Roy Keane : The man behind those red misty eyes

The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.

Roaring tyrant or inspiring leader? Aggressive hothead or driven talisman? Dramatic is not a word that Keane would enjoy using to describe himself, but it would fit the path of his career. For many, the images of Roy Maurice Keane that endure are of the sinew-busting approaches to referees or him towering menacingly over fallen opponents. They fit the character that has been built up over time so easily – he’s an angry man, right? The pantomime villain that others hate but his followers love, if only because they are not facing him.

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Everyone and their grandma knows how the Champions League concluded in May 1999. That balmy night in Barcelona, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær won it for Manchester United. What some fans — not United fans, mind you — may forget is that United’s road to that final was perhaps even more dramatic than their late comeback to win the tournament. Their resurrection from 2-0 down in the semi-final second-leg against Juventus in Turin was perhaps their greatest moment of all.

Therein lies the paradox of his success. A born winner, ruthlessly determined and free from the distractions of celebrity and an almost religiously private family man, but needing the grandest stage of all to feed his thriving potential. His infamous comment about the corporate atmosphere of fans eating prawn sandwiches showed a disdain for the glitz and glamour of the theatre in which he found himself, but without the very essence he was against he could never have achieved everything he had in the game.

Titanic battles between the Irishman and his arch-enemy Patrick Vieira – and by proxy between Manchester United and Arsenal – characterised the late 1990s. In a face to face encounter broadcast by ITV three years ago, Keane stared deep into the Senegal-born giant’s eyes as the reminisced over their era on the pitch.

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“It was almost my job to keep you down there,” Keane said to Vieira.

“It was an important role for me that I didn’t feel you were going to get the edge on me. I needed to dominate even the players at Man Utd; I think if I’d let you beat me in these rivalries in the middle of the park it don’t would have cost me long term.”

Their last ever league clash in 2005 epitomised the depths to which the battle was as much a mental struggle as a physical or tactical one. On his way back from the dressing room to collect his forgotten captain’s armband, Keane overheard Vieira threaten Gary Neville with a direct confrontation if he went near Robert Pires, and his switch flipped.

“We’ll see you out there,”

Psychology has always been central to his style, but whereas others in the game would use modern theories to direct and inspire them, Keane’s version was much simpler: never, ever, accept anything other than your best.

While playing for Nottingham Forest, a sloppy back pass from Keane led to a Crystal Palace equaliser in a 1991 FA Cup tie, which infuriated Brian Clough so much he punched the young midfielder in the face. Nearly two decades later, Keane reflected on his former manager’s attack:

 “Cloughie was dead right, absolutely. It was the best thing he ever did for me. It’s good to get angry. It’s an emotion and it’s part of the game. If people upset you and you don’t get angry, I’d say you’re in the wrong game.”

If emotion is part of football – and few could argue with that statement – one would assume that elation and pride would rank pretty highly on Keane’s mind when reflecting on his career as a player, given the sheer volume of trophies and adulation he earned. That would be too simplistic a view, though; there were much darker sides to the mental aspect of the game that Keane battled with.

 “A lot of my preparation would be fear; fear of losing, a fear of letting people down, a fear of letting my neighborhood down, a fear of letting my family down. Fear played a big part of my sporting career. The enjoyment was very, very brief I’m afraid. Too brief.”

The attitude towards overcoming negative emotions, as opposed to exalting in the positive ones, was infinitely more central to his way of thinking, however. When he was brought in as assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, he was told that the squad had a policy of not dwelling on bad results for more than a day.

“Obviously Villa were used to it but I wasn’t,” he was reported as saying. “At United we had a culture where, if you were beaten on a Saturday – people talk about bouncing back and moving on quickly – but Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, the lads would be fuming, and I loved that.”

In one of his most iconic matches in the red of Manchester, Keane faced what could have been one of the most crushing moments of a player’s career, but showed his character in turning it into his most memorable and inspiring moments through sheer brute force of will. The sublime Juventus side of Edgar DavidsZinedine Zidane and Paolo Montero had raced into a 3-1 aggregate lead in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final when Keane rose to head hhi-res-e2a1afb8f2156f8ea47b7d81003d34a8_crop_exactis side back into contention. Eight minutes later, however, he was booked for a late stretch to tackle Zidane, which would prevent him from playing in the final if his side got there.

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When he wasn’t captain of Manchester United stretching every sinew to the cause, when he was just another man walking his dog through the leafy suburbs, he was anything but the growling pit bull that many choose to remember him as. That petrified young boy standing nervously on his doorstep believed every powerfully terrifying image of the man, but what few people know about, or care to recall, is the softly spoken man who would stop for a cup of tea with the octogenarian dog walkers who shared his peaceful strolls across the hidden parks of Cheshire.

One such route would take him past a low house surrounded by trees with a large garden overlooking the fifth tee at Hale Golf Club, a few hundred metres from his old front door where the media camped out to catch a shot of him with his beloved Triggs after Saipan.

A red mist of rage? Not a bit of it. In the world of Roy Keane, everything was measured – but by his standards and not anybody else’s.

But if there is one thing that sums up that night, or even one thing that sums up the Manchester United of 1999, it’s that goal from the Irishman. Raising his teammates alongside him as he flew in the air, showing them how it’s done, whilst simultaneously crushing the spirit of his opponents. That’s Keano.

Fergie said after:

“I don’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman, but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made, and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

PS: tft and image credits :gettyandunitedwebsite

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Profiling Eric Dier : Manchester United’s midfield Target

The time for excuses, it seems, is over. After what had gone before him, Mourinho was always going to be given time to get things right, but expectations remain as high as ever at English football’s most successful club.

Three trophies in 2016-17 have helped to lift the post-Sir Alex Ferguson mood and get United back into the winning habit, but more is demanded rather than merely longed for. Mourinho has to push his side back into Premier League title contention, and that has to happen in 2017-18. His track record suggests that one season is normally enough for him to get his eye in and know what is expected to challenge for domestic dominance, with the immediate success enjoyed during a first stint at Chelsea and with Inter in Serie A complemented by league crowns in his second year at Real Madrid and after returning to Stamford Bridge.

He knows what pieces are required to complete the jigsaw and has made the powers that be at Old Trafford aware of where to find them, stating immediately after a Europa League triumph in May:

 “Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners.”

United are working their way down said list and have arrived at the section titled ‘holding midfielder’.

The need of a DM:

Manchester United fans were left largely underwhelmed by the news that Michael Carrick had replaced Wayne Rooney as captain. While it’s true he has been a loyal servant for the past 11 years and has done well for the club, it’s hard to look past the fact he will turn 36 in the next few weeks and only featured in 18 Premier League games last season.

Carrick’s playing time is likely to be limited further next season if Jose Mourinho gets his wish of signing a defensive midfielder. Nemanja Matic was long-hailed as the most likely new arrival, but chances of that happening took a hit after United beat Chelsea to the signature of Romelu Lukaku, the striker that Antonio Conte had at the top of his shopping list this summer. This has lead to talk of Eric Dier making the move to Old Trafford, with reports suggesting that the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder would be keen to make the move to Manchester.

While obviously not a candidate to be captain, Dier would likely take more minutes from Carrick, and the reaction from United fans is likely to be mixed.

In English football, describing a player as a ‘utility man’ often infers that he’s good in a number of positions but not good enough to make one of those his own. Manchester United have already had a bid of just under £25m for Eric Dier turned down, as per The Independent understands, and it is likely to take more than double that to even tempt Tottenham Hotspur into the idea of a sale. Just about every area of the field is being addressed by Jose Mourinho, with the Portuguese eager to ensure that no stone is left unturned.

There is also the fact that Mourinho wants a player who has proven Premier League experience for the defensive midfield position, as he sees it as a key role for the quick functioning of the team from the start of the 2017-18 season, and would prefer that to someone who has to adapt. There is still interest in Fabinho of Monaco, but he is seen by the Portuguese as a right-back.

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When Carrick arrived at the club in 2006, taking Roy Keane’s No.16, there were plenty of supporters who were disappointed. Throughout his time at the club, there has been a section of fans who have been indifferent, at best, to Carrick’s presence at United. He was never going to be in the Keane mould, but that was the sort of player the fans were desperately craving — in fact, they still are — so his signing was seen as fairly anticlimactic.

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While it would be wrong to claim Dier is the next Keane, he certainly resembles him more than Carrick ever did. The former United captain would have been proud of the performance Dier put in the season before last on the night at Stamford Bridge when Tottenham Hotspur conceded the league title. He threw himself into challenge after challenge, somehow avoiding a red card while allowing his emotions to get the better of him. Keane would have been guilty of exactly the same in that situation.

One thing that did amuse United supporters last season was Dier’s veiled threat toward Ander Herrera. The Spaniard is immensely popular at Old Trafford, so fans didn’t take too kindly to Dier having a pop following a clash on international duty.

Dier claimed he was elbowed in the face during England’s draw against Spain, a game in which Herrera made his national team debut. Dier labelled Herrera’s action “ridiculous” before adding, “I’ll see him soon,” in reference to Spurs’ upcoming game at Old Trafford. It hardly carried the same menace that Keane’s statement to Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel did, but it showed a bit of fire in his belly.

However, the day before the game, Dier gave an interview in which he downplayed the whole incident, claiming he was just joking. United won 1-0, Dier was an unused substitute, and Herrera was named man of the match.

Case of Daniel Levy :

Still, while such silliness won’t put United off the midfielder, the club still has to overcome the hurdle of dealing with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy. He has been a thorn in United’s side on a number of occasions and was embarrassed in the summer of 2008 after putting Dimitar Berbatov on a plane to Manchester to discuss terms with City — only for him to be collected from the airport by Sir Alex Ferguson and taken swiftly to United’s Carrington training ground.

David Gill and Ferguson have both left the club since then, meaning there is the opportunity for an olive branch to be offered. But even if the Spurs are to sell Dier, they will demand a large fee.

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Dier made 48 appearances for Spurs last season in all competitions and formed a budding bromance with Dele Alli, much to the delight of the supporters. Losing Dier would be viewed as a step backward for the North London club, who will be hoping it’s lucky the third time in their bid to be crowned Premier League champions next season, after coming close in their last two consecutive campaigns.

Carrick didn’t get the fans buzzing, but his arrival coincided with three title wins on the bounce for United. If Dier could play a similar role, supporters would be more than happy regardless of the overinflated transfer fee.

Portuguese Education

“I play with my head up, unlike you Englishmen.”

Iconic quote by Michael Laudrup but the fact is it is the basic for any midfielder. Watch the man ahead of you so that you can get through. the softly spoken 21-year-old would be far too self-effacing to admit it, his Portuguese upbringing does appear to have imbued in him the same European qualities that Laudrup referred to during that on-pitch conversation all those years ago.

He was eight when he first came to the club, a shy English boy with little grasp of the language being spoken by his peers. As would be the case in England – in the playground or on the football pitch – those two realities initially left him on the outside looking in. Those first six months, as a foreigner with his new hometown club, were some of the toughest of his young life.

According to those who saw him play in those formative years, among Dier’s greatest gifts were his composure and precious ability to keep the ball – a trait that Sporting’s coaches ingrained in their charges from an early age.

In an interview with Four four two one of his footballing coaches said

“Unlike on the park pitches of England on a Saturday and Sunday morning, there were no coaches balling at the youngsters, Players were told things once and expected to learn from it. Likewise, the first question on the return to the Sporting clubhouse after an away match wasn’t ‘did you win?’ but ‘did you play well?’.”

That notion of keeping the ball, being patient and waiting for your chance, would have been foreign to most English players of a similar age. In Portugal, however, it was as natural as breathing.

The way United are going about their business this summer it is unlikely that he would be the final piece of the puzzle, but he – or any alternative that operates in a similar role – would be another sensible signing and a step in the right direction for a club looking to put down several sizeable summer markers to their rivals.

Think about this for once :

This is the manager who had Claude Makelele at Chelsea, Esteban Cambiasso at Inter and Sami Khedira at Real Madrid. No-one appreciates the value of a defensive midfielder quite like Mourinho, yet at Old Trafford he has been forced to choose between wrecking ball Marouane Fellaini and 35-year-old Michael Carrick for the holding role. So, it is evident we are signing a defensive mid but the question comes will it be him or Fabinho or someone else.

The Portuguese is shrewd enough to know that signing a player like Dier has the dual effect of strengthening his own team while weakening a side who have finished above United in three of the four seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. 02.jpgMauricio Pochettino could replace Walker, who has four years to run on his contract, with Kieran Trippier and the Spurs manager could use the fee from the sale to strengthen his squad. Pochettino would be less willing to cash in on selling Dier.

In a transfer market that is quickly threatening to lose its proverbial head, Dier represents genuine value. He is a key cog at Tottenham, central to everything positive about the side’s fresh-faced resurgence, while Mourinho had lost faith in Matic by the end of their time together. Make no mistake, were United to sign Dier, it would be a bigger coup – and more damaging blow – than even their record deal for Lukaku.

 

Manchester United’s graveyard of Potential

There are few things more exciting than watching a youngster showcase sky-high potential. Take Monaco’s latest prodigy, Kylian Mbappé, who injected fresh interest into the Champions League last season – a competition that has become stale in recent years given the domination of the continent’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Young players bring unpredictability and excitement. Few outside France knew of the Frenchman’s talent before he burst onto the scene at the turn of the year. They know him now.

Opposition teams could not plan for Mbappé as they had little prior knowledge. First, Mbappé showcased his exquisite finishing. Then came the turn of pace. As Mbappé’s confidence grew he begin to demonstrate those brilliant touches of skill that took everyone by surprise. The youngster may have been perceived as a poacher, but by the end of the season he was viewed as one of the most complete footballers in the competition, at the tender age of 18.

Manchester United, of course, is no stranger to blooding talented youngsters. The world-renown Class of 92 stands apart as one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern football. Never before – and given football’s globalization probably never again – had six footballers matured together to help their boyhood club win the ultimate prize: a Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble in 1999. For that story alone, United commands an aura of respect for giving youth a chance.

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Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club hasn’t been able to replicate that since the class of 92. While the academy continues to produce talent, the club has failed to build on young promise in recent years. There is no longer a regular stream of players making it to the first team. Just two weeks back, United announced that Josh Harrop will be joining Preston North End when his contract expires at the end of the month. Harrop leaves having scored a beautiful solo goal versus Crystal Palace on his club debut on the last day of the season, but his chances of making the first team permanently are limited.

Perhaps, more pointedly, Adnan Januzaj is off to Real Sociedad in an attempt to relight his career after years of stalled progress. The Belgian youngster burst onto the scene as one of the only bright spots in David Moyes’ disastrous season at the club. Louis van Gaal distrusted the mercurial winger and then Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel expressed public disappointment with the player’s attitude and sent him back to Manchester. It should have been the perfect opportunity to develop at one of the world’s most youth-friendly clubs. Frustration, anger, and a touch of sadness describe the emotions felt about a player who many believe holds the natural ability to reach the top. It just won’t be at United.

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The broader picture is not positive either. Januzaj is far from alone as a promising youngster that has failed to make it at United. The list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long for a club that has lacked exceptional quality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s results declined only after Ferguson’s retirement, but the youthful talent pool had dried up long before the Scot called it a day. In the past five years alone, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Tyler Blackett, and Paddy McNair each offered United fans a glimpse of talent, yet all left with a sense of potential unfulfilled. Even youthful acquisitions such as Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Memphis Depay departed having failed to turn talent into performances.

This is not all on the club, of course. Many factors play into development and progress of talent, many of which are out of United’s control. Morrison’s personal issues, for example, made it seemingly impossible for the player to dedicate the required focus on his career. Pogba has proven to be Ferguson’s most costly misjudgement, and with hindsight, maybe the hype afforded to Macheda, Cleverly, Welbeck, Blackett and McNair was unjustified.

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Yet, there is also a sense that with the right coaching at least some of these players could have progressed to reach the standards they were once touted to possess. Zaha, for example, was not afforded the chance to showcase his mercurial talents despite the £15 million fee. United fans might look at the player’s outstanding season at Crystal Palace as an opportunity missed. Powell and Depay were each accused of demonstrating a poor attitude, although if the former is able to focus and the latter carries on his good form for Lyon, United may rue not holding a little more patience.

The result is a graveyard of youthful potential. There are too many ‘what ifs’ – players discarded to the wind when the excitement of youth was exactly what the club needed. Today, supporters are right to be concern that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial might not fulfil their potential at the club. Each enjoyed superb seasons under Van Gaal, but neither truly built on those foundations during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at the club. The duo enjoyed ample game time last season, but there is a sense that Mourinho’s more conservative tactics have stunted the pair’s growth. Potential is not yet lost, but neither enjoyed featuring on the left wing and being asked to perform defensive duties even if it is beneficial to the team. If Mourinho captures Alvaro Morata, neither will appear at number nine much next season either.

 

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In more defensive areas, Mourinho can choose from a plethora of talented youngsters waiting for a chance. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have each offered assured performances for the senior team. Fosu-Mensah looks like the beefy, all-action defensive midfielder that the team has lacked in recent years, while Tuanzebe epitomised composure when he was thrown into Mourinho’s first team plans towards the end of the season. Shaw is a complicated case, but his ability is unquestionable. Shaw will hope that Mourinho places more trust in the former Southampton player, although that trust may only come with the hard work his manager demands.

Borthwick-Jackson and Varela looked like capable attacking full-backs under van Gaal’s tutelage, although with so many options in front of them it seems unlikely that either will make the senior squad in the coming season. Departure is likely.

Mourinho has much to do if he is to dispel the assumption that he fails to give youth a chance. Last season Rashford, Martial, Shaw, Tuanzebe, and Fosu-Mensah enjoyed time in the first team. Mourinho offered more minutes to teenagers than any other manager in the Premier League, albeit a stat skewed by Rashford’s impact. Yet, none is guaranteed first choice for the coming campaign.

The sense that Mourinho’s conservative ideology hinders talented youngsters persists. Few will argue that the Portuguese prefers the fickle world of potential – one that can be full of surprises, good and bad – to proven talent and experience.

Still, the current crop of youngsters at United is more exciting than in recent years. Now the club and manager needs to find the right environment to stimulate that talent.

 

Happy birthday Pretty boy : David Beckham

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’

I am no fan of Shakespeare, I couldn’t care less about the contextual values of his time and totally dislike his Elizabethan English. But if their were to be something I totally agree with,  it’d have to be the above quote.

There is a popular story narrated by former United Kingdom Prime minister, Tony Blair in an interview. He said he happened to visit a small island in Japan and people couldn’t recognise him or United Kingdom. Children couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly. Out of desperation he uttered the name “David Beckham” and immediately stuck common chord with those kids. Probably, the story may be a bit exaggerated but there is no denying the fact what David Beckham had on football.

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Beckham has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, while also acting as a sporting ambassador for his country, playing a key role in London winning the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games. He was born and raised in East London, but began his career at Manchester United at the age of 14, winning the Champions League in 1999, as well as the Premier League six times and the FA Cup twice. After winning the French title with PSG, Beckham has won 19 trophies – 10 of them league titles – in a playing career spanning 20 years, and is the only English player to win championships in four different countries.

Stylish, flamboyant and a free-kick master. A wonderful range of passing, a quick decision maker, creative, patient and composed. Such superlatives could be about any number of brilliant players throughout football’s history. Had Beckham been born Italian, he would undoubtedly have been played centrally.

Such is David Beckham’s godlike status these days – sporting ambassador, style guru, model father, stoic asthma-sufferer – it’s easy to forget how unpopular he was at the start of the decade. England supporters still hadn’t forgiven him for the petulance that earned him a red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals (and which led to his effigy being burned outside a London pub).

You are just 23 and the entire country says “ You cost us the World cup.” David Beckham famously said :

‘I have nightmares about France 98. It was humiliating. It will always be with me.’

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Probably, it was in his genes or the club he played for at that time when he decided to take the free kick against Greece.  The stage was Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground and the lead actor was David Beckham. From the boy who costed the world cup to the captain of the country taking a free kick to help England qualify for the world cup. Think of the pressure, the thoughts which would have gone in his head.

“ What would happen if I miss this? ”

Everyone knew who would take it. And everyone knew what he would try to do The Greeks should have known, too, but they put only four men in the wall, and Beckham swung the ball round them into the top corner. The draw was enough to take England to the finals in Japan, where Beckham exorcised the demons of four years earlier by scoring the only goal (a dubiously awarded penalty) in the defeat of Argentina. But David Beckham did what he did for Manchester United for years. He took the challenge and delivered one of the most iconic free kicks in the history of football.   

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But Beckham has something few footballers possess: beautiful looks, he’s an art-object in his own right. Forget the frantic hairstyles (skinhead, Mohican, ponytail, kiss-curl, spiky, slicked back, bleached, etc) and the wretched tattoos. Forget the sarong and the experiments with pink nail varnish. However silly the get-up, his good looks can’t be disguised: brown eyes, a winning smile and (as seen in underwear ads as well as the shirt-exchanges at the end of games) a terrific body. Sam Taylor-Wood recognised it when she made a film of him sleeping. Peter Blake, Alison Jackson and Antony Gormley have all produced art-works inspired by him. And Tracey Emin exhibited a letter she sent him, along with a photo of herself half-naked on a bed – the sort of come-on Posh must spend half her life fending off.

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Some thought the obsession with fashion and celebrity would be the ruin of Beckham, much as alcohol destroyed George Best. But Beckham had been into clothes from an early age. At the age of six, for a family wedding, he delighted in choosing his pageboy outfit – maroon knickerbockers, white stockings, frilly shirt, ballet shoes (“I’d have worn it to school if they’d let me”). He is famously fastidious, too, once refusing to give a fellow player a lift after training in case he scuffed the leather seats of the new Becksmobile. For a footballer to be a gay icon transgresses the laws of beery machismo, but Beckham has pulled it off.

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Some fans would prefer him to be tougher: had his dodgy metatarsal not made him shirk a Roberto Carlos tackle in Japan in 2002, allowing Brazil to sweep downfield and equalise, might England have gone on to win the match and the tournament? All three World Cups Beckham has played in have ended in disappointment and “what ifs?” But the miracle is that he’s survived to take part in a fourth. He may be the modern George Best for Manchester United minus the drinking habit. Every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be like him. I grew up watching Manchester United day in and day out and David Beckham was the reason why I wanted to sport a “spiked hair style”.

But Beckham was more than a player. He was — and will remain, even in retirement — a brand. The planet has enough replica Beckham jerseys — in England white, United red, Madrid blue and Galaxy gold — to clothe a small nation.

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The problem many people who love to hate Beckham encounter is that as an individual he is hard to dislike. He is not a bon viveur full of witty put-downs when he faces the press – that is Steven Gerrard’s job – but Beckham is polite, mild and, even now, sometimes stumbles over his words. They like the fact that he is rich, famous and lives in Beverly Hills but, like them, makes a regular pilgrimage to the stadium by the North Circular in the vain hope that one day the England team will get their act together.

Somehow, against all the odds, this hyper-celebrity with his improbably named children and Hollywood actors for friends has become a man of the people. He has done so because the older and less effective a footballer he has become, the more people have come to appreciate the way that he has hung on tenaciously to what is important to him – his place in the England team. And, of course, every now and then he can still hit the kind of cross or free-kick that tells people that, technically, he is still an excellent footballer.

There were some utterly absurd moments in his England career which, looking back upon, it is hard to believe he was allowed to get away with. His decision to have a traditional African “corn-row” plait hairstyle for England’s 2003 friendly in South Africa – when he met with Nelson Mandela – was one.

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We shouldn’t really be surprised that Becks is a man capable of sleight of hand when it comes to handling his public image. Just think what he’s pulled off in the two decades since he became globally famous. It’s stunning. In this commitment, Beckham, too, has form. This is the boy who, without the innate talent of a Messi or a Ronaldo, would spend three hours at practice after everyone had gone home, to ensure he could cross the ball with the best. His great heights were undoubtedly built on early foundations of grit, focus and dedication.

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The biggest lesson he taught to fellow footballers was rightly said by Zlatan Ibrahimovic :

“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him, is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”

Happy birthday David Beckham. Thank you for making my childhood wonderful with those killer free kicks and the unforgettable Samurai advertisement. The supporters at Wembley cannot all be wrong. They feel a connection with him that transcends the usual suspicion of modern-day millionaire footballers. 

 

Louis Van Gaal’s “decay” Transfer policy : Answers which Mourinho is searching

Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long-proposed move to Chicago Fire was finally completed last week. with the German heading Stateside ahead of the new MLS season. The World Cup winner left with a classy parting message to Manchester United fans and seemingly no bitterness, despite what has been a difficult and unproductive 18 months at Old Trafford. Schweinsteiger’s departure means that five of Louis van Gaal’s 10 signings as United manager have now left the club. Of those who remain perhaps only two can be considered successful, each with caveats attached. It is a truly rotten legacy.

Van Gaal’s time at United was characterised by a scattergun, often contradictory, agent-driven approach to improving and evolving United’s squad. Shiny new toys were bought, whether required or not, and too often acquisitions were based on the recommendation of agents, or a lofty reputation long-since diminished.

Van Gaal’s purchases included two fading stars, Schweinsteiger and Radamel Falcao; three talented youngsters, Memphis Depay, Luke Shaw, and Antony Martial; one bone fide world star at his peak in Angel di Maria; and six squad fillers. Of that group Depay, Di Maria, and Falcao have left, in various degrees of disgrace, while Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin were effectively frozen out by Van Gaal’s replacement before being sold, deemed not good enough for the club.

Of those who remain, Luke Shaw is on the periphery, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind, and Sergio Romero are useful, but limited squad players, while only Marcos Rojo, Ander Herrera, and Anthony Martial are regular starters.  We look into the mess which Van Gaal left behind

Radamel Falcao | AS Monaco  | Fee £6.46m | Value for Money 1/10 |  AS Monaco/Chelsea
The Colombian came with a huge reputation, large wage packet and an even larger appendage. Of that trio, only the manhood survived contact with Old Trafford. After two unsuccessful years in England with United and Chelsea, Falcao is back among the leading goalscorers in Ligue 1. But the extent to which Falcao’s legendary sharpness and eye for goal had dismissed by the time he arrived in Manchester cannot be underestimated. The striker scored just four times in 29 appearances for the club, all too often seeming two yards off the pace despite desperately wanting to succeed. This was no last hurrah and cynical pay check; Falcao wanted to be a hit – he just wasn’t good enough, or fit enough. To nobody’s surprise, United failed to take up the second year of the striker’s loan agreement. To everybody’s surprise, Chelsea stepped in to repeat the mistake.

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Victor Valdés | Free Agent  | Free | 2/10 |  Middlesbrough
Goalkeeper and manager fell out almost as quickly as it took for the former Barcelona player to sign for United. Valdés’ career had been put on hold, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury not only ruling the player out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but scuppering a proposed move to Monaco. Van Gaal first offered his former Barcelona colleague time training with the club, and then a permanent contract. If Valdés was supposed to challenge David de Gea he did not. The ‘keeper certainly didn’t want to be sat on the bench, and it wasn’t long before the Spaniard was consigned to training with the reserve team. The agony of a loan spell in Belgian football followed, before a summer transfer to Middlesbrough where Valdés is rebuilding a once great career.

Ángel Di María | Real Madrid  | £63.75m | 4/10 |  Paris Saint Germain
It took Di Maria hardly any time at all to establish that he was the best player in Van Gaal’s squad. The Argentinian came with a huge reputation as a creative tour-de-force in the middle of Real Madrid’s central midfield. Those few early performances suggested that he could repeat it at Old Trafford. Yet, it didn’t take too much longer to realise that Di Maria was that tour-de-force only when he wanted to be. Granted, the player probably never wanted the move to United in the first place, nor did a break-in at his house aid with a difficult period of acclimatisation. Van Gaal’s bizarre use of a world-class talent in almost every position in the team didn’t help either. In the end there was little that United could do bar sell the player on at a significant loss.

Luke Shaw | Southampton  | £31.88m | 4/10
Shaw has all the natural talent to become one of the finest full-backs in football. Luck hasn’t always come his way, not least with that horrific leg break against PSV Einhoven in the Champions League 18 months ago, together with a raft of minor injury problems that never allow for a consistent run in the team. Yet, there is too much in the accusations of lack of fitness and lack of application to ignore. Shaw recovered from that double fracture, but he has not yet matured as an athlete or a professional. It is taking far too long for the penny to drop, and Mourinho is far from impressed. There were times this season when Mourinho has pointed the way, and yet Shaw is still unable to break back into the United side. A divorce this summer appears to be increasingly likely. It will be a very sad conclusion if that is the case.

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Bastian Schweinsteiger | Bayern Munich  | £7.65m | 5/10 |   Chicago Fire
See above. Schweinsteiger offered plenty of classy moments at United, but not enough to justify his place in the squad. The pointing was pretty good, as was his obvious leadership. The German international was, perhaps, the right player at the wrong time. If only he had joined United a few years earlier when the club’s midfield was truly short of world-class performers. Having suffered one too many injuries, Schweinsteiger arrived in Manchester a little too far off the pace during his début campaign for United. There can be little surprised that Mourinho, a coach who values physicality more than most, ditched the midfielder with little ceremony. Classy man, who was once a classy player. Good luck in MLS.

Morgan Schneiderlin | Southampton   | £29.75m  | 5/10
There were a few eyebrows raised when United spent the best part of £30 million on the former Southampton player. Schneiderlin’s industry is to be admired, but as more of an attacking talent than a defensive one, plenty had doubts that he could translate his Soton form onto a bigger stage. Van Gaal tried to deploy the Frenchman in a holding role; it didn’t suit the player or United. Schneiderlin’s time at the club was no disaster and United secured a decent fee from Everton this winter, but the original hunch that the player just wasn’t a significant enough improvement on what United already had proved to be correct. There’s a term for buying too many mediocre players for incremental gain: Liverpoolisation. United should steer clear of it, and Schneiderlin’s sale was surely the correct decision.

Matteo Darmian | Torino   | £15.30m | 6/10
Darmian’s first half-dozen performances for United proved to be a very false dawn. The Italian is a cool head, can operate across the back four and came at a reasonable price. But there’s little quality going forward and the defensive mistakes started to creep into his game during the second half of last season. He has proven a useful squad player, able to perform in either full-back position, but he is not as good as Antonio Valencia or Daley Blind, and has nowhere near the natural talent of Luke Shaw. The Italian remains at the club for now, but a sale to a mid-ranked Serie A side this summer is on the cards. Mediocre squad filler. See warning above.

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Marcos Rojo | Sporting   | £17.00m | 6/10
What an enigma. Rojo’s purchase was seemingly driven by agent Jorge Mendes and not any long-term scouting on United’s part. The former Sporting player enjoyed a strong World Cup 2014 with Argentina, but has produced a highly inconsistent two and a half seasons in Manchester. The player is clearly more comfortable in central defence than at left-back – and in fact this season can lay claim to being United’s most consistent performer in the centre. There are moments of genuine rash play though and he is lucky not to have seen red more often. At left-back Rojo is neither a great defender, nor a good attacker and it is still amusing when he is used in that role.  Rojo is probably not good enough to form part of a title-winning back four. For now the recent improvement is welcome.

Sergio Romero |  Sampdoria   | Free transfer | 7/10
Flappy Serge offers the odd heart-stopping moment, but for the most part the club has gained a good quality back-up ‘keeper and a very reasonable price. There were some who suggested the Argentinian World Cup finalist could challenge David de Gea for a place in the United side on a more regular basis. That, of course, was nonsense. Yet, Romero’s consistency, save for a few comedic errors last season, enabled Van Gaal and now Mourinho to rest De Gea in cup matches. Indeed, Romero has been near faultless in his 11 appearances to date this season. Rumours that the player would like a move in search of a more regular starting role may escalate in the summer. Should he move on, Mourinho will do well to find a reserve ‘keeper of equal quality.

Daley Blind | Ajax Amsterdam   | £14.88m | 7/10
The Dutchman’s composure and flexibility is an asset, although his pace and overall quality remain in question. Used mainly at left-back by Ajax, and in midfield by the national team, and in central defence by Van Gaal, Blind is the modern-day John O’Shea – a jack of all trades, master of none, squad player for the rotation era. That suited Van Gaal well, although Mourinho much prefers specialists in all positions. To that end Blind has been used primarily at left-back this season – it is comfortably his best position and there have been several stand out performances. It would not be a surprise if Mourinho moves the player on in the summer though. United bought Blind at a decent price and should find plenty of suitors across European football. No disaster, but no smash hit either.

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Ander Herrera | Athletic Bilbao   | £30.60m | 8/10

The Spaniard’s energy, tenacity and determination has been put to very good effect by Mourinho this season in a deeper role than any he has taken in his career to date. Used either at eight or 10 by Bilbao, and sometimes on the right side of midfield, Herrera joined United after a protracted transfer negotiation lasting more than a year. Van Gaal seemed unsure about the player, as did Mourinho for some of the early part of this season. Now Herrera is an essential foil for Paul Pogba. There is a question about his long-term role though. Herrera is not quite a pure-play defensive midfielder, nor does he offer the same quality as Pogba at eight. It seems that the Basque is best in a midfield three, and his position and future could be impacted by Mourinho’s summer transfer strategy.

Anthony Martial | AS Monaco   | £42.50m | 9/10

Martial has not enjoyed the same impact this season as he did last, although there are plenty of mitigating factors to take into account. The Frenchman has been limited to a wide role, when selected, and came off a turbulent summer in which he was supposed to help France win the European Championships – and didn’t. Then personal problems seemingly affected the player’s focus and confidence. Some of that old bravado is returning though, and Mourinho deserves credit for being patient with a player who has all the potential to become a world-class forward for United. The Portuguese manager is not always so with young players. United supporters will hope that Martial’s difficult second season will transform into a very high impact third. It should.

 

 

 

 

Ander Herrera: The jackal disguised as a choirboy

There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.

While Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba are the poster boys of Mourinho’s United, Herrera is the player who personifies his manager most on the pitch. When the Portuguese coach first joined Chelsea in 2004, he was characterised as charmingly arrogant,  but a man who also commanded respect. The same kind of paradoxical traits that can be seen in United’s number 26.

While the Basque-born midfielder charms with a smile and offers small talk about the game for hours on end, his on-the-pitch antics polarise neutral supporters. Herrera’s penchant for a tackle, frequent protestations to the referee, and that face of innocence when pulled up for fouls, infuriates rivals. They are the same traits that endear the player to United supporters. Like Mourinho, Herrera has an infuriating quality: you either hate to love him, or love to hate him.

ESPN in their blog wrote :

It is easy to be fooled by Herrera when you first look at him. He is not particularly tall, and his fresh-faced demeanour suggests that of a polite and diligent postgraduate student, possibly studying economics. He looks like — well, like a nice boy. But he is assuredly not a nice boy. Nice boys do not conjure slide tackles with the viciousness of bear traps. Nice boys do not steal possession as if it were a wallet left too long on the adjacent dinner table. Herrera is an unlikely source of fury, a jackal disguised as a choirboy.

Mourinho’s success in raising Herrera’s game should not be underestimated. The hardest task in management is perhaps not getting the best out of star players, but raising the game of the less prominent among a manager’s the squad. While Antonio Valencia deserves plaudits for his improvement this season, it is Herrera who is now the most important cog in United’s machine.

Under Van Gaal, the Spaniard was used as a creative midfielder with plenty of license to get forward. Mourinho, in contrast, has harnessed Herrera’s industry, and perfected it. By deploying Herrera in a two-man central midfield alongside Pogba, or in a three with Carrick as regista, the Spaniard’s role has become that of the destroyer. His tireless running and willingness to harass the opposition gives Pogba the license to roam and Carrick the freedom to dictate.

Every successful team contains a player of this ilk. Leicester City’s fall after N’Golo Kanté’s departure in the summer, or Liverpool’s poor form since Jordan Henderson suffered an injury offer evidence of the point.

While strikers’ goals win games and goalkeepers’ saves rescue them, the Premier League is evolving into a battle for midfield control. The shift by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs to a 3-4-3 system, highlights the the importance of controlling the central third of the pitch. It seems highly likely that Kanté will be named the PFA Player of the Year for his title-winning impact on Chelsea this season.

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Herrera’s importance was highlighted by his dismissal against the Blues at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. While any player loss will have a detrimental effect on the team’s performance, it was telling just how much United regressed without the Spaniard’s presence.

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The central duo of Pogba and Herrera had adequately matched Kanté and Nemanja Matić until the 34th minute when the United midfielder collected a somewhat dubious second yellow of the evening. Marouane Fellaini was brought on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to add more steel to United’s midfield, but the game was already gone. The Belgian showed good strength, but Kanté’s dynamism could only have been matched by Herrera, and Chelsea dominated for the rest of the game, claiming 72.6 per cent possession by the end of the match.

Despite Herrera’s ability to break up play, the Spaniard also possesses quality on the ball, enabling a smooth transition from defence to attack. With Carrick unable to impose himself on matches as his legs age, Herrera has taken on the mantle of the deep-lying playmaker when he is partnered by Pogba. The former Athletic Bilbao player has the industry and game awareness to drop deep and restart attacks, while still being able to get further forward in support of United’s attack.

For now, though, what he is doing should be celebrated. He is arguably as cerebral a midfielder United have had in recent years, having played under Ernesto Valverde, Marcelo Bielsa and Louis van Gaal. He also takes to his play with the passion of a United fan — a quality which finds itself in the performances of his fellow Spaniard, Mata.

On the field Herrera is not the replacement for Roy Keane that United has missed since 2005, but his ability to command the centre of the pitch, bark orders at teammates, and incite fear with a crunching tackle or few offers a hint of the past. Herrera may still look like a charming school prefect, but his tenacity is a remnant of the Irishman’s heyday.

The player’s leadership also means that many supporters view the Spaniard as United’s next club captain. After all, Herrera has the mental strength, skill, charisma, and empathy to do it. He also has Mourinho’s approval. The player not only understands supporters’ passion, but embraces it. After each home draw he vents his genuine frustration eloquently and honestly. When the team wins, he does it with the fans. At a time when footballers are at a distance, the Spaniard thinks and plays like those on the terraces.

Indeed, if there is anything that Herrera can add to his game, then it is the odd extra goal here and there — he has shown that he can be a fine finisher when called upon, and with so much attacking talent he can benefit from the preoccupation of defenders by arriving late in the area. Yet this is all fine tuning of a machine in near-perfect working order. It has taken Herrera longer to get here than he might have hoped — far longer than he should have expected, perhaps — but he has finally become pivotal to United’s trophy challenges on all fronts, and looks to remain at the heart of their push for silverware for years to come.

 

The Fosu Mensah Test

Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s situation at Old Trafford is an interesting study. The youngster made an impressive start to life at United last season, one of the few bright sparks during the Louis van Gaal era, and it seems only a matter of time before he fully develops into a top-class footballer. The Dutchman is already a fan favourite and there is widespread clamor for the youngster to get more games under his belt. Yet, José Mourinho has overlooked his talents in favor of more experienced pros. Is there a route into the first team?

Part of Fosu-Mensah’s problem is he has largely been used at right back, where Antonio Valencia’s thighs of steel reign supreme.

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Under the Iron Tulip, Fosu-Mensah made eight appearances in the Premier League and four in the FA Cup, but the 19-year-old has found that Mourinho is not quite ready to let him loose. In fact, Fosu-Mensah has rarely enjoyed any game time this season, clocking up 74 minutes against Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford last September in one of only six games this season. Other appearances have been restricted to short cameos, the EFL third round match against Northampton Town aside, and it’s hard to see him getting much more first-team action before the campaign is out.

Make no mistake, the talent is there for all to see, but the former Ajax player is jostling for places in some fairly well stocked areas. In midfield, the teenager has to compete for a place with Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and even Bastian Schweinsteiger. At right back, José’s first choice is Antonio Valencia, with Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young the go to deputies. In central defence, the club is already well stocked.

The other problem Fosu-Mensah faces is to nail down a specific role. Indeed, Mourinho could not have been clearer on his appointment that he is looking for specialists and not utility players. It imposes an immediate dilemma for the youngster to tackle; does he define himself as a central midfielder, or as a fullback, or something else?

After all, both Nelson Semedo and Kyle Walker have been mentioned as potential candidates for United’s right-back slot, while Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko is on the proverbial radar to strengthen in central midfield. Granted it is paper talk now, but that should not detract from the message that Fosu-Mensah has much work to do.For all the player’s struggles, there are signs that a pathway to the first team could become clearer. Morgan Schneiderlin’ s departure to Everton enables Fosu-Mensah to move up the midfield pecking order, Carrick can’t last forever, while only so much faith can be invested in converted full-backs Valencia and Young, not to mention the continuing speculation surrounding Darmian’s future.

Despite Mourinho, being acutely aware of the club’s history with respect to promoting youth prospects there is, just as pertinently, a tradition of success and if given it comes to a choice between one or the other there’s no question for which option the Portuguese will plump. After a slow start this season, Mourinho is under pressure to secure a Champions League position and there will be little appetite for experimentation with youth when his primary brief is to make United a winning machine again.

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There are recent cases that could give the Dutchman some cause for hope though. Kurt Zouma’s development at Chelsea during Mourinho’s time is a positive frame of reference. The former Saint-Étienne man won the trust of Mourinho and was eased into the side playing primarily as a central defender, though he was utilized as a defensive midfielder to neutralize Marouane Fellaini when the Blues defeated United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in April 2015. The comparison is instructive insofar as the pair share similar skill-sets, with Fosu-Mensah possessing the added attribute of being a good distributor of the ball. The key differences are that Zouma has experience of competitive league football under his belt and was first in line to freshen an aged Chelsea defense. Fosu-Mensah, by contrast, is still an inexperienced player competing against contemporaries who have a fair bit of football ahead of them, with the notable exception of Carrick.

This is, no doubt, a test of Fosu-Mensah’s mentality as well as his quality. Mourinho will be taking careful notes on how the United youngster responds to being on the fringes. Despite his positive impression, one cannot shake off the meltdown Fosu-Mensah suffered after giving away a penalty against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, which led to Van Gaal quickly substituting the teenager. It is an episode that must be chalked up to experience. After all, it should not be easy at a top club, but the carrot to succeed is tangibly there for one of United’s most talented youngsters.

Fosu-Mensah signed a new five-year contract at the club last October, committing his future to United until 2021. Mourinho could not have been more enthusiastic, claiming that

 “Tim is young player with great potential. I am delighted at the progress he has made so far. He is learning every day in training and there will be plenty of opportunities for him as the season continues.”

Those opportunities have been fleeting thus far. Now it is time for the 19-year old to battle hard and prove that he is a key building block in United’s brave new future. The one mitigating factor is the context in which the player must make his breakthrough: a season where failure cannot be accepted. Given the task of reestablishing United as one of England’s, let alone Europe’s, preeminent powers it is too much pressure to expect too much from the youngster so quickly.

The coming pre-season is another question, and Fosu-Mensah should get a chance to impress. The thinking this season is about the short-term, and if the targets are met then it will allow more breathing room to integrate talented young players like Fosu-Mensah more completely. It is a testing period, but one that could still mark a key step as the Dutchman blossoms at Old Trafford.