They say the Beetham Tower is the only building in Manchester with a sea-view. From the summit of it – some 47 storeys high – you can see miles into the distance. It is a vantage point Manchester United have had to get used to – Robin Van Persie aside – in terms of spotting potential new players which are but tiny dots on the horizon. The club have made it their policy to set their sights on players ‘of the future’, they use foresight, the long view, in order to get in there first before clubs like city, Chelsea, PSG, and now Monaco can get in on the act. These nouveau riche buying clubs remind me of Belloq, the rival archaeologist in the Indiana Jones films. In those films, the hero Indy went through all the pain, dodged the arrows, conducted the meticulous research in order to discover the treasure, whatever it was, only for the dastardly Belloq to turn up at the last minute with his Nazi allies to petrodollar away the main prize right at the last. Belloq even had a catchphrase in the films: “So once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine.”
United are always grist to the rumour mill. Over the past couple of months, we’ve been linked with hundreds of players from across the world, but three names which kept cropping up were João Moutinho, James Rodríguez and Radamel Falcao. Admittedly, you didn’t exactly need a crystal ball (or even a crystal skull) to work out that these players were stars. Falcao scored at Messi/ Ronaldo levels in La Liga this season, smashing in 32 goals in just 36 games for Atletico Madrid, and helping them to win the Spanish Cup against city-rivals Real Madrid. Moutinho was outstanding in the European Championships of a year ago and has 55 caps for the Portuguese national side. His Porto team won their third Portuguese league title on the trot last weekend too. And then there’s Rodriguez, the name to whom United were most frequently linked. The lad already has 12 caps for Colombia at the tender age of 21. By Monday, all three had signed for Monaco for a combined fee in excess of £100 million.
United just can’t compete with that, and there are many who say we shouldn’t want to. After all, this is simply ‘fantasy football’ for a set of ultra-rich billionaires. Barney Ronay, in The Guardian, described it like this: “To the billionaire, sport, with all its glorious uncertainty, is something to be tamed and killed, machine-gunned with money, until even the grandest football club begins to resemble some stretched and burnished trophy wife, muzzled beneath a paste of high-end slap and stitch.” Tamed and killed. Sounds about as much fun as Belloq turning up, like an early incarnation of John Terry, and snatching the prize away before anyone else can have a hold.
Talking of prizes, Bayern Munich carried off the big one at the weekend. Bayern are United’s equivalent in German football, and to those who say the Glazer regime has not damaged United, those who point to the trophies we’ve won under their stewardship… Well, what about those we could have won. Last season Bayern bought Javi Martinez – arguably the best defensive midfielder around, for 40 million euro. This season, they’ve already bought the best attacking midfielder, in Mario Götze. United pay a similar fee every season to service the debts the Yanks have burdened on the club.
So instead of finished products – again, Van Persie aside – United continue to look even further down the line. We search for the treasures of the future. We had the Beetham Tower-foresight to see the raw potential of one Wilfried Zaha. And hopefully he’ll eventually become known in Red circles for more than just being Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever signing. Course there are some who might say it wasn’t foresight at all on United’s part. Zaha had already done a great job on his own of announcing his name on the scene. He put in a terrific – if at times over-enthusiastic – performance for Crystal Palace in their shock League Cup victory against United at Old Trafford in 2011-12, and he was already setting the Championship alight with his pace and trickery. But it is not exactly fashionable for major English clubs to look for their new talent in the Championship pool. No, they often prefer the more turquoise waters of the European leagues.
Zaha (to give him his full name – Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha) is 21 – the same age as James Rodriguez. He was born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – though he has opted to play for England – and comes to United off the back of helping Palace to secure Premier League status next season – he won (and enthusiastically celebrated) the penalty which Kevin Phillips tucked away to beat Watford in Monday’s play-off final. Based on his performance in that final, and in the infrequent occasions I’ve watched him in Championship games, he is a more muscular presence, and harder to shake off the ball, than the lightweight Ashley Young, and Nani (much as I like Nani, strength is not one of his, erm, strengths). He also scored a cracker in a play-off semi-final brace against Brighton, which shows he has a shot on him too. In Monday’s final, he was far and away the best player on the pitch. And though his crossing was slightly wayward, and, when a very presentable chance came his way towards the business end of the ninety minutes on Monday, he fluffed it, got the ball stuck under his feet, there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastic, and he certainly showed no little skill throughout the game.
Wilf has a look of Leon, the actor who starred in Cool Runnings – which coincidentally was also on the idiot box over the Bank Holiday weekend – and also in Madonna’s controversial Like a Prayer video, in which he played a statue of Jesus which miraculously came to life (possibly to run away from Madonna). And he is a cool runner. He toboggans down the wing leaving his markers (on Monday, it was the ageing Italian Cassetti, who might as well have been called Betamaxi for all his relevance) and has something of the Andrei Kanchelskis about his play. Some observers, including the former Palace striker James Scowcroft – though how he would know, I can’t tell – have said that Zaha is already good enough to coolly run into the United first team. And I have to say his performance on Monday made me as excited as I have been about a player for a long time.
But in order to get a more educated view on the 2012-13 PFA Championship Player of the Year, I spoke to James Daly, editor of the excellent Crystal Palace fanzine Five Year Plan – http://www.fiveyearplanfanzine.co.uk/. Here’s what he said: “To Palace fans, Wilf is like the younger brother we never had (unless you did have one, in that case he’s the younger brother you didn’t hate). We’ve seen him grow up at Palace, from a spindly, wide-eyed young forward into the confident, beefy England international he is now. And we couldn’t be more proud.
Every single Palace fan wishes him well on his move to United, it’s a wonderful feather in the cap of our academy that a club like that would pay so much for him.
His form this season, at times, has been out of this world; turning defenders inside out, brushing them aside with his strength, and blasting home. Check out his second against Brighton or his second at Wolves earlier in the season for an example.
It’s true his form dipped after it was announced he had moved to Old Trafford in January (before being loaned back) and he himself claimed he had been distracted. But when it counted he stepped up. He was brilliant in the play-offs, and you know it meant more to him than anything to help Palace go up.
After the last game of the season he unveiled a vest saying ‘Thank You CPFC’ with a heart on it and there was not a dry eye at Selhurst.
He had the ability and potential to be the very best and we hope he achieves that at United….and then returns to Palace one day to help us win the Champions League.”
I’ll leave you with this thought. In November 2012, Zaha made his debut for England’s senior side, coming on as a sub for Raheem Sterling late in a game against Sweden which soon became famous for Zlatan’s defenestration of the Three Lions. Don’t think about this, just answer truthfully, hand on heart.
Snap decision: if you had to pick Raheem Sterling or Wilf Zaha, which one would you plump for?
Thought so. It’s our Wilf cool running all the way.
And besides, the lad’s already got all of his United songs ready and waiting for him after Balsa Boy Saha left.
Andrew J Kirby is the author of ‘Fergie’s Finest’ which was released this month. His sports writing has featured in BBC Sport magazine, and on the Radio Five Live website.