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Alive and Kicking

Sometimes I sit down to write this column and it’s a struggle to hit the word count if it’s been a quiet few weeks. And then there’s occasions like this where it’s difficult to know exactly where to start. Super League, Woodward’s exit, anti-Glazer protests, European finalists… it’s no exaggeration to say the last month or so has been fairly eventful. 

The proposals for a European Super League announced back in April came as both a surprise and no surprise at all. It was always going to happen one day, it was just a matter of when exactly. What I didn’t anticipate is that the product would arrive as such a half-baked, amateurish package. Everything about it was essentially crap. The justification for it, the timing, even the logo and the site looked like they’d been knocked up in a couple of hours by some low-end web design freelancer.  

If something of this magnitude was ever going to succeed, it had to come out fully-formed and ready to roll. Instead, it turned out that the invested clubs weren’t even convinced as the whole thing had collapsed within 48 hours. The ESL arrived dead on arrival because fundamentally, it offered nothing of value to the very people it was being aimed at. They were attempting to sell an inferior product to the one that already exists. It was nothing more than an opportunistic power grab from morally bankrupt, financial leeches who’re ideologically opposed to the very notion of ethical business practice or protecting the sport as a whole. 

The motivations of their plot were so transparent that the entire football community were unanimous in their condemnation. Here, after contentious topics such as Brexit and COVID, was a subject everyone could agree on. The momentum was strong at this point and there were encouraging noises being made that we might potentially see a review leading to reform of football club governance. One of the loudest, most passionate voices was Gary Neville. This struck me as a little strange given that Neville is a multi-millionaire thanks to football’s relentless commercialisation over the last 20 years. Perhaps that was just me being cynical and we had to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

The fact that the Glazers were front and centre in ESL discussions came as no surprise to United supporters. This, after all, felt somewhat inevitable given it was widely acknowledged 16 years ago that their ultimate goal would be to oversee a gargantuan boost in revenue stemming from devolved TV rights. We were largely ignored when pointing this out back then, probably because the only party likely to suffer in the short-term from their takeover would be MUFC itself. The reaction was a bit different now the penny had dropped there might be consequences for English football as a whole. 

Faced with the prospect of the sacrosanct Premier League applecart being upturned, there was a whiff of revolution in the air for about 72 hours as fans across the country took to the streets in protest. The media cheered from the sidelines and Boris Johnson quickly hopped on the bandwagon, condemning the breakaway clubs for trying to establish a “cartel”. This was later proven to be shapeshifting nonsense as The Sunday Times revealed that Johnson had met with Woodward in the days preceding April 18th and had apparently given the plan his tacit approval. He denied this of course, but it’s a bit of stretch to believe the ESL wasn’t discussed in No 10 that day. 

As one of the main instigators of the plot, the hapless Woodward soon resigned and after dominating the headlines for a few days the news cycle quickly moved on. The ‘football family’ had spoken and that seemed to be that as far as the mainstream media were concerned. Errr… not quite. United supporters, after all, have longstanding issues with the Glazer family that dwarf any lingering outrage about plans for a breakaway ESL. 

After being the source of much bitterness and acrimony between 2005-2010, it’s fair to say debate concerning the Glazer ownership dwindled after the Green & Gold protests petered out back in 2010. It never went away completely, as referenced in these pages month after month – but a sense of malaise had crept in as people conceded they were likely going nowhere. In truth, after 5 years of banging our heads against a wall in an atmosphere of divisiveness and intimidation from certain parties, most people were probably tired of the subject.

Fast forward back to 2021 and that palpable sense of injustice was back with a vengeance. First we saw a bedsheeted up band of interlopers infiltrate the training ground before that glorious Sunday when a couple of thousand took to the streets and against all the odds, managed to force the postponement of the Liverpool game. Mission accomplished. If the powers that be weren’t listening before, they were certainly listening now. 

This time, however, the prevailing media narrative had shifted. Whereas a couple of weeks previously, the noises coming from commentators and journalists were encouraging of supporters taking direct action to protect the national game, the mood changed once this exact scenario was being beamed live into people’s living rooms. All of a sudden it wasn’t about justifiably outraged fans protecting beloved community assets, this was being framed as a minority of thugs overstepping the mark and taking things too far. “Of course you should protest, just make sure you don’t protest too loudly”, seemed to be the consensus. 

This reaction was as depressing as it was predictable. Pat Nevin whipped himself into a frenzy on 5 Live, spending over an hour lambasting the protesters. Jermaine Jenas was so out of his depth on MOTD that he seemed bemused as to why he was being asked to give an opinion at all. I mean, come on. It genuinely defies belief that someone paid to talk about English football doesn’t have a grasp of why Manchester United fans might have an issue with the club’s owners. This isn’t a new story. This is something that has been brewing for 16 years. There have been books written about this subject. It led to the formation of another football club for goodness’ sake.

Thankfully, the likes of Neville and Keane were on hand to provide some common sense and perspective amidst all the hand-wringing. Much respect to Jamie Carragher too, who appeared to grasp the protestors’ perspective better than any of his colleagues. Whereas Neville continued to pontificate about the ESL, Carragher cut through the noise and correctly pointed out it was nothing to do with the Super League at this point. It may have have been the catalyst, but this was battle lines being re-drawn in a war that began back in 2005. 

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from rival supporters was just as dismissive as some of the nodding dogs in the media. Whereas a fortnight previously there was universal rejection of the ESL proposals, now we were out on our own with people falling over themselves to denigrate the motivations behind the protest. Again, this was entirely predictable. There’s no solidarity amongst football supporters in this country. It’s no wonder that fans have been exploited for decades when club rivalries and petty name calling seem preferable to working together to bring about change that might benefit all clubs in future.

Whether the current strength of feeling continues to gather momentum remains to be seen. We’ve been here before of course, and in the past the Glazers have ridden out similar periods of disquiet holed up in Florida. United’s fanbase is large and made up of many disparate groups. We’ve been prone to squabbling and infighting at key junctures previously, but now is the time to forget all that. Many thought all was lost back in 2005 but the last few weeks have shown that the resistance is still strong. Unity is powerful. Let’s keep the pressure on.

Copyright Red News – May 2021

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The Beat Goes On

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Having argued quite vociferously against the resumption of the Premier League, I’ll happily concede that it turned out to be quite watchable in the end. Winning helps of course. 11 rapid-fire games with United looking focused and determined for the most part. Despite being confined to watching on TV, I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed the last 6 weeks of football as much as anything in any period since Fergie retired. Not that that’s saying much.

The realisation hit me that watching football on telly shorn of the compulsion to attend in person (a growing trend in recent seasons, admittedly) is actually quite underrated. It’s an absolute doddle, this part-time supporter caper. There’s little stress involved, it doesn’t cost anything like as much as buying a ticket and you don’t have to mix with the ever increasing number of complete bellends who spoil the match day experience. Having spent nigh on 40 years looking down my nose at mere ‘fans’ and quietly revelling in my self-appointed top red status, it turns out the armchair lads are actually onto something.

I jest of course. Despite the novelty of watching United string a few wins together, it all had a hollow ring to it. We watched 6 weeks of walking-pace, contractual obligations being played out with piped in crowd noise to provide the illusion of authenticity. It was a bit like watching the longest post-season tour in history… or a particularly unmemorable World Cup where everyone knew who won before the draw was made. It was entertaining to a point and provided some relief after weeks of below-par crime dramas and basketball documentaries on Netflix, but let’s not pretend it was football. Not proper football, anyway.

The post-apocalyptic, Bizarro World version of the Premier League briefly afforded us the chance to make history. At one point it looked like we might be in with a shout of lifting the inaugural Covid League title awarded to the the team with the best record post-lockdown. Unfortunately we had to settle for 2nd place as dropped points meant City picked up the germ plated, commemorative trophy. This made it a Coronavirus double for the blues, still buoyant after their extra-time victory in the CAS Cup.

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Despite paling in significance with the real thing, there was still plenty to digest. For the first time in a long time, a United manger successfully figured out his strongest line up and boy, did he decide to rinse it. As we limped over the finish line at Leicester the team was basically running on fumes. The only big disappointment came at Wembley where Ole justifiability gambled on resting a few players. That didn’t work out at all as the performance showed. We’re still in need of further reinforcements clearly, but that single setback shouldn’t detract from the progress made since January.

The main reason for the improvement is Bruno Fernandes. Not only has he arrived and made an excellent contribution himself, his enthusiasm appears to have had a positive effect on everyone else around him. The attitude of many of the squad has been questionable, both collectively and individually for a number of years. Fernandes comes in and it’s like they’re trying their best to impress the new kid in school who everyone agrees is cool. Shaw is moving up and down the touch line faster, Matic looks halfway mobile and perhaps most shocking of all, Pogba has declared himself match fit.

In the final game at Leicester, Bruno looked absolutely shattered after 10 minutes. He still didn’t stop all afternoon despite the feet no longer doing what the brain was telling them to do. Having a player like that in the team, a proper natural leader actively looking to take responsibility rather than shirk it is absolutely priceless. His head doesn’t drop and he leads by example, every single game. He might not be THE captain, but he’s A captain. Successful football teams tend to have 4 or 5 players demonstrating these qualities.

Despite quickly becoming the star turn, it’s not been all Bruno. Ole deserves a lot of credit for the way he’s used Mason Greenwood this season, integrating him slowly into the set up and knowing precisely the right moment to unleash him as a first choice starter. Greenwood himself is something else. 17 goals for an 18 year old, 3rd choice striker is a ridiculous return in his first season. It’s not just the goal return though. As he’s shown already, he’s a very capable all-round footballer.

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The decision to shift Lukaku in order to give this kid more game time doesn’t seem so controversial 12 months on. Unlike the human water buffalo, Greenwood is great with the ball at his feet and supremely comfortable in possession. He knows when to do the simple things and when to attempt the extraordinary. There’s no need to blow any more smoke up his arse right now because we all know how talented he is. It’s hard not to get excited about how good he could be in a few years if he continues to develop as he has throughout this season.

Coming up next we’ve got more televised summer football in the form of the Europa League’s conclusion being played over in Germany. It’ll be a bittersweet feeling should United progress to the final (not a foregone conclusion by any means) as European finals are those occasions where you feel compelled to be there. I’ll be made up for Ole if he wins his first trophy as a manager but it won’t be the same without 40,000 reds ballooning round Cologne to mark the occasion. I suspect town could be interesting that night though.

In the same way that Liverpool’s title win became inevitable months ago, I’ve reached a similar conclusion about the prospect of City winning the European Cup later this month. It’s going to happen sooner or later so it may as well be this year. Liverpool are champions and Leeds have won promotion so I figure we take the hit and make it an annus horribilis hat-trick. They won’t be able to experience it properly and it’ll be the worst final in living memory regardless what happens. At least our blue brethren will be spared the usual scramble for excuses after they fail to sell out their allocation. Every cloud and all that.

Copyright Red News – August 2020

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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

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