A RoM interview with freelance writer Rob Smyth who works mainly for The Guardian.
Scott the Red: Why and when did you start following United?
Rob Smyth: It was genetic. Although I vaguely remember the 1985 final, the first game I recall watching intently was a 2-1 win over Everton, just after Christmas 1987, with Brian McClair getting both I think.
STR: Which has been your favourite season as a United fan?
RS: Like everyone else, 1998-99. You knew instantly that it would never, ever get any better than that. It couldn’t. It’s the most perfect campaign in any sport: up to 10 all-time-great games, a magnificent, unyielding title race with an unbelievably good opponent, all crescendoing perfectly towards an unprecedented achievement. I also have a real fondness for 1994-95, both because the kids were emerging and especially because most of the season was spent fighting an almighty ABU tide. We ended with nothing but there was such a spirit within the club that I felt extremely proud to be a United fan that year.
STR: Who is your all-time favourite player?
RS: Roy Keane, with Ole a close second. I’ve tried on a few occasions to articulate my adoration for both men and I can’t. One obvious point to make with Keane, though, is that outside United he was a scandalously underrated passer of the ball. People talk a lot about the Juventus game as if he gave an archetypal over-my-dead-body performance, but his biggest contribution to that game was the unbelievable concentration and rhythmic excellence of his passing at 2-0 and 2-1 down.
STR: What are you top three United games?
RS: Three at the back end of the Treble year. The Arsenal replay was the greatest game I’ve seen involving United; the Juve game was the greatest United performance I‘ve ever seen; and Bayern was, the greatest high – in life, never mind just watching United.
STR: Which player do you think will have the biggest impact next season?
RS: Rio Ferdinand. It’s a boring choice in terms of predictability and him being a defensive rather than an attacking player, but he is unbelievably good at what he does and, whether we like it or not, the defence has been the strongest feature of this post-2006 team.
STR: Which player do you think we will see the most improvement from next season?
RS: After the Community Shield it’s tempting to think that Nani will go up a level or three this season, but you never know with him. I suspect Darren Fletcher will continue his startling improvement over the last two seasons and add more authority to his game in attacking areas.
STR: What are your thoughts on the Michael Owen signing?
RS: At first I was disgusted, not just because of who he is, and Ronny Johnsen and all that – but also because, like most people, I’ve felt for a few years that the specialist goalscorer is an anachronism. However I’ve been fairly impressed the tenor of his quotes since he joined and with better service than he was getting at Newcastle he should get 15 goals, mostly in home games against the lesser teams. To really justify the signing, though, he needs to replicate Carlos Tevez’s vital goals from the bench. If he gets three or four late match-saving/winning goals this season in addition to all the others, it’ll be a very good signing. If he gets a hat-trick at Anfield and flicks an insouciant V at the Kop, he’ll surpass Keane as my favourite United player.
STR: Is our squad strong enough to win the league this season?
RS: The squad is strong enough but I don’t know whether the first XI (if we have such a thing anymore) is. The complete lack goals from midfield is a huge concern, but there is only so far wrong you can go with such an outstanding defence: in maybe 60 per cent of games we’ll only need to score one to win. I suspect the title will be won with a slightly smaller points total this year – maybe the low 80s – and the race is as unpredictable as it’s been for a while, because three of the top four have lost important players and Chelsea’s pensioners are a year older. No permutation of the top four would surprise me.
STR: Who do you think is going to pose the biggest threat to us over the next 10 years – Liverpool or City?
RS: It looks like it will be City, which is good in the sense that they are marginally the lesser of two gargantuan evils, although if their laughable giddiness this summer is a shape of things to come it won’t be a pleasurable experience.
STR: What frustrations do you face as a United fan and a journo?
RS: Just the usual ABU stuff. In the age of blog comments you get some fierce abuse, particularly because some people know I’m a United fan. Even when you state the obvious you are apparently biased; for example I got all sorts of stick for including Macheda’s goal in a piece of the great moments of last season. Another frustration if that nobody will let you write about certain things – for example what many of us perceive as the FA’s consistently unfair treatment of the United, most recently with the Evra ban late last year – because you’re a United fan. Perversely, the worst thing is being called an ABU if you write anything critical about United. That really does piss me off.
STR: What did you make of the press’ refusal to bring attention to the behaviour of Liverpool fans at the Spirit of Shankly end of season do?
RS: It was disappointing but not at all surprising. I do think the football media and authorities are to some extent scared of Liverpool. Two examples last season spring to mind: the lack of criticism/punishment for their show of support for Michael Shields, and Jamie Carragher’s admission in his autobiography that he was considering getting his friends to ‘do’ Lucas Neill. I’m all for interesting, non-creosote autobiographies, and apparently Carragher’s is pretty good in that respect, but a precedent was set with the way Keane was both punished by the FA and abused in the media in 2002 and yet it wasn’t adhered to in this example. It’s probably paranoia, but I genuinely think that, had United been involved in any of those situations, the reaction would have been significantly different.
STR: Who would you like to see replace Sir Alex?
RS: I wouldn’t say I’d like Jose Mourinho – far from it – but I think he’s nailed on to get it: he puts a title on the table almost every year and that’s all that will interest the Glazers. I just can’t see beyond him, with Martin O’Neill and David Moyes the only other conceivable candidates. As for who I’d like, Fabio Capello. I know he is planning to retire after the England job, but I’d take him in an instant. He brings Mourinho’s success, he isn’t a vainglorious tool, and he has got Wayne Rooney playing like a dream. What more could you want?
STR: What should United realistically be aiming for next season?
RS: 19-18. It’s that simple, and that important. Balls to everything else.
STR: What are your feelings on ‘the Tevez saga’?
RS: I have some sympathy for the extent to which he was marginalised in the first half of last season, but my overriding feeling is good riddance to a transparent politician with a ludicrously inflated opinion of his ability. We’ll miss his impact from the bench, but he was often useless when he started last season and he wasn’t worth £25m.