance.

Gavin Kirkham; another of Chelsea’s diamond geezer supporters

Here’s how young Gavin likes to spend his time when he’s not making racist  gestures at black footballers…..

N.B. ‘Playboy’ pillowcases – Gavin is clearly a ‘renaissance man’!

Obviously with fans like Gavin packing out the Matthew Harding Stand, the case against Mark Clattenburg is as good as proven.  It must offend the season ticket holders at such a hotbed of racial egalitarianism that a referee can abuse black footballers in the way Clattenburg has done.  Shocking……