Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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Who did Mark Hughes think he was kidding? As a storm of press speculation linked him to the Aston Villa job, as it did ludicrously just days after his appointment at Fulham at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, he announced his decision to resign from the helm at Craven Cottage. He insisted his decision wasn’t influenced by the approach of another club or his desire to apply for any available vacancies. He left a club that had treated him excellently and given him the chance to revive his coaching career following the disappointment of his tenure at Manchester City. And just weeks away from a Europa League qualifier on the 30th June, he left Fulham well and truly in the lurch.
Now though, in a very short space of time, the tables have completely turned. Just as fortunes can shift dramatically in a moment on the pitch, they rise and fall erratically behind the scenes too. Credit must be given to Randy Lerner for turning his nose up in disgust at the way Hughes handled his departure from Fulham. He swiftly turned his attention to other targets, leaving Hughes deservedly in the wilderness.
Credit certainly must not be given to the tabloids that linked Hughes with the Chelsea job though. Roman Abramovich wants to win the Champions League; it is his holy grail. Mark Hughes may have a connection to the club but that will mean nothing to the Russian. He will look at his track record and see he has not even been that successful in the Premiership. His tendency will be to go for impressive foreign coaches anyway, even if, like Scolari, they turn out to be mistakes. Hiddink will go to Stamford Bridge.
Whilst Lerner took a surprisingly honourable and praiseworthy course in steering the search for a replacement for Gerard Houllier away from Mark Hughes, the candidates he began to focus on were far from praiseworthy. The revelation that Villa wanted to initiate talks with Roberto Martinez was a complete shock. The Wigan manager kept the club in the Premiership with a late run of form by the skin of their teeth but their survival was hardly a triumph of his ability to lead. In fact it was his coaching style, aiming for an unrealistically fluid and attacking team, which left them vulnerable to the drop.
Some might say that the decision makers at Villa wanted Martinez to get them playing good football and that their players are more capable of it. In all likelihood though the appointment of Martinez would have signalled a downgrading in ambition from the club, admitting that they couldn’t attract big name coaches or big name players to compete with the likes of Spurs and Man City for European places.
Now the rumours are that next in Villa’s sights is Bolton’s Owen Coyle. Coyle’s track record, both at Bolton and Burnley, suggest he’s a better manager than Martinez, but he’s still hardly an inspirational choice. And in the case of Coyle, it seems daft of Villa to make an approach when the only answer they’re likely to get is “no”. Coyle played for Bolton and has got them scoring goals as well as keeping clean sheets. He has too many reasons not to leave the Reebok. He must believe he could finish above Villa with his Bolton side. There’s still a chance he could say yes but he would be foolish to surely.
Carlo Ancelotti was never going to step down from Chelsea to Villa’s level and Rafael Benitez knows he can wait for a higher profile job if he is patient. Steve McClaren is available, along with the shunned Mark Hughes, but fans reacted viciously to rumours of an interview. This is harsh given the way McClaren has grown as a manager in Europe with FC Twente in particular but inevitable given his England track record. David Moyes is a manager of Martin O’Neil’s calibre but he ruled himself out of the Villa job last summer.
Meanwhile, as Villa struggle to find a decent manager, Fulham appear to have found the perfect one. Of course it’s too early to say for sure but Martin Jol appears to be a spot on fit for the hot seat at Craven Cottage. He is very much in the mould of Roy Hodgson, in that he has extensive experience in Europe and of course the Premiership with Spurs. He knows the Europa League well, which bodes well perhaps for another exciting cup run if they can get through the qualifiers granted them by their place in the Fair Play tables. He can also bring a bit of cutting edge to Fulham’s attack, which has been lacking, with his knowledge of Dutch and German styles. He has already started to release players as he begins to remould the squad, so it can compete on all fronts, probably with the backing of funds from owner Mohammed Al-Fayed.
Perhaps whichever mediocre candidate gets the Aston Villa job will surprise us. But hopefully Randy Lerner will stick to his guns on Mark Hughes, so that someone in the game gets their comeuppance.
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Before you read on: Spoilers sweetie.
The Guardian series blog, written by Dan Martin, has been my first port of call as soon as the credits roll after every episode of this series. The story arc is so layered and baffling, with the hints and in jokes so carefully hidden, that even after a second viewing it’s difficult to pick up on everything. Thankfully the Guardian blog has been there whenever I’ve really struggled to get my head together and form some thoughts of my own. And the comments section is the perfect breeding ground for theories about where things are going.
This week’s mid-series finale gets a rather bruising verdict on the Guardian website. Very rarely do I disagree with it but this week I definitely do. I see where they’re coming from. It’s certainly true that not a lot happened despite the build up and the scale. And the cleric characters on Demon’s Run, particularly the token gay couple, the thin/fat marines, are chucked into the mix briefly and rather pointlessly. It was undoubtedly disappointing that the Cybermen were waggled before us in the pre titles sequence and that the Doctor’s dark side, whilst brilliant, did not plumb any seriously shocking new depths. But I think Dan Martin is missing the point of A Good Man Goes to War.
In many ways it matters little that the standalone story element was lacking this week because this was an epic conclusion to the first seven episodes. Rather than a war, this was the climactic battle. After the weaknesses of the flesh based double bill, I actually thought the story was improved to a much greater level and it was a joy to get Moffat’s writing back. The Doctor’s dialogue was so much wittier, cleverer and funnier.
Indeed the most surprising thing about A Good Man Goes to War was just how funny it was. The variety of the humour on show really added to the cinematic and epic feel. Besides the usual comedy deriving from Smith’s performance, for example in the scene where he’s trying to work out how Melody came to have Time Lord DNA, there are laughs from the other characters Moffat brings in as the Doctor’s allies.
The Sontaran nurse was absolute genius and perfectly in keeping with what the Doctor would do. When he tells Colonel Runaway to keep his back straight so as not to damage his posture, I laughed, during my first and second viewing. However it was only on my second viewing that I noticed a filthy lesbian tongue joke between the mysterious Silurian detective and her female sidekick, after the Silurian asks “why do you ever put up with me?”. I can see an adult spin-off show, with the potential to be far better than Torchwood, for those two. There was also a jolly fat blue thing that we’ve seen before, who was a delightfully wise presence.
With all the grim seriousness and concentration required to keep up with the secrets and twists of the story arc, the laughs were absolutely essential to making A Good Man Goes to War enjoyable. After the endless tension that has been coiling and tightening over the preceding weeks, I thought that this seventh episode actually had merits of its own, by leaving the ongoing secrets for the dramatic and emotional final ten minutes. Even if it didn’t go as far as it could’ve done, this episode was a fascinating exploration of the Doctor’s character.
We get to see the theatrical, arrogant side of the Doctor as he pulls off his genius takeover of the base. Matt Smith is in his element here and the impact of his performance is all the greater because Moffat kept him off the screen during the beginning as the team assembled, using the TARDIS alone. Moffat has previously said he wanted to put the “who” back into Doctor Who, and he’s done that with his confused, overlapping timelines and references to off screen adventures. But in A Good Man Goes to War he asks the question more directly and the Doctor ponders his own legacy, just as he did at the end of the last series when the monster sealed within the Pandorica turned out to be him. River Song then delivers some home truths. This episode may have been light on story but all of the key characters are explored in greater depth than before.
To River then. Finally we know who she is! And at last we have substantial answers to big questions looming since the beginning of the series. I was genuinely more satisfied by the big reveal than I thought I would be. But at the same time I am left craving more. I want to see the next episode. Moffat has, predictably, left an awful lot of questions unanswered. With a title like “Let’s Kill Hitler” my mind is already in a whirlwind of excited anticipation about the next episode itself too, let alone the answering of more secrets.
People tend to focus on the big question of this series: the Doctor’s death. But I am still waiting for the unresolved events of The Big Bang at the end of Series 5 to be explained. Who manipulated the TARDIS? Who organised the coalition of baddies to imprison the Doctor? Surely they must have some sort of connection to this year’s big enemies? Why are the clerics anti-Doctor now after working with him against the Weeping Angels in the last series? Who is Madame Kovarian?
So many questions and so many throwaway lines I can’t dwell on, partly because it would be useless and dull for you if I asked questions forever and also because I am falling asleep. Stevie Wonder performed in 1814 London. Just remembered that. But we mustn’t tell him!
See you in the Autumn.
EDIT: Blimey forgot the Headless Monks completely. And not because they were bad. A good idea but underdeveloped. Worth it just for having new monsters and that wonderful moment when the Doctor disarms all the clerics.
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Manchester United were always going to be the underdogs at Wembley. Beating the Catalan giants required the best from every one of the eleven Red Devils. Rooney delivered to give the fans hope, only to fade away amongst chain after chain of world class Spanish passing sequences. United just weren’t in Barcelona’s league.
But no one in the world is right now. United were right to believe in themselves and in the opening ten minutes their positive tempo took the game to their intimidating opponents. Their unity and players like Rooney, Giggs and Hernandez, meant they could hurt even the likes of Messi and co. It was an upbeat pace impossible to maintain however and as soon as Guardiola’s side got a grip on possession, England’s representatives in the clash between Premiership and La Liga were always going to be chasing the game.
Now though, with the battle lost, hardened veteran Sir Alex Ferguson is ready to launch a new war. As crushing as the defeat at Wembley was for United fans, they might be able to take some comfort in the fact that their seemingly immortal manager is to carry on for at least three more years. And not just carrying on with his job as well as he always has done but tackling a challenge so big that it can ignite and excite even the 69 year old Scott: wrestling Champions League dominance from Barcelona.
I’m not saying that Fergie had lost the hunger. He is the type of man who will never lose the desire to keep on winning and this ferocious and clinical lust for triumph is a key ingredient of his monumental success over the years. But there’s no doubt his Achilles heel has always been Europe. He knows this is where the strength of his legacy crumbles, even after a second trophy in 2008. This year he proved that he has mastered the tactics of Europe to reach the end without conceding an away goal. His team proved to him that they were a unit capable of following his instructions to the final. But not to the trophy and not past Barcelona.
The signs of an even greater determination for glory and greatness are already there. The manager knows that the effective blend of youth and immense experience his team has benefited from this campaign, is about to become imbalanced. Even before the Champions League final defeat, Fergie was aware that he’d be losing Edwin Van Der Sar and Gary Neville, and in all likelihood Paul Scholes, to retirement. He knew Ferdinand’s fitness was an increasing concern and that Ryan Giggs will have to be rested more often. These pillars of experience will need replacing.
Current players will be expected to step up with the departure of such Old Trafford greats, with greater importance falling upon the likes of Rooney, Vidic and Fletcher than ever before. Young players from the FA Youth Cup winning side, such as the promising Ravel Morrison, will be encouraged swiftly, but carefully, through the ranks. But after the “hiding” his team received at Wembley, Sir Alex knows quality and efficiency are also issues he must tackle.
I say efficiency because the likes of Nani and Berbatov, despite being pivotal at points, have not been trusted at others because of their inconsistency. Berbatov is undoubtedly a great talent, a genius with the ball, and you feel for his undeserved fall from Premiership top scorer to Champions League final exile. But his future is in real doubt at the club, with serious offers likely to be accepted. His manager prefers the partnership of Hernandez and Rooney and will be even more ruthless in his quest to catch the Spaniards that have humiliated him twice. Nani too, could be tempted by a move. Fergie needs to be able to rely on everyone for every occasion to better the Catalans.
All of this means that this summer will be the busiest in a long while for the red side of Manchester. Sir Alex, by failing to accumulate replacements for his ageing stars in previous years, has left himself with a mammoth shopping list. But he is supposedly backed by funds from the Glazers and he’s given himself three years to catch the world leaders. He’ll need all the time and money he can get.
Who does he want this summer though? Well De Gea looks pretty certain to replace Van Der Sar in goal and Fergie will hope that the Spanish Under-21 keeper is a steady long term replacement, after the trouble he had replacing a certain red nosed Dane between the sticks. Also reportedly in the club’s sights is Villa winger Ashley Young, Everton rising star Jack Rodwell and Lens defender Raphael Varane. Fergie would love Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder to fill the boots of Paul Scholes but a move looks unlikely. With the likes of Obertan, Gibson, Kuszczak, and Brown also all likely to leave, along with possibly Nani and Berbatov as well, the task could yet grow harder still.
With fierce rivals City having plenty of oil money to burn and Arsenal looking to be busier again too, in many ways Sir Alex Ferguson has picked the worst summer to begin a major rebuild in pursuit of an almost impossible goal. But if one name continually defies expectations in football and gets what he sets out to achieve, it’s his.
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Switching on the TV last night after a few days away for a much needed football fix, I was hoping to see a rampant Manchester United. I’d heard about their 5-0 demolition of Birmingham at the weekend and was gutted to have missed it. Like other supporters I was hoping it was the result, or more importantly the performance, that helped the team turn a corner. It’s time the Red Devils hit top gear and started playing irresistible, impressive attacking football again. Time to begin a characteristic surge towards the title.
But being the pessimistic fan that I am my heart sank to see Blackpool 2-0 up. Typical, I thought. It’s probably only fair, given the lacklustre way the team’s been playing, that we lose to a team like Blackpool that’s consistently showed no restraint or lack of effort and ambition in the top league. Once the unbeaten run is punctured the air will hiss out of the lead at the top and the steady, but uninspiring, form will completely crumble.
The way the game eventually ended summed up why I’m a fan of Manchester United. Why I never succumbed to either the methodical success of Chelsea or the dazzling unreliable brilliance of Arsenal. United keep you on your toes but always pull it, stylishly and entertainingly, out of the bag. They’re the comeback kings. Whilst this wasn’t quite in the same league as the 5-3 reversal of Spurs at White Hart Lane some years ago, given Blackpool’s first half dominance and how crucial this result seems to be in the race for the Premiership, it’s undoubtedly momentous and captivating.
And what do we learn from the outcome, apart from the fact that it really does feel as if United have found properly unstoppable form? Well Fergie remains the master tactician, bold enough to remove a redundant Wayne Rooney. Perhaps most importantly, despite the team’s failure to truly ignite as yet this season, the late displays of class in the second half showed that United still have a quality squad. Some criticisms of the side, my own included, have been too strong and premature. That’s not to say there are not grounds for concern but you don’t find yourselves top of the league and unbeaten with a shoddy, unfinished set of players. Giggs and Fletcher showed immense quality for the two equalising goals.
What then is the difference with last season? Many fans will probably feel that by this stage last season Fergie’s men had played better football. And yet this time round they’re unbeaten and in a commanding position, despite looking frequently vulnerable. Part of the turnaround has to be Chelsea’s transformation from invincible to a side that, when attacked, will concede goals and lose games. They too have an ageing squad with gaps and weaknesses, which was disguised and glossed over by both title success and a strong start to this season. Arsenal have improved but not yet to the levels to be pushing past an inconsistent United.
For me and countless commentators and pundits, the difference is little Mexican Javier Hernandez. I was flabbergasted at Fergie’s casual lack of summer investment but his purchase of such a gifted little forward has proved pivotal in numerous games. Not only have his goals turned games, much as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s super-sub appearances used to, but the very presence of an in form and scoring striker in the ranks has liberated the other attacking players. Most notably and crucially, Dimitar Berbatov, who reached 19 league goals so far this season last night.
Berbatov has always been world class; few would dispute this. But last season he never properly came to life and when the prolific Rooney disappeared due to injury or suspension, Berbatov would collapse under the burden. This season he knows he has alongside him a fearless Mexican with natural finishing ability and pace to stretch defences. He’s not the only one relied upon for goals and he can even set up his new young teammate, pulling the creative strings. They’ll create space for each other. And when Rooney is misfiring, as he has done all season, United’s march towards trophy glory doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact the pressure paralysing Rooney has liberated his teammates and proved United to be more than a one man show. When Rooney’s senses do reawaken, rival teams have even more reason to be wary of a Hernandez, Berbatov and Rooney trio.
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There are basically two George Clooneys. There’s the lovable, charming, cocky George. You know the suave Danny Ocean type with that irresistible playful glimmer in his eye. And then there’s cold, calculating, enigmatic Mr Clooney, who oozes just as much mysterious charisma as George, but from a more serious, furrowed face. Like the bearded suit in Syriana or what I imagine the detached, ruthless assassin to be like in Anton Corbjin’s upcoming picturesque character study, The American. The grave Mr Clooney doesn’t get out so much, not because he’s not up to scratch, but because the whole wide world can’t seem to get enough of George.
And it’s definitely the face of likeable bad boy George that Clooney wears in Juno director’s Jason Reitman’s 2009 rom-com Up in the Air. As you might expect from the director of Juno however, this is a rom-com with a twist and consequently a different take on George’s familiar face of fun. There are lashings of misery, isolation and loneliness in this movie that ought to deflate it and well and truly puncture its comedy moments. The audience ought to despise central character Ryan Bingham’s cheery detachment in the midst of the gloom, but it’s a credit to Clooney’s sheer charisma that you’re almost always rooting for him and seeing the pluses of Bingham’s bleak and extreme philosophy of life.
Put simply and less eloquently, persuasively or amusingly as Bingham phrases it, this philosophy is; travel light. Ditch not only the material possessions but the emotional baggage of normal existence to stay on the move and thus continue to feel alive for as long as possible. Wrap yourself in a cotton wool world of luxury that you are fully aware is fake and artificial but nevertheless gives you a simple satisfaction and loyalty. Embrace exclusivity and inhabit a cocoon of consistency away from the volatile real world. Spend the bulk of your time away from the worker ants tethered to the ground but weightless, floating and drifting, blissfully Up in the Air.
It’s essentially the dream life on the road and Bingham has achieved it so that it has become his normal existence. He has refined and perfected his life to tailor his ever moving, but basic needs. But then two things happen to shatter the cycle of bliss. Anna Kendrick’s Natalie devises a cost saving strategy for Bingham’s company, whereby people like him who skilfully fire people no longer do so face to face across the nation, but from a remote computer screen in the company’s base in Omaha, via the wonders of modern technology. And Bingham meets Vera Farmigan’s Alex, who seems to be his perfect match and as Alex puts it essentially him “with a vagina”. Initially they enjoy each other’s company, are extremely compatible sexually and amusingly synchronise their schedules for further bouts of spontaneous passion. It’s safe organised fun and Bingham doesn’t consider a future with her.
Bingham reacts with scorn to Natalie’s idea of modernising his company and swiftly destroying his way of life. He successfully wins himself the chance to take the young upstart on a brutal tour of the realities of “corporate downsizing”. It’s in this portion of the film that Reitman’s fondness for making us simultaneously laugh and cry at deep, depressing subjects comes into play. It’s also where we see not only an extremely familiar charismatic George, charming people in impossible situations, but also a character who underneath it all does care about the impact of his work, and regards what he does as an art, in that if it is done right he genuinely believes he can steer the newly unemployed on a dignified path to a new life. There are a number of awkward, funny and emotionally affecting scenes where either Clooney or Kendrick must fire someone, and each person offers a new challenge Bingham insists cannot be dealt with via webcam.
Away from the backdrop of a new wave of unemployment, philosophies of life and exploiting misery, Up in the Air becomes a simple love story, in which Bingham realises he wants something, or someone, weighing him down in his previously empty rucksack, giving his life meaning by grounding it. Kendrick’s performance as Natalie is wonderfully believable and funny at times, and it is she who forces Bingham to accept his loneliness, his prolonged state of running through the crowd from his unhappiness. Tragically, even after Bingham has accepted Alex into his life as his guest at his sister’s wedding and physically abandoned his philosophy by running away from a speech he was giving about it, we are reminded of the attraction of travelling light. Bingham finds Alex at her home with a secret family of her own, a real life. He cannot believe he was foolish enough to think she was sharing a real life as empty as his own with him. By packing people in our rucksacks we risk being hurt by them.
The whole film is wonderfully acted, right down to the performances of those freshly fired employees and their varied responses. It also looks great, emphasising the glamour of the hotel bubble world Bingham lives in, as well as its isolation. The opening titles of the film play out to jazzy music and some stylishly edited shots of the ground from above, taking in a multi-coloured picture of America. Despite the good points it’s never actually that funny, with the humour being more of the slight smile at the corners of the mouth than roaring chortle variety. However ultimately the onscreen magnetism of George Clooney drives Up in the Air and is all the more compelling for channelling it in a refreshing, alternative way.
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As a Manchester United fan I refused to believe the tabloid talk of a widening rift between Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the usual overexcited babble, trotted out simply to fill column inches. The sports pages have always brimmed with such gossip and rumour when the decorated, dour Scott decided to take a no nonsense approach to one of his big players. Rarely did such an approach lead to outright irreparable confrontation, and when it did the players had always past their prime or become replaceable. No one was seriously considering Wayne Rooney as a player who has already peaked, a player who could easily be slotted out of the side. When Ferguson had had enough of a player’s ego in the past he ushered them out the door and reinvented his side. Stam was eventually replaced by Ferdinand, Beckham by Ronaldo. When Van Nistelrooy departed Fergie changed the team’s playing style and adapted for the better. This time there was no question of Rooney departing and that being the catalyst for a wave of positive renewal, because Rooney was the one remaining talisman, the fulcrum around which any new generation would grow. Besides just months ago the England striker had pledged his entire playing life to a club he loved, respected and was grateful to. It is impossible to imagine where he would go.
I put all the excited chatter down to his recent personal and footballing woes. Rooney was the type of character who was bound to get agitated when in a bad run of form. He was also, or so I thought, a football puritan who just wanted to play as much as humanly possible. That’s why he was furious with Ferguson for being left out of the side a few times recently after news of his personal life rocked the airwaves. He wanted to play his way out of trouble, smash the doubters and the critics with his genius and endeavour on the pitch. Sir Alex, experienced with such media storms, clearly felt that Rooney would be better off shielded from the harsh glare of scrutiny whenever possible and unleashed to prove his doubters wrong only when fully, 100% fit. The manager was doubtless aware how he has allowed his squad to deteriorate in quality, to the point where Rooney carried United’s title challenge almost single handed last season, and he would be needed again at his best if United were to win back the crown. Sadly Rooney too could feel that burden on his shoulders and was no longer relishing it but allowing it to undermine his brilliance on the pitch.
Nevertheless even as the evidence mounted I would not believe that Rooney wanted to leave until Ferguson confirmed it in a press conference and Rooney followed this with a statement of his own. If there is to be a media battle as to who is blamed more, manager or talisman, it would seem Fergie has already masterfully laid the seeds of manipulation in his favour. Or perhaps the veteran manager was simply being honest and there was nothing calculated at all about his approach to the news. He seemed solemn at the press conference, powerless. The fingerprints of the modern game’s big money, agent culture were all over Rooney’s statement. The fans could make up their own minds.
Having said this Rooney does have some weight behind his argument. There is no doubt that Ferguson has let his team become over reliant on Rooney’s presence. I have been arguing for the last couple of years, and indeed have mentioned in previous pieces, the need for Fergie to invest in the future, a new generation of Red Devils and thus avoid the need for a massive, unrealistic replacement of faded stars like Giggs, Scholes and Ferdinand in one go with high quality, expensive replacements. There are still gaps in the team left by the departure of Ronaldo and even Roy Keane. At times United’s trophy charge last season was a limp and a wheezing carcass was dragged reluctantly towards the finish line by Rooney’s goals. When his form dried up so did the team’s trophy hopes. This summer it seemed inevitable that Fergie would finally reinvest some of Ronaldo’s gargantuan transfer fee. But he let more time pass without acquiring replacements and dumbfounded supporters by missing the chance to sign a bargain like Ozil, who ended up at Madrid. There was no excuse for such a failure. The manager has always insisted that he would not be held to ransom by the market, but here was a proven, emerging young talent at a sensible price. Instead an impulsive £7 million went on Bebe, an untested, youthful player from a low level of football, who judging by his start to life at Old Trafford looks set to go the way of Djemba-Djemba and other Fergie transfer flops.
Letting Ronaldo go may have been inevitable and a good deal for United, but since his departure the manager has not moved to build a new great side or plug glaring gaps. In the aftermath of Ronaldo’s departure United’s weakness was the lack of a strong midfield spine, which cost them a second consecutive Champions League against Barca in the final. However rather than acquire that solid spine and build a new team for a renewed push for that third European Cup Fergie has allowed his squad to age. Now there is the need to replace Van Der Sar soon, find a new partner for Vidic given Rio’s continued fitness problems and secure long term creators and goal getters going forward. Acquiring all that quality in a hurry will be expensive and impossible given United’s financial constraints these days. Perhaps I am being unfair and in reality Ferguson, like any manager, was keen to go out and get players but was hampered by cautious voices behind the scenes, filtering down from the boardroom and from the Glazers. But in my view United’s diminished financial clout made it all the more important to gradually and sustainably acquire the parts of the next great side. Leaving things so late heaps so much pressure on players who simply don’t have it in them and risks a Liverpool style fall from grace from which the club might not recover.
Ok things might not be THAT drastic. Manchester United remains a massive club, with or without Wayne Rooney. Top, top managers hungry for glory and a place in history and capable of putting their own stamp of success on a team, would be desperate to step in should this crisis prove the beating of Sir Alex. If Rooney were to leave he would bring in a fee similar to that of Ronaldo, if not more. He is certainly worth more to the team, if not in the same dazzling, world beating form that the Portuguese was in. With no Ronaldo or Tevez at the club now only Dimitar Berbatov stands out as a world class potential talisman, and his form is sporadic. Therefore Rooney’s departure would surely demand serious investment in like for like replacements to keep United at the forefront of the game. There is already talk of Torres, Kaka, Benzema, Bale. As with Ronaldo though Rooney’s unique qualities make him effectively irreplaceable and a number of players, coupled with a change in style, would be needed to cover his absence.
Whilst Sir Alex has clearly missed opportunities in recent transfer windows that may have made the effects of this crisis even worse, there is a reason why Rooney is emerging as the villain of the piece; he is. Sir Alex Ferguson is a wise, successful manager, hindered by a difficult boardroom situation and impossibly high expectations. Wayne Rooney is a good player, but at 24 owes everything to his manager and his club. His statement talked of ambition and the club’s apparent lack of it, but for all the failings I have mentioned Manchester United remain one of the best clubs in Europe and are rivalled seriously only by Chelsea in the Premiership. Rooney has been privileged enough to have been elevated to effectively the leader of United’s trophy pushes, the carrier of supporters’ hopes and dreams. As Mark Lawrenson remarked in the build up to United’s stale win over Bursapor last night, Rooney has clearly forgotten where he has come from. He is a Champions League and Premier League winner and it is within his own power to ensure continued success for his club. Has he no sense of responsibility, respect or greatness? Where exactly would he like to go? Manchester City or Chelsea? Madrid or Barca? The choices are limited and none would suit him like United. Those who abandon Fergie’s projects rarely go on to better things, even if their already sizeable pay packets swell that little bit more. Rooney’s departure could permanently scupper United, but it will more than likely simply herald the beginning of the end for his own career and hero status.
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It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.
All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.
For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.
Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.
Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.
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