Moyes.

Moyes. Was already a fascinatingly gruelling ‘affair’ for all of us, crying out for a resolution…

At the centre the frankly dour scot being worn down by the arrogance of players and agents and the blistering levels of flak; at the heavily shepherded perimeter us lot, either exasperated or cruelly elated, depending on our degree of manc or mickeyness.

Wherever you go, people have been either stirring or cursing or holding forth: maybe, on reflection, that’s wonderful? Except that (excruciatingly) The Undeserving – the non-footie peeps, those who really might munch those prawn sarnies should they ever actually attend a match – have also been fog-horning their opinion. Because United are that MASSIVE that everyone feels entitled. Meaning the ether (and us lot, right?) are subsumed under a shit-storm of dumb ‘reactions’. To which I will now… add.

Whatever the ownership rights may be to discussions over his fate, Moyes will surely be distraught. The word damaged may be an unwise one to use but that’s surely where we are?

At the key football level some have recently noted signs that the dressing-room may be lost but we can’t be certain of the whens and wheres of that – not at least until the book(s) come out. But the central point – Exhibit A against Moyes – has been the obvious lack of a sense of team. We can unpick or fiddle with the detail – the personnel, if you will – but it is the absence of purpose from his side that has done for Moyes.

Sure he’s been unlucky; following Fergie, let down badly by certain players, up against a resurgent Chelsea and (god forbid) Liverpool. These have been and might have been significant difficulties for almost any incomer. Moyes though has utterly failed to find the necessary blend.

Just one example; playing Nani/Mata/Rooney/Kagawa at Everton was simply ludicrous unless his team – and those individuals – were utterly on fire with that rare, joyous confidence you only see or feel in the most irresistible of charges. You’ve got no business picking all four of those guys in a struggling team when the chances that it will ‘come off’ are simply nil. Admittedly not Moyes’ fault that Kagawa and Nani in particular are relatively spineless characters but absolutely the gaffer’s job to judge how many spirited or durable or loyal or passionate or genuine blokes he needs out there on the park, representing Manchester United. That kind of misjudgement smacks worryingly of someone who doesn’t understand or who can’t judge players as personalities as well as footballers.

Moyes, for weeks, has not looked like he knew what he’d got or who he could count on. This implies criticism of the players and I am happy to indulge that evil too. It’s genuinely hard to think of anyone who has raised their game or even their level of defiance during this humiliating period. Was this because from early on there was either unrest or detachment from the new ethos? And did that detachment or rebellion come because players lacked faith in the manager – on the grounds that he lacked the feel for it, the instinct, never mind the strategic awareness for this awesomely big Manchester United thing? Contrast that with his predecessor.

The delicious and perverse truth is that players play more or less in the manager’s image. They are puppets as well as prima donnas/divers/heroes.

The relationship is of course as complex as any other on an individual level but a particular magic can occur when the boss really does capture his team. Like say… Ferguson. Sir Alex may well have made as big and as real a contribution to United’s Premier League title in any given year as the fellah who knocked in twenty goals, or stopped twenty. He was as directly responsible for stuff despite the fact that he was sat on his squeaky bum eighty yards away. He had the power and the will and the ability to manage.

Moyes has some of that, to be fair. But the rather sad truth has been that he could not carry this team.

I’m reminded of the mild shock and bewilderment accompanying week after week of Rooney playing teams on his own, earlier in the season. The gulf in everything between him and the rest of the United side was both remarkable and kinda weird. He looked like the only proud professional on the staff. The rest were giving journeymen a bad name. Defensive frailties that had somehow been survivable under the Fergie bluster became open capitulations. It felt like only one bloke was trying.

That particular malaise – so painful to watch and subversive of your own support – cannot happen where the manager is a) topside of players and b) fundamentally confident. It happened. United starting getting beat – even soundly thrashed – at home! Worse, in a way, was the fact that rather than occasional blips we were seeing consistently poor performances and an obvious failure to rally. Nobody (except Rooney, in that one period) could get past the general, listless mediocrity. With fans understandably screaming for some pride in the shirt, players shirked the responsibility that comes with any challenge. They got nervier whilst playing safer. It was bloody awful.

And Moyes never got to grips with it. It can’t have helped that ‘his feller’ – Fellaini – was firstly injured then plain ordinary. Or that the one United really needed –Baines – stayed at Goodison. (My strong hunch btw was that Baines would have been a revelation at Old Trafford. Raiding or defending. Ever present, spirited, great with a dead ball. At the critical time they should have paid whatever it would have taken.) What is extraordinary is the thought that looking at how United’s defence has been for most of the season (mostly at home?!?) should they have bought Baines… they would have only have needed three more.

Perhaps somebody else can rebuild Jones/Evans/Smalling and the rest. I hope so. Moyes didn’t so much tell them to get lost as lose them. In the void, the flux that was his flimsy empire.
Poor man. Did he ever get to feel that he had entered something special? That he was leading it on and up? Or was he always too busy, too stressed, too overawed – too under-supported even?

The spectre of Ferguson and Charlton and maybe Giggs/Butt/Neville(s) has hung around all this. Inevitably. Despite the unspoken but shared knowledge that there can and probably should never be another Ferguson – there are other, better, more civilised ways of gathering folks to your cause – the Moyes era feels like a bungled attempt to stick with methods only viable under that uniquely motivational senior man. ‘ Tough’, football has said. ‘The game and the world have changed’.

Could it be that United have, in choosing Fergie 2, been simply too dumb, too obvious, too reactionary for the crazy carousel that is elite sport 2014? Perhaps.

My A Level English – Grade A, thank you ver ver much – reminds me, you, us lot that
you can’t repeat the past.
Suggesting maybe the American owners should have read more attentively the fable that is Gatsby?

Moyes, ultimately, or maybe from the first moment, had neither the raw power of the original nor the true top-level genius to compensate or even to compete. He floundered. What if we say that he was unlucky and poorly served? There’s some truth in that. So… he was unlucky, poorly served… and unable to manage Manchester United.

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Feel the noise.

The volume and the swelling, not to say rheumy quality of the furore around Manchester United is extraordinary. It’s fandom at its beery best; impassioned, breathlessly drunk on hope or revenge or rebellion; borne more or less ably by scribes and scallies like me.

You have to love all this transparently tribal nonsense. Despite being carried more now through the twittersphere than the turnstile, there’s something reassuringly organic about it. Human to shout cobblers and jeer; human to make godawful judgements around and maybe capital out of (sporting) misfortune. And just brilliant – brill-e-yunt – if you know where to draw the line; many don’t. I’m all in favour of the harmless dollop of spite and the fatuous four-hour argument, the deluge of opinion and the smidge, the flash of insight. We are blessed, in moments such as these, with a curious, maybe precious kind of purity as well as a coursing (or cursing) pomp. It’s the wit of the people; let’s cradle that blessing with our pints.

So – necessary caveats acknowledged – banter really is the lifeblood of sport; within reason, it’s great that folks can get stirred so monumentally by something so daft. And perhaps the level of truth in the event, the fact or otherwise of the Red Devil’s demise, becomes irrelevant. I might argue that the Glazer Thing is a far bigger deal than dropping five places down the league for a season but people don’t feel that, eh, generally? That’s dull by comparison – like facts.

What gives then, at United? Something pretty extraordinary maybe. Or maybe not? Is the level of alleged difficulty the club finds itself in truly remarkable, or no? Is it actually anything but a temporary slide – a media storm? – a blip? And what part exactly does the change of gaffer play in this? Amongst the Liverpudlian glee, the Mancunian angst, fury, loyalty and resignation, there’s certainly something going on. But significant story… or nowt? How much of this can we know to be real and how much is flimsy punditry… and feeding frenzy?

Such is the nature and profile of the United Project that levels of fascination, cruel rejoicing and bipolar vitriol are being recorded which could barely translate to other, theoretically similar scenarios. United have superceded Liverpool as the Footie Monolith, the god-club that overshadows the top division. They are that which must be rebelled against and now rebellion seems possible. Suddenly there is scope for bare-bellied fans and a brutally inclined texto-sphere to surge into something. Something which used to be the endless bulk of MUFC.

It hasn’t always been this way, remember. Once Liverpool were that black-hole of a beast, equally but differently awe-inspiring, perhaps more filled with magisterial cruisers than the flickers and sprinters from Old Trafford. Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester City aspire to but have never yet really grasped swallowing dominion in the way that United did – in the Ferguson era. But in any case, should Wenger or even Mourinho have inhaled or overshadowed all-comers to comparable extent, I suspect that the quality of response to their subsequent fall may have been different. Because a) this has been United b) this has been Ferguson’s team.

Sir Alex is remarkable in that (whilst at the helm) he really was a proper football man – fatherly but driven, instinctive, bellicose, inspirational – and yet much of football disliked or detested him. Outsiders refused, largely, to respect his genius, preferring instead to rub up against his bristling, one-eyed worldview. No wonder; Ferguson often seethed with contempt for opponents as well as journalists, making him a difficult man to warm to. Even the suspicion that both alcohol and the fieriest of passions fuelled his success failed to endear him to the non-MU universe (of hard-drinking, hot-headed footieblokes.) That blotchy fizzog, ablaze with paranoid focus, relentlessly chewing… yaaargh!

Even some United fans, aware of only occasional moments when the adversarial lapsed into something approaching gentlemanliness, found him difficult to love. Yet they worshiped – or fell in – because he presided, eventually, over a staggering period of consistent success, a phenomenon which arguably takes the man safely beyond judgement. (Or not?) Whichever, Sir Alex remains central still to the perception of most – he IS United. I say this more to describe the emotion around the current lack of form (and success) than to subsume any Moyes narrative. Moyes is clearly blameless in the fact of not being Ferguson and he may not wish to propel his side with the same bitter brilliance. But he will have to gee them up somehow – and sharpish.

The new man in knows he has problems. Perhaps they are larger than we on the outside are hearing or suspecting. Perhaps Rooney – currently so far ahead of the rest it’s almost unbelievable at such a gargantuan club – is close to walking? Perhaps Chelsea is looking a safer bet as well as a career-developing and reinvigorating lifestyle choice? I imagine words have been exchanged on the subject of prompt mega-signings and the scale of club ambition; if little changes in terms of key personnel (i.e. players) this month it really might mean mid-table drift for mighty Manchester United and Rooney may not be the only one who will not tolerate that.

Mid-table? Or at any rate out of the Champions League slots. Because Moyes has been simply unable to drive the thing. Whether he’s been bawling or building quietly, it hasn’t worked – not yet. Not only have the team looked tentative – and how the enemy has enjoyed seeing that! – they have looked unable or unwilling to compete with passion. And that’s a worry. It’s a non-negotiable that players play with heart – particularly when the prettier patterns desert them. Consequently, Moyes must very swiftly identify those who aren’t either good enough footballers or big enough humans to wear the shirt – the Manchester United shirt. And he must get shot of some of them, whilst bringing in two or three top, top players.

Let’s play the You Are The Manager game. Then ideally Nani – who’s recently signed a 5 year deal – and Kagawa would be first in the exit queue, for me, this transfer window. I appreciate most of the talk has surrounded the lack of midfield creativity but Kagawa has singularly failed to make an impact and Nani is such a flatterer/deceiver so often that for me, he would go. As could lots of them, in fact.

I don’t expect or recommend wholesale changes but you could make an argument for selling or phasing out each of Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Young, Giggs. Four of those mentioned are clearly beyond their peak and t’other has brought shame on the club more than once too often. Teams are all about balance and blend an in United’s case it may that they need only an elite level twinkler and possibly a pugnacious water-carrier in midfield… and Leighton Baines to compete again. (If Rooney stays… and if Evans and Jones man up in central defence – which I expect them to do.) About sixty million should cover it.

Moyes is not yet a failure and plainly it’s dumb to effectively call him out for not being Ferguson. He may straighten this out in time – and I do expect him to get time, surprisingly, perhaps. The concern is that in his dourness he may not have what it takes to lift individuals and a club of this magnitude. This is indeed a big month for Manchester United. Feel the noise.

Proper grand.

So they got beat. Two blokes in the world think Nani’s dangle was dangerous – Roy Keane and the Turkish ref – and that was that. Madrid go through. United’s chorus of howling dissent and ‘moral’ outrage means nowt against those figures on the ole scaw-bored; 1-2. (2-3.) As Brucie might have said; ‘Alex – you’re my favourite – but I’m sorry you have to leave us.’

Pre the unsatisfying, water-treading, lop-sidedly engineered finale however, this one did pulsate nicely. In the manner of a proper big cup match, the much-criticised atmosphere at Old Trafford seething with real support as well as a respectable dollop of Real support. ‘Twas an occasion, eh? Personally, I’d been scurrying around all day in a heroically faux frenzy so as to engineer that essential headspace/sofa-berth for The Entire Thing – so difficult that one, given the cloying inconveniences of …well, life. But it just had to be done, right? In my case this meant going ballistic on the work front then simply absconding from every domestic responsibility presenting itself; or getting it done rapid. So it was in splendid familial absence that I entered that glorious bubble just in time to see team news flip up on twitter. It was then (doctor) that the pulsations first began.

Ferguson had unsurprisingly surprised us. In that (come on, be honest!) raw, deeply perverse Scottish psyche-to-trample-on-all-psyches (of his) he’d er… pulled out a plum… or a peach, or something fruiticiously quasi-triumphant and maybe whiffing of claret. A team selection all of us had to read four times before saying o-kay through a plainly discombobulated pseudo-reflective fug. A team-sheet so left-field it seemed likely that Muammur Gadhaffi – allegedly farter-in-chief at the Union of Farting Weirdos – must surely have parped it out Fergiewards from the sidelines in the sky, through a series of inspired, presumably Glaswegian cloud-symbols. A nominal midfield of Nani, Carrick, Cleverley, Wellbeck and Giggs. And Vidic ahead of Evans. And RVP up top solo… and no Rooney. Fabulous, mind-contorting stuff for the watching world but on reflection – for Fergie – simply a game plan. One without the ruggedly rugged one.

My personal nervy perusal of the line-up went pretty much as follows, in fact; WOW – Nani in; WOW, Vidic, not Evans!! The Rooneything did not, entirely, surprise me, given Ferguson’s occasional need to Firmly Establish That The Club Is Bigger Than Anyone and the player’s patchy form. Incidentally, I loved and respected the with-holding of Giggs from the Norwich game to allow a fitting and world-wide doffing of caps in this magnificent moment. Being no fan of Arbeloa, I could see the thinking (ish) re the call on Nani… but thought and think it was muddled – irrespective of the freakish red card issue. (Nani is sometimes unplayable but for me, he is too often absent – simply lacking the backbone for the big night.) Brave calls aboundeth, I thought, but before we give him the hair-dryer let’s take a second or two to rate and respect the amount of faith Sir Alex was necessarily displaying in the likes of Welbeck and Cleverley in particular. Top stuff. Pity they lost.

They lost because a tremulous winger in the tradition of lightweight, tricksy non-tackling mediterranean Pat Nevins was deemed to have crossed the threshold of what is acceptable in terms of raising your boot against an opponent. Nani, in following an aerial ball across his body in anticipation of ‘bringing down’ said ball, raised his right foot 4 foot 3 and a quarter as he pivoted. Either he was completely unaware of the approach of Arbeloa or he wasn’t. If the latter is the case then it is conceivable he knew –and indeed intended to make contact – or not. The various possibilities, let’s face it, are likely to be sieved through our own prejudices for and against the player/the club. As a player you know what you mean to do but as a spectator upon this one… difficult. I am clear that it was a yellow because it was not sufficiently dangerous or spiteful to be red, accident or no.

However, this conception of mine that there is a relevance to any ‘degree’ or sufficiency of danger may or may not be extant in the rules. As with seemingly every other high-profile transgression, we’re into this minefield of how or whether things can be judged ‘consistently.’ For me – they can’t. We aim for consistency of course but the dull MOTD chorus around this needs… needs to grow up, actually and think. We need good decisions on a million subtly different fouls or challenges or abuses of the laws. Scenarios which are as varied as the opinions upon them. It makes no sense then to simply bawl about consistency (from referees) when offences are manifestly not the same in degree of intent/violence/seriousness or otherwise. We need a referee who will discriminate well – an intelligent judge – over one applying some ludicrously crude and limiting letter-of-the-law. Let’s hope that we get lots of these kinds of refs, who can make and articulately justify such decisions, because then we will have consistently good football justice. So – even if there was a flicker of cowardly dangling or fishing with the foot by Nani – yellow!

Twenty-four hours after the event several things still fascinate. Firstly the notion that United, in playing a kindof retro-Brit longish, quickish, possession-negligent way, sitting alarmingly deep in the manner of an England side at a World Cup, invited the opposition to a) to get comfortable in the cauldron b) play. Consequently, while the home side scurried and scuffed and lashed the ball aimlessly forward in the first 30 minutes in particular, Real picked their passes. Ronaldo and co, without capitalising, did receive the ball in space around the box or out front. Maybe United got off rather lightly, early doors, as the initial pattern of the game was for Madrid to enjoy it whilst a wasteful and possibly tense United got it over with.

Surely United needed pressure? By all means play with pace but also with control? Get the crowd in there with you. Crucially, really test the Real back four – which ain’t (arguably) that special.

Time flashed past but there was little in the way of coherent passing movement from the reds. Undoubted positives included the mobility and willingness of Welbeck and the in-out dynamism and comfort of Cleverley. If the former ever turns goal-scorer (which sadly I doubt) he will be a near complete player. Giggs grew and got more vital as the game turned against him – a tribute in itself to his fitness, ability and love of the club. He hit more outstanding passes than anyone on the park. Van Persie, cruelly for United, has just hit one of those inevitable dips at utterly the wrong time; he looked quite like an ordinary striker. With things hardly fluent, that tendency to hurry or snatch a little remained.

Defensively United may have gotten away with this drop off and let them play thing if 11 men had persisted. I did think it was an error to play Vidic and Ferdinand together against such a fleet-footed and imaginative opponent but in truth these two elite stoppers were reasonably comfortable until Nani departed. But when United were reduced to ten and continued to sit deep, they were ruthlessly exposed. Ronaldo’s cute reach and Modric’s emphatic hit were in their separate ways, expressions of a high order.

One view of the game – not a popular one, or an easy one to take, perhaps – might be that Real’s composure was markedly and obviously better than United’s and that therefore their regal whitenesses represented some truly elite level of the game that United could not stretch to.(?) Overall they may be the classier – the better side. However I doubt we would be saying that had Nani stayed on and the beginnings of a Red Surge gathered towards irresistible home victory – something that seemed quite possible around the fifty minute mark.

A shame that this proper-grand and evocative sports-drama was undermined by a single issue. United lie 12 points ahead in the Premiership and will certainly be champions – so back next year. Back with the energy of Cleverley and the still-developing cool and quiet authority of Carrick. Plus the lethal brilliance of Van Persie and who knows… maybe that Rooney lad? Expect acquisitions front and back and a renewed purpose; Ferguson will want another thrash at it, methinks. They will be a force again.

This year, despite their near-unseemly dominance at domestic level, I have rarely thought the Red Devils good enough to win the Champions League. Real Madrid though, may be that good.

Manchester United versus Liverpool.

Wafting innocently past – as ya do – or engrossed within, or focussing determinedly in non-tribal civility upon The Media pre- the Utd-Liverpool mash-up, the full range of disappointments coalesce, do they not? Because even decent papers – of which, I assume many of us might argue, there are few – have felt the need to head pieces with a quote or some inference that adds to the bitterness. Something from Ferguson or Carragher, generally, which steps across that line from the fair to the fiery or inflammatory. So that for example one particular longish interview with Carragher, in which (actually) he reinforced the impression that he is a decent bloke and a proper club man, was inevitably titled ‘glad City won the title not United’ (or similar). In other words, the most corrosive, albeit apparently relatively innocently delivered comments led.

I am not so naive so as to be surprised by this, but as the thrust of that interview was surely contradicted by the flashing neon, I am, as I say, disappointed. On one of the few occasions where there appeared a real danger of helpfully level-headed conversations being aired, the Flogging Papers Reflex usurped.

Ferguson meanwhile, if quoted at all accurately – which I imagine he was – has peed his petrol on the fire again. Foolishly, but to a chorus of approval from many fans, whose bitterness rivals his own. Sir Alex is often respected for his ‘knowing exactly what he’s doing’ness, his skill at manipulating both the press and the psyche of his opposite number within the dug-out. It is thought that he is both brilliant and cynical; oh, and a skilled psychoanalyst too; aah, and a dockyard bruiser (too.) Sometimes there’s maybe no harm in admiring his cunning at this stuff, enjoying – however vicariously – the real dockerness of it all, or maybe just the conflicted feelings aroused in us un-dockers over the gritty Scot’s absurd genius-nutter confluence, as it patently strikes a blow at the sopping, public school-educated landlubbing heart of this privileged nation. We get that; or like we would if we didn’t have to rush Ffion to cello.

In fact (more broadly) these weirdly sporadic, often brutally revealing upwellings of insight into gaffers/other personalities in the game are an essential part of its appeal, surely? As one who spends a good deal of his waking hours juggling or clowning in the Banter Circus, I in no way mean to suggest that a colourless Footie would be a better Footie; no way Jose. The mad (or preferably just daft) abrasiveness and pingpong passionata of it all is life-givingly essential. And rivalry feeds the adrenalin. But the machismo, the poison, the dancing with violence thing is unhelpful. And so without liposucting away the necessary spikiness in favour of some All New All Smooth Beauty, I again ask for a certain intelligence and yes, a certain responsibility to hold up its head. Especially around games like this – Manchester United versus Liverool. Might we see that restraint, that awareness, on the pitch, I wonder?

A few hours later and… amazingly, pretty much, we did. Here’s how it seemed to me…

Fergie, typically and to his credit, has his positive head on – Wellbeck and van Persie both start up front. Liverpool, understandably, go with a Suarez solo. Post kick-off, the belligerent terraces are, unusually, not reflected on the park, in a period of relatively quiet earlydoorsness. But this is significantly undermined when following a sharp period of pass-and-move from United, centre back Agger offers that critical yard of space in the box. The result? A pinpoint cut-back from Evra and a simple though well-executed side-foot home from a noticeably pumped Dutchman. Rodgers – having lectured endlessly surely on the need to deny, deny, deny – will have hated that roominess SO MUCH.  United, meanwhile, have started.

They have that zesty fearlessness thing going. Welbeck, in particular, is all over the place (in a good way) but …doink the pause button, peeps. Some ten minutes after van Persie’s goal, whilst the effectively self-injured Young was being attended to… STOP.  Linger awhile and reach for the notepad.  For you will no doubt be fascinated to see (and record?) van Persie fully engaged in mentoring the junior strikemeister on their movements. (Young had followed through somewhat on Agger and finished up crocked. Welbeck got thirty seconds S Level Tactical Wotsits from the senior partner.  Probably at a fairly punitive hourly rate – but worth it nontheless.)

Within minutes United really might have scored four. Firstly Allen gifted Welbeck a decent chance, then Cleverley flashed a sweet left foot volley narrowly wide. In the 35th minute Welbeck again seems in but blazes over – again on his weaker side. Liverpool are open and looking vulnerable, with Suarez and Gerrard at this stage invisible. Ferdinand, as so often when United are cruising, is composure personified.

United’s defence mind, had barely been troubled. Though set up to dominate possession – or at least prevent domination of the ball by United – Liverpool made errors or allowed United to play through or round them. Lucas and Allen and Gerrard even, were rarely seen. Given that Fergie’s lot have been unconvincing to say the least, defensively, Rodgers must have been as frustrated as Suarez at the way the game was going.  But at least we had a game. A football match had broken out, with barely a moment of controversy, as half-time approached.

In the 44th minute a further goal seemed inevitable as firstly van Persie back-heeled, then the onrushing Kagawa approached the empty net. Johnson blocked the United man in the moment of his notchingment – acceptably, I think – with Reina desperately sprawling to recover and limbs generally a-flailing. Should the slightly indulgent flick from van Persie have counted, Sky would still be talking about it now, but as it didn’t, United fans will no doubt be addressing the way the Liverpool fullback ‘got across’ their midfielder to prevent the goal. Kagawa, in fact, spent much of his allotted time on the turf – not through chronic simulation but rather because he is perhaps a tad light-weight for this particular fixture(?) (Discuss?) The Japanese was rightly subbed for the more durable Jones later.

For the ‘pool, it was only really as halftime approached that Gerrard got a meaningful touch. Suarez flitted in and out – mainly out… of touch. At the whistle the suspicion was that Ferguson would be happy with the level of control, but slightly concerned that his side hadn’t – as they really might have done – put this game to bed.

Changes at the break; Sturridge on for Lucas; Valencia on for the injured Young.

Sturridge, looking focussed and mobile, swiftly earns space out front but baulks, wrongly, at taking on an ambitious shot. Credit to Rodgers though – he has made something of a positive move here – withdrawing the defensive-minded Lucas (and therefore taking something of a ‘risk’) but, in fact, loosening up, or even liberating his team’s attacking instincts. So this game does begin to emerge as a good one… a more dynamic one… and, critically, a contest. Suarez, visibly lifted by the brightness of Sturridge, plays Wisdom in but the young man is found utterly wanting in the composure dept. United respond through Evra, who delivers a stunning long ball centre-left, only to see Welbeck clumsily brought down. There’s the predictable baying for a Red, but ref Howard Webb correctly raises the yellow for Skrtel. Van Persie takes the free kick.

He coaxes it beautifully into the far post area, where Evra rises unchallenged to nod it home, via Vidic. If Rodgers was angry before, this one will have him ger-nashing; it’s far too easy. Is that game over already?

Asit’appens – no. In an increasingly watchable game Sturridge profits from a decent De Gea save, knocking in with Rafael caught on his heels. It feels like a fair reflection now, as the addition of Sturridge is proving central to the improvement in Liverpool and the match. The combination of this dual strike force for the away side and the psychology (dare I say it?) around that, plus the questions over Vidic’s pace/movement/agility mean that Liverpool go streaking past seeming like they may have a threat into that Properly Threatening state. Gerrard has settled into it. Suarez buzzes. United give the ball away more – or see it less. There is that frisson.

Because it’s no longer working for United. Welbeck by now has looked hugely willing and more; but the more we see the more the suspicion grows that he is not, in fact a natural goalscorer. (And I say this in full knowledge of the fact that Gary Neville, with some justification, named him Man of the Match!) Hence the game is still alive. Danny boy seems to have arrived at the stage where some debilitating self-awareness has kicked in… and has stopped thinking about shooting/scoring etc etc. And so have United. Their threat, remarkably, has dried. Again, we could credit Rodgers and Liverpool for this.

Necessarily the eye reverts to Vidic and the now less imperious Ferdinand. And Rafael’s top-notch chest-trap… followed by a miserably casual pass. And Kagawa, rightly, is replaced by Jones and similarly, Vidic by Smalling. The thing is taking a breather as we all take stock. There is space for the idlest of idle thoughts. Would it be career-killingly awful if Sir Alex withdrew the plainly confidence-deficient Valencia, so soon after putting him on? Where has Carrick/the rest of the midfield gone? How long is it now since United played any co-ordinated footie (answer; ’bout tenty minutes.) All that stuff you get into when things have changed so much you have no idea what might happen. Meanwhile Liverpool are coming back, right back into it.

On 84 minutes the chance you feel is coming Sturridge’s way arrives. But on his wrong side… and he fluffs it by clumsily hoisting it over. United splutter back to life and Johnson is fortunate to avoid a second yellow for clawing at Valencia. The home side though are unmistakably holding on, rather than strutting home. To the point where if we forget a couple of those early half-chances, we might feel a 2-2 is about right; whatever that means.

There is a lovely moment when an exhausted Welbeck, after an unrewarding slalom down the left in which William Hill no doubt laid odds on him finishing in a crumpled heap, finishes in a crumpled heap – but smiling. Smiling at Sturridge, his England mate, who had tracked back to monitor things and then offer marks out of ten for crumpled heapdom, presumably. Whilst I confess that this was the only smile I saw during the match – and therefore it can hardly be said to characterise the occasion – this was a game of football, a sporting contest, not a war. This matters. I really am pleased to report that there was virtually no malice or controversy in the game. Which United won, 2-1.

 

By the way, I wrote a book. UNWEIGHTED- the bowlingatvincent compendium. Out on amazon ebooks.

amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.

Robbing van Persie?

Two and a bit words for the New Year. Words I am about to fling with irresistible force against the swell, the flood, the wild ooh unleashingment of depressingly ahh tsunamic stories arising from last weekend’s footie/rugger/cricketstuff. Words that o’er-surf the turgid tabloid controversy mega-fest, sloshed abart as it inevitably is like some cheap grog. A name, in fact, foreign but not exotic, containing – or maybe laced with? – just enough of the alien to satiate the average Brit’s inferior awe. Now a symbol for rare but persistent, almost undeniable and recognisably Dutch brilliance. Robin van Persie.

Let’s cherish van Persie now, today, in the near-virginal lather of flushed wotnots that surely accompany our resolute beginning towards the next anti-climax. Van Persie, not some hand-ball, or tip-tackle, or appalling tiff-plus between Warne and Samuels. Let’s have a thrash at that celebratory kind of turning, eh? Palm away Alan Hansen’s predictable, post-dishy, clunkingly black-and-white-but-Red-All-Over justification for that Liverpool centre-forward’s latest. Sling out those stories ’bout English Boy-but-‘Girl’ out-half Toby (Psycho) Flood and his rampant eruption of poodliferous violence. Steer immovably smugly past that embarrassment ‘tween Oz’s (ahem) finest and that hot-headed wanker from the Windies. Towards something altogether more fetching and – if you can leave the tribal stuff at the turnstile – inspiring. A striker absolutely at his predatory peak. Robin. Not Robinio.

Arguably only the now historically significant Messi* could rob van Persie of this moment of recognition. When in any other just universe RVP would surely be at the centre of an unrivalled, relentless idolatry/respect combo for his utter command of the Striking Arts. When even Alan Shearer might find a meaningful sentence or two (He does all this neat stuff around the box but he really knows how to look after himself too, perhaps?) to praise the now Manchester United striker’s genius. Or how about something from the (generally more enlightening acksherly) Mark Bright school of punditry… van Persie… he’s just got everything. He can shoot, he can head, he can bring people into the game – he’s just got everything. To which I would add a solid AMEN, thus de-lionising Messi before the Argentine God had broken from his er, cage.

Yes – Amen and more, to Robin. Because we should be beefing up this faintly nationalistic (Premtastic?) counter-attack with That’s So True-isms. Like the fact that his weighted left-wing chest-pass to create another breakaway goal for United – at City, AT CITY!! – recently was one of the passes of the season. Like the occasional but über-ominous appearances as substitute, that have re-appropriated and even rehabilitated the word awesome into near-enough acceptable sports-journo-speak… because they were, in every sense, shape and dimension awesome. Seminal; perfectly measured; lethal – and of course, game-changing.

The ultimate in what has felt like some gathering notcherama – some exhibition, even – occurred at West Ham this last weekend. A van Persie-Lite United cruised at a significantly higher level than The Irons for much of the first half but failed to capitalise sufficiently. Meaning an Emerging (Televised) Cup Romance-Frenzy seemed possible, particularly after two sound nods from the ‘Ammers honest plodder/Ginger Monster of a centre-back put the homesters 2-1 up. As time ticked yahboosuckingly away at a violently masticating Fergie, he inevitably moved to counter – by introducing an alarmingly focussed-looking Dutchman. Cue the cockney expletives.

However right then the locals were not alone in their (so) near-far eel-pie kebab-trauma. Many of us in the Olympic Radiators R Us-sponsored Lowest Common Denominator Stand (okay, seats) – i.e. on Twitter – immediately barked out our own 140 character-or-less (often much, much less) swearword-heavy dissent. Roused to fury by the sight of Hernandez – for whom the phrase ‘looks like e’s got a goal in ‘im’ was surely invented? – being ruthlessly hoiked to accommodate the master. (In our defence I should say that to a man we felt only that the South American hare might have stayed on alongside van Persie and some goal-shy other been removed.) But tellingly, in the great, swingeing, mad and lovely toggeracious but bubble-popping scheme of things, it didn’t matter. Because a rejuvenating Giggs and RVP himself conjured one of the truly great… and timely… and emphatic… and epically heart-stopping/romance-thwarting/spell-binding-but-also-crushing goals you are ever likely to see.

Giggs struck a ludicrously instinctive and inviting long pass beyond van Persie, offering up a practically todger-erecting opportunity to attackattackattack the East End rump. In a flash (oops!) the sub had gathered and contemptuously by-passed the last defender before rattling the ball beyond a gobsmacked and frankly irrelevant ‘keeper. I am willing to contend, with a fairly straight face, that what happened in these barely separable instants seemed the raw but perfect expression of some kind of lust; or at least a moment where something was satiated – something cruel maybe, but pure – but sensational. The home crowd were crushed and exhausted, the United players in triumphant, ecstatic disbelief almost – such was the degree of devastation inflicted. It was a signal moment in the season; a time when not only did Team United beat out yet another powerful message of defiance but van Persie himself said unequivocally that he/I am TOTALLY IT. And he is.

Van Persie ain’t Messi. He is different. He is more abrasive, actually; he doesn’t dribble. He darts in a different, less low-slung way – more often without the ball. (Because he doesn’t dribble.) He slides and ghosts past one or two perhaps, then unleashes or curls one. He affects things. He gets goals, in a particular way – in stunningly diverse ways. Maybe by adjusting his feet to get airborne before heading or volleying with relish. Maybe finding a yard before persuading one round a defender or two… and into that far corner. Often that far corner. Like van Persie. Not Messi. Like a Dutch bloke with an absolute nose for it. Shielding the ball in that classically cool, Total Footballer kindofaway; coaxing or waiting… then striking.

Cut agonisingly adrift from this now, Arsene Wenger, we can only imagine, has to lump a fair amount of energy into the Not Thinking About Robin area of his turbulent life. Because he will know better than anyone the cost of the utter Gooner collapse which meant van Persie could go… to United. Something which might surely drain away much of any good man’s belief, or faith.

Even though it is possible to imagine that the bitterness between Wenger and Ferguson has somewhat settled, Arsene must be in some kind of grief. The rest of us, minus the hang-ups, really should enjoy this stuff. Whatever our tribal lunacies bray at us. Van Persie, right now, is uniquely, completely brilliant. And he’s here.

*Earlier tonight, Messi was again voted in as the world’s greatest player at FIFA’s Ballon d’Or awards for an unprecedented (and possibly never to be repeated?) 4th consecutive year.

Very recently, I published an ebook of selected posts and new material, with an Introduction by Paul Mason and recommendations from the likes of Brian Moore and Paul Hayward.  It’s out on Amazon ebooks, under the title ‘Unweighted – the bowlingatvincent compendium’.  The link amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.  At £2.83, you ain’t being robbed.

Rooneythoughts.

Remember that early curler for Everton, against Arsenal? Remember thinking this kid looked like he’d been on a steak diet for too long, such was his power, his doe-eyed but belligerent chunkiness?  Remember that hat-trick on Champion’s League debut? Remember sendings off and tortured bellows into innocently by-standing cameras. Remember the protection he had; so that we hardly heard him speak his name. Remember in weird, slightly garish slabs.

Rooney. The boy wunda, the cocksure virgin, the prodigious-explosive talent gone far too big for his hoodie. Him.

Him with the obscene wage/mansion/lifestyle/twitter following. Him in that dreamscape, that boob-job of a life where the appalling accoutrements of footballing princedom engorge the Scally mortal within. Such that when we do glimpse that doe-eyed boy – less though, now, I admit – we might wish to offer a consoling paternal hug. On the grounds that dumb ecstatic idolatry does not, apparently, fulfil. (Aah, life’s shallow riches.)

Hey but let’s not be duped into flopping so, between sympathy and the red devil. Wayne’s world does have the occasional dollop of normalcy – of proportion even. Sometimes I’m sure he does make his own breakfast – something hopelessly Choco-popsy, I fancy? Sometimes he gets out the hoover. (Yeh right.) Sometimes he dawdles round in his checked jimjams wondering what to do with his Sunday. But okay… mainly it’s that ole treadmill of fantastic luxury. Ordered days, ordered lawns; situations/environments/people groomed towards Wayne-friendly suitability. For running round in his shorts twice a week. Meaning it’s just not possible to stay normal.

Wayne has dealt with this. Sometimes by inspired channelling of all available energies into sporting brilliance, despite the absurdities of distraction; others – in the early days? – by not knowing. Not knowing hardly anything it seemed – Rooney being something of a byword or more-or-less impervious touchstone for shell-suited naivety. His widely perceived lack of thought about x, p, a may, of course, be an essential part of the armoury on the pitch; his rawness, his intuition being central to the Rooney dynamism. It has served him less well elsewhere.

But in fairness I think it likely that Wayne has been stitched up plenty (too). Maybe that unseemly business with a super-annuated lady of the night falls into that category – not that I remotely condone his alleged unfaithfulness to Colleen. Maybe with some of the jostling around contractual matters at MU – which did not resonate with me as Rooneyswerves and bobs so much as intrigues from a more cunning mind. Like an agent’s, perhaps? My heart still says that chavistas extraordinaires though they may be as a couple, Wayne at least remains a comparative innocent.  Who prob’ly needs ‘is mam.

Rooney moments are bound to arrive when you are The One. When Ingerland knows that only you – only you since you were 17 – could or might carry the whites to some overdue triumph for the Home of Football. (And let’s pause here to focus the you-tube in our minds towards the actual playing thing, here). When clear of the red mist of controversy, in an England shirt, fit and fearless, Rooney was nothing short of magnificent. He was almost embarrassingly easily Man-boy of the Match for what seemed like aeons; every time he crossed that line he unleashed himself with a remarkable freedom and consistency. He carried the team; he was what – 19? The record became flawed with the spillage of extra-footie concerns; public ridicule, family ridicule – corrosive media crap. A consensus developed amongst columnists and fans that Wayne’s head was in the wrong place. Justifiably.

The story’s gotten more turgid than we would have liked, these last two years. Intermittent form; issues with weight and fitness. Maybe less of that boyish good humour – that bounce. Neither movement nor demeanour seeming electrifyingly free as it once was… when we were all younger… and less compromised. But – on the plus side! – are we just all growing up? It seems Wayne is.

Friday’s drama – San Marino, yer man velcroed up with the skipper’s armband – evidenced minor gathering of the maturing non-phenomenon. Rooney dully accomplished in the verbals beforehand, just like a proper captain; this not a criticism, more a reflection of my own disillusionment with those festivals of blandness, the press conference(s). With Wayne now speaking with some confidence – and well within those crushing limits. On the pitch influential rather than masterful; penalty despatched. The captaincy temporary, we imagine, until he outlasts Gerard, or Hodgson sees more clearly the evolution of the flawed boy saviour towards untouchable maestro.

This is surely the current fascination; the one about whether Rooney turns in to Paul Scholes Plus – and therefore combines quarter back levels of control with occasional hand grenades behind enemy lines – or does he remain essentially that False 9/inside forward combo. The fact is he could do either; or probably both; as well as cover every other outfield position on the park with some distinction. But what does Sir Alex want… and what does England need?

There is every chance that Rooney will withdraw in proportion to that cruel but natural diminution in pace and alongside his gathering maturity. United probably don’t need or expect him to flash into the six yard box as much as he did 2 years ago. Some Dutch bloke will cover that. SAF being wholly conversant with the flow of an individual career in the wider ocean that is Manchester United FC, these things have been thought about and boats floated. And hopefully Wayne consulted. Likewise with England. Rooney remains (probably?) the finest player either outfit can call upon, the player most fans call upon to DO SOMETHING when inertia strikes. But is there a single role awaiting?

In all honesty we can’t know. Many of us I think could see that familiar frame flitting a tad more sideways – or less lung-burstingly forward – within some deeper, creative midfielder slot. Establishing the rhythm of the thing. Holding and waiting and engineering; rather than going past, necessarily.

Would this reduce him as a threat to the opposition? In terms of goals scored, quite possibly. But the glaring deficiency of the national side points towards Rooney the creator. He simply has that capacity to invent. Over and above the extraordinary firepower there is a genius for finding stuff; not through extravagant Ronaldoesque tricksiness but through 20-20 football vision. Through that delicious, natural control.  And yes – that particular power.

Upon this pivot may the fortunes of both club and country turn. Tonight, in Poland, let’s see.

*(Unusually) a post-Poland post-script.

There is another possibility; Rooney may fall into mid-career(?) decline.  This horror scenario rears brutally uninvited into my mind following a decidedly shoddy performance from the England ‘pivot’, who brought back memories of his South African slump with an extraodinarily clumsy showing in Warsaw this afternoon.  Please god let this be an abberation, not a sign.  England needs.

Unfurling.

Today’s real sporting drama – or maybe simply its purest – involved the kind of dreamy, sunny naivety unfurling only I suspect during exchanges of contestation between kids. That’s contestation of the generally gleeful sort then, with huge and honest effort and, wonderfully, almost no conception of those ‘bigger pictures’.

I know this because I was there, in the brightness and the stiffish wind, as young boys focussed with instinctive but often intermittent brilliance on a cricket ball; in fact the very first hard, cherry-red cricket ball they had faced in a competitive situation. (Because they are 10.) It was in a lovely sense a beginning, the outset for increasingly understood ding-dongs or drab tactical affairs which will be the rich tapestry of their sporting lives. Lives which might actually be richer if the ‘understanding’ receded rather than tightened as the years rolled on.

As these young’uns swung or bowled with more or less co-ordinated effect – more or less freedom, even?– I had barely chance to check my timeline for news from the Etihad, where the fare was altogether more worldly. In fact, though I was an interested party in this Manc-trauma-drama, it pleases me on reflection that quite frankly I didn’t give a toss about United or City until about ten minutes from the end – of their games and ours.

So I didn’t know (until very ‘late’) that City’s driving force, the powerhouse that is Yaya Toure, whom I had forecast with some confidence would be central to a deconstruction of a mediocre QPR defence, was crocked. I didn’t know that the twit-articulate moron Barton had stropped or punched or been drawn on his way to a barely believable early bath. And I didn’t know that United consequently were seemingly cruising to another title.

Word went round the boundary, was murmured through the cheese’n pickle that Rangers were 2-1 up after somebody notched with a diving header. And… some stuff about Barton. I wandered away from base camp within bawling distance of my courageous young batsmen – by now huffing and hoiking slightly inelegantly towards a stationary target that grew with each passing, dot-ball heavy over. From then on occasional sly looks at twitter joined the conceptually unlikely dots to the allegedly fully growed-up conclusion; one which we can choose to interpret as proof of a bought enterprise or a freewheeling romance. Whichever way, it was bloody incredible. And by now – our game also being over – I cared enough to really check out the absurd facts.

Of course this Premiership wasn’t just about City/QPR and Sunderland/United; it’s not, famously, a sprint. Memory suggests City beginning more like a fuzzily recalled Juantorena – ‘opening his legs and showing his class’ whilst serenely obliterating all-comers. For early in the season they were kindof lapping the opposition rather than merely beating people, it seemed. Silva skipped artfully about, dominating games in a way that had us purists purring. And on an extraordinary day for the city, a 6-1 victory at Old Trafford, only partly explained by interventions from the ref, seemed to bring the finish line racing towards City’s achingly medal-free chest.

Such was their pre-eminence then an impression remains that the Sky Blues were and are the best side in the league this season.  And therefore become worthy champions. I do however, register a recurring temptation to baulk at this ‘worthy’ – all things Tevez and/or appalling-bucketloads-of-cash-related considered. United have themselves flickered and stuttered but rarely seemed like a bona fide United side, somehow. Scampering fullbacks have been too rash; injured centre-backs have been too immobile or (perhaps crucially in the case of Vidic?) rendered unavailable. Rooney’s contribution – though often decisive – has lacked the fluency and consistency of Happy Day Rooneydom. In fact, despite his haul of goals, there have been days where he’s been awful; which worries me.

There is an argument that the return of Scholes in some way reflects cultural problems as well as inadequacies in the engine room itself. Certainly United have been surprisingly over-run in midfield – particularly and memorably in Europe – but the Ginger Genius, let’s be clear, has been good enough to play in this team, this year, again. Evra’s lack of will or ability to defend and Carrick’s lack of personality have been more significant than Scholes’s superannuation, in my view. Bottom line, United’s defence has been decidedly average for most of the season, making it almost unreal they remained title contenders until the 94th minute of the last match. Ferguson will know all this – love him or hate him, you have to credit him – it took all his nous to get them this close. He will not, however accept another season of cobbling things together.

Mancini, likewise and maybe conversely, once recovered from his public melt-down today, may gather in some credit before writing another wish-list. (Please may I have… the best fullback in the world/the best wide player etc etc.) He has done outstandingly to keep this disparate and sometimes disunited City Show on the road, if not on the rails. He has – more obviously than in the red half? -that potentially explosive mixture of arrogance and greed as well as the extraordinary but ubiquitous sensitivity-bypass in the camp to contend with… or manage. He has players taking their greed out onto the pitch – even brilliant players such as Aguerro. Not that he’s the main problem; in fact his durability as well as his skill have made him a genuine Premiership star. Elsewhere lie the difficult ones.

But critically Mancini has Kompany and Toure and Hart. If he can keep them – I imagine only Toure to be of the perenially mercenary persuasion? – the force may again be Blue. Especially if one or two non-flamboyant good sorts of an elite playing capability are parachuted in for the next campaign. It may be crass to compare ‘like for like’ across teams but a broad comparison with United equivalents to the City backbone might be instructive here – in particular, perhaps, because the spine of Ferguson’s side is not that readily identifiable. Are we talking De Gea/Ferdinand/Scholes? Or who? The flawed Vidic might have been the stopper but who he(?) the driving midfield powerhouse for the Reds? The near National Treasure-status Scholes gave United a pulse, a massing point, but City had the gear-change, the muscle and the touch when they needed it; and they had it more often.

The Premiership Finale, I now have seen, was uber-epic in terms of excitement and drama. Vitally so. It may have enthused us as well as tormenting us in its steely, silvery clasp. It was flawlessly, appropriately but in the Northern colloquial mental. It was hallucinogenic hurly-burly. Earlier, for me, was in fact more beautiful and more real.