This is the first of what I plan to make into a weekly column looking over events at Manchester United.
The obvious place to start this week is England’s fantastic World Cup performances.
I was born in the early eighties and so the ‘Fledgling’ team was the one who were there through my adolescence. Their exploits for United saw most of them get selected for England. In 1998 David Beckham was roundly blamed for England’s exit to Argentina — despite David Batty and Paul Ince missing penalties. In 2000 it was Phil Neville’s turn to take the blame for England’s exit from the European Championships.
And blame doesn’t even really begin to cover it. Those old enough to remember or interested enough to research will have seen the hanging effigies of Beckham from a London pub. They might remember the chorus of boos that accompanied the touches of United players at Wembley despite them playing for England. Or the rounds of ‘Stand up if you hate Man U’ at the same games.
England fans did not want to get behind the most talented group of youngsters to break through since the Busby Babes. There was a deep resentment and that attitude was taken into the training camp through various Liverpool players.
There was a general apathy which existed, too. Paul Scholes was criticised heavily for his form with the national team despite being played on the left-wing, a position he had never played at club level; forced out wide while comparatively technically limited players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were given 220 caps between them to underwhelm at national level. Despite this, chief culprit was often Wayne Rooney, despite being taken to two World Cups with a broken foot.
Some United fans managed it, and fair play to them, but personally it became very difficult to support a national team where it was clear to see that cliques were forming and they were resentful of the United players.
Blame was placed on a succession of managers, with some justification, but those managers were let down by players who coasted by reputation.
A strange and wonderful thing has happened in a period which really serves to illustrate the critical position in the English game. There have been reports of decreasing statistics which suggest that the number of English players who regularly play in the top flight was less than a third of the overall total.
Tottenham Hotspur are the biggest club aside from United who seem to feel some sense of responsibility to the England team. Manchester City could lay claim to that but the truth is that their acquisitions of Kyle Walker, Raheem Sterling and John Stones came when they were well on the way to being among the best in their positions. Their interest is fair enough; they were only interested in signing the best, and not exactly developing in the same way as other clubs. The same goes for Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, as evidenced by their low numbers in the national team.
The funny thing about the City contingent is that they are not as unlikeable as you might expect. The tabloid press hounding of Raheem Sterling has provoked a universal backing from the football supporting public and it has caused even United fans to disregard his Liverpool past. John Stones appears humble and honest; compared to John Terry’s egomania, it is a refreshing change. Even Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool player who is starting games, isn’t someone you resent. His limited range seems to single him out as a weak link in the England team but it also makes him an underdog that the country will get behind when he puts in a decent performance as he did against Sweden.
By the same token, Jesse Lingard — despised by most outside of Old Trafford for the crime of being a squad player at United with a personality — seems to have won over most neutrals with his running, pressing and of course his excellent goal against Panama.
With expectations at an all time low thanks to England’s dismal performances at tournaments in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016, even the press weren’t hyping them up this time around. They were freed from pressure and it has resulted in Gareth Southgate being able to build a team without criticism.
Compare this 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 system to the 4-2-3-1 that played against Slovakia in September of last year. Joe Hart, Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, Ryan Bertrand and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (though the latter is through injury) are now all absent — a pretty big turnaround in first team players when you consider that this short period is effectively that between qualification and the tournament.
Southgate played a variation of this system against France in a friendly last year. Starting that day were Jones, Cahill, Bertrand, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tom Heaton in goal. The manager has been bold and brave and deserves all of the credit for this magnificent performance.
England are now in the semi-final after the most routine of 2-0 wins against Sweden in the quarter-final. Can they actually get to the final? Can they win the entire thing? They’ve made a habit of exercising past demons so far. They’ve won on penalties, won comfortably and scored some really good goals.
Croatia, as many might recall, were responsible for England’s most recent failure to qualify for an international tournament, with their 3-2 win at Wembley in 2007. Could this current crop right that wrong too?
If they do, they will need big performances from the Manchester United players in the team. Veteran Ashley Young has joined Lingard in having an incredible tournament that has only enhanced both of their reputations. It hasn’t happened for Marcus Rashford yet but he hasn’t really had a chance and looked a little anxious to make an impression in the group game against Belgium. He only needs one chance though; and as he showed by his fantastic penalty against Colombia, he’s not frightened by the stage.
It’s a point that may have been missed by most, certainly as there seems to have been a slight shift in opinion amongst United fans who are no longer convinced completely that Jose Mourinho is the right man to return them to glory.
Mourinho came under fire last season for his handling of players but the tournament has given his decisions last season some vindication. Even if some feel United would have been better served giving opportunities to Luke Shaw instead of Young, well, Gareth Southgate has plenty of options besides just those two. Indeed, Danny Rose — a player touted to come in at a fee of £50m or upwards — can’t dislodge Young.
The questions on Lingard have long been answered now; he may not be United’s best player but he is a player, much like Ji-Sung Park, who thrives on the big games. He also has that willingness to run for lost causes, a much valued commodity amongst coaches as it means they have a player who will harass the opposition. It may not make them make a mistake 98 or 99 times out of a 100 but it is a 1 or 2 percent chance of benefit. That’s not all Lingard brings to the team, of course; his link up play and selfless running make him a team-mate’s dream as much as a manager’s.
Elsewhere, Marouane Fellaini has had a really good World Cup. Only in England is he dismissed as a caricature, and while it is obvious he has some limitations, it is also obvious he has some uses and let’s face it, Jose Mourinho knows better than us. Better to have him around as a back up option than to lose him on a free transfer and have him come back to haunt us.
Perhaps, then, if other coaches are seeing the same as Mourinho, it’s time to give him the benefit of the doubt in general. Manchester United supporters have a right to insist that players work as hard for their club as they will their country and if Mourinho hasn’t seen that in some of the apparent fan-favourites — namely Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial — maybe this tournament has proven him right by going on some of the performances we’ve seen.
Of course, that could work both ways, and some might argue that there is evidence from this World Cup that Martial, for example, might have made an impact like Kylian Mbappe. Take Victor Lindelof, who also had a fantastic tournament and hopefully will benefit from the confidence and the experience of a difficult first season at United to really get a chance to cement his first-team place next season. From being behind Smalling, Bailly and Jones in the pecking order, he should be in Mourinho’s plans to start against Leicester City.
And that is even if Mourinho is obliged to add another centre-half, as he probably should; Tottenham continue to price Toby Alderweireld out of a reasonable move and it may well make the Foxes’ Harry Maguire an option. Maguire might well be the stand out name from this tournament for England and may not have the stature and experience of the Spurs man, but has four years on him and already looks as if he can cope with the sort of pressure he would face at United.
I will wait until next week, or the week after, to talk about transfers and United’s plans for next season, as we should begin to get a better idea after the World Cup. I’ll close by saying three words that even three months ago I didn’t think I’d say — Come on England!