Higher Ground

Greetings, fellow football enthusiasts! After a welcome summer off, August rolls round again and it’s time for another 10 months of ill-considered United opinion. All ready to go then? No, not really? Excellent, let’s do this.

Firstly, I’m going to start with a heartfelt apology to the UEFA Europa League, the much derided, slow-witted sibling of its Champions League big brother. I spent the vast majority of last season demonstrating zero enthusiasm for our participation due to being a time-served dickhead, before shamelessly diving onto the hype train just as the final approached. This was clearly a bit snide and I was proven very wrong indeed.

As anyone in attendance will testify, Stockholm was a Euro away classic that will live long in the memory. Not in terms of the game, that was a bit of a stinker in which we bored our way to victory, just in terms of the trip itself. Great people, great city, great result. Flying out of Manchester just hours after the atrocity committed at the Arena felt very odd indeed. Placed in the context of life-changing events like that, football is obviously meaningless. It did however present the opportunity for those present in Sweden to demonstrate solidarity in some small way, proving that life goes on and we won’t be intimidated from doing what we love.

Arriving home after zero sleep in 36 hours, I made the mistake of binge-watching a jumble of media reports from both the match and the aftermath of the bomb… and all of a sudden I was an emotional wreck; proud of the team for completing the set and immensely proud of the city for its immediate response to the attack. I know it’s only football, but you know what it’s like at European finals… you don’t win them very often and when you do it can all come flooding out. I dunno what to say in conclusion, just that winning the Europa unexpectedly proved quite a life-affirming moment. And clearly, that’s not a sentence I ever envisaged writing.

Anyway, onto current matters and how are we looking for the season ahead? The transfer window this summer has proven remarkable based on the sheer number of players we’d apparently agreed personal terms with. At some point in mid-June we were clocking one per day. Morata, Neymar, Perisic, Aurier, Rodriguez, Talisca, Fabinho… it was relentless. Ed Woodward must have been dual-wielding mobile phones like some kind of cocaine-deranged city trader to have had all them lined up.

Away from Fantasy Island, actual real-life completed business has been more steady with only Lukaku, Lindelof and Matic arriving thus far. Solid acquisitions there, nothing too ground breaking but there’s still plenty of time remaining for one or two more. Common sense suggests that prior to further additions, we’ll have to ship a couple out as only Rooney and Januzaj have departed up to now. As things stand it’ll be a surprise if Ashley Young is still here in September and Mourinho managed to break several thousand hearts by quashing rumours of Fellaini heading to Galatasary.

I’m close to giving up on this now. Quite how Fellaini continues to enjoy the confidence of successive United managers remains the great unsolvable puzzle of our times. It’s become a question that gives me sleepless nights. I watch closely, I look for clues, I’ve pored over all available evidence but I still don’t have a clue what he’s doing here. In times of weakness I’ve started to doubt my judgement, but I can’t get beyond what I consistently see with my own eyes. One day the penny might drop and I’ll be able to understand his appeal, but I remain utterly perplexed for now.

As much as Fellaini’s employment continues to baffle, Rooney’s departure wasn’t any surprise at all. As a staunch Rooney advocate over the years, it probably took me longer than most to admit the game was up. But Fergie (as always) had it right when he was trying to edge him out back in 2013, as the last 4 years have been grim viewing for the most part. It certainly won’t take Everton long to realise his performance level is more Stella than stellar these days. However, in years to come the Rooney I’ll recall won’t be the lumbering 2017 vintage, it’ll be the spud-faced nipper that was smashing it up week in-week out from 2004-2012. He leaves as one of United’s greatest ever signings and we should wish him well.

Being brutally honest though, I’m struggling to see how we’ve improved significantly on what we had last year. Lukaku will replace Zlatan, Matic will screen the defence a’la Carrick and Lindelof will probably take a few months to settle based on how nervy he’s looked pre-season. All in all, a serious title challenge appears beyond us unless there’s a spectacular improvement on how the team performed for most of last season.

However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some optimism. It’s highly unlikely that Chelsea will repeat their relentless form of last term, especially minus Costa. Liverpool and Arsenal are still as shit as ever and I think City’s decision to change their entire defence in one fell swoop is going to hurt them despite their plethora of attacking options. So if Lukaka scores goals, Pogba kicks on, United manage a serious upturn in home form… well you never know.

I can’t help suspecting that we’ve still got a big one incoming. We’re massively lacking a fancy dan, creative type so it’ll be a surprise if we start another season with (shudder) Young and Valencia as our only specialist wide players. I’ve got a theory in any case. As Neymar has gone to PSG, there’s no way that Madrid will be able to handle not making a splash this summer so they’ll push hard for Mbappe now. Meaning… hello Gareth Bale. It’s happening, people. Imagine the Instagram likes? #baleisared #allhailkingmonkey #pleasemakeitstop

Copyright Red News – August 2017

www.rednews.co.uk

Advertisements

19th Nervous Breakdown

image.pngDespite United suffering something of a decline in recent seasons, it’s reassuring to note that rather than merely being derided by our rivals, we’re now back on the receiving end of subtle and not quite so subtle digs once more. Performance-wise, we’re obviously not dining at the top table quite yet, but at least they’re now chucking regular snide bombs in our direction as opposed to simply sniggering at our misfortunes. Delightfully, we still possess the ability to upset the rest of the English football by merely existing and being bigger than everyone else.

There have been some absolute crackers this last few weeks. First we had Ronald “my dream is to one day coach Barca” Koeman warning Romelu Lukaku against moving to Old Trafford, mainly because we’re rubbish and he’ll never get to play in the Champions League here. Clearly it’s fine for Koeman to regularly move clubs in an attempt to further his career, but woe betide any of his players attempting to realise their ambitions on a greater stage.

Then you had Antonio Conte sagely noting, “it’s not always about who spends more money who wins”. And yes, that’s Antonio Conte manager of Chelsea, a club renowned throughout world football for their moderate outlay in the transfer market. I mean they only laid out a paltry £123M last summer, the frugal refusenik mentalists! It’s a minor miracle these plucky underdogs can even compete when you consider they’ve only spent £2 billion since Abramovich took over. First Leicester, now Chelsea… quietly showing the rest of the Premier League fortune spunkers that there is another way.

Next was Jurgen Klopp, who’s been throwing subs all season about United’s defensive-minded approach and willingness to play the long ball. According to the heavy metal maestro, it’s harder for defenders at Liverpool because they play counter attacking football and leave themselves more exposed. I’m not 100% certain, but presumably this is why (combined with the fact half their team is utter dross) they concede more goals and lose more games too.

Listen Jurgen, try winding it in and embrace the fact that both United and Liverpool are pretty crap at present. There’s no shame in admitting it, we just are. If you’re going to persist with instructing your team to hare round like lunatics for 90 minutes just because that was effective at Dortmund for 18 months, then accept they are going to mess up regularly and ultimately leave you disappointed. English players are generally thick and don’t respond well to complex tactical instructions. Ease off on the gegenpressing, get 10 men behind the ball and lump it up to the big feller up front. There’s really no need to come over all passive-aggressive and take your frustrations out on us.

image

Now I’ve long-since abandoned the pretence of thinking I was knowledgable enough to make a profit betting on football, but I do know enough still to make the occasional solid prediction. On the afternoon of the Celta semi-final 2nd leg, a work colleague was keen to hear my opinion on how United would fare that evening. My response was something along the lines of, “we’ll get through, but prepare to watch the last 10 minutes through your fingers. It won’t be pretty”.

Okay, so maybe you didn’t need to be Nostradamus to see that coming but it still proved unerringly accurate. I can’t recall a last 10 months minutes like that since the similarly nervy Barca semi in 2008. That night however, United at least retained a semblance of composure as the minutes ticked by. By comparison, this current lot displayed all the poise of a 3 year old tasked with carrying of tray of drinks.

Despite the haphazard nature of our progress, victory in Stockholm will apply a coat of gloss to all that’s gone before and make it a very successful season. Fergie always claimed that the aim every year was to win a trophy, so a 2nd major prize in a couple of months with a squad that’s now down to its bare bones after 60+ games will be quite an achievement. Even though some of the recent performances have been no better than the insipid fayre served up under Van Gaal, at least United are starting to look like a team again. It’s certainly not pretty, but we can battle when required and complete capitulations are certainly less frequent.

So, mission accomplished… sort-of. The regular “Jose’s playing the way that United should” refrains might have quietened over the last few weeks but it’s all been quite entertaining in its own way. European finals certainly don’t happen every year and despite the Europa League being the Europa League, the long slog to the final now looks well worth it now we’re closing the season with a couple of days in Sweden to look forward to. Just make sure you brace yourself for watching the last 10 minutes through your fingers again.

Enjoy the summer and I’ll see you in August.

Copyright Red News – May 2017

www.rednews.co.uk

Keep On Keeping On

image

At last! Finally, we’ve done it. The day the naysayers said would never arrive has arrived. Hours upon hours of careful planning, hard work behind the scenes and some inspiring moments of individual brilliance has paid dividends. No, I’m not talking about Red News reaching its 30th anniversary, I’m talking about us no longer being 6th. Win? 6th. 20 games unbeaten? 6th. Draw? 6th. Get beat? 6th. Not any more. Now we’re 5th. Bask in the glory, my friends – this day has been a long time coming.

It’s been a crazy busy last few weeks with games arriving so fast that it’s all passing by in something of a blur. The schedule gets even more congested from here on in with 9 (nine!) games currently scheduled during April. It’s reassuring to note Chris Smalling has allayed concerns about players suffering needless injuries by taking out Phil Jones in England training. At least now there’s less risk of anyone else picking up accidental knocks if Jones is watching from the sidelines on crutches.

Last month also saw us win a trophy and delightfully, cause the ABU nation to suffer a collective seizure by doing so virtue of a wrongly disallowed goal. Although this happened in the first half and Southampton only had an hour to come back from this gargantuan injustice, from that moment on the script was already written. Now I was genuinely perplexed as to why it shouldn’t be offside when there was someone clearly stood 3 yards offside, but apparently they changed the rules about 5 years ago so that you’re only off if the ball is played directly to you. Whaaat? Well I never got that memo, did I? Anyway, suck it up Craig David, Matthew Le Tissier and Jim Bergerac.

Zip up your Fjallraven, jump in the Volvo, slap on some Roxette and head to Ashton IKEA… it looks like we could be going to Sweden! Now Europa League participation normally holds about as much credibility as a David Moyes motivational speech, but it suddenly looks quite appealing now a potential trip to Stockholm is on the horizon. The only problem is I think I’ve only got 1 credit due to being a perpetually skint, semi-retired part-timer. 10,000 tickets is a minuscule allocation for a European final, so the application has gone in for Anderlecht as it will for the semi should we get there. Why oh why didn’t I apply for St Etienne? That’s gonna come back to haunt me, that one.

If we do make it to the final, then it’ll make a fitting finale to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stint in a United shirt… and may help persuade him to curb his nomadic predisposition and give us another year. Admittedly, I was sceptical upon his arrival but he’s been an absolute godsend in a season where we’ve struggled to score goals. He’s been United’s top player this season, impressing as a leader and instilling a bit of arrogance and swagger back into a squad that was devoid of personalities prior to his arrival. No, Jesse… I’m afraid sticking your tongue out and practising elaborate goal celebrations doesn’t make you a personality, it just makes you look a dickhead.

image

If you weren’t an Ibrasceptic previously, then you are probably one of those incredibly smug Zlataphiles who have spent the last 6 months telling everyone, “I told you so.” Congratulations, give yourself a pat on the back. The thing is, when the rest of us were saying, “not good enough” a few years ago, it was with good reason. United had Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo terrorising all of Europe back then, and I’d argue Zlatan wasn’t at their level. He’s only proved himself as a stopgap signing in a vastly inferior set up years later. A harsh assessment given his stellar contribution this season, but we still desperately need to find the player who’ll take us above and beyond where we are at right now.

One hoped that Zlatan’s arrival would curb us of our tendency to struggle at home against packed defences, but it remains this team’s Archilles’ heel. Our overall record this season is decent, with only 3 league defeats all season, but this is pockmarked by rage-inducing home draws when facing utter dross. Stoke, Burnley, West Ham, Hull, Bournemouth recently – each should have been routine home victories. Those 10 dropped points would have had us safely ensconced in the top four now, rather than still sweating on CL qualification.

There was a confirmed departure this month as Bastian Schweinsteiger finally admitted defeat with his saintly charm offensive and packed his bags for the MLS. What a strange character he was. I don’t wish to sound all Brexit but I expect more Teutonic arrogance from my German sporting icons than you ever got with Basti. When Mourinho told him it was over I would have had more respect for him if he’d flounced back to Bavaria rather than forlornly hanging around Carrington helping to put the cones out. I know he was only being professional and he probably is a bloody nice bloke, but I just found it all a bit false.

Finally, huge thanks to AS Monaco for knocking City out of the European Cup and ending the possibility of them ever winning it for at least another 12 months. I’m aware that getting past Bayern, Barca and Real was going to be a very tall order indeed, but those recent-ish Liverpool and Chelsea victories have taught us that it’s very possible for the underdog to scrape through and claim an unlikely triumph. Although we can no longer celebrate their trophyless anniversary each 28th February, at least we still have this little nugget to cling onto until the true football order is restored in Manchester.

Bitter? Moi?

Copyright Red News – April 2017

www.rednews.co.uk