So we lost. 6-1. To City. In a week that brought us the catastrophic news of Westlife splitting up, it had me wondering – what about now? Could this really be City’s season in the sun?
It’s always a mini-trauma to lose heavily to a bitter rival, and we all have our own personal coping mechanisms. Some turn to drink, others to God. Some may even choose to throw on their favourite Disney animated feature to soothe away the pain. On Twitter, the red masses were divided into two broad schools of self-therapy – those looking to assign blame, and those scratching about for reasons to be cheerful.
Evans was a predictable scapegoat, as were Ferdinand, Anderson and Evra. Many bemoaned the lack of quantity and quality in a porous midfield, and a ridiculously naive approach to playing with ten men. There was universal praise for City’s mercurial number 21, tinged with real resentment that our current owners had made a move for such a magical player nigh on impossible.
Those optimistic souls searching for a silver lining pointed to the pending return of Tom Cleverley. This is understandable in the context of the midfield looking especially hapless allied with young Cleverley making such a bright start to the season. In many ways he embodied the exciting cavalier panache with which United embarked on their campaign. His game lent itself beautifully to the style of play the team had seemed to have adopted – quick inventive one-touch passing when in possession and sharp, determined closing down when not. Some went as far as to suggest Fergie was looking to mimic the ticky-tacky tactics of Catalonia.
Since then however form has taken a nose dive. Results have continued to be largely positive, but United’s game has become increasingly predictable, deliberate and listless. From delicious swashbuckling beginnings to a gradual return of last season’s dull dogged stodge. Unfortunately for the team/fortunately for Cleverley’s stock, this has coincided with the Bradfordian’s spell on the sidelines. It’s resulted in his steady transformation from exciting youngster to indispensible midfield maestro without a ticky tacked.
Wise old heads have been quick to curb enthusiasm, fearing the youngster won’t possibly live up to the hype. They’re right of course, the boring buggers. But that won’t stop folk investing their hope in him and others – and nor should it. There’s no greater joy for a supporter than to follow a youngster’s rise through club ranks to genuine first team contender. They’re given way more slack than others and showered with far more praise. It’s beautiful, organic and pure, and coated in generous hyperbole.
A youth team find is like a blank canvas. We’ve not got much to go off so we project all our expectations and ideals upon them. A stocky lad with a powerful gait and weak follicles is the next Wayne Rooney. If a player like Cleverley shows a bright mind, neat feet and skilful manipulation of the ball, names as weighty as Scholes, Xavi and Sneijder are hoist upon his young shoulders.
It’s crazy-talk of course but it’s as predictable and understandable as it is nonsensical. Fans aren’t to blame – it’s an ‘if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with’ mentality. Scholes is no more, and he wasn’t replaced with a Modric or Sneijder (skint innit), so the void of expectation is filled by the wonderfully unknown quantity of youth.
As to whether the weight of expectation will somehow crush the beholder of this baseless expectation, it really shouldn’t. The very nature of bigging up a homegrown talent is that a club’s supporters will rate the player far higher than anyone else. As much as United fans rate the likes of de Gea, Smalling, Cleverley, Welbeck, Pogba and Jones (I know they’re not all homegrown, pedankers), the extent of their excitement is not shared by outsiders. It’s not a full-blown wankathon. In any case, if a player can cope with everything that goes with pulling on the red jersey, a few giddy kippers in the stands aren’t going to push him over the edge.
Some recently expressed chagrin and dismay when Phil Jones’ obvious talents were compared to those of the great Duncan Edwards. The fact that commentators as genuine in authority as Tom Clare were tentatively making the comparisons was by-the-by. After all, Duncan Edwards was, is and always will be Old Trafford’s ultimate sacred cow.
But I’d suggest there’s a dock-off element of incongruity in such thinking. The foundation to everything United have come to represent in terms of youth development and nurturing homegrown talent is based upon the Babes and defined by their tragic passing. Part of the reason why their spirit lives on in the ethos of the club is precisely because theirs was potential lost. They will always remain a bunch of incredibly talented young footballers who together could have become anything. They could have gone on to scale the heights of Hungary’s golden team – we’ll never know. That’s the point.
Edwards more than anyone symbolises sublime talent cut short. By all accounts he was already an incredible footballer, but he still remains a largely uncoloured canvas. We still project upon him a future he never had. We assume he’d have been better than Moore because we’re told so. The greatest English footballer of all time modestly admits to have been his lost teammate’s inferior. But would Duncan have achieved anything approaching as much in the game as Sir Bobby? It’s impossible to know.
Without being all Scouse about it, Edwards and the Babes have instilled in us an instinct to place ridiculous hope in youth. It does no real harm and it warms our collective cockles to imagine what a player could go on to achieve. As a side-note, it’s part of the reason why we despair so intensely at the wasteful behavior of a certain member of our current crop. His consistently self-destructive attitude is robbing us all of the trouser-wetting excitement his embryonic genius would normally allow.
I suppose what I’m trying to say using too many words too rubbishly, is that there’s nowt wrong with letting your imagination get the better of you. If supporting Manchester United and watching saccharine Disney schmaltz has taught us anything, it’s that it’s okay to dream.
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