Cantona, masochism, Hoolahan love, Britpop, Prince, European Super Leagues, and Rooney as a deep-lying midfielder: Dan Brigham talks to sportswriter and Manchester United fan Rob Smyth ahead of a crucial game for both sides
Dan: Hi Rob. So, since we spoke in December for the Old Trafford preview very little has changed: United are still in a playing-rubbish-but-actually-not-that-rubbish loop, battling for a Champions League spot, while Norwich are still trying to ward off relegation. One thing that has changed, though, is Wayne Rooney. He’s being used as a deep-lying playmaker because, it seems, Louis van Gaal has realised he doesn't have the pace to play as a No.9 anymore.
Is this a good thing? Will Rooney thrive there? Will he be the holding midfielder Steven Gerrard never was? Can strikers really end up playing in midfield? Go!
Rob: Well, it feels like – what with English football being the centre of the universe – that it’s easier for wingers to become deep-lying midfielders later in their career: Giggs, Barnes, Beckham. Centre-forwards sometimes become centre-backs or vice versa: Sutton, Dublin, Warhurst, John Charles. Rooney can be a success as a deep-lying midfielder, but only up to a point. His long passing is excellent, not a million miles off Paul Scholes, but it’s Scholes’s short passing that helped him control the tempo of many games. I’m not sure Rooney is so good at that.
The other thing is that, like late-period Scholes, Rooney in midfield is far less effective against teams who harass him in possession. The FA Cup semi-final against Everton was a perfect demonstration of both: first half good, second half not so good. His defensive positioning isn’t great either. He’d do well in the MLS.
I think the best position for Rooney v2.0 is still No.9, because his strongest suit is now his mostly excellent finishing. But his first touch has declined and he is relatively immobile, which contributes to United’s ponderousness. They look far better with Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and even Jesse Lingard – limited but fast and with superb movement – than, say, Rooney, Juan Mata and Martial. If Rooney plays in midfield, as I’m sure he will, Jonny Howson and Gary O’Neil from one side and Wes Hoolahan from the other should gang up on him at every opportunity. Not in a sex masochism way, of course.
Dan: Talking of masochism (as ever), it's been curious watching some Arsenal fans – a minority still, but a big minority – get what seems to be a perverse thrill from seeing their team do badly because it reinforces their belief that Arsène Wenger needs to go.
Can you see the same sort of barren runs Arsenal and Liverpool have suffered happening to United (similar to what they had pre-Ferguson) over the next decade or two? And how would that affect the fan-base?
Rob: Yeah, it’s a distinct possibility. The residual aura of the last great United side (2006-09) has gone, so now they are just another side with less money to spend than some of their rivals. English football is unpredictable for the first time in ages, but it’s far from beyond the realms that they could go a decade or more without winning the league.
In the past, it was said that a spell of failure was good to cleanse the club of glory-hunters, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore. Society has changed; people are addicted to anger. The glory-hunters don’t go away, they just get louder.
What is interesting about United’s situation is that it has been very easy to blame the relative underachievement of the last three seasons on the two managers, David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. The reality is far more nuanced, and if the next manager – let’s say José Mourinho – fails to win the league, it will be interesting to see who gets the blame. People will probably say he’s finished, but you can’t keep blaming the manager, especially when two of them are Champions League winners. There’s a minority culture of brattish entitlement among supporters that is having far too great an influence. Roosevelt was wrong. It is no longer the man in the arena who counts: it’s the bloke in his grundies, flinging abuse on Twitter, or the fella holding his A4 sign up the wrong way round in the stands.
Dan: Roosevelt would make a great Arsenal or United manager – taking a creaking, great institution out of a great depression, reforming them and leading them to recovery. A pity he's American. And dead.
Mourinho, though. That’s just a wrong fit, isn't it? Maybe a wrong fit for Old United, anyway. But I guess this is New United, which is essentially them acting like nearly every other Premier League club and banking on getting lucky with a short-term strategy that might – might – blossom into long-term success. How would you see his arrival?
Rob: Yeah, I’m not sure United have a particularly distinct identity these days. The fact Van Gaal will probably lose his job despite putting in loads of kids, which was always one of the most important things at United (and bought Fergie some crucial time in 1989) shows that.
If I could choose any manager in world football it’d be Diego Simeone or Mauricio Pochettino, but Mourinho has a huge amount going for him. I would say only Simeone has maximised resources as effectively over a sustained period of time. The best thing about Mourinho is that he has been absolutely desperate for this job for a long time, and that makes him a very dangerous opponent. I think it’s a big risk for him, because it’s the first time in a long time that he has taken over a team that isn’t already a title challenger. There’s a lot of work to do with that squad. The style of football isn’t that big an issue – his Real Madrid routinely scored over 100 goals, and there have been times when his Chelsea sides played some lovely stuff. Also, the football under Ferguson in the years post-Ronaldo was dull compared to the 15 years that preceded it.
Mourinho would bring a siege mentality back to United, something the fans always enjoyed under Ferguson. The main drawback is that sometimes his behaviour can be a bit tediously self-serving, but I do think he’s not as bad as is generally made out. Most of all, I think watching someone with Mourinho’s defiant charisma taking on allcomers, at Britain’s most hated club, will be very, very funny.
Dan: Ha, that's a very good point. If Mourinho does go to United and they show no sign of improvement, it really would be very excellent – and I say that as someone who loved the United sides of the 1990s and easily 2000s.
There's lots of paranoid talk among Norwich fans at the moment that relegation would be a disaster this season as it means missing out on the new mega-gazillions TV deal. My view is that it won't really change much. Unlike the original Sky deal in 1992, which opened up English clubs to the world's best footballers for the first time, this time I just think teams will end up paying more money for the same pool of players. Do you see it that way? And do you think the next natural step will be a European Super League? Would United fans welcome that?
Rob: I’m terrible with working out the impact of money in football. I thought Chelsea would win the league for a decade. I suspect you’re right, that the impact won’t be as immediate or extreme as people think. The other thing is that three clubs have to gone down each year, no matter how rich they are, so there will be still be lots of yo-yo clubs like Norwich and Burnley. Maybe the new glass ceiling will be the top 10 rather than the top four. I hope the biggest impact will be at the top of the Premier League, making it consistently more competitive, but I’m not sure this season isn’t just a beautiful freak.
As for a European Super League, it’s inevitable. I loathe the idea, as do the United fans I know, though I’m not sure we constitute a representative voice. It’s harder than ever to pin down a prevailing mood among a set of supporters, because there is generally a silent majority, and the match-going support has changed so much. I’m not sure what anyone thinks any more. I’m not sure what I think half the time.
Dan: Ok, so let's cheer you up then. It's 20 years since the 1995-96 season, when United did the League and FA Cup double. More specifically, it was The Season Of The Cantona. Back from his ban for Bruce Lee-ing that Palace fan, he just couldn't stop scoring important goals: the winner in the FA Cup final against Liverpool, of course, but also the late equaliser earlier in the Cup against Sunderland, the winner at Newcastle which took United within a point of them at the top of the Premier League then, in the next three games, a last-minute equaliser against QPR and then scoring the only goals in 1-0 wins over Tottenham and Arsenal that took United to the top of the table, where they remained.
There's no real question here but, other than trying to kill John Polston, Eric Cantona was just a really amazing, important man, wasn't he? What do you remember of that season?
Rob: A precis of the season would be 1-0 (Cantona). With hindsight it looks almost pre-ordained, the great story of Eric’s redemption, but at the time those games were so bloody tense because United were still in transition and, as exciting as the kids were, they would have won nothing but for Cantona and Peter Schmeichel, who is the unsung hero of that season. Until the last two games, you could never really relax during the run-in because all the victories were by one goal, and usually from goals in the final quarter of the game. It was the most beautiful season – my first year at university, Britpop, Trainspotting, warm Coors, everyone with curtains on their head. I was blissfully ignorant of real life.
There were hardly any United fans, just me and some lad called Alex, who drunkenly bonded over a love of Paul Scholes. My abiding memory would be getting utterly pongoed for that Monday night victory at Newcastle and having such a happy hangover the next day. Such a student cliché, I know, but I’d give my right one to go back and live that night again and again and again. My other memory is of a lad called Coco, who supported Newcastle, clambering up to the roof of his halls and singing Newcastle songs for ages on the Thursday night they drew at Forest, which all but finished their title challenge.
I would say that’s possibly the most charming and romantic of all Ferguson’s victories, because of the Cantona story and mainly the involvement of the kids. The Alan Hansen stuff was nice for a bit of cheap schadenfreude but it wasn’t that big a thing at the time, and he was right really, given the involvement of Cantona, Schmeichel and Roy Keane (who went from very good to great with an awesome performance in the FA Cup final win over Liverpool). I find the revisionism surrounding Cantona a bit weird. You could make a very strong case for him being the most significant signing in English football history, he was to sexy football what Prince was to sex, and he tried to kick xenophobia out of football.
Dan: I still can't fathom what it would be like to see your team win the Premier League. I try and imagine what Leicester fans are feeling right now, but it's like trying to think of a new colour.
I can tell you what relegation feels like that, though. In very vivid detail. Which leads us nicely to Norwich. You've seen quite a bit of us for the Guardian recently, haven't you? You saw the good side (Newcastle) and the HOLY CRAP side (Sunderland). Who's impressed you, who's dismayed you?
And, this is like Brian Moore asking Kevin Keegan if David Batty is going to score that penalty, but are Norwich staying up?
Rob: You don’t get a great sense of the game when you do those Guardian live blogs, because you’re too busy having a nervous breakdown, but I’ve always loved watching Hoolahan. He’s got so much class. Nathan Redmond is really promising too. You seem to have a nice mix of blue- and white-collar players. I thought you were terrific at Arsenal and pretty unlucky, and actually you didn’t play that badly against Sunderland. I really like the cut of Alex Neil’s jib too.
I reckon you’ll go down but it’s so tight: all your games are winnable, but that means Sunderland’s are too as you have very similar fixtures. At this stage of the season, you often find a lowly team just wins three or four in a row out of sheer need. I reckon you’ll need at least seven points to stay up.
Dan: I genuinely fear the day Hoolahan leaves Norwich or, as now seems more likely, retires while still with us. I would love him to shine at the Euros, he deserves that stage. And it's great to see Martin O'Neill has fallen for his charms.
I fear you may be right about us, and our need for seven points. Let's finish this off with how you think Norwich should approach the game and your score prediction.
Rob: Target Marcos Rojo, harass Rooney and Michael Carrick, and give everything to maximise the good spells. Basically play like Everton did in the second half of the FA Cup semi, not the first. Prediction: 1-1.
Dan: Cheers Rob. We’ve played pretty well against the bigger sides this season, especially when we've stopped their midfields from playing, so I think Norwich will scrape a 2-1 win, doing the double over United for the first time since 1989-90… and still get relegated.
Rob Smyth is a freelance sportswriter and author, whose books include Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team, The Spirit of Cricket and Gentleman and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations. He is currently writing I’ll See You Out There – the story of the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal.
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