The following words were spoken by Roy Hodgson, the manager of West Bromwich Albion, in the run-up to our game there at the weekend. As a dispassionate summary of our club’s current alleged ‘predicament’, they seem to me unrivalled. Indeed, there would possibly be a case for casting them in bronze and setting them up on the West Stand concourse next to Peter Osgood. Here they are.
‘Success is so quickly forgotten and people are so quick to say it’s not worked out. When you’ve reached the quarter finals of the Champions League and played two such close games against a top-class opponent people should be more sanguine. You knew either Chelsea or Manchester United were going to go out in that round. In the second leg Chelsea certainly took the game to United for long periods and did well to equalise but came up against a very good team. Failure, to me, would be Chelsea failing to reach the Champions League or failing to reach the final stages. I find it hard to accept it’s failure to be second or third in the Premier League and lose a quarter final. If we’re going to be judged like that, all that’s going to happen is that Chelsea will change their manager every year or second year and the results are going to carry on being the same.’
As for the News of the World’s story that Harry Redknapp is being considered as a possible replacement for Mr Ancelotti, I assume this is some kind of tribute, on that paper’s part, to the recently deceased and already much-missed Sunday Sport. Next week: Jamie Redknapp Found On Moon.
The best question to ask at times like these is probably, ‘Well, what kind of Champions League draw did one want, ideally?’
And in this case – looking at it coldly, and from the point of view of our longevity in the competition – it was pretty clear, first and foremost, that one wanted to avoid Barcelona at this stage, the most in-form side in the tournament. This we duly did.
It was also pretty clear, for similar reasons, that one wanted to avoid Real Madrid. Again – this we did.
And if it could be brought about, within the double nature of the draw, that a path could be drawn up for us which meant we could meet neither
of those teams before the final, then that would be very welcome, as well. And, lo, it was.
Probably one wanted to avoid Shakhtar Donetsk, because it’s a long way to go, and Schalke, because dark horses are always hard to reckon with,
and also maybe Inter, because, though clearly only a shadow of the team they once were, defending cup-holders can often be a handful.
And then, of course, one wanted to avoid Tottenham, because that would have been boring. Quarter final or semi-final Avoid them, we did.
So, then one was left asking oneself, ‘Is there by any chance a team left in the draw who finds the prospect of playing us psychologically
disturbing, whom we have recently defeated (not unusually), whose entire defence, seemingly, is out with injury for the foreseeable
future and whose manager appears to be undergoing some kind of existential crisis which makes him go round being cross to everyone?’
To which the answer was: funnily enough, yes there is. And we got them.
Ideal draw, perhaps.
Wrong result at Old Trafford, of course. We were after a draw there – preferably a fractious one, leading to an astonishingly exhausting
replay, itself running to extra time and pens and, in an ideal world, featuring at least a couple of sendings off and another self-immolating
post-match media meltdown from Sir Alex Ferguson.
Correct draw for the semis, though: United versus City in what, with a bit of luck, will be a broiling, horizon-lowering battle of local
vindictiveness from which nobody emerges well. Yes, a tension-inducing, nerve-unravelling final between those two sides might have been handy, too, but it probably would have come too late for our purposes – those purposes, obviously, being the confirmation of a top four place, or slightly better. And, to that end, the longer City and United can hang around in any cup competitions going, and the more exhausting and
spiritually debilitating they can find them, the better. At this stage, the pragmatist says: ask not what you can do for the FA Cup; ask what
the FA Cup can still do for you.
Here’s Sir Bobby Charlton, speaking about big-spending football clubs, lavishing large sums of money on top players:
‘You might criticise Manchester City, Chelsea or Liverpool for the money they’ve spent, but they’re only interested in winning the big prize, which is the Premier League. Yet it can be won by a club [like Manchester United] that produces their own young players and brings them through. You get a bit of an affiliation with a football club when that sort of thing is taking place, and not just piling loads and loads of money in. That’s our philosophy at United, but we don’t know what happens with City and Chelsea – they have their own way.’
Well, it would be churlish not to be thoroughly impressed at the way United have survived on a shoestring these last 30 years or so, somehow making do and getting by. And far be it from any of us to suggest that the club’s ability to attract many of the best young players in recent years has had anything to do with its financial clout.
But is it possible that Charlton is forgetting how the United that apparently turns up its nose at the thought of ‘just piling loads and loads of money in’ is also the United that spent £25.6 million on Wayne Rooney (breaking the record for a player under 20), and £30 million on Rio Ferdinand (a record transfer fee at the time) and £30.75 million on Dimitar Berbatov, and £21.5 million on Nani, and £14 million, potentially rising to £18.6 million, on Michael Carrick, not to mention £7 million on Nemanja Vidic and £5.5 million on Patrice Evra? Maybe the ‘philosophy at United’ is not quite so distinctive, or indeed so organic, as Sir Bobby appears to think.
So, we’ve signed Fernando Torres. Had you heard? There was some stuff about it in the papers…
And how convenient that we had the squad number 9 all ready and available for him to slide straight into. Oddly, the number classically associated with golden goal-scorers (Lawton, Bentley, Bridges, Osgood, Dixon, Hasselbaink – those kinds of people) has been vacant at our club for a while, and was subject to a peculiar period of untraditional usage before that. So it is that Torres will wear the shirt recently graced by Steve Sidwell and Khalid Boulahrouz. In fact, apart from the barely ever selected Franco Di Santo, not since Hernan Crespo was given it in 2005/06 has the number 9 appeared on the back of a striker – where it ought to appear. It will be nice to see it used properly again.