One of the most disappointing aspects of the Wayne Rooney contract saga – possibly the most – was that it came from a player we believed to love the club as much as any, as much as Cantona fell in love with the club too. It immediately forced supporters to think they couldn’t trust anyone in the team. If Rooney of all people could remove himself from emotional attachment to the club because of what he perceived to be lack of trophy prospects in the short term, then what of other players?
This time last week I blogged a storm was about to hit Old Trafford, and it did, with an unexpected conclusion.
Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes may be one (well, three) offs but the reaction from Old Trafford this week should have put minds at rest. Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher and club captain Nemanja Vidic all spoke to the media, and while the headlines may have identified Rooney as the target of supposed annoyance, there was an encouraging sign of team spirit.
Evra’s comments referred to the trust issue. Evra was caught up in a similar storm for the France national team at the World Cup and said of the Rooney saga, “If one player in the team does not trust the others, he should not play in the team. I trust everyone, I know we can win.”
Patrice later softened his stand on Rooney but the media, as ever, twisted the quotes to make it look like the best full back in the world was angling for a new deal. Supporters should not forget his words of just a few days prior.
Darren Fletcher spoke with the experience of a player who benefitted from Roy Keane’s departure in 2005 and said, “All we can do is try and win games. I believe the players in the dressing room are good enough to take us forward. I watch them in training every day and we have got some young exciting players. When someone leaves someone always steps up to the mark.”
When questioned on the clubs ambition, Fletcher left his allegiance in no doubt, saying “I like to think this is still the biggest club. What makes big clubs is history. Clubs can have money but this club’s history drives it forward. It has a great heritage of bringing through young players and what it has achieved in the past together with its fan base makes it the biggest club.
“I think we have spent money. Other teams have ridiculous amounts and will spend it and if you do that and sign big players you will improve. But maybe it takes a bit longer to get a team spirit and understanding of the way you play. Manchester United have got that.”
The underlying message was one of solidarity. One that translated onto the pitch on Wednesday night, with Nani patting the badge after scoring and Anderson doing likewise after being substituted. Are we to believe these two players, plucked from the conveyer belt of Portuguese football whose destination reads “South of Spain”, have fallen in love with all that is United as well as the Northern English weather? Maybe not, but there are two issues.
One is loving the club like Gary Neville does. If they do, then all the better. Second is loving your family, and what was clear to see on Wednesday night, was that this bunch of players, shorn of their Ronaldo, unable to call on Giggs, and altogether having a front line of the likes of Anderson, Nani and Michael Carrick – European Cup and multiple Premier League winners dismissed as not good enough – believe in each other. When Old Trafford responded, in the early stages, and the late stages, then the team was spurred on to produce its best football.
After the game, captain Vidic remarked that the team pulled together in the wake of the incredible weight of attention. “There has been so much talk about Wayne Rooney and there is not much focus on the game and on the football…We tried to keep our concentration high, keep winning and make it easier for us.”
Can it be doubted that the concentration of the team has been shaken? Of course not, and although we have deficiencies in the squad (or, with impending retirements, soon will have), we would have been sitting pretty at the top of the table had it not been for late lapses of concentration at Fulham and Everton and the 45 minute spell at home to West Brom where the crowd’s feeling that something wasn’t quite right managed to filter through to the players.
If the outcome of this “storm” is that we have a new found focus, and a resolve for the team to fight for each other, then that might be just the tonic.
Sir Alex Ferguson might have sold Manchester United to Wayne Rooney for a second time this week, but his comments should resonate first and foremost with the supporters. What was very much a winter of discontent of horizon should give way to a United crowd and team pulling together as one.
The players have made the right noises, now it’s same for the United fans to “believe”.