United Find Their Level

Cobblers.  No, not Manchester United’s current standard of football, though it really is that bad, but the first opponents they have been able to beat in four matches.  Northampton Town of League One.  That’s Division 3 in old school speak.  A win’s a win’s a win, though United should count themselves lucky they had the chance to face a helpfully lowly opponent to halt their miserable run of defeats.

Even then they couldn’t help nearly shooting themselves in the foot.  There has been a clarion call for Wayne Rooney to be dropped from the team.  He’s been condemned as a has-been – washed up, unfit and slower than a slug.  A third round in the EFL (aka League) Cup against a lower league team presented the ideal opportunity to show his detractors they were wrong.  Unfortunately, slicing a sitter wide from 5 yards early on only served to reinforce their criticisms.  He did subsequently get the ball into the net, only to be rightly flagged offside.  When things don’t go your way, they really don’t go your way.

Almost as loud has been the clamour for Michael Carrick to be reinstated in his deep lying midfield role.  Carrick is a strangely divisive figure in football.  Half think the United midfield doesn’t function without him; the others that he is the best midfielder in the world when he is given all the time and space in the world, but a calamitous liability when put under any kind of pressure.  Against the third division team he gave United impetus, drive and their opening goal.  An idiotic mistake by the Northampton keeper Adam Smith, who chose to pick up a back pass, lead to a free kick in the penalty area, which was blocked but ricocheted to Carrick, who smashed home to give United the lead.

At this point you might have expected United to stamp their authority on the match, but foot themselves shooting in the has been United’s forte recently, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the defence started getting themselves in a muddle because they had collectively forgotten to inform each other of their intention and kept going for the same ball.  It was inevitable that the comedy defending would lead to the equaliser.  When Daley Blind conceded a penalty after a clumsy foul on Sam Hopkins, the football headline writers must have been gleefully typing the funeral rites.

Thank goodness United have one genuinely world class outfield player in Marcus Rashford, who scares the pants off other teams because he has one frightening talent – pace.  It was his pass to Ander Herrera, who drove the ball into the corner from 20 yards, that put United ahead.  Seven minutes later, Herrera returned the favour when he hit a speculative punt upfield for Rashford to chase.  The ball should have been the keeper’s but with Rashford bearing down on him, the keeper completely misjudged the bounce, and in a millisecond, Rashford had the ball and was bearing down on the goal.  Finally, United had that winning feeling back again even if they needed a couple of gift horses from the Northampton goalkeeper.

That winning feeling might not last too long.  They face Premier League champions Leicester – yeah, still getting used to that one even after all these months – on Saturday.  And in case United have any idea that the League Cup might continue to offer a respite from their Premier League struggles, they have only gone and drawn Manchester City in the next round.  Yeah, it doesn’t rain, it pours.

Fergie Time is Back at United!

The last three seasons must have been gleeful Schadenfreude for the ABUs (Anyone but United).  No league titles, no imperious domination, no goal gluts and no last gasp injury time winners to break opposition hearts.  When Jose Mourinho was appointed Manchester United’s manager, the ABUs must have hoped he would continue with his supposed bus parking habit rather than revive swashbuckling Fergie traditions.  Their hopes lasted 3 games.  Perhaps Jose had been studying old United videos trying to figure out ways to ingratiate himself with his new club’s supporters.  Hmm, let’s see.  What to do?  There was the classic coming off the bench to score the winner trope.  Yep.  Why not add a dash of United youth?  Definitely.  That always goes down well with the Old Trafford faithful.  So, youth player comes off bench to score the winner.  But when?  There was only one time.  Fergie time.

Mike Phelan, the Hull manager, knows all about Fergie time.  He worked as the great man’s assistant at his former club from 2008 until Sir Alex’s retirement.  So the signs must have been ominous as the time neared 90 and the score remained 0-0.  Ironically, it was Hull who had almost done a United on United with David Meyler firing narrowly over in the 89th minute.  United were struggling to break down a stubborn Hull defence as the match entered injury time.  Time for Marcus Rashford to step up.

There had been portentous proclamations from the doom-mongers that his United career was over now Jose Mourinho was in charge.  After all, Jose didn’t promote youth, did he?  He sold youth, and bought big names.  Like selling Adnan Januzaj and buying Zlatan Ibrahimaovic.  And he had relegated Rashford to the bench.  A decision that had cost Rashford his place in the England team.  No first team place meant he was demoted to the Under-21 side.

Sam Allardyce may wish to revisit that decision after Rashford’s sparkling cameo against Hull.  Rashford is unusual for an England player; he’s not scared of the ball.  He’s not afraid to express himself, to try clever moves, to take on defenders, to go for an ambitious pass or a cheeky shot.  Sometimes they don’t come off; most of the time they do.  Sometimes, it’s just about being in the right place at the right time – the true knack of a gifted striker.  In the second minute of injury time, a mistake by the Hull defender allowed Rooney to come in from the byline and cross into the 6 yard box where Rashford had sneaked in between two defenders to tap in for the winner.  He celebrated by running over to the delirious away fans and indulging in a massive group hug.  That boy is going to provide tough competition for Zaltan for cult status at United.

The glory days aren’t back at United quite yet, but the ABUs might want to brace themselves.  Jose Mourinho has just unleashed his inner Fergie on the Premier League.

 

No summer Euro jaunt for Rashford, please Roy

Another United match, another delectable goal from young, gifted and Red Marcus Rashford.  After helping United reach the FA Cup semi final on Wednesday night at Upton Park, with a mazy run and classy finish reminiscent of a young Ryan Giggs, the precocious Rashford was at it again on Saturday, scoring his 7th goal in 12 appearances with a peachy flick, to earn United the 3 points and relegate an indifferent Aston Villa to the Championship.  In a turgid season, Rashford has been one of the few bright points, together with goalkeeper David De Gea’s best human impression of a brick wall (surely the sole contender for our player of the season) and Anthony Martial’s authoritative presence in front of goal.

Should Rashford continue to sparkle to the end of the season, and even more, help United win the FA Cup for the first time in 12 years, the quiet murmur for Rashford to be included in Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the Euros in France will, I fear, grow into a deafening clamour.  There is a danger that Hodgson may be influenced into heeding the public clarion call and giving Rashford a last minute call up.  If the England manager should acquiesce, he would be wrong to do so, for playing Rashford too early could ruin him.

Marcus Rashford is 18 years old.  He has never played international football.  He hasn’t even played a full season for Man Utd, for goodness sake.  How can he possibly be expected to carry the (probably deluded) hopes of a nation into a major international tournament?  Yes, the burden of unrealistic expectation will be inevitably placed on his youthful shoulders, irrespective of his inexperience, because unrealistic expectations are always put on England players, no matter what.  The media and Joe Public will expect Rashford to come off the bench and produce the same match defining performance for England that he has been doing for United.  Worse, there may even be a call for him to start should England struggle early on or pick up a few injuries.

There is no valid reason to risk plunging Rashford into the maelstrom of international football on the cusp of his nascent career.  Hodgson has plenty of young up and coming players at his disposal whom he has tested in international waters and who can be relied on to do a job for England.  Rashford needs to spend the summer recovering from his Premiership exertions, enjoy some important down time relaxing with family and friends, and then prepare for pre-season in readiness to play a first full season with United, probably under a new manager.

Once the new season is under way and a new England qualifying campaign begins, by all means introduce Rashford, gradually, into the team at a time when there is less pressure and he is free to play unburdened, so he can demonstrate his abilities and develop new skills.  This way, there is less danger of burn out or picking up injuries.

Ultimately, as a United fan, I don’t want Rashford’s glittering potential to be tarnished by being rushed prematurely into the hurly burly of international football by desperate England fans.  England can wait.  Rashford’s well-being and United come first.