Friday, April 05, 2013

Three Become One

Soon found a cure for that treble-fever then, didn't we? And so the question 'Is this United side superior to the one of 99?' that had filled space and kept the comments section busy, shifts back to the more familiar 'Is this United side the worst in Fergie's tenure?' because as everyone knows, these days things are only allowed to be the Best or Worst, only superlatives make themselves heard above the digital din, the cacophony of the comments section, the shrill squeal of the...well you get the picture.

The answer lies somewhere between the two poles of Best and Worst, as it usually does. There's a thread of brilliance running through the side, but there's also a thick stripe  of mediocrity. The trick, it seems to me, is when they intersect, the mediocrity will be elevated by its proximity to greatness rather than it working the opposite way round.

But that isn't really what was on my mind. It's Thursday - well it was when I started jotting this down - meaning we've got four days to while away before our friends from the Etihad Campus (Dear Pseuds' Corner...) arrive at OT for the Derby. Four days filled with tough tabloid rhetoric - not just the province of the tabloids of course - about how United are 'focussed' and 'determined not to let city derail their title ambitions'. Vidic has stated that he'll shun the friendship of his Serbian chums from the Boo- camp for a day or two, while his opposite - meaning Vincent Kompany, rather than, say, Nani has declared his ambition to win the game and become 'Champions of Manchester', suggesting he's definitely cut out for a career in city's press office.

And while the rhetoric rises in intensity and density, you can't help but wince at what will probably turn out to be another absolutely supine showing from United. If the last couple of weeks have shown anything, it's that the Madrid result sucked not just momentum from the team, but self-belief as well. Now we're a labouring, limited side, lifted only by the geometry of Carrick's passes and the obduracy of our defence. A fair assessment? Aren't those two things enough?

Now, not only is the glass half-full, it's being carried to your table by Nani, meaning the chances of it ever reaching you are slim indeed. Treble fever induced some kind of collective hallucination and hysteria that allowed us to forget that  in Young, Valencia and Nani, we have a triumvirate of wingers so desperately average it's a shock we ever score at all. (To be fair, in Valencia's case it's to be hoped this phase is passing, in Nani's it's definitely passing...and shooting...and tackling...and I'm here all week.)

Then there's the case of Welbeck and Jones, world-beaters in waiting, or England players? ‘But they came of age in the Bernabau!’ roar the Top Reds. But one of them's a striker with no strike and the other is like the word galumphing has been given corporeal form and set loose on a football pitch, retort the, well, me.

So, three more days to kill, days in which at some point all of us will either say or think the dread words 'Take a point, wouldn't you?' Probably. But I'd much rather see the reds do the footballing equivalent of standing on their fingers for 90 minutes, freeing their grip on that trophy, our trophy, in the most painful way possible. Here's hoping.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The What v. The How

Some extracts from the conversation going on in my head with about 20 minutes left to play yesterday. (Note for historians. Yesterday meaning United v. Sunderland, a 1-0 victory that maintained an impressive, nay implausible run of clean sheets and a 15 point gulf from the team in second place, some sheik’s bombastic PR/vanity project.)

Not exactly freewheelin’ stuff this is it? Not exactly the kind of performance you’ll fast-forward the DVD of the season to get to, is it? Not exactly the kind of game that’ll glow in your minds-eye and that you’ll plonk children on your knee (family ones, nothing to see here Operation Yewtree) to wax romantic about?

Yeah, but it’s about the result ain’t it? It’s the winning that matters, not the how you win. Style’s just a frivolous luxury, an affectation. Savour the beauty in the pragmatic, the bottom line’s the only line that counts.

But surely we should be cutting loose against a team as toothless and abject as this? Surely if we’re half the team that fifteen point gap says we are, we should be sticking three or four past sides this mired in mediocrity? Shouldn’t we?

That’s only how football works in the minds of people who don’t understand football. Think rationally for a minute. It’s late in the season. Half the team have spent the week scattered across the planet on international duty, and not even international friendly duty, but actual competitive games duty. They’ve got an FA Cup Quarter-Final replay in 48 hours against tougher opposition than this. They know city ain’t catching ‘em, and they know that even if Sunderland miraculously do breach a defence with Vidic at its core, they’ve still got to get past De Gea, and even if they do that, they’ll still be 13 points ahead, even if they don’t go straight down the other end and stick a winner away.

But, surely there’s nothing wrong with asking for a bit more from the lads, is there? A bit of swagger and panache to make it feel like we won the league because of the style of football we played, not by default, not because we were better at hanging on to one-goal leads, leads that we got through fortuitous, deflected goals?

Style again is it? Did you not see all them little touches from Kagawa, the first within about 25 seconds of the game kicking off? Trawl the internet, there’ll be gifs of them knocking about. Did you not see Buttner bursting through into the box, barging players out of his path on every side? Did you not see Carrick tracking back and doing some wonderful tackling?

Yeah, but, I don’t know, none of that seemed to add up to anything that impressive.

Well then did you ever stop to think you just might be spoiled? Even after last year and that last minute Agueropalypse, winning the thing back’s not enough on its own? You amaze me. And depress me. And sicken me. And...

Alright, I get the message. And yeah, I know that the imaginary dialogue device is a cheap and gimmicky resort of the scoundrel, and just because you’re going to stick it on a blog that nobody actually reads rather than do anything any more meaningful with it, shouldn’t make any difference. Still, looking forward to Chelsea tomorrow?

Can’t wait.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Man the Barricades

So it’s that time of year again. That time of pre-season frenzy, when excitement and apprehension go head-to-head, and reason, as it tends to in most matters football-related, goes straight out of the (transfer) window. And as the forums fulminate and the twitter feeds gorge themselves, wearyingly familiar battle-lines are drawn amongst United fans.

On one side of the fence all is gloom.  Here, the war-cry has a familiar ring to it; ‘We’ve never replaced Roy Keane!’ they say. Retaliate that Roy Keanes don’t drop from the branches of the Forest every other year, and they’ll come back at you with words to the effect that city got Yaya Toure, he’s just the kind of player we needed. Retort with anything about Toure commanding the kind of eye-watering salary that we should be thankful United are unwilling to indulge (unless you’re a certain Scouser with an agent with his eye well trained on the prize) and they’ll riposte , ‘Well would you rather the money went in some mercenaries bank-account or disappears into the Glazer’s deb-fund?’ And you tend not to come back with anything to that. We’ll give ‘em that one.

According to the doom merchants, United, currently lugging that debt half-way across the globe to scrape-up another repayment or two, and weighed down by the most threadbare midfield in the club’s history (perspective, like reason is another early victim in all these debates), it’s quite obvious to everyone but Sir Alex Ferguson and his apologists, are heading for their worst season ever. In gingham for god’s sake. ‘Win the league? Pah! They’ll be lucky to finish mid-table. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not been sacked by Christmas.’

To express an opinion contrary to this is to paint yourself as the kind of naive fantasist that Red Issue print a warning about on the front of every issue. Believe that United might actually win the title this season, or if not, run whoever does win it all the way, is to show yourself up as a stooge of the Glazer PR machine, the kind of clueless idiot who takes Fergie’s every press conference at face-value and agrees that if Sir Alex says we only really need one more signing, then we really do only need one more signing.

What I’m sure you didn’t see coming was the fact that I’m not fully buying either of these two scenarios. By now, anyone with a shred of sense has surely recognised that the Glazers are a cancer eating away at the club, and that Fergie’s mute acceptance of their vandalism is tragically undermining the monument to his genius that he has built at Old Trafford. And yet, it’s his ongoing presence that comes as close to a guarantee as you can get in football that this Worst United Side in Living Memory will be competing to the dying seconds of next season, just like they did the one just gone.

Anyway, that midfield is nowhere near as lightweight (insert your own Anderson gag here) as the merchants of doom would have us believe. Without wishing to reopen tiresome old Carrick debates, the fact remains he can measure a pass better than virtually every other player in the league. No Roy Keane though is he, you say. Granted, but let’s not do another circuit of that particular issue.

Then there’s Tom Cleverley. Admittedly, it’s hard to completely banish the suspicion that, in his mind, every good run of games (make that run of games free of serious injury) takes him nearer his life-long goal of getting his own range of branded hair-products in Superdrug, but the lad’s potential is undeniable. Somewhat more deniable is the potential of Anderson, a player who should have long graduated beyond Next Big Thing (insert etc) status. As per, he’s been making noises about this being the season when he finally blah, blah, blah. But I’m willing to court ridicule by wondering, ‘What if he’s right? What if he does click with, ahem, Clevz, and they start rampaging through teams in a way United haven’t since as long ago as, oh, the start of last season?’ Sir Alex clearly thinks he’s capable of it or he wouldn’t put faith in the lad, would he? (Here, pause, while the conspiracy theorists bash their heads off the wall and snort at the fact I’m too dumb to see that Fergie only persists in playing him because the Glazer’s won’t/can’t fund replacements).

That’s before we get to Scholes (another debate that I’m too tired to drag myself through again), Giggs (ditto), Valencia, Nani (still the first player in the squad I’d be booting out of OT given one bullet alone), not to mention this lad Kagawa, about whom I’m not about to pretend I have any expertise, so I’ll say nowt for now. Have I missed anyone? Apart from Bebe. Doesn’t sound that threadbare does it? Silva and Toure would earn a berth there, but would Milner and Barry? I’m not convinced.

So who knows where we’ll be a year from now? Maybe the doom-mongers will get their vindication and they can warm themselves castigating Fergie and saying he’s been out of his depth for years now. Maybe we’ll play fluid, electrifying football, a beautiful synthesis of youthful English talent and South American (and Japanese and Portuguese and Ecuadorian) flair. Maybe financial Armageddon can’t be postponed any longer and we’ll be begging that a MUST-backed Newco is given permission to join League 2. As ever, the beauty is in not knowing, no matter what those who claim to know everything might say.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

This time...

Barely 9 o’clock, I’ve not even reached my desk and it’s started: ‘Where you watching it?’ ‘Reckon they’ll do it?’ and, twice already, ‘Rooney, eh?’ Muttering something vague and non-committal in response, I plonk myself down at the desk, throw some headphones on and try to muffle the insanity, knowing that it’s only going to get worse as the days proceeds.

Taken in order, something more than grunts in response to those questions: pubs and company (or the kind of company that elects to watch England matches down the boozer) will be swerved, instead I’ll be on the sofa, one eye on the box, the other on twitter, that all too familiar way of watching anything these days. Can they do it? Probably. And, Rooney, eh? On the drive to work, Nicky Campbell – as inimitably smug as ever – was calling him ‘the messiah’. True, all too predictably (and smugly, like he was the first person who ever thought of this) he undercut our Wayne’s divine credentials with a swipe at his naughty-boy ones. But an all too familiar narrative was being set in motion: Act One: Overload a single-player with expectation. Act Two: Eviscerate him when he buckles under the strain.

And not for the first time, the starring role in this drama would go to a man who plies his regular trade in a Manchester United shirt, the club that England has its most ambivalent and problematic relationship with, a feeling that is more than reciprocated by those of us who place United well before England in our footballing priorities.

Unlike some reds – who’ve already spent the morning spewing anti-England bile into my twitter timeline – what I feel towards the national side could never be defined as anything like hatred, for one thing that would require the exertion of far too many emotional muscles. No, what I feel is an indifference that shuttles along the spectrum between benign and malign in response to a host of factors.

It wasn’t always this way. Flick through my vinyl collection and you’ll find a splendid picture disk of the 1982 squad’s ‘This Time…’, the year I remember sprinting home from school just in time to see Bryan Robson smash it home against France after 27 seconds. I was 10 and couldn’t have been any more thrilled if these heroics were being performed in the red of United. Nestling among the New Order vinyl you’ll find a well-worn 12’’ of ‘World in Motion’, and when Gazza’ cried, and Lineker signalled to the bench, there was something prickling in the corner of my eye for sure.

You won’t find a copy of Three Lions though, but I have vivid memories of a nightclub in Rhodes that summer, where the DJ had the bright idea of finishing the night by playing it, a decision he may have had cause to regret as the lights came up, and the sing-along to Baddiel and Skinner smoothly segued into half the dance floor bellowing ‘No Surrender’ as they smashed the gaffe up.

And it’s with memories like this that my feelings for England start to curdle. Then throw in the fact that no international tournament seems complete without the anointing of a new pantomime villain, seemingly always cast from the repertoire of reds on duty. That’s before we’ve got to the fact that this is a tournament played in the shadow of John Terry’s racism or that it fell to the England captain to reassure the world that he would lead his team from the pitch if there was any racist bile spilling from the terraces. Any relation to the same bloke who warmed-up earlier this season in one of those fetching, racism-condoning Suarez tee-shirts being entirely co-incidental.

So I’ll be watching tonight, but when England win – and the pattern of this season tells all United fans of a fatalistic mindset that they’ll be going all the way to the final – I won’t be leaping from the sofa and, as I make my way to my desk tomorrow, and hear, ‘Rooney, eh?’ and turn to meet a face expecting me to share their delight, I’ll mutter something, stick the earphones on, and muffle the insanity once again. But not by playing ‘This Time’.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Half and Half

So here we go again. Another crisis, another crossroads, another x on the graph marking the inexorable ascendancy of city and United’s equally inexorable decline. Sensing a few more cracks in the empire, the media vultures are pecking away again. Or, to shift metaphors midstream, Rooney, sensing the water lapping at his ankles, plans to be the first rat off the vessel.

There’s a glass half-full reading of all this of course. In that version of events, United are sitting a mere three points behind the league-leaders, going into that phase of the season when they habitually kick into gear and with machine-like precision do just what is  required to close out the opposition and win the title. Then factor-in that those current league-leaders are city, providing not just additional local motivation for securing title number 20, but also being a club for whom failure is the defining characteristic, the strand in  their DNA that no amount of petro-dollars can ever eradicate.

And factor-in Fergie of course, who relishes battles like these, ever obstinate, ever unwilling to countenance failure, the manager for all seasons. Lose this afternoon and it will precipitate another week of crisis talk, another mass venting of spleen on phone-ins and forums, more hyperbolic and hysterical tweets. And all it will do is help foster the siege mentality that Fergie thrives on and that he’ll use to drive his squad on through the coming weeks.

Win this afternoon and...well, we can’t win really can we? Not in any meaningful sense. Beat city and how far will it really go in exorcising the horror of the 1-6? Say, by some miracle that United repay them with a thrashing of similar proportions, what does it win us? Sure, temporary ownership of that hoary old trope ‘bragging rights’ that we hear so much of on Derby Day, but defeats in the FA Cup, particularly not in the third round, don’t carry the deadly sting of league meetings, and city fans will exit the ground secure in that three-point advantage whatever the outcome today.

All a win would achieve is to paper the cracks until the next crisis takes hold, staunch one gash before blood gushes from the next. For the glass half-empty take on matters, Rob Smyth has provided an eloquent distillation of about a decade’s worth of Red Issues this morning. It makes a pretty depressing read, but he nails the many misgivings most reds have about the Glazer’s ‘stewardship’ of the club.

Considering our opponents today, his eye-catching line about United’s net-spend over the last three years being lower than that of Hull City, Burnley and Blackpool, could be read as testimony to the tight fiscal policies under the Glazer regime, proof that financial fair-play and sustained success are not incompatible. That barely tells the story of course. That comes in the haemorrhaging of money by the family, the constant price-hikes, leading to the hollowing-out of the club’s hard-core support.

Smyth refers to a masochistic urge amongst some reds for some serious pain that will lead to an ‘industrial cleansing’, a purging of the Glazer’s from the OT body-politic, ushering in some kind of utopia. (As Travis Bickle might have said, ‘One day a real crisis will come to wash all the Glazer scum off the streets.’) Nice dream, to quote Thom Yorke, but not one likely to actually happen. For all the death-knells being sounded, there’s still far too much quality in the United squad for this to become a reality, a fact that the self-regarding anti-Fergie voices that shout most on twitter will just have to live with.

But though Smyth is right in most of the things he says, Rooney stabbing home a late winner would be that bit righter. And that’s the best and worst thing about the game. What we live for are those spasms of delirium and delight that obliterate everything we rationally know to be true. And when they come against them, there, they’re all the sweeter.

Will we win today? I’m half and half about that.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Snide Info

Screenwriter William Goldman might have scripted timeless classics such as ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘All the President’s Men’, but the words he’ll probably be remembered for more than any others come from his memoir ‘Adventures in the Screentrade’. There he wrote ‘No one knows anything.’  He might have been talking about film, but his words apply equally well to many other fields, from politics to music. And, of course, to football. Never more so than now, in the dog days of the close season, when transfer speculations rushes in to fill the void left by actual stuff happening.

Anything great in film (and many things far from great) deserve a sequel, and Goldman’s maxim definitely gets one when it comes to transfer speculation; no-one knows anything, but everyone thinks they know something. So depending which paper you read, which internet source you put your trust in, or whether the Glazer’s have done enough this summer to dispel doubts that United will never again be a major force when it comes to recruiting world-renowned talent, David Gill is right now speeding across Milan to sign up Wesley Sneijder. Alternatively Fergie and Gill, with the collusion of obliging hacks, have simply allowed such talk to flare to fan sluggish season-ticket sales.

In the light of recent revelations, journalistic reputation is already a pretty debased currency, but it’s weird to see so many willing to stake their names on such directly contradictory outcomes. Even weirder is the absolute authority and conviction with which they state their claims. I’m not talking here of the massed ranks of forumistas and tweeters eager to inflate their status as in the know merchants. I’m talking about those with picture bylines, the kind who come the new season will be angling for Sunday morning invites round Brian Woolnough’s gaffe for plastic croissants and warm orange juice (strictly ‘from concentrate’).

Who’s briefing who? And what are their motives? One day the BBC’s Howard Nurse is claiming that a ‘reliable’ OT source (reliable, like ‘informed’ being one of those adjectives that has come untethered from its actual meaning) that United were never in for Sneijder and that Gill was never even in Milan. This last point being a reference to the apex (one hopes) of silly-season idiocy when Gill began to trend on twitter as rumour of his location swept the web. The next day, the Guardian still go with a piece of where Sneijder will fit into the tactical scheme of things, while the M.E.N. , pinning the location of the meeting to Zurich, reckon the deal is still very much alive.

Who to believe? Definitely not Fergie himself who has made a career out of dissembling to the press. Whether he observes the whole sorry charade with mirth or with despair is open to debate. I’d guess a mixture of the two. But I couldn’t say for certain. Like everyone, when it comes down to it, I know nothing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Seismic Saturday

We live in the Age of the Overstatement. And you know who’s to blame. Every Super Sunday another superlative gets drained of meaning as Sky dupe us into believing that the Premier League is simply one climactic, borderline classico after another. Hardly surprising then that the claims to historical significance of any given Saturday or Sunday in the footballing calendar should be treated with liberal quantities of salt. But if any Saturday ever deserved to have something like ‘Seismic’ attached to it, it’s the one coming up, a day that for United fans potentially brings two moments of, ahem, massive significance, one of which could cancel the other one out. The big question being, which is which?

Let’s start with the first. Nineteen. Think about that. Twelve times in eighteen years. For those of us weaned during the great famine of the 80’s, with only the odd FA Cup and glorious tales of years gone by to sustain us, it’s almost beyond comprehension. Young United fans, with their reflex hatred of all things Scouse, should have tried going to school when everyone supported Liverpool, when it seemed like every season they’d scupper the hope that this year was the one. They’d know about hating Scousers then.  So I’ll say it again. Nineteen. (And with that said, can reds who should know better abandon this wacky get Paul Hardcastle to Number 1 campaign. Am I alone in thinking it smacks of the sort of fans who get their kicks carrying inflatable bananas or doing Poznan’s?).

Talking of which. Barely a couple of hours after we hopefully sink our claws into a deeper groove on that there perch, history of another kind could well be written at Wembley. Many United fans are already making noises about how any rays of light emanating from Wembley will be obliterated by that giant 19 taking all the space in the sky. I’m not so sure. For one thing, United were practically crowned on Sunday, meaning many of the tribute pieces have already gone to press. For another, there’s just no getting away from the fact that, like it or not, city winning the cup is a big deal. Best to admit this to yourself now rather than make a fool of yourself arguing otherwise. Not bigger than winning a record 19th no, but big nonetheless.

Think about it. This isn’t just getting a single monkey off your back, it is, to quote a bloke who knew a thing or two about bitterness, a wilderness of monkeys. We remember what that was like. True, for us it was the league title rather than just the trinket of an FA Cup, but it matters and there’s no escaping it. What do we do with the flag? Straight in the Irwell for me. In fact, it’s always astonished me that city never got round to negating it by just putting up an identical one of their own, would have soon lost its impact then.

Driving home tonight, mulling over some of the thoughts that I’m putting down here, I thought about some of the decent city fans I’ve know over the years. Kids I’ve taught with pretty shoddy lives – I know, I know, the gag’s write themselves, but not everyone has the courage to call their old man one of them – whose lives would be made a bit less shoddy if for once city didn’t let them down. It was a moment of weakness. I tried to fight it. But I can’t deny that for a spell there I felt what could only be described as a moment of equanimity about a city win.

It passed. I thought about those all those clowns doing ‘their’ Poznan, ‘Munich’ dribbling from their lips and getting caught in their ‘taches. But if it doesn’t happen on Saturday, it’ll happen soon. They’ll act like idiots when it happens, and if we don’t allow them their moment, so will we. Now where’s that bucket with the big hole?