People love a hero. Throughout history, we have put various figures on pedestals. We have erected statues of warriors of old, gathered in our thousands to watch great musicians perform their art, created fantastical worlds of men and women who possess wondrous superpowers. As for football, the innumerable heroes it continually unearths is one of the many things that lead us to fall in love with the beautiful game.
Every club has its heroes, of course, but being English football’s most successful club means that Manchester United fans have had more than most. The trinity statue outside Old Trafford is a reverential nod to our glorious past, when Denis Law, Sir Bobby Charlton and George Best epitomised the vibrant, attacking football of the Busby Babes – the benchmark by which all future United teams would be measured, and all future United managers would live or die.
There were heroes during the twenty six years between Sir Matt Busby’s last league title and Sir Alex Ferguson’s first but Ferguson’s own twenty six year reign saw the emergence of so many that those of us who saw them all rightly feel spoiled, deeply privileged to have witnessed such a glorious era.
Great goalkeepers like Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar, our saviours on so many occasions; ferocious defenders like Jaap Stam, Steve Bruce and Nemanja Vidic, always willing to put their bodies on the line for the cause, while the more balletic types like Rio Ferdinand performed defensive poetry alongside them; the indefatigable, unsung heroics of Gary Neville, Denis Irwin and Patrice Evra, boundless in their energy and devotion to the club.
The sight of David Beckham wheeling away after a pin-point free-kick, Paul Scholes, one of England’s finest ever players, orchestrating and dictating games, or Ryan Giggs slaloming between hapless defenders, will live long in our memories, as will the joy Cristiano Ronaldo brought to our lives as we watched him develop into one of the game’s great players before our eyes.
Mark Hughes, scorer of great goals, bully of back-fours, pulling us back from the brink on so many of the biggest occasions; Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke menacing defences from Bolton to Barcelona, while Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer waited in the wings for their many moments of glory.
And Eric Cantona and Roy Keane, Cantona the catalyst and Keane the beating heart, without whom none of it would have been possible.
It’s a remarkable list and by no means exhaustive – and it’s always fun to reminisce about such United greats – but it also illustrates the relative scarcity of such era-defining heroes at the club in recent times. Even during Ferguson’s latter years there were few true heroes. Robin van Persie, who ensured the Scot bowed out on a high, can certainly stake a claim, but his was an all-too brief blaze of glory and there will always be a sense of sadness when recalling the broken man whose flame fizzled out with the changing of the guard.
United need a hero. Wayne Rooney no longer fits the bill. There is too much troubled water under the bridge and it is shocking to see how far removed he is from the player we bought from Everton all those years ago. He will no doubt continue to have his moments but they are becoming fewer and further between. It seems increasingly futile to cling to the hope that he will regain that bullish brilliance of his earlier career.
David De Gea has been the hero of the last few years. What a goalkeeper he is. It says a great deal about the club’s recent plight that he has been player of the year for two years running but, without his heroics, United’s troubles would have been so much worse.
Still, though a great goalkeeper is essential in any great team, heroes are needed elsewhere on the pitch. For too long United have been lacking the kind of players who are willing to seize a game by the scruff of the neck and bend it to their will. Too comfortable, or too scared, to take a few risks, United’s players have been coasting through games, forever choosing the easy pass, too tame to try the extraordinary.
Until now, that is. Suddenly, we appear to have a player who makes things happen, a player alive to possibilities others either don’t see or choose to ignore. I know we’re not meant to get carried away, I know he’s only nineteen years old, I know he’s only a couple of games and a few goals into his United career but, sometimes, you can’t help but throw caution to the wind and cry “What a player!” And, in Anthony Martial, we appear to have some player.
These are early days but there is a dead-eyed, ice-cool aura about the young Frenchman that speaks to the part of us that yearns for another hero to call our own. It’s not just the way he’s taken his three goals, either. It’s the way he carries himself, the way he celebrates his goals with the nonchalance of a bloke who’s just performed a tricky reverse-park, the way he harries and hustles and twists and turns and leaves defenders clutching at feathers and kicking thin air.
Early days they may be, and Louis van Gaal is right to underplay his instant impact in a bid to keep his feet on the ground, but United fans can be forgiven for finding a font of hope for the future in the form of Anthony Martial.