Solskjaer invites pressure

Manchester United lost the easiest game of the group on paper against Young Boys of Switzerland with matches versus two tactically astute teams in Villareal and Atalanta yet to be played. Young Boys came through two-legged qualifying rounds to beat three teams scoring 16 goals and reach the group stages, consequently looked sharper. United had only 2 shots on target in the whole match which is the least since 2003-04 says a lot about the dysfunctional tactics and substitutions by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer despite having the greatest player of all time Cristiano Ronaldo open the scoring early on via an inspired pass by Bruno Fernandes. It will be catastrophic if United do not make it to the knock-out stages of the lucrative Champions' League after marquee signings of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Ronaldo.

Did Sir Alex Ferguson always had a perfect squad to win all the trophies? Even during the treble winning season he had Roy Keane and Paul Scholes suspended for the final, won one league title with Wes Brown and Mikael Silvestre as centre-backs, one Robin van Persie inspired rest of the aging team to win his last title etc. Ferguson usually took out a full-back to bring on an attacker in the later stages of the match to try and score more goals. They did score loads of late goals and a certain Norwegian scored four times as a substitute against Nottingham Forest. Between the victory in Cup Winners Cup in '91 and reaching semi-finals of Champions' League in '97, Ferguson's United struggled against sides like Torpedo Moscow, IFK Goteborg and Rotor Volgograd. Fans had no doubt about Ferguson's ability as he had guided Aberdeen to '83 Cup Winners Cup glory beating the mighty Real Madrid and won the same competition with United eight years later beating Barcelona despite English clubs being banned from European competitions for previous five years! 

Solskjaer has no such record. That is why it is mandatory for him to not repeat mistakes. Last season the loss to Istanbul Basaksehir made United to fail to qualify for knock-out stages and were relegated to Europa League. That day he rested his first choice partner to Harry Maguire in Victor Lindelof by playing Axel Tuanzebe; in Bern he rested Raphael Varane for the first half by starting with Lindelof. Donny van de Beek started both these games and was not at fault in either. Solskjaer took off Tuanzebe and brought on Matic to revert to five at the back at half-time and did so again by introducing Varane for van de Beek. Then Juan Mata and now Jesse Lingard were at fault to allow a goal to slip by, both of whom should have moved on from United. In form Mason Greenwood was an unused substitute this Tuesday. In fact at Bern, United slipped alarmingly from a good start in both halves unlike at Istanbul where they got one goal back.

United have previously played on plastic pitches against Young Boys themselves in 2018, Astana FC and AZ Alkmaar in 2019. More than half of Norwegian league home grounds have artificial surfaces! Despite FIFA and UEFA certifying artificial turf since 2004 and the technology evolving into third generation perceptions of increased player injury, tiredness for players and different ball behavior still exists. For Young Boys the result could prove to be 'Miracle of Bern' moment for Swiss football if they qualify.

Nor has Solskjaer outmaneuvered his opponents to win a trophy yet like the loss to Sevilla and Villareal in Europa League, to Paris St Germain and RB Leipzig in Champions' League group stages, to Chelsea and Leicester City in FA Cup and to Manchester City in successive League Cup runs. Solskjaer is the only manager to have beaten Pep Guardiola three times in a row, yet could not get reach the League Cup final. He has managed to beat other stalwarts Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann but could not progress through to group stages of the Champions' League last season. A well settled West Ham United provide a stern test this weekend but initiative has been lost bringing more scrutiny and pressure so early on in the season evaporating the feel good factor of Ronaldo's homecoming.

Declan Rice on his European debut with West Ham produced a virtuoso performance against Dinamo Zagreb and scored a wonderful goal too, will be eager to remind United what they have missed. Not since Michael Carrick the most underrated footballer in history, has anyone won all player awards at all levels at West Ham academy after joining from Chelsea at the age of 14. United can no longer get away by not snapping up exceptional talents as they did for Carrick and Rio Ferdinand, but have to get them before and directly as clubs are no longer hard pressed to sell their top talents because English Premier League is the richest in the world and due to excessive transfer fees involved especially if the player is English. After dismissing Declan Rice as 'sloppy' earlier ex-United captain Roy Keane now said "He's is way ahead of where I was at 22." recently.

Darren Fletcher might intervene to not only check but mark those errors in tactics and substitutions for John Murtough to analyze. This tracking might have escaped in previous seasons but not now. As a club United have gone up a few notches with key personnel all around not just in summer signings and that will make more demands to get the right results. Its not a doomsday scenario for Solskjaer but he can't postpone anymore to impose 'style of play' dubbed the 'Man United way' with the squad at his disposal now.

Return of Cristiano Ronaldo

Manchester United were nudged by Jorge Mendes, the expert agent of Cristiano Ronaldo when he opened direct talks with local rivals City about the next move after his most famous client decided to leave Juventus this summer. Sir Alex Ferguson praised Mendes in his autobiography as "the best agent I dealt with, without a doubt. He was responsible, looked after his players to an incredible extent and was very fair with clubs". Credit to the team at United who acted swiftly to secure the services of Ronaldo once again, undoubtedly the intervention of Ferguson perhaps a first since his retirement brought about this transfer coup considering the final fee in five installments of €3million a year!

Ever since Ronaldo scored 42 goals to help United to their European double of Champions' League and English Premier League in 2007-08 his stats has been explosive and consistent. At Real he averaged 50 goals per season and at Juventus 33. Ronaldo broke the men's record of most international goals by scoring his 111th goal for Portugal who defeated Ireland 2-1. In the recently concluded Euro 2020 delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic he was the lead scorer despite Portugal losing in the knock-out phase itself. For the first goal he scored against Germany, Ronaldo ran 90 meters in less than 14 seconds dispelling any doubts about his fitness even at the age of 36. Despite being two years older than Messi he rose to the challenge brilliantly almost matching his 472 goals with 450 of his own during the same time in La Liga. Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku will have stiff competition for sure.

Does Ronaldo make Manchester United title challengers? Despite lacking a central defensive midfielder of repute to control games, United will solve another major problem of not having a player to score 30 goals a season. This itself will catapult United to challenge for the title but it will not make them favourites like Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea. Ronaldo is not an affliction with United's past glory as critiqued by a few notable journalists. Considering the history of Sir Denis Law, United protected their interests now unlike in the 70's earning the unpopular Glazers an important point over the Edwards ownership for sure. Sir Alex Ferguson augmented his coaching staff by recalling legends under Sir Matt Busby in Nobby Stiles to help nurture academy graduates, and promoting Brian Kidd to be his assistant. That worked brilliantly for Fergie. Another incredulous critique was to draw parallels with the disastrous purchase of Alexis Sanchez that completely disrupted the dressing room under Jose Mourinho; here the player in question is an ex-legend and super fit with a coach eager to get the best out of him. Yes, the United wage bill has hit the roof with this one transfer but the benefits far outweigh any negatives.

Cristiano Ronaldo will himself be aiming for glory to give his glittering career a fitting end. He would want to aim for record of Francesco Gento with most UEFA Champions' League wins and put a daylight behind his present records. His Premier League tally is 84 goals now with 34 assists, his overall tally of 112 needs 43 more to enter top 10 scorer's of all time and 67 to match George Best's tally of 179, he missed Denis Viollet's tally of 32 league goals the most by a United player by just one goal in 2007-08 and in the same season his tally was 4 shy of Denis Law's all-time record of 46 goals in 1963-64 that won the Scotsman a Ballon d'Or a first ever for a United player. George Best scored 6 goals in a match against Northampton Town where as Ronaldo has scored five goals in a league match on two occasions. Wayne Rooney rightly argued that Ronaldo has the physique to play into his 40's like Ryan Giggs.

Ronaldo's home-coming promises to eclipse the return of George Best twice, first after retirement under Frank O'Farrell he scored 4 in 19 games and second time after suspension under Tommy Docherty he scored 2 in 12 games before finally quitting United. Ronaldo's age might be a handicap in terms of longevity when comparing to Mark Hughes' spectacular seven years second spell. Paul Scholes made an impactful return from retirement by winning the Premier League. Other returnees have mainly been youth players from Mark Bosnich, Les Sealey to Paul Pogba and Tom Heaton. How hard it is get one's wish to return, just ask Gordon Hill when Ron Atkinson wanted him back at United after excelling in mid-70's but fate conspired against it.

With Ronaldo, United can play two upfront and not just 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Edinson Cavani scored 17 goals in all competition last season and would be an ideal strike partner. Rashford or Martial from the left, Fernandes or Pogba through the middle, and Sancho or Greenwood from the right offer plethora of opportunities to create goals for the Portuguese superstar. Pressure on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will increase manifold to keep United in the hunt for the league till the very end and win the club its first trophy in five long years. There is no place to hide anymore!

Most promising season under Solskjaer

Manchester United begin the season on the back of their best transfer window in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era with additions of centre-half Raphael Varane, winger Jadon Sancho and reserve keeper Tom Heaton. Diogo Dalot back from his successful stint at AC Milan is like a new signing. And two weeks are still left to the end of summer transfer window! Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has augmented his coaching staff with Eric Ramsay the youngest coach to get a UEFA Pro license at 27 in 2019, he joins United from Chelsea as 'set-piece specialist' an area of concern from last season having conceded the most goals amongst the top four with 44. Trophy is the only thing missing now at United.

Unlike last season United managed to play four pre-season friendlies(2W, 1L, 1D) to build the momentum leading up to the opening game of the season against rivals Leeds United. It will be the first game at Old Trafford with fans since the 2-0 win over Manchester City in Mar, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. United will have a new shirt sponsor this season in Germany's Team Viewer and look forward to "ground-breaking augmented reality solutions and remote access to Old Trafford – Manchester United’s famous stadium". Solskjaer also signed an extension to his contract until 2024, the departing chief executive Ed Woodward rightly said "Ole and his staff have worked tirelessly putting the foundations in place for long-term success on the pitch."

Based on the fixtures released United have a relatively easy start until facing Liverpool on 23rd October. Three matches each in November and March will be the toughest. Aim for Solskjaer will be to have United in the hunt for the title until April. This will be a very tough task as the standards set by Manchester City and Liverpool have been of the highest order. 12 points behind City last season and 33 points behind scoucers in season before that; on both occasions the champions ran away from rest of the pack in December. Chelsea have invested heavily to win the Premier League as they endure the longest league trophy drought under Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Strength in depth still does not favour United with deadwood at the club in Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard, Eric Bailly, Andreas Pereira and aging Juan Mata, Nemanja Matic, Lee Grant. This is despite the purge of more than a dozen players like Fellaini, Sanchez, Rojo, Smalling, Romero that has positively brought down the wage bill significantly to move United from top to 7th in space of two seasons. Following players have been loaned out: Axel Tuanzebe, Facundo Pellistri, Tahith Chong, Nathan Bishop, Ethan Galbraith, Ethan Laird and the futures of Amad, James Garner, Brandon Williams, Teden Mengi is not finalized.

United face Leeds on the opening day of the season only for the 2nd time. First time they met was in 1970 on August 15th losing 0-1 at Old Trafford. Last Leeds United win at Theatre of Dreams was on 28th February, 1981 and since then United have mostly the upper hand. Premier League welcomes 50th club in Brentford this season, with Norwich and Watford the two other promoted teams. Much maligned VAR has adopted the successful model from the Euro 2020 in terms of offside and handball rule; the substitutions has been limited to 3 from 5 while the squad can still have 20 players.

Marcus Rashford will miss the opening 2-3 months due to long delayed shoulder surgery. This will put the onus on Anthony Martial to make the most to sustain his United career which was blighted by injury last season. Will Paul Pogba be consistent? Will Donny van de Beek get more game time? Will Solskjaer still persist with double pivot of McTominay and Fred? Will the acquisition of Sancho hinder the development of Amad? Will Bailly be happy being fourth choice centre-back? Will United be as lucky as last term with injuries? United will need to create more goals to augment the loss of penalties from changes to VAR. Last three seasons United have won 12, 14, 11 penalties! Two legged League Cup fixtures are back unfortunately. Top three finish in league but within single-digit points difference from the winner, make it to the knock-out stage of Champions' League and a trophy like FA Cup or League Cup sounds risky as a good Cup run usually depends on the draw.

United will get off to a better start this season than the terrible ordeal of last season, try to avoid losing to relegation teams and convert many of the 11 draws into wins. To win trophies they would need to win the crucial moments in crucial matches by making right use of all available resources. This will entirely depend on the judgement of the manager in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. If Sir Alex Ferguson chose Solskjaer to be his 'man of destiny' who in turn has build the club back step-by-step, will surely be cognizant of the pivotal moment this season is going to be. United faithful have never been so optimistic in last five seasons, not just our super-sub.

Murtough breaks new ground

Manchester United pitching for players from their rivals in European G14 teams in Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and in their prime like Raphael Varane and Leon Goretzka is a clear shift in transfer policy under the first Director of Football John Murtough. As highlighted in a previous post this type of transfer has been unusual at Old Trafford who would avoid contacting players from these clubs out of respect. Previously Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimović had joined United after their best years at Bayern Munich and Paris St Germain. It must be noted that United did come close to signing Sergio Ramos from Real Madrid in 2015 but only to be used in order to negotiate a better salary for the player. This time around the player in question has changed his agent to CAA Base Ltd whose primary clientele are Premier League players.

John Murtough is perhaps the major success from David Moyes era, both of whom worked together at Everton before he was made Premier League's first Head of Elite Performance a program which was introduced in 2012-13 and slowly adopted by clubs since then. Its key function has been described as "Through a systematic, evidence-led approach the Elite Performance function aims to add value to player development throughout the age phases (9-23) and across a multi-disciplinary platform, including physical, technical, tactical and psychological development." This has led to successful introduction of academy players Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood into the first team. Having revamped the youth setup and headed the group to introduce data science, being appointed as Director of Football seems like a natural progression: "overall leadership and responsibility for operations and strategy across all football functions." 

Raphael Varane has the distinction of winning the most Champions' League trophies before joining Manchester United and at 28 in prime of his career! At 24 he unseated Paolo Maldini as youngest defender to win three of Europe's most elite competition, played ahead of more experienced Pepe at Madrid, won the 2018 World Cup with France by playing in all the games. Due to muscular problems recurring through his career he hasn't played in more than 32 league games per season though he has missed just 1 to 6 matches at a time in short absences. Varane's two mistakes led to City winning 4-2 on aggregate in last season's round-16 match in Champions' League and he accepted the responsibility for it. Sir Alex Ferguson pursued Varane in 2011; fellow countryman Zidane clinched the deal on behalf of Madrid. Philip Anthony Jones joined United as part of a trio including Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans identified by Ferguson to eventually compete and replace perhaps United's greatest centre-back pair of Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic. Having been disastrously unsuccessful in selling or loaning out Jones, United must hand the jersey number 4 to Varane.

Schweinsteiger was 31 when he came to Manchester in 2015 on the back of playing his last and 500th game at Bayern Munich, lifting the World Cup with Germany in 2014 and winning the treble of Champions' League, Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal Cup in 2012-13 season. His appearances for Bayern Munich decreased due to recurrent injury problems at his patella and ankle, and also when Pep Guardiola took over as coach in 2013. He was fans favourite for a long time as an ideal replacement for Roy Keane since 2005. 9 year wait! Under Louis van Gaal who also was his manager at Bayern for two seasons, placed full faith in the German at United. His team selection was often questioned especially when he paired 34 year old Carrick with Schweinsteiger and got found out for lack of pace. He then switched to 'Schmidfield' with Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin that drained all creativity from midfield and made watching United a bore. Jose Mourinho took over and instantly froze the German who was made to train with U23's but came out of hibernation in a FA Cup match vs Wigan with a goal and an assist to win 'Man of the Match'. Mourinho was more than happy to let him leave United for MLS in 2017.

Another past connection were re-united when Jose Mourinho got Zlatan Ibrahimović as a free-agent from Paris St Germain after winning two consecutive French domestic trebles. Earlier the pair had worked at Inter Milan winning the Scudetto in 2008-09. Ibrahimović scored on his debut for Manchester United in Community Shield, Home league game, Away league game, Europa League, League Cup and FA Cup in a single season and at 35 years became the oldest player in Premier League to score 15 league goals in a season. United under Mourinho with Ibrahimović won the Europa League - only trophy that club had not won in its illustrious history, League Cup and Community Shield. However in April while playing against Anderlecht he suffered cruciate ligament injury that made him to stay out of football for a year. His recovery since re-joining AC Milan in January 2020 has been amazing 28 goals in 47 games, and if compared with similar injury suffered by Radamel Falcao prior to joining United that full and complete recovery from cruciate injury is about 2.5 years! Zlatan could not be at his best for a year each at United and LA Galaxy while Falcao could not be at his best on loan at United and Chelsea only to later win the Ligue 1 with Monaco by scoring 30 goals in 43 games.

Laurie Cunningham became the 1st English player to play for Real Madrid in 1979 and later in 1982 spent a season on loan at United, playing only 5 times as injury curtailed his reunion with manager Ron Atkinson under whom he gained prominence at West Bromwich Albion as 'Three Degrees' with Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson. Since then many United players have joined Madrid starting with David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gabriel Heinze, Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier Hernandez. King of assists the Argentine Angel di Maria joined United from Madrid for a record #59 million fee after not favoring a new formation by manager Carlo Ancelotti and left Old Trafford just after a season under Louis van Gaal despite starting off in splendid form donning the iconic number 7 jersey

Raphael Varane is a consummate professional looking for a new experience as Madrid still chase his signature to extend his deal. Varane crucially has pace which could allow Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to abandon the double pivot of McTominay-Fred to make way for more attack minded midfield. Like the signing of Gary Pallister(24) for Steve Bruce(28) or Nemanja Vidic(25) for Rio Ferdinand(28), comes Raphael Varane(28) for Harry Maguire(28) though not in terms of age. Maguire-Varane have a short time of 2-3 seasons to cement their status amongst other stellar United centre-back pairs!

Glazers engage with fans after 16 years

Friday afternoon on 4th June, Joel Glazer finally met with Manchester United fans forum representatives - the first meeting between Glazer family and fans 16 years after the heavily leveraged buyout that saddled the club with £540 million of debt and never been wiped out due to interest payments, loans and dividends made out to the Glazer family of over £1.1 billion in the same time. Before Glazers the club was debt-free and self-sustaining, consequently became the most sought after club in world football including being pursued by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB the chief broadcasters of English Premier League which was vehemently and successfully opposed by unifying all United fans organizations, prominent MPs like Michael Crick and the media. Edwards family owned United between 1958 and 2002 for 44 years but were generally hated by the fans for mismanagement of England's most famous sporting institution as detailed in the brilliant book 'Manchester United: The Betrayal of a Legend', sadly same fate has befallen the Glazers.

Glazers were forced to apologize and meet the fans, it has to be noted not on their own volition but due to the fan protests and widespread condemnation of the disastrous flirtations with European Super League announcement on 19th April. Protests by United fans led to disruption to the training at Carrington on 22nd April and cancellation of the biggest fixture in the English league against their arch rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford. Glazers were forced to pay £22 million fine imposed by the Football Association. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and Super League fiasco the Glazers still persisted with taking $0.09 per share as dividend that will be issued on 30th July. This makes the mockery of fine imposed by the FA, and further raises questions on why this take-over was not blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission now called CMA. Ironically its the three American owners of three big traditional England football league clubs in Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal who have backed the Super League to mirror their operations in American NFL franchises!

Same top three English teams were involved in the previous flirtation of European Super League in 1998, there again backed by JP Morgan from where the Glazers hired Ed Woodward to work on buying Manchester United. Then JP Morgan had promised $20 million to each of the founding clubs and of being in a group of 16 teams who will participate for six years irrespective of their domestic league position; that sum became $200 million in 2021. Since then the number six has had deliberate evolution in European football - top 6 teams: ignoring traditional giants of the game like Everton or Aston Villa, these top six sides in the league had steadily increased their lead from the rest of the league. Evolution perhaps has a surprise too, in Leicester City's of the world who have worked hard from ground up to evolve into a major club by strategic choice and financial backing by football savvy owners. Contrast Leicester City owners with Glazers who famously cut the net budget in the later years of Sir Alex Ferguson to about £20 million each year. Recall United selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80 million, lost Carlos Tevez to local rivals City and replaced the duo with Michael Owen (free transfer), Antonio Valencia (£16 million), Gabriel Obertan (£3 million) and Miram Diouf (£4 million) from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer managed club Molde! Consequently the last Premier League winning team under Ferguson had iconic veterans who needed urgent replacing - Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand and Vidic. Imagine if Glazers would have been in touch with football where might United have been post Ferguson? Brian Glanville wrote this of the Malcolm Glazer in 2005 under the heading 'United they fall': "Utterly ignorant of soccer, owner of Tampa Bay Buccaneers American gridiron club, obsessed by the urge to make money from childhood, at odds with his own sisters over his mothers will, he is the very incarnation of capitalism red in tooth and claw."

This was not the first protest by the Manchester United fans who had previously launched the 'Green and Gold' campaign by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) that was inspired by the colours of Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) football club as United used to be known till 1902. Many loyal fans who had been supporting the club for more than two to three generations were part of this protest, and some of them even managed to form a new club FC United who now play in Northern Premier League the 7th tier of English football. They did not get the backing from any of players of the club including the "Class of '92" who instead invested in Salford City FC in 2014 and changed their jersey from tangerine shirt and black short to red shirt and white short. That kit sounds familiar!

In the absence of any football men on United board its the 'Class of '92' who are backing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just like Sir Matt Busby backed Tommy Docherty when United suffered their last relegation and like Sir Bobby Charlton backed Sir Alex Ferguson when he faced his worst crisis in 1989. It must also be stressed that Docherty and Ferguson had achieved path-breaking success at their previous clubs in Chelsea and Aberdeen respectively unlike modest Solskjaer.

Threat of Super League finally made Gary Neville to take a stand against the Glazer ownership and further shared details of him recalling his medals given to United for display at their museum four years ago, as had a former United captain Martin Buchan. Thus far the "Class of '92" have rightly backed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in general about the direction of rebooting the club as per its tradition. If Solskjaer does not win trophies this upcoming season be assured this backing might change. Gary Neville had the toughest of tasks to succeed Roy Keane and bridge the chasm that emanated from the bitter fall out between Ferguson and his long standing, most successful United captain. Neville has successfully campaigned for an independent regulator in football to which the government has positively responded, and his assessment of the outcome of fans meeting with the Glazers was spot-on too. Doubts remain if Glazers would ever agree to a fan share scheme but the result of #NotAPennyMore campaign that has led to the The Hut Group pulling out of the training kit deal offers hope.

The Manchester Munich Memorial Fund (MMMF) that spearheads the joint group of major United fan organizations to lobby for recognition of Jimmy Murphy's major contribution in creating the Busby Babes and leading the fightback after the crash at Munich made significant breakthrough in their talks with the club who in principle have agreed to the proposal. Confirmation from Jimmy Murphy's grandson in 'All for United' YouTube channel.

Glazers NFL franchise Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite having the lowest win percentage 0.397 they shrewdly acquired the greatest player in NFL history in Tom Brady and won only their second Super Bowl. Can they replicate the same with Manchester United by getting Cristiano Ronaldo? Since the retirement of Ferguson and only when United are out of top four Glazers have invested heavily, this peak and trough transfer policy without a core guiding principle has back-fired thus far. Ed Woodward the embattled chief executive finally quitting and decision making decentralized to a limited extent makes for a fascinating season ahead, not just the transfers. Solskjaer wisely is being patient in his reboot to fill all facets of a modern football club by getting the youth setup revamped, hiring coaches at all levels, backroom staff, director of football, and this is slowly but surely leading to a crescendo of success as a tribute to halcyon days of Busby and Ferguson. If the Glazers do not stop taking dividends and reduce the debt nor engage with fans, irrespective of any on field success they risk being hated just like the Edwards. Old Trafford needs urgent attention!

2005-06 was the only time I got a postcard from United to join as a overseas member, immediately after the Glazer takeover. I remain hopeful of a positive change.

Disappointing season finale

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains in the company of Wilf McGuiness, Frank O'Farrell, Dave Sexton and David Moyes as trophy-less post war manager of Manchester United after fumbling against minnows Villareal in the UEFA Cup final in Gdansk. Final took place on a historic day, 26th May synonymous in United folklore with birthday of Sir Matt Busby and victory over Bayern Munich to complete the treble in 1999 under Sir Alex Ferguson. Solskjaer has managed to finish in top four in last two successive seasons a feat not achieved since retirement of Ferguson, and improved upon four semi-final losses by claiming his first runners-up medal. Progress seems labored and sluggish at best, aided by rivals Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur having a bad season at the same time!

Transfer spending has not been a problem despite criticism of Glazer ownership as Solskjaer has spent heavily on Harry Maguire (80m), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (50m), Daniel James (15m), Bruno Fernandes (67m), Edinson Cavani (free), Alex Telles (18m), Amad Diallo (37m), Facundo Pellistri (9m) totaling a staggering 276 million pounds in two and half years. Style of play still does not reflect the DNA of the club which is well-known to Solskjaer and over reliance on Bruno Fernandes who again won player of the season award for two straight seasons. In contrast flamboyant Ron Atkinson with star signing Bryan Robson won two FA Cups in '83 and '85 while Solskjaer meekly surrendered opportunities against Chelsea in semi-final last year and to winners Leicester City in quarter-finals this year. Outwitted by Sevilla in last year's UEFA Cup semi-finals and in league Cup semi-finals by Pep Guardiola's City for two straight season's. On that previous evidence the loss to 7th placed team Villareal in Spanish La Liga in Gdansk albeit on penalties was not a surprise.

As a player who is fondly remembered for his goal scoring exploits off the bench as a substitute being dubbed 'super sub', Solskjaer the manager is the anti-thesis with inflexibility and lacking plan B. Many point to his bench strength arguing about its depth but the same lot fail to acknowledge that unbeaten away from home record this past season was sustained mainly due to changes introduced in second half in Cavani and Greenwood being 3rd and 4th choice strikers behind Martial and Rashford. United had a brilliant shot stopper in Sergio Romero (released at the end of his contract after 6 years on 04-June) on their books but could not use him as he wasn't anywhere near the squad all season despite earning huge salary. Romero was the keeper when United lifted their only UEFA Cup trophy under Jose Mourinho in 2017 with Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian, Herrera, Mata, Fellaini, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Rashford. Eight of those have moved on in such a short space of time and replaced by more vaunted players like de Gea in goal, Shaw, Maguire (was injured replaced by Bailly), Lindelof, Wan-Bissaka, McTominay, Pogba, Greenwood, Fernandes, Rashford and Cavani. The result in 2021 was poor but it puts the spotlight clearly on the manager unable to pack a punch let alone punch above.

Fiasco over Super League flirtation will force the Glazers to spend more than usual this summer. That will directly increase the pressure on Solskjaer to deliver next season. In this context a new 3-year deal for Solskjaer seems unlikely to be completed while his existing one enters its final year. An extension sounds more prudent. Solskjaer's repeated assertions about being a man-manager than a coach raises doubts about his present backroom staff which might need augmenting. Assistant manager Mike Phelan, a former United player was crucial to the initial days of success under Ferguson and later his trusted assistant, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna are relatively early in their respective coaching careers, Martyn Pert is the latest addition credited with Fred's turnaround and Richard Hartis who is back as goal-keeping coach. Addition of former United defender Michael Clegg as head of strength and conditioning has resulted in lesser injuries to players this season, he now occupies the same position in coaching set-up that his father once did. Bizarrely Mourinho hasn't yet won a trophy without his former assistant Rui Faria when they last lifted that UEFA Cup for United. Rui Faria is yet to sign a contract with any club since he left Al-Duhail SC while Steve Cooper at Swansea prefers 4-2-3-1 like Solskjaer and Carlos Corberan has stabilized Huddersfield Town in his first full season in the championship. Meanwhile United academy under Nick Cox have made an excellent appointment in Justin Cochrane former England U-17s coach to replace Nicky Butt as Head of Player Development.

Credit to Solskjaer for finishing second and go unbeaten away from home for the first time in Manchester United history in a Covid-19 impacted season. Without proper rest between seasons for players and no pre-season either the team got off to horrific start with 3 defeats in first six games claiming 15th position. Tottenham Hotspur coached by Jose Mourinho inflicted joint heaviest defeat 1-6 at Old Trafford that made Solskjaer to fixate Mc(Tominay)-Fred in midfield for majority of games stifling creativity and Donny van de Beek's chances. Not the 9-0 win over Southampton but beating Leeds United 6-2 on their return to top-flight was the best match of the season. Bruno Fernandes' goal against Everton in an Eric Cantona manner was easily goal of the season. Loss to Istanbul Basaksehir away was the low point of the season leading to United crashing out of Champions' League group stage and failing to win any points from their last two group games against Thomas Tuchel managed Paris St Germain and Julian Nagelsmann managed RB Leipzig, both of whom went through. At one point in the season United's local rivals City were favourites for the quadruple until Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel not United stopped their juggernaut in FA Cup semi-final and Champions' League final respectively! Lost to Arsenal at Old Trafford for the 1st time in 15 years! United's joint biggest Premier League win (9-0 vs Saints) and loss (1-6 vs Spurs) occurred in the same season! United also continued to lose at least one match to relegated teams for 4th straight season, in a 1-2 loss to Sheffield United at home! Most bizarre match was 3-2 win over Brighton & Hove Albion with the penalty coming after the final whistle scored by Bruno Fernandes who ended the season as top goal-scorer with 28 goals.


Solskjaer deserves another season for rebooting the club as per its tradition of emphasis on youth development in an non-acrimonious manner unlike Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer did not get the players he requested last summer yet did not lose his composure unlike Mourinho and consequently the team still attacks mainly from the left via Luke Shaw or through Bruno Fernandes in the middle, and if this changes due to United finally getting a right winger like Jadon Sancho or Ousmane Dembele the impact can be huge. John Murtough the first director of football at United assisted by technical director Darren Fletcher will oversee their first transfer window (that opens on 9th June) since being appointed. They will be tempted by the prospect of availability of Cristiano Ronaldo and for sure that will appeal to the commercial side of United. Another tough one will be to convince Paul Pogba to sign a new contract as his present one enters its final year. Losing Pogba and not getting Ronaldo will seem like commercial disaster for Glazers especially Richard Arnold favourite in-house executive to replace Ed Woodward.

Declan Rice must be on top of their radar as McTominay and Fred do not create enough chances from midfield and confidence in Donny van de Beek is low. Maguire-Lindelof does not seem convincing to win the league as they lack speed and the absence of Maguire to injury exposed the lack of leadership that has made United to look at experienced player like Raphael Varane. Ben White is the best English bet to recover from high defensive line. Links to right-back Kieran Trippier who will turn 30 seems odd even though he is a Manchester lad while Max Aarons seems too pricey being in the right age profile. Player sales might generate considerable sum to augment the squad as likes of Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Diogo Dalot, Eric Bailly, Nemanja Matic, Andreas Pereira, Phil Jones seem surplus to requirements but their high salary will remain a constraint to get a move. Juan Mata who has been a brilliant pro but will probably look to play more games in a less competitive league as his contract comes to an end this summer. James Garner on loan at Nottingham Forest and Teden Mengi on loan at Derby County were the two best prospects this season. Solskjaer handed senior debuts to Anthony Elanga, Shola Shoretire, Hannibal Mejbri and Will Fish.

Dave Sexton lost his job despite winning his last seven matches to finish eight in April 1981 but importantly he hadn't won a trophy in 4 years despite finishing second the season before and losing the FA Cup final in 1979. Solskjaer needs to be acutely aware of that! United are in their longest trophy drought in three decades (since 1985 to 1989) i.e., 4 years since beating Ajax in Stockholm.

At long last recognition for 'Forgotten Babe' Johnny Berry

About a year ago published my article about 'Flowers of Manchester' in which I found the name of then United vice-captain Johnny Berry missing. I pursued it with Patrick Burns of Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation (MMMF) and Mike Thomas of Munich58 both are independent fan-led organization that organize the memorial events at ManchesterPlatz, Munich and at The Munich Plaque, Old Trafford every year in association with Manchester United Football Club. Happy to say that my humble request was accepted after four months of deliberations which makes me feel extremely satisfied to have contributed in an infinitesimally small way back to the club I love.

Bit about the legendary wing wizard. It was in India where Johnny Berry while playing for British Army team captured the attention of Birmingham City captain Fred Harris who recommended him despite his short stature. Birmingham City originated as Small Heath similar to Manchester United who used to be known as Newton Heath. Starting out as an amateur in 1944 at the age of 18 and signing professional in the year when the team won the Second Division in 1947-48 and got promoted. Blues lost 0-3 to MUFC at Maine Road on 20th Nov, 1948 when Berry was not in the squad and won the home fixture on 19th March, 1949 1-0 with Berry in the squad as Len Boyd scored the winner in 49th minute. Blues finished 17th in the league. MUFC title challenge capitulated next season when they faced the blues twice during 9 game winless run. Johnny Berry tormented MUFC and scored the 2nd goal on 70th minute in a 2-0 win at Old Trafford on 7th April, 1950 that is hailed as one of the finest post war goals ever scored at Old Trafford as Reds keeper Ignasius Feehan's made his final appearance. Three days later both teams drew 0-0 at St. Andrews. MUFC finished 4th three points behind champions Portmouth while blues were relegated finishing bottom of the league. 

While in the second division Johnny Berry played in all 42 league games of the season for the blues who finished 4th failing to win back promotion. Still managed to beat MUFC in 6th round of the FA Cup when Higgins scored just 44 seconds after kick-off. Blues lost to Blackpool in the semi-finals of FA Cup. In all 114 appearances for the blues Johnny Berry scored 6 goals. Sir Matt Busby pursued Johnny Berry for 18 months to replace Jimmy Delaney and finally got his man for a club record transfer of #25,000 on 01-Aug, 1951 which stood for 14 years as a record outgoing transfer for the blues just shy of 17 year all-time record of England's first million dollar transfer of Trevor Francis! Johnny Berry was part of Blues team that faced MUFC on four occasions, won three and drew one i.e., unbeaten!

In Ivan Ponting's definitive book the 'Manchester United: The Red Army' Busby's pursuit of Berry is described as "When Johnny Berry was Birmingham City player, Matt Busby was sick of the sight of him. Every time the tiny, but tough, right winger faced United he tortured the Red's defense. In the end the Old Trafford boss decided the only way to put an end to the torment was to sign the tormentor."

In his first season Berry played 36 of 42 league matches scoring 6 times as MUFC finally won their first Championship in 1951-52 after 41 year wait. His signing in 1951 was perhaps as significant as Alex Stepney's for 1967 title. His debut for United against Bolton ended in a 0-1 loss on 1st September, 1951. He and captain Roger Byrne are the only two players to have been part of all three championship winning teams of the 50's including in 1955-56 and 1956-57. He scored his first United goal in the Manchester derby on 15th September in a 2-1 win and many of his goals came at critical moments for the team. His most famous goal is against Athletic Bilbao in the quarter finals of European Cup in the 84th minute that clinched the tie 6-5 on aggregate the match played under floodlights in Maine Road on 6th February, 1957 exactly to a year before the tragedy at Munich. On returning from the first leg at Bilbao under heavy snow United players were asked to sweep the snow off the wings of the aircraft before take-off as his son Neil Berry told Manchester Evening News in March, 2012. Neil Berry who watched that unforgettable match in 1957 at Maine Road published a book about his dad aptly titled 'Johnny The Forgotten Babe' which I would love to read to get to know more about this legend who wore the famous number 7 shirt for most of the 50's for Manchester United.

During the 1955-56 league winning campaign MUFC faced their direct rivals Blackpool at home in April which could settle the title with two further games to spare. Captain Roger Byrne had another nightmare dream of missing a penalty before the game and when United got one after being 0-1 down he ordered Johnny Berry to take it. 1-1. As final whistle was approaching Berry provided an inspired cross for Tommy Taylor to score through his outstretched leg after the opposing keeper had slipped. United won by a margin of 11 points as Blackpool with the great Stanley Matthews lost their last four matches to finish second which is still their best ever finish in Blackpool's history. Berry made his England debut with Tommy Taylor on the South American tour match against Argentina which was cancelled due to water-logging after 36 minutes. All four caps of Berry were outside England, three in South America in 1953 and one in Sweden in 1956 (Duncan Edwards also played alongside Byrne, Berry and Taylor). He competed with the greats Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney limiting his chances considerably.

On 6th October, 1956 when Bobby Charlton made his debut vs Charlton Athletic and scored two goals, Johnny Berry captained the side in the absence of club captain Roger Byrne who was away on England duty. In the FA Cup that season United beat Bournemouth the giant killers who had beaten Wolves and Spurs already but trailed 0-1 at half-time with a man down as Mark Jones was forced out injured. Johnny Berry scored two goals in the second half to help United reach  the semi-finals where they met his old cub Birmingham City. It was Bobby Charlton's FA Cup debut "Against Birmingham, we got into our stride very quickly, and when Johnny Berry wriggled through to open the scoring in the 12th minute it meant that our opponents had to open up the game, which immediately made them vulnerable to our great attacking resources." Charlton scored the second goal from David Pegg's cross to win 2-0 at Hillsborough to ensure United progressed through to finale at Wembley for the first time since 1948.


A dip in form in late November 1957 forced Matt Busby to make four changes for the match against Leicester City when he dropped Johnny Berry for an 18 year old Kenny Morgans from FA Youth Cup winning team and a debut for Harry Gregg in goal. In the last match of Busby Babes in England "the greatest league match ever played" ended Arsenal 4 Manchester United 5 at Highbury where United led 3-0 at half-time, Berry who did not make the starting XI rightly reminded the team that game was not over yet. Morgans again started in Belgrade that ended in a 3-3 draw but Munich devastated him psychologically despite surviving the crash without major physical injury.

Johnny Berry missed his passport at the Belgrade airport and plane was delayed from taking off which meant they landed in Munich hours later and under much heavy snow. Was this the reason Berry's name was excluded from the 'Flowers of Manchester'? Definitely not as clarified by Harry Gregg in his biography 'Wild About Football' published in 1961 "There was a mix-up over visas - and I was the one who unwittingly caused it. We had been told to get our passports so that they could be sent ahead to the airport. There was no mention of visas, so when I was going to my room to get my passport, I offered to get Johnny Berry's, as well. It was in his suitcase; so was his visa. I collected both our passports, dropped Johnny's visa back into the case - and promptly forgot about the whole business. But when we reached the airport, it was discovered that Johnny's visa was missing... which was with rest of our luggage on the plane! There was about an hour's delay before the matter was sorted out."

In fact the condition of Johnny Berry was more serious than Duncan Edwards. Professor Maurer took Jimmy Murphy, Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes round the wards to tell about their chances of survival.
 Boss: 50-50,
Blanchflower: OK,
Edwards: 50-50,
Berry: "No, no, I am not God."

Berry was the last United player to be discharged from Munich hospital two months after the crash as he suffered skull fracture, broken jaw, broken limbs which meant he would never play football again. He was the last person to know about the scale of the tragedy as he kept complaining to Sir Matt Busby that his good friend Tommy Taylor had not come to see him. This incident was the most painful of Busby's life. In a Manchester hospital upon his return he read the team news in the newspaper and forced the doctor to reveal the truth about his former team-mates.  

Physically his condition might not have seemed as bad as that of Jackie Blanchflower which led few to falsely believe he might play again. Berry was betrayed by the club when they forced him to leave his allotted house to accommodate the new signing Maurice Setters in 1960. Johnny Berry and Kenny Morgans were in Wembley when United finally won the European Cup in 1968. Berry was the first of the Munich survivor's to die in 1994 at just 68. Johnny Berry, Tommy Taylor and Harry Gregg were the three specialists who were brought by Sir Matt Busby to plug the gaps and help the Babes with experience. It's among those three that Berry deserves the recognition that has eluded him thus far. Perhaps the remembrance events and responsibilities especially for the lyrics were not as organized until Munich58 came about in 2001 and MMMF later. Apart from Munich58 and MMF, I would also like to thank Paul from the 'UtdBeforFergie' twitter group and its amazing followers to have sustained my keen interest in United's history.

From being not sure to tweak the lyrics which many fans treat as an anthem to checking the change log which revealed one pending instance that of word 'brain' to 'frame' in reference to Duncan Edwards, needing a figurehead to champion the cause and consultations with song writer, finally had the confirmation on 14th October, 2020 from Mike Thomas "Well done on a successful campaign :-)".  United face Everton at Old Trafford on 6th February. Covid-19 restrictions will mean a limited ceremony this year, perhaps a bittersweet one for the Berry family who might have felted 'forgotten' for the last 63 years!

Old lyrics:
Big Duncan he went too with an injury to his brain
And Ireland's brave Jack Blanchflower will never play again

New lyrics:
Big Duncan he went too with an injury to his frame
Johnny Berry and Jack Blanchflower will never play again

Winning in style against arch rivals gives United a massive boost

Despite the 3-2 score suggesting a close match, Manchester United out-classed their arch rivals Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round draw. Just a week before Solskjaer had picked both Fred and McTominay in the midfield to play out a 0-0 draw against the Scousers in the English Premier League. On Sunday the Norwegian picked an attacking XI with just McTominay as holding midfielder alongside in-form Paul Pogba and Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek. United had the better chances throughout and should have wrapped up the match in the first half itself. Dean Henderson had a confidence boosting stint in goal playing ahead of David de Gea.

Thus far Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had not beaten Jurgen Klopp and this hoodoo is now comprehensively overcome by this thrilling victory. Bruno Fernandes was rested and this raised a few eyebrows. United went behind to a Mohamed Salah goal in the 18th minute and United responded instantly when Marcus Rashford provided a 60 yard pass for a racing Mason Greenwood to slot home the equalizer. Immediately after half-time Greenwood returned the compliment for Rashford which meant United led 2-1. Edinson Cavani gave the ball away for Liverpool to score via Salah again to make the scores level at 2-2. Fernandes came on for Donny van de Beek who had found the space for Rashford to deliver the assist for the first goal and had a decent outing. Cavani hit the post from a free header before Fernandes scored the winner from a free-kick.

Bruno Fernandes has changed the fortunes of United and Solskjaer. His run of winning four of the seven English Premier League player of the month awards is the testament to his being the best player in England since his arrival last January. This cast a shadow on Paul Pogba and eventually has now made him the most improved United player behind Luke Shaw. Pogba tracked back his to win the ball for the first goal and this has enabled Solskjaer to play with only one holding midfielder. This is a massive change that helps United to play attacking football from the start  instead of starting slow and later hitting teams on the counter. Question has always been how long will the form of Pogba last? The club and Pogba have not started talks about potential contract extension but exercised the option to extend his current deal by a year that invited his in-famous agent to rant against United. Since the rant Pogba has buckled down and put in hard yards reminiscent of his form that made him a World Cup winner and initial 3 months of Solskjaer's unbeaten reign.

Harry Maguire switched positions with Victor Lindelof at the back and as soon as the first goal was conceded reverted to his left of centre role where he has predominantly played. This again demonstrated the changes that Solskjaer and his coaching staff are striving for to make the squad more versatile. Addition of tactics-obsessed former player in Darren Fletcher to the coaching staff has augmented the footballing think-tank. Rashford and Greenwood stayed wider and gave the opposing fullbacks plenty of problems. Cavani led the line superbly and was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. Conceding two goals does seem concerning. 

Impact of Fernandes and Cavani have been transformative in the midfield and the forward areas, missing a similar X-factor in the heart of defense. Will the experience of the likes of David Alaba, Raphael Varane, Kalidou Koulibaly required to add that sense of invincibility required to win trophies? Knocking Liverpool off in the FA Cup will give a huge confidence boost to United's belief to challenge for the league title. Man City seem to be the hot favourites now as they have sorted out their defense by the signing of Ruben Dias last summer and return to form of John Stones. Eric Bailly's recent performances this season after that abysmal 1-6 thrashing by Tottenham, has given United concrete options that was always lacking given his injury record and perhaps put off signing a centre-back this January. Bailly's contract is up for extension too!

Solskjaer deserves credit for taking Manchester United to the top of the table at the half way of the English Premier League season, a feat not achieved since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. His man management of his players has been exemplary. Seeing the instant impact of Amad Diallo in training, Solskjaer has inducted him straight into the core 22-man squad at the expense of Jesse Lingard as per reports. Shrewd signings of Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek have nudged Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba positively to sustain their form so far, Dean Henderson has forced David de Gea to regain his mojo while the young forwards learn from Edinson Cavani. Although Timothy Fosu-Mensah has joined Bayer Leverkusen; Marcus Rojo, Sergio Romero, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard still remain on United books. Piece by piece the structure to a strong squad with good characters is taking shape eliminating the deadwood simultaneously.

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