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.

Ode to the lost Babes

The dreadful year that was 2020 also took away eight of the best Busby babes. RIP

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

16 February: Harry Gregg
The courage and determination of Harry Gregg to get back into the burning plane in Munich and get many of his colleagues out of the wreckage, led the fightback of Manchester United from being completely destroyed. With Bill Foulkes played in the first match at Old Trafford after Munich against Sheffield Wednesday on 19th February. Brought from Doncaster Rovers for a record fee to be the final jigsaw of Matt Busby's great side that aimed to win the coveted European Cup. Against the odds United finished runners-up in 1958-59 season in which Gregg played a huge part to protect inexperienced defensive unit without skipper Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Geoff Bent and Jackie Blanchflower. He missed the 1963 FA Cup final triumph with a shoulder injury and couldn't make enough appearances to win 1965 League winners medal, the only medal he won with United was the 1958 FA Cup runners-up medal. He returned to United as a goal-keeping coach under Dave Sexton in 1978. In 2012 Sir Alex Ferguson's side played in his testimonial match held in Belfast. Years of campaigning from fans of this humble giant for a knighthood yielded an MBE and later an OBE in 2019.

08 June: Tony Dune
Wrote a detailed piece of United's best defensive left back earlier in June.

17 July: Alex Dawson
Saw United beat his home town club Aberdeen in a friendly in 1950. Signed up as an amateur schoolboy and won two FA Youth Cups before breaking through to the first team where he scored in each of his first three games when first choice Tommy Taylor was injured. Mark Pearson or Alex Dawson were supposed to fly to play against Red Star Belgrade but an injury to captain Roger Byrne meant that fullback Geoff Bent went instead. Made to play first team football regularly much ahead for his age meant carrying load of expectations and responsibility that many times stifles the natural growth. Alex took it in his stride scoring a hat-trick against Fulham in the semi-final of the FA Cup replay at Highbury to send United through to the final, where United lost to Bolton 2-0. Got his form back after a brief lull to score hat-tricks against Chelsea and Manchester City in the derby, which was the first by a United player since Joe Spence in 1921 and later Andrei Kanchelsks did it in 1995. Despite scoring 15 goals in 1959-60 season and 16 goals in the next, Dawson was sold to Preston Northend by Sir Matt Busby who had acquired David Herd. 54 goals from 93 games return made many fans to believe he was unlucky to be sold and his United career cut short.

09 September: Reg Hunter
Welsh player Reg was in the third team when he was fast-tracked into the first team following the Munich air crash alongside Bobby Harrop and Reg Holland but didn't actually end up playing. Yet the courage showed was exemplary. Won FA Youth Cup with United and made one senior appearance vs Aston Villa in Dec 1958 before leaving United in 1960 after four seasons.

30 October: Nobby Stiles
Local lad from Collyhurst part of Manchester he won the World Cup with England and European Cup with Manchester United playing alongside Sir Bobby Charlton. Watched the 1948 FA Cup final on the shoulders of his dad which United famously won at Wembley. Adored Eddie Colman as a kid and came through the youth ranks despite his small stature. His excellent vision and tackling marked Eusebio out against Portugal and Benfica to win laurels for both club and country. Picked by Alf Ramsey to add steel to the England side with Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Roger Hunt and stood by him despite public pressure after a rough game against France. Knee operation ended his career prematurely at only 27. Never had an official testimonial despite his heroics on the field. Played with veteran Bill Foulkes in the heart of defense to also win two league championships. Later was youth coach at United between 1989 and 1993 when Fergie Fledglings came through. Club statement read "An integral part of our first-ever European Cup-winning side, Nobby was a titan of the club’s history, cherished for his heart and personality on and off the pitch."

12 November: Albert Quixall
Matt Busby uncharacteristically spent big after Munich on players like Albert Quixall and Maurice Setters to ensure Manchester United did not go into oblivion like Torino who had also lost their entire team to a plane crash. Tasked with leading the charge of United to compete for trophies, Quixall suffered a nervous breakdown mainly due to his record fee and lost his England place too. He led the Sheffield Wednesday side when United played their first match after Munich and with his 5 England caps was regraded as the blond star on everyone's radar. Provided perfect passes for Sir Bobby Charlton to score and ended up scoring 56 crucial goals himself including a hattrick versus newly crowned champions Ipswich Town in 1961. Won the 1963 FA Cup by being United's leading goal scorer but was dropped alongside David Herd and Johnny Giles in the first league match of the next season after a heavy 0-4 defeat in the charity shield confirming the end of his United career.

22 November: Maurice Setters
Two of Manchester United's worst defeats tell the tale of start and end of Maurice Setters. 7-3 loss to Newcastle United in January 1960 made Matt Busby to stiffen the midfield and fill the void of Wilf McGuiness whose career ended due to injury, by signing Maurice Setters from West Bromwich Albion for a huge fee. Busby for a time felt the likes of Setters and Noble with tough tackling could help win matches against mid-table opposition. His hard tackles helped team to regain possession and win the 1963 FA Cup. The 0-5 loss to Sporting Lisbon in the second leg of European Cup Winners Cup in March, 1964 is the worst defeat suffered by United in Europe especially since they won the first leg comfortably 4-1. The three legged FA Cup tie against Sunderland and loss to West Ham in semi-finals was the main reason the squad appeared exhausted in Lisbon. Its the only result in the long stint of Matt Bubsy at United in which the Scot lost his cool and slammed his players. Setters' subsequent injury when he slipped on the marble floor of the Lisbon hotel made Busby pick Nobby Stiles instead and was soon transferred to Stoke after 159 appearances for United.

21 December: John Fitzpatrick
Shaggy-haired Scottish lad won the 1964 FA Youth Cup with the likes of David Sadler, George Best, John Aston Jr, Jimmy Rimmer and Bobby Noble. Became United's first ever substitute when he replaced fellow Aberdonian Denis Law in a match against Tottenham Hotspur in October 1965. Stood-in for Nobby Stiles initially and his versatility made him indispensable in the late 60's and early 70's. His best was against Polish champions Gornik Zabrze to keep the score 0-1 and progress 2-1 on aggregate to the semi-final of 1968 European Cup. One of only four players to avoid the cull of Tommy Docherty with Alex Stepney, Jimmy Rimmer and Bobby Charlton, spate of injuries made him retire at the age of 27 and dealt a huge blow to United's efforts to avoid relegation.

Wolfsburg, Sevilla and Leipzig

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could potentially follow the travails of his two predecessors Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho if he does not win a trophy or finish in the top four at the end of this season. Losing to Wolfsburg in the group-stage decider started the end of van Gaal's reign as Sevilla did for Mourinho but in the knock-out phase. One can argue Solskjaer had two matches against PSG and Leipzig to gain a point and not a decider like the two previous managers to retain the confidence of players and fans in his tactical judgement. For all his domestic trophies, Sir Alex Ferguson came up too short and often in Europe. Pressure on Solskjaer to deliver a trophy will only increase as a fallout.

Victory at Southampton from 0-2 down was a throwback to Ferguson years but where Solskjaer first matched the opponents formation and then changed it at half-time. Club realized their mistake of not hiring Edinson Cavani earlier in his stellar career as he scored two superb reflexive goals to claim victory. It set up the mood for PSG game at home nicely. Solskjaer let Fred play on despite transgressions after his first yellow card and later his dismissal ultimately cost the game for United. West Ham United led with an impressive first half display but could not increase their lead, and on came United with a classy assist by Bruno Fernandes which was converted by out of form Paul Pogba with a superb strike. That 3-2 away win meant United claimed a rare new record of nine consecutive away victories.

20 million euro match! Perhaps monetarily the biggest match of the season especially given the absence of 76,000 fans on every match day at Old Trafford and out came Pogba's infamous agent Raiola to proclaim that his prized asset not being offered a new deal will end his association with United. Not a surprise but the tactics of Solskjaer to play 5 at the back and defend while he said earlier its not in United's nature to sit back and defend, was the real issue. Roy Keane and Gary Neville came out bashing Pogba as expected but it was Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann who enhanced their credentials at the cost of Solskjaer by overturning their poor start to the campaign and achieved their clubs immediate aims, while United argue the duo were the finalist and semi-finalist of last season's Champions' League. Without fans the most dull and boring derby in recent memory with City ended 0-0.

19th December will mark the completion of two years for Solskjaer as manager of Manchester United. There has been a positive change in the overhaul of the squad backed by massive spending by the club. This last two transfer windows was perhaps the best since retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. If the club are to win trophies they need a manager to get the tactics right. United need to dominate matches with player of Bruno Fernandes' caliber and for that they may need a Declan Rice (an ex-Chelsea academy player who since Michael Carrick has won every West Ham academy prize) to compliment the defensive aspects of midfield, Fred has had a great resurgence but might not be enough. Any United match without exciting wingers is a sore display to watch. Has Solskjaer learnt from his mistakes to not make a slow start to matches, manage games better, evolve tactics to dominate games not just sit back and hit on counter, of not being influenced by criticism, avoid muscle injuries to his players etc.?

Fernandes, Pogba and van de Beek have not started together till now, nor does Solskjaer still know his best XI having played both Fred and McTominay to stifle not just opposition but themselves. Its the 12th match against Sheffield United tonight and that's high time to hit peak form given the next set of fixtures in the league are against Leeds, Leicester, Wolves and Aston Villa. United need to better their goal difference which is a paltry +2 at the moment.

When Williams, Greenwood and Rashford scored in last season's 3-3 draw at Bramall Lane it was the first time that three players below the age of 22 had scored for United in the Premier League since Giggs, Scholes and Beckham scored against Nottingham Forest in April, 1996. That's another stat that positively highlights the turnaround under Solskjaer that now has to mature into strategic realm and not remain merely at the whims of individual exuberance.

Diego Maradona RIP

Italia '90 World Cup was the start of my life-long passion for football, and Argentina came into the tournament as defending champions and favourites. They dramatically lost the first game against Cameroon 0-1 and discovered their mojo in Naples, a city where Diego Maradona had taken its team Napoli to the summit of Italian Serie A single-handedly by winning the scudetto twice and a UEFA trophy. There they beat USSR with Maradona saving a goal-bound shot with his hands and got away with it, again! They became the favourites when they beat Brazil with Maradona taking them head-on and played hosts Italy in Naples of all cities in the semi-finals. Result was pre-destined especially if it was to be decided on penalties. Finals against Germany was a bit of an anti-climax as injuries and suspensions had robbed Argentina of Claudio Cannigia amongst others, lost by a penalty to Germany led by Lothar Matthaus who by 1990 had become perhaps the finest sweeper transitioning from box-to-box player being compatible with his age.


Visit to Napoli in 2013 made them my favourite team from Serie A. Most striking feature of the visit was the mural near a church that depicted Maradona more than two decades after he left them. While still on loan at Boca Juniors he was tempted by the prospect of playing in England where his senior teammate and 1978 World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles played at Tottenham Hotspur. Maradona was being linked with Arsenal and he claimed to have watched the 1979 FA Cup final which Arsenal won 3-2 over Manchester United. Those links never materialized and instead he headed to Barcelona where he was joined by his former Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti.

Manchester United made it to the quarter-finals of 1984 Cup Winners Cup their first in a European competition after a 15 year gap and faced Barcelona for the first time in a competitive fixture. Ron Atkinson's team always played attacking football in the United way that delighted the fans and this fixture wasn't going to change that. 19 year old Graeme Hogg made his European debut in the first game at Nou Camp and scored an own goal. Captain Bryan Robson was clear on goal yet uncharacteristically didn't score and missed another chance. Big Ron asked everyone to not dwell on mistakes. Maradona was not very effective and had to be substituted. Late on they scored a goal to lead 2-0. Bryan Robson wrote an apology to fans and everyone trained hard, winning two league games before the second leg to go top of the league which gave them and fans lot of hope.

Bryan Robson played the match of his life to make amends for the 1st leg by scoring two goals while dictating play box-to-box aided by his partners in midfield Ray Wilkins, Arnold Muhren and Remi Moses. Graeme Hogg marked Diego Maradona effectively to nullify any threat. Frank Stapleton scored the winner and for last 35 minutes United were able to soak any late threat to hold on to the lead and win 3-2 overall. Fans played a big part in the match, amplifying every United attack. Official figures are of 58,547 to have attended the match but actually felt like over 70,000 who crowded the pitch in joy after the final whistle, lifting their skipper Bryan Robson in adulation. Robson was also the England captain under his name-sake manager the great Sir Bobby Robson. Injuries and suspensions to Robson, Wilkins and Muhren meant United lost to Michel Platini led Juventus 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals amid talks between Robson and Italian giants which never progressed due to 3 million asking price.



England got off to a poor start in the 1986 World Cup losing their opening game to Portugal and then drew 0-0 with Morocco where Bryan Robson dislocated his shoulder when opposing player pulled him in the penalty box. So concerned were the England players that they tended to their skipper and not at the referee to award the penalty! Bobby Robson asked him to be around the England team and not fly back to be operated upon. This later impacted the start of United season which unfortunately led to the sacking of Ron Atkinson. He missed the next two matches which England won by 3 goal margin including a hat-trick for Gary Lineker and faced Argentina with confidence in quarter-finals. Outcome might have been different with Bryan Robson in the side. Though 'hand of God' goal gets more attention but its the other goal that Maradona scored against England taking on players from the right of midfield through to the defense to score past Peter Shilton from his brilliant left-foot the greatest World Cup goal of all time dubbed 'Goal of the Century'. Purists point to the team goal that Brazil scored against Italy in 1970 that encapsulates the dependency amongst every member of the team to be the rightful owner of that moniker.



To compare the greats is a thankless yet unavoidable task. To have managed to unite his national side and win the World Cup apart from club success will keep him above Lionel Messi, which the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson dispute. While Ronaldo will perhaps eclipse George Best by winning not only at club level but with Portugal, similarly Zinedine Zidane edges his compatriot Michel Platini. Johan Cruyff and Pele still seem unmatched head and shoulders above the rest. As South American teams have suffered a decline in the last 15 years many argue is international football still relevant? It certainly adds a different dimension in the ability to bond with another set of players to win the quadrennial event amidst nationalist sentiments and tremendous pressure that it naturally entails, unlike the often serene and contained surroundings of the club football.

Away to high flying Saints

United were expected to beat Istanbul midweek at home which they duly did by a big 4-1 score-line that again highlighted how shocking it was to lose the reverse fixture 1-2 with shambolic defending. Donny van de Beek started with Fred in the middle with Anthony Martial on left and Marcus Rashford on right of front three as Edinson Cavani led the line. Only concern United have is the knocks to Marcus Rashford, Victor Lindelof and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and will continue to be without Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay. Its McTominay's absence that forced the positive change! The best part about Tuesday was the accurate crossing of Alex Telles that led to two goals.

Its Southampton away for Manchester United next, whose manager Ralph Hassenhuttl many argue could as a coach do a far better job at managing elite teams to improve their performance considerably. The turnaround that he has managed after that abysmal 0-9  home defeat to Leicester City, a joint record for biggest score in English Premier League with Manchester United beating Ipswich Town 9-0 at Old Trafford in 1995, has been simply incredible. He has played 5 to 8 players from that same group in almost every game since then, improved them individually and collectively as a team. Playing high-pressing 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 that many clubs and club owners in England take a liking to, he certainly will manage a much bigger club soon. Main risk to mitigate this season was the over reliance on Danny Ings for goals and the two wins in last two games are a testament to that, and thus far have scored 4 more goals than United. Presently they are on a 7 match unbeaten run including three successive 2-0 home wins. He knows what his first team is unlike Solskjaer who has much bigger squad and more players to integrate. His main changes have been on the left wing with Djenepo, Redmond and Walcott trying to make it their own.
 
A thoughtful Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gave a day-off to his squad due to a rare 4-day gap between two games. Most pressing thing is to bring back goals from Anthony Martial, and it could be via penalty with Fernandes and Rashford showing good team spirit. Discipline of Saints to check the opposing flanks will force Solskjaer to play oft-used Aaron Wan-Bissaka ahead of Brandon Williams despite the home game next to PSG where United still need a point to qualify for the lucrative knock-out phase of the Champions' League. Last match between these two sides had a controversial moment when Saints enforcer Romeu fouled Mason Greenwood which many believed deserved a red card. 19 year old hasn't appeared enough this season and this match could be a test of his developing mentality given the history, can become more of a folklore if he were to get the better of his avenger in the right spirit. Bruno Fernandes has been involved in staggering 34 goals in 35 games since joining United is clearly an outlier, no wonder rumours of him being linked with two Spanish giants surfaced.

Amongst the most odd things to have taken place in football was the kit-change by United from grey to blue at half-time after being 3-0 down in April 1996 at the Dell, previous home of Southampton. That change brought about a consolation goal in injury time by Ryan Giggs and a fine of 10,000 pounds for Sir Alex Ferguson who claimed the players could not see each other on a sunny day in the south coast. Later that year in October, United lost by an unbelievable 6-3 score again at the Dell when Roy Keane was sent off on 21 minutes.

United are on a 3 match unbeaten run including 7 consecutive away wins and this could be record equaling win of 8 last achieved under the illustrious Sir Alex Ferguson. Although a draw is more likely outcome given the results of last season, injury to Danny Ings should tip the balance in United's favour but the rise of Che Adams being linked with Scotland call-up makes this a tough match. Having drawn with Chelsea and seen off Everton, Hassenhuttl isn't fazed to meet the United challenge but clearly is cognizant of the need to have everything fall in place perfectly. Solskjaer compared his impact with Jurgen Klopp's arrival at Liverpool and that's a great compliment. After getting the better of another upstart in Leipzig's Nagelsmann, will the Norwegian emerge victorious against the Austrian with the might of Manchester United?

de Gea(GK), Wan-Bissaka, Telles, Lindelof, Maguire, Fred, van de Beek, Fernandes, Greenwood, Martial, Rashford

In defense of Solskjaer

Manchester United have lost three and drawn one of their first four home games this season. An unacceptable record in any year but the pandemic keeping fans away from attending matches has made a huge difference. These match going die-hard fans who have shown broader perspective to support the team and Solskjaer through thick and thin, and their absence has clearly hurt not just United but many big clubs across Europe this season. Its not unrealistic to summon the spirit of Stretford End to chase teams down and hunt for goals, but misses the spontaneity of fans to respond in their own characteristic way to the changing ebb and flow of the game to the benefit of their team by modulating their vocal chords as if in a symphony. Artificial Intelligence has still some way to go to compensate for that.

Is it simply a case of United unable to dictate play at home unlike playing on the counter away? Tactically Solskjaer has come under lot of scrutiny to be not cognizant of the fact that an underprepared team due to lack of pre-season and given the size of the squad at his disposal did not do enough to protect the team early on. In a results driven business this has taken the gloss away from completing a milestone of 100 games in charge with the defeat at home to Arsenal a first in 14 years! Records seem to tumble more than be created in a positive sense these days. Busy set of schedules ahead and with two weeks of preparation that Solskjaer has so far made good use of to bounce back stronger from an international break, will see United through against West Bromwich Albion this weekend although recently they've had good record at Old Trafford with three wins in last five.

Trophy-less in last three years since the UEFA cup triumph in May, 2017 under Jose Mourinho is a valid cause for concern but overlooks the achievement of finishing 3rd to qualify for the Champions' League which guarantees more revenue that foreign owners brutally demand. Solskjaer has cleared the dressing room of deadwood reducing the wage-bill and make the squad more younger that has seen the emergence of Mason Greenwood, Brandon Williams and Axel Tuanzebe. The youth setup has been revamped which was totally neglected before, to rightly put impetus back on club's core philosophy of being the best club in the world to promote home grown players. These changes hasn't been easy to bring about whilst maintaining a sense of calm and positivity unlike the acrimonious changes under Tommy Docherty and Jose Mourinho.

Task to take United back to the top becomes almost impossible when dominant rivals confirm the extension of their famous coach's tenure. Cup competitions provide the only hope of silverware again this season. Unlike the modern day coach's, Solskjaer remains a manager in the classical sense and that does seem to have its limitations to apply instantaneous changes to impact the game tactically and relies on his staff to carry out detailed training regimen. Decision to play Bruno Fernandes as number 10 has paid off, relegating highly influential World Cup winner Paul Pogba to the bench. His powerful agent Mino Raiola had caused huge embarrassment to the club lambasting them on many occasions in the past. Club betraying the traditions of Busby and Ferguson backed the player who was world's most marketable player at the time instead of serial winner across four countries. Will Pogba's departure become Solskjaer's first bitter experience of his reign remains to be seen? What's become unquestionable is the impact Bruno Fernandes' has had in a very short space of time such that he will certainly be crucial to not just Solskjaer's survival but his longevity as United manager. More importantly fans would like to see the return of the famous United swagger to outclass opponents under a true leader like Bruno Fernandes.

Tottenham and Leicester have vastly improved this season reducing the chances of United finishing in the top four significantly thus increasing the pressure on Solskjaer. Next three matches against West Brom, Southampton and West Ham are crucial to get points before difficult set of fixtures start from the derby with City, United then face Sheffield United away (last year it ended 3-3 after United rallied from 0-2 down to score 3 goals in 7 minutes and ultimately draw), Leeds United, Leicester City and Wolves this year. Pandemic has meant clubs are less than willing to sack their manager to incur further losses in terms of severance pay that runs into millions. December 1st week has been the marker for that and in this season Slaven Bilic in the opposing dugout has emerged as the favourite for becoming the first managerial casualty this season. Progression in the Champions' League group stage will act as a cover for Solskjaer to make the push upwards from lowly 14th place with a game in hand.

Ideally this match would be well suited for Solskjaer to try playing his three best midfielders together in Fernandes-Pogba-van de Beek against West Brom but the lack of victory at home will intensify the need to ensure a win no matter what by playing Fred and McTominay. Fans hope McTominay would carry the momentum from being part of Scotland's incredible run to qualify for a major tournament since 1998 World Cup. Injury to Luke Shaw will mean a first start for Alex Telles and probably Axel Tuanzebe starting ahead of doubtful Victor Lindelof. Daniel James had a great international break scoring for Wales which will bring him back into reckoning. Clamor for him to move on loan is unwarranted as he can learn directly under Juan Mata at United more than anywhere else. His game management considering his age needs to be relooked at by Solskjaer. Structural changes being mostly done its these tiny but crucial adjustments that might turn the Norwegian's reign into a lasting success. Summer signings have added squad depth which was lacking for a long time. His toolset looks almost complete now with the exception of wingers. It's time to deliver on the pitch.

de Gea(GK), Wan-Bissaka, Telles, Tuanzebe, Maguire(C), McTominay, Fred, Fernandes, James, Martial, Rashford

Must win game for Solskjaer, again!

Manchester United travel to Goodison Park to play Everton after two defeats in two competitions, first a loss to Arsenal at home in Old Trafford after a gap of 14 years and secondly a least expected away loss at Istanbul the bottom side of group H in Champions' League that was shambolic. After a run of successive victories when Solskjaer took over, United suffered their biggest defeat of his first season at Goodison Park 0-4 mauling that made the Norwegian to rightly apologize to the fans "I just want to apologise to the fans. They're the only people with the badge on today who can hold their head high, because we can't." Just as now, and back then all criticism was directed at the players.

These defeats highlight the importance of Victor Lindelof, clearly if it wasn't for him United's loss to Arsenal would have been greater instead of being just 0-1. Suffering from a bad back he might miss this crucial game. David de Gea looks like he has regained his lost form, responding positively to induction of Dean Henderson becoming his deputy. Is Harry Maguire the right man to organize United's defense? Has he got the right protection in front of him? McTominay has industry not discipline, Fred is not a specialist central defensive midfield nor best in the world, while Nemanja Matic has lost his pace to play regularly.

Reactions on team selection seems to have gone to the head of Solskjaer. Donny van de Beek started after an intense backlash especially from Patrice Evra who questioned the rationale behind his purchase after spending more time on the bench. Ole Gunnar has persisted with both McTominay and Fred after the 1-6 defeat to Spurs, and removed not one but both of them at Istanbul after Paul Scholes told Premier League Productions "It’s as poor as I’ve seen Manchester United at Old Trafford to be honest with you. You have to give Arsenal credit, they were very good but on other hand you have to expect more from United and the two midfield players especially." Paul Pogba started again after a seemingly unexpected comment by Bruno Fernandes the talisman of last season's revival, but the Frenchman bizarrely few times quite clearly failed to pass to the most influential United player of recent times in Marcus Rashford. Fernandes said this after the Istanbul defeat that further raised eyebrows about the football management team responsible for running the club "We need to do much better, and we need to do something more than say 'Do something in the next game', because it will be a difficult game for us." 

Victory over Leipzig and Newcastle was huge but they came late in the second half. But Solskjaer again sounded overly optimistic when he said "It's not long ago we were the best thing since sliced bread, beating Leipzig and PSG. [You get] ups and downs in football. You've got to have belief." This followed an assertion from him that 3rd win of the season did not come until the 10th game last season easily forgetting that last season was the worst start to a United campaign in 33 years! 

Sir Alex Ferguson sounded out Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho to be his successor but was unlucky to not get any of them to become the manager of Manchester United. Instead it was David Moyes. Then Louis van Gaal took over instead of Mauricio Pochettino and later Jose Mourinho instead of Carlo Ancelotti. With Solskjaer the heart is in the right place to restore United to its glory but the means seem missing like a structured consistent performance despite spending close to 250 million on squad overhaul. For the second straight season United have started badly to mount a challenge in the English Premier League that seems to throw up surprising results opening the competition up for many clubs to claim. United thus far seem unable to grab this opportunity, on the back of a delayed Europa League Cup that did not give the players adequate recovery time. Luckily United have a big squad to be able to cope especially the addition of Henderson, van be Beek and Telles add depth which wasn't there earlier. But the club knew this situation all along and still delayed the transfers to not help their man in charge. These are the minutiae that top coaches of the world in Mauricio Pochettino look at before choosing their next move.

United do have a good squad even if its not great like the top three of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea, to eventually come good and climb the league table with a game in hand. Its these players who for the sake of their careers get going again. Else the upcoming break due to international fixtures might come to haunt Solskjaer. Jose Mourinho was sacked after losing away to Liverpool, today their neighbours Everton host United in a must win game for the Reds.

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