(The Daily Mail) So there we have it. Manchester United have done it again. Just as some of us thought they would all along. But how have they done it? How are they kings of English football yet again?
I don’t know how United manage to maintain that hunger year in, year out. Different players come and go of course, but the ethos somehow remains the same. You might have thought the amazing treble of 1999 would have put an end to their trophy-winning obsessions. Or the time they won their third league title in a row back in 2001, and then repeated the trick in 2009. But no, there’s always more to achieve.
They have now gone past Liverpool’s once mystical number of 18 league titles, and made history. Will that make United slow down and stop trying to achieve come August. What do you think? When there’s a chance to win a 20th title? They’ll be hungry yet again come next season, you can be certain. Let’s be honest, the manager will see to that.
I’m not sure whether any club has possessed more spirit in the history of the game at the highest level than United under Sir Alex Ferguson. Can there be anybody that still thinks it’s coincidence, or luck, that they grab so many important late goals? From the moment Steve Bruce scored those two late goals to see off Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, United and last-gasp dramas have been consistently happy bedfellows.
Once again this season, we’ve seen United picking up points they probably ought not to have won through their sheer reserves of spirit. When Javier Hernandez scored a late winner at Stoke in October, it seemed to spark a turning point in their campaign. I then recall another crucial late strike, from Park Ji-Sung against Wolves in November, when United were frankly awful. And much later, there were those two precious Old Trafford winners in the spring, from Dimitar Berbatov against Bolton and Hernandez against Everton.
And of course there were the usual comebacks. Two late goals from 2-0 down rescued a point against Aston Villa in the autumn, and they went one better in my personal match of the season, when they fought back from 2-0 behind to beat Blackpool 3-2 on an exhilarating winter’s night at Bloomfield Road.
Again, United gave their title rivals hope with some sloppy first half defending at Upton Park in April, which allowed West Ham to build up a 2-0 lead. A second half recovery and Wayne Rooney’s hat-trick was deflating in the extreme for United’s rivals.
Time and again, United have showed their powers of recovery. It comes from sheer belief, desire and mental strength.
UNITED’S RIVALS JUST AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH
Each of United’s rivals have their own distinctive qualities, but with the exception of Chelsea none of them look capable of finishing at the top of the tree after a nine month slog.
Chelsea have had such a funny season, which was characterised by that slump that lasted from the end of November to the end of February. The reasons for it can be debated long into any night, but the bottom line is that I’m genuinely not that impressed by the Blues in their current guise. And whisper it quietly, but I actually wasn’t that impressed by them when they claimed the league and cup double last term. Some of their performances are stale, and their football often too slow. They were found wanting in the big games this term, particularly in the recent Old Trafford clash against United. That said, they should still be the biggest challengers to United next term, especially if a couple of new signings arrive in the summer.
Arsenal haven’t got it upstairs, if I can use the common vernacular. Their mental strength is alarmingly fragile. Goodness, all you need to do is add up the points they lost recently against Liverpool, Tottenham and Bolton to see very clearly that the Gunners need a new attitude. The swagger of previous teams under Arsene Wenger has long gone, and while they have some fine players, the stigma of these trophyless years is proving hard to shake off.
Manchester City are, to use an old British Rail line, ‘getting there’. I don’t know if they’re getting there quickly enough for City supporters, but they seem to be a satisfied bunch by and large. It was always going to take a while to get all their top names to gel together, and so it has proved. I suppose City could win the title in the next year or two, but let’s be honest, they probably won’t.
So what about Liverpool? There really is a generation of supporters that haven’t seen that club win the league title. It seems hard to believe. In all fairness to the Merseysiders, nobody really fancied them to win the league this time round, but they didn’t expect them to be in the bottom half of the table either, which they were for a time under Roy Hodgson. There are clear signs that Kenny Dalglish has arrested the slump, and generated a new sense of optimism at Anfield, but can that old Kop hero really lead them to another title? I have my doubts.
A MIXTURE OF THE OLD AND THE NEW
There were the usual reliable suspects on the pitch for United this season. Nemanja Vidic was a rock in defence once again. Ryan Giggs showed again why he will for ever and a day be remembered as a true giant of the Premier League years. And Nani proved that his rapid improvement of last season was no fluke with some splendid performances.
Then there were the unexpected high achievers, like new signing Hernandez. His effervescent performances and crucial goals were a feature of the campaign. And it would be remiss not to mention the surprising maturity of Chris Smalling, another new arrival, who certainly didn’t let United down when called into the team.
When United were needing a bit of fresh impetus at the business end of the season, along came Antonio Valencia, who had spent six months on the sidelines following his broken ankle. A simply smashing player, Valencia offers a reminder of a time when old-fashioned wing play was the norm in English football.
There were those two titanic striking talents, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney. The Bulgarian produced some of his best ever United performances this season, and along with Nani was probably the key man for the first half of the season. Rooney’s possible exit from the club dominated the headlines for a mad week in October, but a whole season is an enormously long time in football, and come the final months of the campaign he was simply sparkling, and produced some of the stand-out moments of the season: the magnificent volleyed winner in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, the hat-trick against West Ham at Upton Park, and all the way through to the nerveless penalty at Blackburn that signed, sealed and delivered the title.
But more than anything, it was a collective effort from the squad. Park, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Fabio and Rafael Da Silva, so many players had their say throughout the season.
Many of United’s detractors used to repeat the tiresome refrain that they were a ‘one-man team’, firstly when Cristiano Ronaldo was doing his stuff, and then when Rooney was so sparkling last season. Those same people have been pretty quiet in that regard recently, on that matter at least.
UNITED HAVE THE BEST MANAGER
Yes, there are other good ones around, but Ferguson is the best. It nearly defies belief that a man who was winning trophies at a time when Bob Paisley was plying his trade is still picking them up today. The sheer longevity is quite something, as is his ability to change and adapt with the times and seasons.
You may recall that nearly six years ago, some pundits were calling for Ferguson to retire as his side struggled in the league, and exited early from the European Cup. Well, those pundits have buttoned their lips again now, with another four league titles under Ferguson’s belt.
The team reflects the manager’s personality: dogmatic, spirited, endlessly determined. You feel that as irritated he might have been in by United being written off in so many quarters last summer, he would also have appreciated a little lifting of the usual pressure.
And as the season progressed, when pundits and bar bores alike were insisting previous United teams had more style, you feel he would have welcomed the attacks in a way. After all, nobody does backs-against-the-wall better. Writing United off? I don’t for the life of me know why people do it, but there’s no doubt it only helps Ferguson and United, only spurs them on.
A quarter of a century down, and he still seems to want more. Ferguson is English football’s most extraordinary figure, and a wonder of our sporting age. And yes, he’s the best.