After losing the last real super star from the Premier League, this country’s press circled like vultures with their predictions of what would come of us. The exit of Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy, amongst others, didn’t bring about our decline, but the press were keen to believe that Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure meant that “the decline” had finally begun this time for real.
The idea of “decline” is raised time and again because of Liverpool FC. They dominated English football in the late 70s and throughout the 80s but then fell away once the back pass rule was introduced/Premier League years began. Because they went in to decline, going 21 years now without a league title, the assumption is the same must one day happen to United. Liverpool went in to decline after dominating, so United must too.
Of course, this is flawed logic. Thankfully, as much as reds may grumble on match days, United wielded their marketing muscle, bringing in a global fanbase and the riches that came with it. Liverpool, a far more successful club at the time, missed the boat, and have never caught up.
The introduction of the Glazers has made “a decline” more likely but their presence doesn’t mean we’re certainly doomed to 21+ years of mediocrity.
Regardless, with the £80m transfer money from Ronaldo, the manager went out shopping. Just like Michael Carrick was viewed as a disappointing replacement for Keane, far lower down on the list of options that included the likes of Gattuso, Essien or Ballack, Antonio Valencia was hardly the name on everyone’s lips for the Ronaldo replacement before the deal had been confirmed.
Whilst everyone could see that he, along with Wilson Palacios, was too good for Wigan, there probably weren’t too many United fans who thought he was good enough for our club. The press made lazy comparisons between Ronaldo’s amazing scoring record with Valencia’s. In 89 games with the pie eaters, he had managed just 7 goals, never scoring more than 3 in a season in all competitions. Ouch. Whilst it was clear that we weren’t in the market to find a winger who scored the goals Ronaldo did, mainly because he was The Best Player In The World and often played up front, rather than just on the right, we probably thought we were looking for someone who had shown more promise in front of goal.
Still, we’d seen how Valencia had bombed down our right wing at Old Trafford that season, giving John O’Shea a run for his money, so there was some hope amongst the fanbase. There was nothing but sneers and mockery from the media and rival fans.
At the end of his first season, there wasn’t anyone questioning whether he was a “Manchester United player” or not. You’ll be hard pushed to find many players in Sir Alex’s reign who have had a better début season. Not just fast and keen to take players on, but incredibly strong and useful defensively.
He scored 8 goals and assisted 9 during that season and whilst this wasn’t a replacement for Ronaldo, he helped Rooney become that replacement. The two just seemed to click.
Sadly, Valencia’s second season hasn’t gone as well, only because of the nasty injury he suffered so early on. As he hit the deck against Rangers and was stretchered off, you feared for his season, for his career even. But a few months later, he was back in action, playing well and giving us another option. He came back at a vital time and helped carry us over the finish line for the 19th title.
He didn’t cover himself in glory against Barcelona in the final, I suppose none of our players did, but ahead of kick-off, he was one of the players you knew without any doubt was going to be in the line-up, which is a rarity for any of our midfielders this season.
Can you imagine if in Rome, watching our lads picking up their losers medals, someone told you Ronaldo would be off and Wigan’s Valencia would replace him in our next final in two years time? You’d laugh your arse off. There was no way he was good enough. Shows how much we know.
It looks beyond doubt that Ashley Young will be signing for Manchester United sooner rather than later, and despite him having a bigger name for himself than Valencia did, the general reaction is fairly underwhelming.
In Young’s last four years, he has scored at least 13 goals per season (although some of these are penalties). He had 11 assists this season (only bettered by Fabregas, Drogba and Nani), last season it was 10, the season before that it was 9, and before that, 17. Is that the sign of a player who is failing to reach the standards set in 2008? Or is it a player with bags of ability who has been stuck in an average team?
He isn’t a young lad any more though, turning 26-years-old next month, but that doesn’t mean he has to be the finished article either. Playing with the champions, could that amazing 2007-2008 form be replicated? He’s not short of confidence and with the greatest manager working his magic, could we have someone really special on our hands?
Young wouldn’t be my first choice but he’s not an awful option for us to have. Valencia wasn’t anyone’s first choice either but I imagine he would in the first choice XI for all of us now. If Valencia can step up a gear and make us a better team, there’s no reason why Young can’t too. Watch this space.