Thursday, July 14, 2011

United Are No Chasers

FACT - United were outplayed by Barcelona in Rome 2009 and again in Wembley 2011. 

FACT - Manchester United are the Top Ranked club in Europe in UEFA Rankings in spite of the above two instances.

The FACT analogy was used just to briefly remember the FSW and have a good laugh - what a knob!

FACT - Rafa's a Knob!

Just two days ago, there was a wonderful post by Bearded Genius on that brilliant United Blog, The Republik of Mancunia. The crux of the post was focused on highlighting the timeless love that United specifically and football generally has in the hearts of people. Generations of fans come and go; generations of players precede each other - yet the constant remains football, the constant remains Manchester United.

Reading about the history of your beloved club and experiencing history being made in an era are relatively different aspects. As a United fan, I can merely fantasize and marvel over the wizardry of Duncan Edwards. I can only wonder and lament over the extraordinary honors that the Busby Babes would have achieved for the club. I can just feel posthumous grief over the tragedy that occurred in Munich. Yet the honest truth remains that I can never relate to those legends the way a 70 year old United fan could - someone, who as a teenager saw Edwards and Taylor doing the business week in, week out. Someone for whom they were the greatest heroes in history. Someone who must have cried bucket loads when that calamity hit the club. My formative years were the ones when Bryan Robson was my hero - I thought there could never be a greater footballer. If I were to have a rare instance of showering ManLove on another bloke, it would be Eric Cantona. 

Sure, along the way, I've seen the new kids like Wazza and Ronnie taking our club to great heights, but would either of them ever be rated higher than Giggsy or Scholesy in my book? Never. More often than not, your heroes always remain the ones that leave a lasting impression on you when you're growing up.

The kids and teens that support United now have seen a footballing world that's diametrically different to the one in the late 80s and early 90s. Ruud Gullit's Chelsea playing sexy football and pioneering the influx of talented foreigners like Zola, Desailly, Vialli and Di Matteo in EPL have now been replaced by Roman Abramovich's Rent Boys. AC Milan legend, George Weah had a temporary stint at 33 years of age in Manchester with a team that was barely struggling to ensure its survival in the top division; a reality very different to the oil-rich Man City that you see today. Seaman, Winterburn, Bould, Adams, Keown, Dixon, Parlour, Merson & Ian Wright - yeah, there used to be a time, when Arsenal actually had English players.

"I still think it's 1984"

The only great tradition that has remained intact over the last 20 years is of Liverpool not winning the league - we must applaud them for not changing with times and maintaining their consistency.

The key difference has been that of the massive implosion of televised football all over the world. Hundreds of millions of young fans have joined the ranks of football crazy punters over the last 15 years or so, sharing the mass love reservoirs dedicated to clubs all over Europe - from the Catalans to the Mancunians, from the Rossoneri to Anfield.

Couch fans, Glory Hunters, Gold Diggers - some of the titles that are used to describe foreign fans, yet the name-calling hasn't deterred global fans to extend their undying support to the respective objects of their footballing desires. Add the thousands of Web Forums and Blogs to the frenzy and what you get in return could perhaps be labeled as The Distorted Perspective.

I gotta confess - My head's been done in literally, listening to rants of this recent Barca obsession that most of us Red Devils have developed in the last three years. Of course, each of the both times that the Catalans mauled our Red Army in the last three years, I was feeling sick in the gut too, but it's yet to do that irreparable damage to my Red esteem. I've grown up watching United making too much history for that to ever happen. 

From the moment that Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson lifted that 8th League Title to our very own Dream Team achieving the League Double the next year; from seeing Ince, Hughes and Kalchelskis being sold only to be replaced by Fegie's Fledgings - academy novices who compelled Alan Hansen to foolishly say 'You'll never win anything with kids' and who later on went to become legends of the modern game to the '99 Treble, from the first hat-trick of league titles, through the three year title drought, when the detractors had practically embossed the final obituary of Old Trafford to the second hat-trick of league titles; not to mention a second Champions League trophy and an additional two European finals thrown in between - I've been privileged to witness all of that.

So we lost two European finals in three years? Yeah, we did - but we also made it to two European finals in three years. More importantly, the one at Wembley, with a group of players which everyone worth his salt had predicted to finish in the Top Four at the beginning of the season - most called it the Worst United Team in Years. Contrast that with the Catalan counterparts: a team that has perhaps made its place among squads that we know as Johan Cruyff's Dream Team, Bob Paisley's Liverpool, Real Madrid's Galacticos of 1950s, Jock Stein's Celtic local lads, Fabio Cappello's 'Dutch Troika' AC Milan and maybe even the Hungarian Mighty Magyars. In short, probably the current Barca team is one of the greatest ever.

I have absolutely no right to doubt anyone's dedication, nor am I in any position to pass judgment on anyone's loyalty, but I find it a bit amusing when I see a lot of foreign fans expressing their undying devotion to Barca. Being a foreign United fan myself for over 20 years now, I've had my fair share of banter with other fans over the years. Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich and even Ajax are great clubs, seeped in glorious traditions and history - of course no one can take that from them. However, I distinctly remember Real Madrid clearly having a massive fan following globally, especially during Florentino Perez's first stint during which he brought Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham and Owen to the club. Even if I try my best, I would find it difficult to recall a significant number of Catalan devotees from that time period.

Mind you, Barca were no punks at that time either - even during  years like 2000 or 2002 when they had temporarily flirted with relegation during previous seasons and barely managed to secure a European spot, their ranks included the likes of Rivaldo, Cocu, Kluivert, Saviola, Luis Enrique, Overmars, Bonano, Xavi, Guardiola, Petit, Arteta, De Boer, Puyol, Abelardo, Reizeger, Pepe Reina, Riquelme and Mendieta. In fact, in the last 40 years or so, Barca squads have never been short of world-class superstars. Of course, there was a six-year title drought for them between 1999-2005 and the tide turned with the overhauling of the squad which saw names like Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Giuly, Van Bommel, Larsson, Van Bronckhorst, Iniesta and Victor Valdes playing for the first team.

Therefore when I hear a number of younger fans raving over the inimitable youth system of Barca which has introduced the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Valdes and Messi - well, I admire it but I'm not swayed by it. For starters, Xavi and Puyol have been in the Barca team since the year that Gazza secured promotion for Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough and only became household names globally by the time Jose Mourinho won Chelsea's first title in 50 years. In fact, Xavi was the subject of severe Catalan abuse only 'cause he was perceived as the reason for Catalan idol, Pep Guardiola's unceremonious exit from Barca as a player, although that was far from the truth. That was the point in time, when United were seriously considering to bring Xavi to Old Trafford and the Spaniard was seriously considering to move. However, he decided to stay back and prove his worth to the Barca fans. How he proved his worth is for everyone to see now 'cause most of them probably don't miss Pep in the centre of midfield anymore.

United Youth Team - 1982

The influx of youth is not a new phenomenon for a United fan to witness. Even before Fergie, we saw Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside and Clayton Blackmore break into the first team under Big Ron. With the arrival of Fergie, his Fledgings continued to be introduced at regular interval. Before Becks, Scholesy, Giggsy, Butty and the Nevilles, there was the group of Lee Martins, Mark Robins & Co. The thing with youth players coming up the ranks is that there is no guarantee that each batch will produce legendary footballers. Having Xavi, Puyol, Valdes, Iniesta and Messi is indeed a special phase for Barca as well. This does not essentially necessitate that the Catalans will rule the roost even three decades from now.  

That Barca have ability, humility and class is indisputable - but their ascent is also complemented by two external factors. One is the general decline of La Liga over the years because of the inequitable revenue distribution, as Barca/Madrid take the giant chunk of TV money. Take a look at the squads of the Big Two as opposed to the rest of La Liga and you can assess the huge discrepancy in the quality. Compare this with, let's say a decade ago when teams like Deportivo had Tristan, Makaay, Djorovic, Molina, Duscher and Valeron. Valencia had John Carew, Kily Gonzalez, Ayala, Baraja, Vicente, Canizares, Aimar, Pellegrino and Albelda. Celta had Benni Mc Carthy, Cavallero and Silvinho. Teams like Mallorca were in Europe with players like Eto'o, Nadal, Luque and Ibagaza in their ranks. A team like Villareal that didn't even have a B squad had Martin Palermo, Belletti, Reina and Marcos Senna. Atletico Madrid relegated from La Liga had Fernando Torres, Juninho Paulista, Dani and Burgos. Sporting Gijon, another Second Division team had David Villa and Rivarola. In short, it was a much more competitive league. The second factor assisting Barca's dominance is the relaxation of rules that gives protection to players in continental football. Liverpool won four European Cups in the 1970s in a competition that featured a handful of teams; however the protection offered to players was scarce if not non-existent. This was an important factor why the very physical English teams dominated Europe before the Heysel disaster. Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa were European champions on a trot - taking away the spot from English teams became an impossible task during those years. This could also be ascertained from the fact that while Cristiano Ronaldo did impeccably well for United; in La Liga, he's literally scoring goals for fun. But then La Liga has never been renowned for its defensive prowess.

Barca, for all its greatness would struggle in the much more physical EPL if playing here week in, week out. Therefore, the fact that Barca is able to field a similar team most weeks is not exactly astonishing. The more physical nature of EPL dictates the prevalent squad rotation system. 

These factors are not, in any way meant to take away from the brilliance of Barcelona, but it's merely a rationalization of the hysteria that some United fans are allowing themselves to be swayed by. When the last time we played Barca in a two-legged tie, who came out on top? In fact, had it not been for Ronnie's penalty miss, we would've won both legs, instead of drawing one. 

Yes - Barca has completely outclassed us on two occasions, but both times it was a game of 90 minutes. We have divided opinion on this perhaps, but there's a fair case of arguing over tactics and team selection on our part. Most importantly, both times, our players bottled it. I am graceful in defeat and I am more than willing to handle the mantle to Barcelona, but if you're gonna tell me that United played its best football on both occasions, then I'm not buying that. We didn't - and that isn't an issue of the surmounting debt on us. That isn't an issue of Wesley Sneijder playing for Inter instead of United. That isn't an issue of losing Cristiano Ronaldo to Madrid. Unfortunately, it's become an issue of mentality. 

There could be a fair case built here that Barca dominated in possession and stifled us enough not to play our game, but what about the times when we had the ball? Even a mentally strong player like Wazza was releasing the ball hurriedly whenever it came to him, instead of holding it up and attempting to provide some creativity. That wasn't Barca stifling his ability; that was the Barca hysteria stifling his nerves. Unfortunately, a lot of fans are no different in that respect.

There's no shame in losing to an incredibly talented team like today's Barcelona but there's no pride in not going full-throttle to try to beat them either. Did we go full-throttle or played 110% on both occasions? In case anyone thinks YES, I beg to differ. I strongly disagree. We just didn't.

The gaffer, the lads, the fans - all of us need to get ourselves out of this Barca mania, 'cause there's a strong possibility that we meet them in Europe again this year. It could be the Q/F stage, the semis or maybe another final. 

Manchester United don't need to achieve the benchmark that Barcelona have set. In fact, if anything, Barcelona have achieved the benchmark that Manchester United have created over the last 20 years. We just need to sort out our heads. They're an incredible team, but they're beatable.

For once, we just need to go all out to do it.

For once, the gaffer needs to instill the trademark United mentality in the lads when they play Barca next.

For once, the fans need to clearly understand that we don't need to chase anyone else's standards. We just need to elevate our existing ones. 

After all, it's just one team in the whole of Europe that's bugging us. 

I'm sure we can sort it out.

Let's just get our collective heads around it! 

At the end of it all, even if they continue to outclass us - then it's just their period of glory. So many of us would have no regrets. We've seen United making history time and again with our own eyes. Nothing can take away that pride from us. Ever!       

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Almost Red Devils

Let's cut to the chase - over the decades we missed out on some legendary players. At times it was bad planning, at times it was bad luck and at times the players were just darn daft. Some players were more than adequately replaced with the ones who went on to become eternal United legends. A few who slipped the net marched on to create records and add medals to their repertoire. 

A few days back, United Banter discussed in detail about the Gazza Saga and how in the long-run he regretted not having taken the opportunity to move to Old Trafford. Likewise, we also looked at the Michael Owen 1994 story.

So here's a list of some other Almost Red Devils:

Ferenc Puskas

Mostly a forgotten tale by now - one of the greatest ever footballers to have graced the game; the man who was an integral part of the record-breaking Real Madrid team of the 1950s, the Original Galacticos. Ferenc Puskas is also revered as the lynch pin of the great Hungarian national team, The Mighty Magyars that terrorized the whole of football world with their ferocious on-field displays; some say there's never been a better team in the history of football. Having scored 84 goals in 85 games for his country against the who's who of international football, Puskas fell victim to the calamitous political unrest in Hungary which disparaged their football team like everything else - a shock of such proportion that their football is yet to regain those heights even after 55 years. 

It was at that time that Puskas refused to stay in Hungary and shifted his base to Western Europe, mainly Spain and Italy, as a result of which he received a two year ban from UEFA. Approaching his 31st year, as the ban ended, major European clubs like AC Milan and Juventus who had coveted his signature in the past were now in a quandary as they felt that he wasn't the same player anymore. This coincided with the greatest tragedy in United's history - The Munich Crash. As Sir Matt was recuperating from the calamity, his assistant and caretaker manager, Jimmy Murphy tried to rebuild the team. Slightly off topic, but there are a few notable points here that, especially younger United fans must know - this was a tragic time for the club and we MUST always remember those who stood by us at that time of grief. Blackpool and Aston Villa let us buy their key players unconditionally and almost for free; they were Ernie Taylor and Stan Crowther. I know these days a lot of United fans indulge in banter and sometimes heated arguments with Madrid fans, but 1958 was a time when Madrid truly showed their class - firstly, they offered us a player on loan who is considered by Madridistas as the greatest footballer of all-time - Alfredo Di Stefano and secondly after winning a 3rd consecutive European Cup at the end of that season, Madrid proposed that the trophy be given to Manchester United. However, in both cases, neither of the proposals materialized. United, in a complete financial mess, didn't take up Madrid on the Di Stefano loan option and UEFA didn't take up Madrid on their suggestion to award the European Cup to us. The third act of Madrid's generosity can be ascertained by Sir Matt Busby's words:

Alfredo Di Stefano

‘As the city grieved, one or two things were comforting. Real Madrid offered us all a free holiday in Spain, to help us recover. I think one or two of the fellows took them up on this.'

Coming back to Puskas, his move to United was stalled by the daftest of reasons - the English league rules at the time stipulated that any foreign player joining an English club needed to have adequate knowledge of the English language. Unfortunately Puskas English vocabulary was restricted to 'vhisky' and 'jiggy-jigg', the two words which had little use to serve the purpose of human interaction.

Fittingly, Puskas joined a club the same season that had been a true friend to us - Real Madrid. Along with Senor Di Stefano, Puskas broke records one after the other well into his thirties and thus immortalized himself in the Madrid folklore. Puskas' non-chalant attitude about his own greatness can be assessed in the words of Sir Bobby Charlton:

"I remember when Pele scored his 1000th goal. The pictures went round the world and I mentioned it to Puskas. He replied, 'I scored my 1000th goal five years ago' - and he wasn't being boastful."  

By all means, a true legend we would all have been honored to have adorned our red shirt. 

Peter Shilton

An England legend, who served as the national team's No. 1 not for years but decades. His was truly an unfulfilled saga with United. As early as 1971, United's manager, Frank O' Farrell desired to replace Alex Stepney with Shilton. However, Sir Matt who by then was serving on the Board of Directors vetoed the move due to his loyalty for Stepney. 

Next in line was our notoriously charismatic manager Tommy Docherty who attempted to sign Shilton on two occasions. The first time the transfer broke down due to financial disagreements. At the time, we weren't the best paymasters in the business and as legend goes we expected footballers to play for the love of our club rather than money. Shilton, of course, didn't have that kinda love for United. Docherty almost orchestrated the move again in 1977 after he had won the FA Cup for us, but before Shilton could move to OT, the gaffer was sacked for shagging the club physio's Missus. That's another saga altogether.

Big Ron was next in line - after taking over as United manager in 1981, he made Shilton a priority signing, but miscalculated the funds available to him, as bringing Bryan Robson to the club was more lucrative and cost him GBP 2 Million, 'cause WBA made it conditional to buy Remi Moses as part of the deal. Hence, Shilton never played for United.

A top keeper, no arguing that, but in my personal opinion, I could never see Shilts as a United character. His playing ability aside, his integrity was a bit short on what's necessary for a United man. As a 16 year old trainee for Leicester City, he was spotted by Leicester and England Number 1, Gordon Banks who strongly persuaded his manager to move him up the ranks. Shilton shone for Leicester in a few games and the club quickly recognized his enormous playing potential; however Shilton showed his gratitude to Banks by giving Leicester an ultimatum that if he wasn't made the first-choice keeper, he would leave the club. Gordon Banks was sold as a result. Not at all the kind of character I would've been proud of to have worn the United colors.

John Barnes

Bad miss - that's all one can sigh in retrospect. This was in late 1986, when Sir Alex had just taken over as manager of the club. John Barnes, who had already had a great World Cup in Mexico would later go on to mesmerize fans with his dazzling displays for years. His influence can be judged from the fact that he's Giggsy's footballing hero and who he's self-admittedly modeled himself on.Fergie at the time was new to English football and was still learning the ropes. Jesper Olsen, the United winger was a bit of concern for him, as he'd already been involved in a horrible brawl with Remi Moses and his on-field displays hadn't exactly sent the gaffer into a frenzy of admiration. Looking out actively for replacements, John Barnes was offered to him on a platter by Watford for GBP 900,000 but according to Fergie, the United staff let him stall on the move rather a bit longer than required.

Also, Fergie was concentrating more on bringing Peter Beardsley back to Old Trafford, but the club couldn't afford his transfer fee. As a result, Beardsley moved to Liverpool. Soon he was joined at Anfield by another genius - John Barnes.

He may have worn the enemy colors, but I have had tremendous admiration for Barnes' craft. A bit of a tardy slip, eh Gaffer?

Alan Shearer

For me, he's still the best ever finisher of the Premier League era, as evidenced by his record 260 goals, but what a twat! 

Listen to Bryan Robson:

"The boss decided we needed another option up front, preferably someone who could provide more of a physical presence and goal threat. The player he targeted was Alan Shearer, the young Southampton striker who had been terrorising defences. He had the lot - power, pace, fierce shot, great in the air and brave as a lion. He was made in the classic centre-forward mould and he was a Geordie. Yet instead of joining the biggest club in the country, Alan went to Blackburn Rovers, a decision that has baffled me to this day. Even though he had a fantastic career with England and a good career with Blackburn and Newcastle, his cabinet would have been full of all kinds of trophies and medals if he had gone to Old Trafford. I think Alan, deep down, will probably regret that he never joined United."

Alan Shearer's move to United didn't happen twice - first in 1992, but looking back we don't mind at all - we signed Eric Cantona once Shearer joined Blackburn. Then again in 1996, when he joined his hometown club, Newcastle United, we can look back at it with no regret whatsoever - we bought Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer instead.

In fact, I'm right now wishing that Alan Shearer was still playing, so we could attempt a third unsuccessful move for him -  the lucky omen he's been for United, we just may land up with a third eternal legend.

Peter Kenyon In Silhouette

Of course in recent years we've missed out on gems like Ronaldinho and Arjen Robben, the reason for which can be summed up in five words - Peter Kenyon is a cunt!


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When Michael Owen Almost Joined United In 1994

Michael Owen signed professional forms with Liverpool in December 1996. Owen was one of the most coveted graduates of Lilleshall, which at the time, was generally considered to be the Vatican of youth football development in Britain. By that time, Owen had also successfully managed to break all-time scoring records at every level right from Under-10 to Under-17 football in England's history. Two years before that, although he had already signed Centre of Excellence forms with Liverpool, it was a loose arrangement with no contractual obligation for either side, so Owen's father made him do the rounds of all clubs that had expressed interest in securing the professional services of his 15 year old son.

Recalling those days in his autobiography, Off The Record, Michael Owen recalls:

"I went to Manchester United and spent a week or two there undergoing trials. I always had the impression that United wanted to bring me into their successful youth system. It was when I went to watch a game at Old Trafford that I first came face to face with the man who had shaped the careers of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville Brothers, Gary and Phil. I was in an environment where homegrown talent was valued very highly.

Before the match we had the traditional meal in the stand, and then we went to Ferguson's office. I will always remember him looking me straight in the eye and asking, 'So, do you want to play for Manchester United?' The question was so big and so simple that it threw me off balance. I was sitting opposite one of the world's leading managers, and I wanted so much to become a professional footballer. So my answer was 'sort of' followed by a meandering 'yes'. I just couldn't have stood in front of him and said, 'Oh, yes, Mr. Ferguson, I've always been dying to play for Manchester United.' 

As much as I respected him, I was extremely nervous in his company. It wasn't a fear of being bullied; more a case of finding the whole routine uncomfortable. It required me to hold conversations I wasn't ready to have. So, generally, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what managers said - being diplomatic, I suppose. 
'Do you want to be a professional footballer, son?' 

'Yeah I do.' 

That's pretty much the way it would go. You only really give one-word answers when you're a kid, don't you?

I don't know what Alex Ferguson made of it, but I do know that Brian Kidd, his assistant, had been to watch me lots of times and had got to know my dad quite well. For a while, if United didn't have a game on the Saturday, Brian Kidd would often be on the touchline to see me play. The United scouts stayed in touch and asked Dad to let them know when it was decision time on which club I was going to choose. If I'd been older, I might not have been quite so naive in front of Sir Alex, but at that tender age I was listening to my heart more than my head. I wasn't old enough to make calculations about who was the biggest club or who might have the brightest future."

At the end, Steve Heighway, a youth coach at Liverpool, who had a huge influence on Owen and his parents tilted the deal in Liverpool's favor. Another strong factor was that Owen didn't wanna live away from his family. 

By 2009, when the football world had practically written off Michael Owen, it was the same Sir Alex Ferguson who gave his career a new lease of life. Starting his third season at United and by now well familiar with the great traditions of Manchester United, not to mention the solitary league medal he's won with us, Owen would definitely be wishing that Albert Einstein had not destroyed his most valuable discovery - the Time Machine!


Monday, July 11, 2011

Gazza Saga - The Transfer That Never Was

Anyone old enough to remember Italia '90 or Euro '96 can easily recall how Gazza mesmerized the average football fan. His stints with Spurs and Rangers were memorable for their fans to see this genius week-in, week-out. Paul Gascoigne, who also went on to play for clubs like Lazio, Middlesbrough and Everton is ironically also the source of inspiration for Wazza's name - Rooney's nick was coined when he was compared to the great Gazza. 

Paul Gascoigne and Old Trafford could have potentially been an ideal match. Gazza would have brought his sheer genius to a United squad that was in the quest of breaking the Merseyside monopoly.

Grabbed by Vinnie, but Not by Fergie!
United, on the other hand, would have given Gazza the opportunity to ply his trade at the highest levels of club football. The utter loss of a dazzling career could have been avoided and Gazza could have had the opportunity of becoming a midfield legend at OT like Robbo, Keano and Scholesy. There are few players that Fergie has failed to sign during his career - Gary Lineker from Barca, although Fergie did not go out of his away and probably Lineker wanted to live in London, Alan Shearer twice, once from Southampton because probably he wanted to play in a team which revolved around him and hence moved to Blackburn and then again when he chose to join his hometown club, Newcastle.  

Gary Lineker (L) & Alan Shearer (R)
Allegedly, Marcel Desailly was supposed to sign for us before moving to Chelsea and there are maybe a few other examples like Ballack, Essien, Robben and Ronaldinho where Fergie missed out on players. However, as Fergie would himself agree, none of those mishaps would cause him to regret the way he rued missing out on Gazza. And eventually, vice versa.

The three key figures throughout the Gazza Saga were of course Paul Gascoigne himself, Sir Alex Ferguson and United captain, Bryan Robson. Here's an account in the words of all the three principal characters of the whole episode:

Sir Alex Ferguson 

I had been determined to bring Paul over to United ever since he had tortured us with a devastating performance for Newcastle at St James' Park. We sent out the powerful midfield of Moses, Robson and Whiteside that day but the 21 year old Gascoigne outplayed them, crowning his precocious display by patting Remi Moses on the top of the head like a headmaster mildly rebuking one of his pupils ... What a performance, and what a player! 'I'm going to sign him,' I told my assistant, Archie Knox, on the way home.

The fact that he never wore the red shirt was his mistake, not ours. As far as I am concerned, I had a solid promise that he would sign for me and I think that his change of mind hurt both of us. I wonder if his advisers ever consider what a boob they made, taking a lad of Paul's background and temperament to London. Maybe his self-destructive nature would have brought him trouble anywhere, but it is my belief that if he had signed for United he would not have had nearly as many problems as he had in London. I know managing him would have been no joyride but the hazards that went with the talent would never have put me off. I still don't know Paul well but at our meetings I warmed to him. You feel you want to be like an older brother or a father to him. You might want to shake him, or give him a cuddle, but there is certainly something infectious that gets you involved with him. To this day I regret being denied the chance to help him to make better use than he did of his prodigious abilities.

Bryan Robson

The only time that he (Fergie) really went for me was in a match against Newcastle. Again, it was half-time and we were losing 1-0 but this time I had been on from the start and I was having a poor game. They had Paul Gascoigne playing opposite me and Norman and we couldn't get near him. Gazza was different class. I could see Fergie was going to come for me and as soon as he started shouting and raging I got up. Before he could get across the dressing room to me, I was across to him, raging back. 'Do you think I want to play as badly as I am in front of all my family and mates? I'm trying, Gaffer, but the kid's not bad.' 

As manager of Boro, Robbo signed Gazza from Rangers

One player that the gaffer didn't get (in 1988) was Paul Gascoigne, which was a pity for us and for Gazza. I was into Gazza's ribs about coming to us because I thought he would have been brilliant for United and Old Trafford was the perfect stage for him. He annoyed the boss because he said he would sign for us and then went to Tottenham. I seem to remember he told the Press at the time that he felt he would be overshadowed by me, which was rubbish. I'm sure we would have been great together. He would have got on with all the lads. There is also a suggestion that he felt intimidated by Fergie, but I don't think that was the reason he decided against United. As Gazza says in his book, he wanted to buy his mam and dad a house and the extra money Spurs offered up front enabled him to do that. Gazza now admits to me that he should have joined United and his career would have benefited. He knows he missed out big-style. He would have been one of the main players in the side the gaffer built and he probably wouldn't have got into so much trouble off the pitch. He found the bright lights of London too hard to resist and, of course, it's easier to get lost in a city the size of London. You're more likely to get noticed in Manchester, as a few of us discovered! You knew that if the gaffer found out what you were up to, you were going to get hammered. I played with Gazza for England and had him at Middlesbrough, but I just wish we'd been side by side at United. He had fantastic talent.

Paul Gascoigne

Eventually, Newcastle got the message that I wanted to leave and wouldn't be signing another two-year contract. They officially gave their permission for my advisers to speak to Tottenham. Alex Ferguson found out what Spurs were prepared to offer me. They couldn't match it, apparently, but said that I'd more than make up the shortfall in win bonuses if I came to Man United. Fergie saw me as the natural successor to Bryan Robson, or so I was told, though later on, when I told Robbo this, I learned that this wasn't the story he'd heard. 

Fergie had discussions with my lawyer, Mel Stein, as if he was certain I would sign for them. The figures bandied around seemed enormous at the time, though they were nothing like those that change hands today. All I was really interested in was being able to buy a house for my mam and dad. In Fergie's autobiography, this somehow got turned into me saying that the club had to buy a house for them, but this wasn't so.

I hadn't actually met Terry Venables, the Spurs manager, yet. I agreed to go down to London to be introduced to him at Mel's office in Mayfair. I sat in a room with El Tel, cuddling a giant talking bear called Teddy Ruxpin, which Mel and Len Lazarus, my accountant, had given me for my 21st birthday. I let Teddy do most of the talking. I don't think Terry Venables could really believe it, but at least he could see what he might be getting for his money.

For my part, I was very impressed by what Venables had to say, especially when he told me that if I came to him, and was trained by him, I would be sure to get into the full England team. That mattered to me even more than the money being offered.

Paul Gascoigne with Terry Venables

I didn't know what to do. I still hadn't decided against Manchester United. In fact, if anything I was veering towards them. I thought I'd feel more at home if I stayed in the north. Going south would be a big change. 

I was invited by Fergie to come and look round Old Trafford. I set out to drive myself to Manchester, but changed my mind and didn't go that day. I was in a very confused state. 

Fergie phoned to say that he was about to go on holiday, but he really did want me to sign for him. I have to admit I did tell him on the phone, 'Don't worry, go on your holiday, and when you come back, I'll sign for you.' I know he was furious when I didn't, as he has since revealed. I just couldn't make up my mind. One day I would feel I should go to Old Trafford and the next I wasn't at all sure.

Irving Scholar of Spurs then made a smart move. He got Glenn Roeder to talk to me. We met in a pub in Newcastle and Glenn told me it would be good at Spurs. This only added to my confusion. I went down to London to talk to Irving Scholar and I was most impressed by his enthusiasm. He seemed to be a real football fan. Everyone at the club was friendly and not at all stuck up, as I had thought they might be. There didn't seem to be a lot of difference between Geordies and Cockneys.

Mel tried to get hold of Fergie, by now away on holiday, to ask if Man United would match the terms Spurs were offering, but he couldn't get through. Mobile phones were not then as good as they are now, especially when it came to international calls.

Irving Scholar was offering me a very good deal, and lots of extras. Tottenham were then sponsored by Hummell, and I was wearing their boots at the time, so that was another factor. Chris Waddle had convinced me I'd like it at White Hart Lane. I liked the look of Venables and Scholar, and they had offered me the best terms. So, in the summer of 1988, I signed for Spurs.

I'm sure Fergie thought I'd behaved like a stupid little bastard, double-crossing him, and many people feel he's never forgiven me. He sent me a letter saying I'd been a silly boy, and he'd believed me when I'd promised I would join Man United. I don't know where that letter is now. There's no doubt he was upset at the time, but he later invited me to play in his testimonial, and I agreed. And he gave me a watch, which I still have somewhere. As for me, I never hold grudges against anyone or any club.


After Tottenham, Gazza had a four year spell at the Rome based Serie A club, Lazio. Having fallen out with the club, Gazza contacted Fergie to sign him; however this time the gaffer wasn't interested. 

Talking to Sky News in March 2009, Gazza said:

"Maybe if I had joined Man United, I might have still been there. I don't know, you just look at these players and the squad of young kids that play, young Rooney that's there, the Neville Brothers and Becks, the way he (Ferguson) just brought them on and there are so many.I got invited to the academy and it is a magnificent place and you can see the way he treats his players, he treats them with respect but he also makes men out of boys. It took me six years to get back talking to Sir Alex, I called him from Lazio and asked him if he would sign me. He was with Eric Cantona and he said he would see what Eric Cantona was going to do but I think everyone knows if you do something to Sir Alex Ferguson the way I did you don't get a second chance."


Over the years, Gazza has singled out various United players for exemplary praise. He mentions most of them in his book among the footballers he has most admired in his life:
BRYAN ROBSON For me, the best player among my contemporaries, the best I ever played alongside, was Bryan Robson. When he was captain of England, it always felt so good knowing he was there. He could do everything: he worked all over the park and was an inspiration. I admired him so much. I think he was the greatest in the world in his position.

PETER BEARDSLEY I've always been a great admirer of Peter Beardsley, and not just because he is a friend and former team-mate, but because he had such natural talent. Beardsley was so clever. He could open up the hardest defence.
ROY KEANE The greatest footballer of my generation still playing (in 2004) is Roy Keane. He's getting on now, and has had lots of injuries, but currently he remains the best in his position anywhere. I remember first encountering him when he was at Nottingham Forest. Quite a few people in football had been talking about him, so I gave him a roasting that day, dominating the midfield. Which, of course, he will deny. During that match, to wind him up, I said to him, 'I thought you were supposed to be the next Paul Gascoigne.'
DAVID BECKHAM Of today's players, I admire Beckham, of course. We all know about his free kicks and passing. You could see that talent from a young age. He doesn't beat people by dribbling, but his vision is incredible. I also admire him for the way he's handled the Press. He's taken his share of stick and bad publicity, but he's used the media to his own advantage, which is something I never managed. He's coped with his troubles the right way. Whatever his problems with Alex Ferguson at Man United, he never criticized or badmouthed the manager after he left. 

WAYNE ROONEY Of the new generation, Wayne Rooney is the outstanding player so far. People have described him as a younger version of me. I suppose he is, in a way, though fame and success have come to him at a younger age than they did to me. He became a household name at 17 years of age. I first saw Rooney when he was 14, when I was at Everton, and this lad came on as a sub for the Under 17s. They were 1-0 down before. Wayne was brought on, but he scored 2 goals , and they won 2-1. I said to Colin Harvey, who was running the Youth Academy, 'This is some player.' So I knew of his existence long before the general football public had got to hear about him.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Maradona's Top 100 - The United Chapter

FIFA commissioned Pele at the turn of the century to compile a list of 100 Greatest Living Footballers. Although, the Brazilian legend ended up choosing 125 players, the official version of the document came to be known as FIFA 100.

It's no secret that Pele and Diego Maradona have no love lost between them. Shortly after Pele's FIFA 100, Maradona's biography, El Diego hit the stands. Along with his life's story, Maradona compiled a list of 100 Greatest Footballers of all-time. In his own words:

"There are players who have delighted me, who have, I confess disappointed me too, and there are too many to try to create the perfect team. It seems easier just to throw out some names. Ping-pong is what they call it, right? Well, I'm going to hit the ball against the wall, first with my left, then with my right. Here it goes, pic, pac, pic, pac ... One hundred shots. It's not a ranking, eh? I'm numbering them just to show there are a hundred names, a hundred players, and a few words about each one. And it's only one hundred. There are so many more - I could have filled another book."

Interestingly, Pele's list included nine United players - George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, David Beckham and Michael Owen.

While, Maradona hasn't been as generous to us, restricting his choice of United players to five - here it is what he says about them. In the words of Diego Maradona:

 A great player, but crazier than me.


A partner, a friend. Also, more importantly, crazy and a rebel just like me. They suspended him for being honest. And his game wreaked havoc. Ask the Manchester fans: they always chose him as number one.


Another one too pretty to go out on the pitch. Although he worries too much about his Spice Girl, now and again he finds the time to play and he can play well, really well - he's got a great touch. He won everything with Manchester United. And he had to eat the hen that El Cholo Simeone sold him in France 98'. But he paid us back. 


One of the best players we have in Argentina. He plays a really open game and has a strong personality. He let the tortoise get away with some of the things he said about me, he let it get away badly, very badly. That's why it's now an issue with no solution. 

For me, the only good thing to come out of the '98 World Cup. Speed, cunning, balls. I hope injury doesn't destroy him.

Diego, Diego, Diego! Only if you'd looked closely at the troika of Keano, Giggsy and Scholesy - they gave Seba a run for his money; although I rate Veron very highly. But hey, your opinion is your opinion. After all, they say that you're supposed to be better than Pele, Messi and Cruyff. My opinion? Sorry, I rate Scholes more than all of you put together. 

I'm a United Troll!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Before Fergie There Was Big Ron

Ron Atkinson, a swashbuckling Wing Half, is an elite member of the One-Club Man, who played only for Oxford United in his career making 383 appearances for the team over a period of 12 years. He started his managerial career at 32 years of age with Kettering Town. From 1974 onwards, Ron made people sit up and take note by leading Cambridge United from the Fourth Division to the brink of the Second in consecutive seasons. His formidable physical presence attracted a fair amount of attention as well - not for nothing he's called Big Ron to date. Although a regular bloke, his tongue-in-cheek humor and jovial attitude to life compelled the British Press to give him labels like 'Flash' and 'Mr. Bojangles'. To be fair, Ron himself did little to discourage that flamboyant public image.

Ron's first job in the First Division (now Premier League) started in 1978, when he replaced John Wile at West Bromwich Albion; a club where he got the opportunity to manage exceptional talent like Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Baston, Cyrille Regis, Len Cantello and our very own legend, Bryan Robson - a player, who much to our delight, later followed Big Ron to Old Trafford. 

Perhaps Big Ron's greater achievement during his WBA days was more spiritual than it was tangible. Some thirty five years ago, the disease of racism significantly shamed the beautiful game of football. Never before had a team in the top division of English football simultaneously fielded three black players on a regular basis.WBA, under Ron was also probably the first English club side that prominently marketed its troika of colored players - Baston, Regis and Cunningham were brought to prominence in the mould of George Best as glamorous footballers and were later branded as Three Degrees. Bryan Robson recalls this aspect in the following words:

"At the opening of Andy Gray's nightclub in Birmingham, the real Three Degrees, the American Girl Group were there and it was too good a photo opportunity to miss. Albion's three black players and the three black singers happily posed for pictures, Andy got his publicity, and from that moment, we had our very own Three Degrees. That stunt, I'm convinced, helped break down the prejudice against black and colored players in this country, as did Viv Anderson's selection as the first black England international."

Under Big Ron, WBA finished in the Top 4 twice and reached the quarter-finals of UEFA Cup once. This era for WBA also included a famous 5-3 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford.


In 1981, United finished 8th in the league and sacked the manager, Dave Sexton. The coveted post was offered to Ron Atkinson who readily accepted it. Big Ron's first season at Old Trafford was definitely happening - although we finished 3rd in the league table and qualified for UEFA Cup, for most of the season United topped the table, only to fall short of a rampant late surge by Bob Paisley's Liverpool side. The transfer activity at Old Trafford however very fruitful. Future United captain, Bryan Robson joined from WBA for a league record fee of GBP 1.75 Million and was joined by Remi Moses, Paul Mc Grath and Frank Stapleton. Two exciting prospects were also promoted to the first team; their names were Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes.

Bryan Robson joined a reasonably talented squad at OT which included Ray Wilkins, Steve Coppell, Gary Bailey, Arthur Albiston, Martin Buchan, Garry Birtles, Lou Macari and Sammy McIlroy. Big Ron handed the Number 7 shirt to Robbo and in later years, an injury to club captain Ray Wilkins caused him to lose both United and England captaincy to Robbo as well.

Big Ron added the talented Dutch winger, Arnold Muhren to the squad, as well as brought Laurie Cunningham on loan from Real Madrid. United finished 3rd again the next season, once again topping the table and then surrendering the lead to Liverpool. The team also reached both domestic cup finals, but lost the Milk Cup (League Cup) final to Liverpool. Big Ron, however managed to bring a trophy to Old Trafford after a drought of 6 years. United beat Brighton 4-0 in the FA Cup Final with Norman Whiteside stamping his authority as the most exciting young prospect in English Football.


The next season began with a big blow to United - Steve Coppell, an extremely talented winger was forced into a premature retirement due to injury. In came Scottish winger, Arthur Graham from Leeds United. Ron also bought Garth Crooks from Tottenham and the young Danish prodigy, Jesper Olsen. Although United had reached two cup finals the previous season, it was an embarrassing story this time round with two Third Division sides knocking us out. Oxford United sneaked a victory past United in the 4th Round of Milk Cup, whereas Bournemouth made a name for themselves by marching to a 2-0 win over the FA Cup holders in the 3rd round of the competition. In typical United fashion under Ron, we topped the league on various occasions but ended up 4th at the end. This time, however several injuries to our key players throughout the season proved to be our undoing. The silver lining was in Europe though where United marched to the Semi Finals of European Cup Winners' Cup, only to lose to a brilliant Juventus side. This run included a memorable match against Barcelona, a game that testified for the amazing prowess of Bryan Robson as United run riot through a Catalan side that included the likes of Diego Maradona and Bernd Schuster by battering them 3-0. 

By the time this season of mixed fortunes was coming to an end, Big Ron had another challenge to face - AC Milan and Juventus were seriously courting Bryan Robson. Soon another Serie A outfit, Sampdoria joined the race. This was the time when Serie A was an incredibly glamorous football league to play in and the competition became interesting when the star player of Juventus, Michel Platini got involved by trying to personally persuade Robbo to join them. Various figures were bandied around and it was understood that if there was an offer of GBP 3 Million, United would have to accept it. In case you're wondering, 3 Million was a huge transfer fee in 1984; even Maradona had moved to Barca for a fee of just over 4 Million. In the end, the combined efforts of Big Ron and the United Board won the battle as they successfully managed to price Robbo out of the market and it was his team-mate, Ray Wilkins who ended up moving to AC Milan for GBP 1.4 Million. The writing was clear on the wall for Big Ron. United had to win the league that fans had been craving since 1967.


Ron Atkinson reinforced the squad by signing Gordon Strachan and Alan Brazil and committed Bryan Robson to a seven year contract. Once again United could only manage a 4th spot in the league, the difference being that this time Everton were champions. United marched to the FA Cup Final, including a brilliant victory over a strong Liverpool side in the Semi-Final and enroute to meet league champions Everton at Wembley. Once again, Whiteside shone and it was his goal that separated both sides, thereby enabling Big Ron to claim his 2nd FA Cup in 3 years. The year was tragically marked by Bradford Disaster and Heysel Disaster, after which English teams were banned from participating in European competitions. 


In spite of winning 2 FA Cups and reasonable runs in Europe, Big Ron knew that he had to win that elusive domestic title. United looked set on course to achieving so, as the season began with us winning our first ten league games of the season - not only winning but absolutely battering opposing teams. The football played by Ron's team was devastating and the goals flowed. Be it Arsenal, the Manchester Derby, Newcastle or a 5-1 hammering of WBA, Manchester United were unstoppable. Alas, once again, injuries to Robbo, Strachan and Moses halted the team in its tracks. The end result was similar: United finished 4th in the league, with Liverpool reclaiming the champions spot, in addition to winning the FA Cup. The fans were further disappointed when Mark Hughes was Barcelona towards end-season. Truly, a season of dejection for the United faithful.

Even before the season began, there was strong speculation that Big Ron would get the sack. It didn't help his cause when we lost our first three games in the league. The last thing he needed was headlines in the papers about two of his players involved in beating up each other, but that's precisely what happened. As Bryan Robson recalls in his memoirs, Robbo:

"The players in question were Remi Moses and Jesper Olsen, and it was the biggest mismatch imaginable. Remi wasn't a big lad, but he absolutely battered Jesper. The fight took place on the training pitch. Jesper went over the top on Remi, who wasn't happy about the tackle and gave Jesper a menacing stare. Jesper came back at him with a defiant 'Yeah, what are you going to do about it?' kind of response. Remi showed him. He went bang, bang, bang and that was the end of it. There was blood all over the place."

Southampton beat United in the League Cup on 4th November, 1986 and in less than 48 hours, Big Ron was sacked. 

Ron invited the lads to his place to celebrate their association. Drinks flowed and Gordon Strachan showed off his DJ skills at the event. A chapter was ending but an era was about to begin for Manchester United.

Upon hearing that Alex Ferguson, manager of Aberdeen had been appointed as the boss of United, Gordon Strachan, who had played under Fergie in Scotland, reacted as such, "Och, no! Not Him!"

This is a brief account of what United went through in those Pre-Fergie years, so that all of us can appreciate what we have today. The fans who stood by the club through thick and thin during those years thoroughly deserve all the joy and pride that has come to Old Trafford with all the silverware.

Here's to Big Ron - thanks for your time with us. We appreciate the spirit of harmony that you brought to our dressing room, but even if Big Ron knew himself what lay ahead in our destiny, he would've probably stepped aside himself very happily.