Tag Archives: fa cup

Highway To Hell

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Good old Juan Mata. Whilst everyone was losing the plot after the Champions League exit, the nicest man in football™ also proved himself a master of understatement by summing up events as merely, “a complicated week.” That’s one way of putting it, though I can’t help thinking ‘calamitous’ might have been a more fitting adjective.

After Ben Yedder’s 2nd goal prompted the mass exodus from the ground, the mood walking away wasn’t one of resigned disappointment, it felt almost mutinous. I know plenty of people have never really warmed to Mourinho, but I was genuinely surprised at the level of invective being aired. This wasn’t just the usual handful of gobshites sounding off, it was more than that. It felt like a tipping point had been reached.

Jose, true to form, came out swinging. Whilst he was obviously correct in pointing out that our recent Champions League is poor and home exits are nothing new, it was pretty disingenuous of him to ignore the fact that he was brought here to try and change that. Yes, he may well have been in charge of Porto and Real Madrid when they knocked us out, but using that fact to justify failings on his current watch was somewhat spurious reasoning.

As regular readers know, I’ve always defended Mourinho and would have been happy to see him appointed as Fergie’s successor 5 years ago. We needed someone with the same self-belief, drive and winning mentality who would be completely unfazed by the size of the club and level of expectation. Clearly he has his character flaws, but then so did Ferguson. We revelled in his malevolent side and siege mentality for many years, reaping the rewards of his similarly gargantuan personality and monstrous ego.

The major difference between the two was hammered home after the Seville game, however. Whereas you always sensed Ferguson took defeats personally and everything we experienced (good or bad) could be used to impact on his players’ long-term development, there was no evidence of that from Jose’s reaction. He didn’t defend his tactics or his squad, or even seem that chastened by the result – he merely used the opportunity to defend his own reputation.

Needless to say, it wasn’t great timing by Mourinho to remind us of his previous successes over United in the competition. We’re acutely aware of his past pedigree as it’s one of the main reasons he was appointed manager in the first place. His press conference might have been better received if he’d at least sounded contrite rather than brushing criticism away and offering the somewhat lame excuse of, ‘well you’ve seen all this before, haven’t you lads?’

He wasn’t done yet. Jose was back in front of the press prior to the Brighton game, this time armed with a list of Rafa-style facts detailing each of our European exits in recent years. His tone was just as bullish as had been 3 days earlier, although this time he was at pains to stress that the Seville result needed to be viewed in context. His main point being that this United team are still a work in progress lacking experience at the very top level. A fair point I suppose, and at least this time he resisted the temptation to big up his own past achievements.

Manchester United v CSKA Moskva - UEFA Champions League

At least the defeat took the ongoing beef with Pogba off the back pages briefly, but that one is certain to rear its head again given his ongoing absence from the starting line up . The fact he was left out for the biggest game of the season speaks volumes, and that’s before you consider the minimal impact he had after he eventually came on as sub. Regardless of form, I don’t think any of us would picked Fellaini over Pogba versus Seville, especially as we were starting another 2 holding midfielders in Matic and McTominay. Relations between the pair don’t appear to have improved and as I said last month, it won’t come as much of a surprise if Pogba’s gone in the summer.

Ditto Luke Shaw, another player subject to Jose’s oft-schizophrenic approach to motivational techniques. Now we all know that Shaw needs a regular kick up his sizeable arse and it’s long been a cause for concern that his attitude and approach require constant tuning. Mourinho isn’t the first coach to experience this and I doubt he’ll be the last. However, it was only 6 weeks ago that Shaw was being praised for his consistency and a new contract was being mentioned. Was this just an attempt to alert potential suitors? If so, why the abrupt change of heart within a couple of months?

Another in the firing line is Alexis Sanchez, a player whose descent into utter mediocrity has been impressive even by recent United standards. I mean, at least Di Maria gave us 6 weeks of good form before downing tools and viewing apartments on the Champs-Élysées. It came as no surprise to see him dropped for the Brighton game as he’s been absolutely shocking since he signed. Fingers crossed we’ll start to see the best of Alexis after he’s had a break in the summer and a full pre-season behind him.

The FA Cup, as it has been on a couple of notable occasions in United’s history, could turn out to be Mourinho’s salvation in what has become a very testing 2nd term in charge. That however, remains a very remote possibility considering the state of our record against both Spurs and potential finalists Chelsea in recent years – we haven’t beaten either team away from Old Trafford since 2012.

All things considered, last week’s international break probably came at the right time to give several figures in the dressing room a few days break from each other. Just be thankful for Will Grigg and Wigan Athletic’s recent heroics, otherwise we might have been facing a genuine end of days scenario in the not too distant future. Watching City win the treble would be the most “complicated week” imaginable.

Copyright Red News – March 2018

www.rednews.co.uk

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We Are The Champions

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Typically, in a season that has become predictable in its unpredictability, United have settled into a decent run just as things are drawing to a conclusion. Whether we’re witnessing the final days of Van Gaal’s tenure or not (surely we are), there’s an excellent chance that as he departs for the sanctuary of his Portuguese villa in a few weeks’ time, he’ll be doing so as a ‘title’ winner. I can hear him now, his methods validated, all those hours of mind-numbing boredom a distant memory. “The English they never stop complaining, I won them a title! The FA Cup is a very important trophy in that country… they hadn’t won it for 12 years.”

Unfortunately, although silverware will be very welcome and moments like the goon that greeted Martial’s winner live even longer in the memory, it won’t be enough to save Van Gaal, ultimately. After a trying first year in which he at least delivered a top four finish, this season has been a backwards step and a huge disappointment overall. Although the final moments could well see him brandishing the cup and addressing an appreciative crowd in Albert Square, the dreadful monotony of the football witnessed between November and March shouldn’t be forgotten.

The quarter final replay at West Ham and the Wembley semi were stark reminders of what’s been missing far too often – genuine excitement. There are always peaks and troughs during a 60 game campaign, but barring a handful of moments from Martial and Rashford, the season mostly panned out as an excruciatingly long, uneventful slog. Win some, lose some, draw some… doing just enough to stay in the chasing pack without ever looking like we were growing in confidence and making progress. Wins were earned with scrappy performances, leads thrown away too frequently and the regular defeats didn’t prompt any kind of determined response or stunned reaction.

Van Gaal admitted himself that he’d run out of ideas at Christmas – a virtual resignation note – but he somehow survived and limped on. Since then, on each occasion his position has appeared untenable, a result has come along and bailed him out. The home draw against Chelsea, a win at Anfield, crushing Midjtylland, beating City away; all of these appeared as the sack seemed inevitable – but they still don’t mask the reality of where United find themselves. 9 wins out of the 17 league games since Christmas doesn’t demonstrate an upturn in form or provide any kind of justification for keeping him on next season. FA Cup or no FA Cup, it’s still not good enough.

During the Ferguson years, we used to hear a lot about players being selected to play for United based on personality as much as their abilities. Fergie spoke at length about youngsters’ family backgrounds being considered, and transfer targets being researched with a forensic level of detail level to ascertain whether or not they possessed the requisite character to fit in. Somewhere along the line we appear to have lost it because the team is now inherently soft. I don’t mean soft as in ‘crap in a fight’, it’s more about a lack of mental strength. The amount of times we’ve switched off in games this season or completely failed to impose ourselves for long stretches, demonstrates that something eludes us that we had in abundance previously.

Everton v Manchester United - The Emirates FA Cup Semi Final

The season was summed up for me at the end of January, driving home from OT having just witnessed a 1-0 defeat to Southampton. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a fair bit of time for Chris Smalling given how he’s one of few who have actually progressed in recent times, but his reaction to the defeat that day nearly made me switch to the opposite side of the road and plough into oncoming traffic. When asked about the result, he chirped up that the players were “disappointed not to draw”. Just consider that for a moment. Disappointed not to draw. At home. Against Southampton.

That, dear readers, said it all to me. The next captain of Manchester United went on national radio to express his feelings after another pathetic home defeat and the strongest response he could muster was to suggest the team were sad they didn’t hold on for a point. Seriously, if that was genuinely representative of the dressing room reaction then the whole team needs something very drastic. I’m not talking Mourinho, forget Fergie’s hair dryer – they deserve Roy Keane with full beard, coming off a 48 hour bender, mislaid his house keys so denied any sleep levels of rage.

If there is a managerial change in the summer, one hopes it helps to instil some desire and a collective sense of responsibility to the current group of players. I’m sure they’d be the first to proclaim “of course we care!”, but do they care enough in that crazed, siege mentality sense that turns disparate individuals into a team of serial winners? I just don’t see anything like that level of togetherness, currently. It’s hard to detect much of a bond between management and players, as Van Gaal’s methods appear to be tolerated rather than trusted. Admittedly this is speculation based on hearsay, body language and tersely conducted interviews – but the gloomy demeanour of everyone involved speaks volumes.

Van Gaal looked and sounded very subdued at the semi-final press briefings, both pre and post-match. Perhaps it was the pressure, maybe a sense of relief, but he no longer sounds in any way confident at the prospect of remaining in situ beyond May. Questions about the future were dismissed with a wave of the hand and he only wanted to discuss the performance. Fair enough, you might argue – but it’s very much a marked contrast from the indomitable bluster he’s come out with all season.

There will very probably be a number of people reading thinking, “what’s the problem?” Typically unappreciative fanzine scribe having a good moan and picking holes after his team has just reached a cup final. “Can’t you just be happy for once?” Well, clearly not. Winning the cup would be a great day out and a much needed fillip for everyone connected with the club, but that’s all it’ll be – a brief respite. Over the last 3 seasons we’ve strung 3 consecutive wins together just 10 times, whereas in Fergie’s last season alone we managed 8. Van Gaal is a good man who’s made hard work of a tricky rebuild, now we need someone to come in who’ll take us back to the top.

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

Copyright Red News – May 2016

www.rednews.co.uk

The Believers

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‘The busy, festive period’ (sic) done then, and despite a couple of disappointing results, United now look a sure-fire bet for a top four finish and are still hanging onto the coat-tails of the league leaders. Although we’ve started winning games whilst not playing particularly well, we haven’t yet demonstrated an ability to snaffle late goals that tends to be the hallmark of title contenders. In truth, it’s the first month of the season that’ll cost us this season. Whilst making up 9 points on City or Chelsea is still a remote possibility, it remains very unlikely that both will slip up with such a commanding lead.

Still, stranger things have happened. In January 1996 we were 7 points behind Newcastle having played a game more and nobody beyond the toppest of top reds gave us a cat in hell’s chance of getting anywhere near them. Yet, of course, that season United ended up winning the double with a far less developed squad of players than what we possess now. I dunno, maybe I’m totally deluded or simply in denial, but I just sense that this season isn’t quite the foregone conclusion that most people assume it is. If we can get to the stage where we’re within 6 points of the top with 10 games to go, then it’ll still be very much ON.

The next 7 league games are Southampton, QPR, Leicester, West Ham, Burnley, Swansea and Sunderland. If we can get through them with near maximum points then those draws at Spurs and Stoke might start to look like decent away points rather than missed opportunities. I know this is all very unlikely, but I’m firmly of the belief that we’ve made great progress so far and will continue to do so. This season was all about rebuilding and getting back to something like normality after the debacle of Moyes’ tenure. Although it’s still a work-in-progress, it’s happening. Van Gaal is sorting it.

As I touched on last issue, the main thing United are crying out for at present is an established defensive leader. Now I’ve always had time for Jonny Evans, back in the days he first came into the side I thought he looked a terrific prospect who possessed all the tools required to become a top class centre half. It’s probably a bit harsh judging him on an afternoon in Stoke up against a force 10 gale and Peter Crouch, but it was during that game the realisation dawned that I’ve lost faith in him ever becoming a genuine top-level player.

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Stoke, it must be said, were characteristically horrific all afternoon. This lot absolutely detest United for reasons known only to themselves, so Mark Hughes, once so beloved of this parish yet latterly, the bitterest man on the planet, is absolutely perfect for them. They must be the only club in the country where the locals turn up each week to cheer the wind, which of course enables their unique brand of ‘launch it into the box at every given opportunity’ football whilst half a dozen 6’5″ blokes attempt to rugby-tackle the goalkeeper. Their ‘style’ of play is absolute dog sick, but completely predictable given they’ve been doing exactly the same thing week in, week out since however long it is they gained promotion.

As a defender, it can’t be much fun facing this kind of onslaught, but that is what Stoke do – you simply have to deal with them. Instead, Jonny Evans spent the entire afternoon with the haunted look of a junior police constable dealing with the aftermath of a serious road traffic accident. Maybe I’m being too harsh singling him out, but as United’s longest-serving, senior defender I expected more from him this season – instead he looks off the pace and still prone to regular lapses in concentration. That said, having Phil Jones blundering about the place next to you like an over-enthusiastic Doberman would probably distract Franco Baresi too.

Whilst I’m writing this, the 3rd round of the FA Cup is underway and what a weekend of drama, romance and intrigue it’s proving to be. Brighton are beating Brentford 2-0, Doncaster are drawing 1-1 with Bristol City and Derby have scored a last minute penalty to take the lead against Southport. Geoff, Merse and Thomo aboard the Sky Sports banter bus can barely contain themselves! United, meanwhile, are off to Yeovil tomorrow in an attempt to avoid humiliation and, I suppose, kick off a march to Wembley in a competition which sadly represents our best chance of silverware this season.

You might be one of those people who really fancies a crack at the FA Cup, given the likelihood that we won’t be winning anything else and it’s now 10 years since we last picked it up… but if I’m being totally honest, I’m really not arsed. The FA Cup as it was once known and loved is now dead, it’s as redundant as every tired cliche that’ll be uttered this weekend. Progress in the competition presents little reward unless you’re one of the lucky few ground spotters or never miss a game completists fortunate to have grabbed a ticket for Yeovil (a place we’re unlikely to ever visit again) tomorrow.

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Visits to these football outposts no longer present the opportunity for an old-skool red army invasion, you get a couple of thousand tickets at best and in truth, plenty wouldn’t bother anyway given it’s a million miles away and on a Sunday afternoon. If we get through and ultimately reach the semis/final, more visits to Wembley are the prizes. Great. That shiny, overpriced, atmosphere-free cess pit of nu-football greed and corporate hospitality. Despite having many great memories of the place prior to its demolition, I now feel nothing but resentment each time I’m obliged to step foot in the place.

Yep, I know it’s curmudgeon-like but I really couldn’t care less if we progress in the FA Cup or not. Most teams (barring those having their once-in-a-lifetime, big day out) will be resting players, attendances will be down and most managers justifiably have one eye on the next league game as their main priority. Meanwhile, commentators and ex-players nationwide will continue to do their best to try and preserve the status of something that ceased having any genuine relevance years ago… apart from that time Wigan beat City, obviously.

Finally, a quick word on the big news that Steven Gerrard has announced he’ll be leaving Liverpool at the end of the current campaign. A note of caution though, particularly to Tufty & Co at SEF before they embark on a hilarious banner highlighting his chronic lack of league titles in comparison to our current assistant manager. Given that Gerrard has just announced his future career lies in the MLS, presumably this means he’ll be turning out for City next season…

Copyright Red News – January 2015

www.rednews.co.uk