Robin Van Persie
Shut up, I’m not crying
Has a striker ever been able to be so calm about taking just so many touches in the box? Has a striker ever been this saucily impressive in his first season?
United fans might argue over the merits of one salt-and-pepper fox, Jose Mourinho, but we’re all agreed about another. Van Persie’s first season at Manchester United went about as well as the [operation yewtree]little boy inside him[/operation yewtree] might have hoped. Having toiled karmically at Arsenal, as punishment for some unknown but obviously grave sin in a previous life, Van Persie was tired of his struggle. There were two obvious options, Manchester City or Manchester United. This was a rare move, where it wasn’t simply about money, but about the tradition of football meaning something to a player. Not content with joining some fairly obvious mercenaries (hello, Samir), or some fairly obvious incompetents (hello. Roberto), he elected, wisely, to trust his peak years to the greatest manager of all time. United were no longer the financial top dogs, and the team was clearly unbalanced, what with there being an absence of matter in the midfield. But it was of no import, as with Van Persie’s consistency and Ferguson’s squad alchemy, United wrapped up the title with as little fuss as could be hoped for.
It might well be his only Premier League title, as Manchester City spend £100 million this summer, and the returned Jesus Christ, Jose Mourinho, is back at Chelsea, but at least he finally has one, and at least United gave City one more bloody nose.
We all know the drill. Manchester United played Sporting Lisbon in a pre-season friendly, and was so impressive that the players convinced Alex Ferguson to sign him on the journey back. This was a summer when fans were more or less assured that Ronaldinho was theirs, ready to join a Kleberson-led samba revolution. It wasn’t to be, but in the long term United did better out of it than any of us could have expected.
Watching his first competitive game against Bolton Wanderers, where he came on as a substitute, was nothing less than thrilling. In just a cameo, he was able to display his ludicrous footwork, his self-belief, and an ability that hasn’t seen before or since in a Manchester United kit. What we didn’t know then was that he had a desire to be the best player of all time which would drag United along in its fallow years, or be a talisman while they collected Premier Leagues as a by-product of their consistent excellence.
Apparently when his dad told him who had put in an offer to sign him, he couldn’t believe it. While few United supporters would have doubted he was fantastic for Spurs in the Premier League, they could have been forgiven for doubting what he might bring as Manchester United aimed to finally do themselves justice in the Champions League. After the heady heights of aiming for a £15 million Alan Shearer in a previous time, Manchester United had picked up a thirty-something Teddy Sheringham.
Like Ronaldo, it might not have been the most auspicious start to a career – he won absolutely nothing in his first year and the chants around the away grounds didn’t let him forget it. He even missed a penalty in his first game for United, against Spurs. However, just like Ronaldo, without him they would not have won the Champions League. All this from a man who lets people call him Teddy.
He is also remarkable in that, unlike everyone else on the list, he is the only player to have left United on his own terms. Keane had his meltdown, Ronaldo put an extra year’s shift in before going to Real Madrid, and Solskjaer had his knees end his career for him. Sheringham, though, turned down United’s contract offer to return to Spurs, who were offering him a longer contract.
If you think that David Gill and Peter Kenyon were a bunch of hapless administrative clowns, letting player after player join clubs despite United having such cash and cachet, be thankful you’re not a Blackburn Rovers fan. And not just because you’d have had to suffer Kenny Dalglish as manager. On a Friday afternoon in summer 1993, Blackburn and Dalglish had agreed a £4 million fee with Nottingham Forest and a contract with Keane. Annoyingly, the paperwork wasn’t quite correct, and the office had been locked up for the weekend – the move was put on hold until Monday morning. Oh, blast!
Cue Alex Ferguson calling up Keane, deciding that potentially the best midfielder of his generation was worth the cost of a bit of overtime*, and getting the necessary work done on the Saturday. It might all have ended in a mildly pathetic, if inevitable, flurry of recrimination between Keane and Ferguson – neither United nor Keane’s body were able to keep up with his own ego. But until then he was second only to his manager as the most important, enduring presence in an era of unprecedented Manchester United success.
*This is not an endorsement of overtime in general, only in football. Real life overtime is never worth the effort, hence the length and quality of this piece.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
If you’re going to support Liverpool but play for Manchester United, there’s only one thing you can do to become a hero.
Murder Michael Owen! No, not that. This.
Alexander is the author of A Diary of Love and Hate – The Premier League Season 2012/13. Follow him on Twitter.