I had a heated discussion with one of my mates last week after he was fuming over Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to play a weakened side against Besiktas. Not known for my Fergie bashing, it was fairly obvious which side of the fence I was going to stand.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for one second claiming the manager always gets it right and never fucks up, because of course we all know that he does.
However, as I’ve got older, and been proved wrong time and again, I try to remain as positive as I can over the manager’s decisions, even when at times they seem bonkers.
The examples of this are far-reaching, ranging from what appears to be the clinically insane (like selling Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis and replacing them with a bunch of unproven kids whilst still suffering the loss of Eric Cantona during his ban) to the fairly baffling (starting Giggs and Fletcher in the centre of our midfield against Chelsea – I know that wouldn’t be odd now, but just a year ago, it certainly was!)
For me, there’s only so many times you can be made to look an idiot before you hold your hands up and surrender. The guy knows more and has a better feeling about football than I could learn in several lifetimes, there’s no shame in that, so let him get on with it.
Of course we can grumble at team selections, of course we can write off players, of course we can pinpoint who we need to sign, because that’s what fans do. But the manager would have to do something far more mental than playing a team of youngsters to bring about my doubt.
Would we be in a better situation now had we played a stronger team against Besiktas? Definitely. We’d probably have confirmed our place on top of the group, our impressive European record would still be in tact, and the youngsters could be given their opportunity against Wolfsburg in a meaningless match. For the club, right now, that would have been the better option. If Ferguson was Chelsea’s manager, the latest stop gap before the next replacement came in, then we would be right to think he’s barmy. Fortunately, we’ve got a manager thinking about the future.
The effect of the youngsters playing in that game can’t be scientifically measured, but I’d argue it will have had an impact on them.
They went on to that field knowing that the better option would be the play a stronger side but that the manager had the faith in them that they could do it. Can you measure what that feeling would do to a teenage lad whose grown up dreaming of playing for United? The manager of Manchester United believes in you and your ability. Wow.
Playing in the Reserves week in week out doesn’t come close to replicating the tempo and atmosphere of a European Cup night. Besiktas wanted to claim the best result in their club’s history and fought hard for it. As if Macheda or Gibson will play against that sort of mentality in Wigan Reserves! The only way you’ll ever be ready for the big games is if you play in them. Fabregas took the piss out of Fletcher in their 1-0 victory over us at Old Trafford in 2006. But who was man of the match when we battered them 4-0 at Old Trafford the following season? Or wiped the floor with them at the Emirates the season after? It is rare for inexperienced players to get it right first time but you need to stick with the belief they will get it right one day, thanks to the experience gained from playing.
I can’t imagine it felt great for those youngsters as they trudged off to the dressing room last week, knowing they had just blown United’s easy qualification and a long-standing record. It was probably a feeling they want to avoid for a very long time and will serve as a permanent reminder to what can happen if you don’t perform as well as you should. A 20-year-old Ryan Giggs and 19-year-old Nicky Butt probably didn’t feel too clever when walking off the field following that 4-0 spanking by Barcelona either, but it didn’t do them any harm. Tasting the pain of defeat does young and ambitious players no harm, in fact, it probably does more good than tasting victory. You can’t get complacent at this club, every game you should be aspiring to win, and every defeat should serve as the greatest incentive to improve.
Still, the manager reacted angrily to criticism the day after the Besiktas defeat, and rightly so.
“Someone wrote, ‘There’s no future for these players, there’s no tomorrow for them’. What an idiot,” he blasted. “I couldn’t believe that. I played six players — two 18-year-olds, a 19-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old — in a European game and you say there’s no future for them. It’s unbelievable. When Beckham, Butt, Scholes and all those lads made their debuts as a group, they were 22 years of age, three years ahead of these players.”
Alan Hansen famously claimed that you’ll never win anything with kids and our lads proved him wrong. But he wasn’t claiming those kids will never grow in to players who are good enough. It is bizarre to look at a teenager and claim he will never be good enough for United. When Cantona was 18-years-old, he was playing in France’s second tier on loan for Martigues (who finished two points away from relegation). Who the fuck is some journalist to say whether an 18-year-old is good enough or not?
If we compare Welbeck and Macheda to the impact of Fergie’s famous fledglings it might give us a clearer picture.
Danny Welbeck, 19-years old, 19 first team appearances, 2nd season. (Beckham 11, Butt 2, Scholes 0)
Federico Macheda, 18-years-old, 10 first team appearances, 2nd season. (Beckham 1, Butt 1, Scholes 0)
They were nobodies when they were Welbeck and Macheda’s age. They weren’t scoring goals which massively influenced the title staying in Manchester like Kiko did. They weren’t playing in every game in a competition that we went on to win, like our youngsters were in the League Cup last season. They certainly weren’t playing in European Cup games for us! But it didn’t stop them go on to be great players. The fact that our youngsters are already doing these things doesn’t set in stone their futures at United, but they certainly can’t be written off because they lose 1-0 in the Champions League group stages!
The emergence of players like Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Cesc Fabregas means the pressure on young players in higher than ever. Suddenly all players are expected to cut the mustard when they’re in their teens, and if not, they’ll never make the grade.
Which brings me full circle to my belief in the manager, who saw something in Darren Fletcher that the majority of the fans didn’t, and the press certainly didn’t. It’s incredible when players break on to the scene as kids, but they are the anomalies, not the players who bloom in their 20’s.
Ahead of our League Cup quarter-final against Spurs, Ferguson revealed who would be playing. “It will be the same players who played on Wednesday [against Besiktas], despite the criticism they got.”
I’m sure the manager was happier than anyone, apart from the player himself, when Darron Gibson put us 1-0 up following a period of pressure from Spurs. Not relieved, because he had faith in these young players, but happy. Content.
It would have been nice if De Laet, Macheda, Obertan or Welbeck grabbed our second, but I was more than happy to see another expert strike from Gibson. Let’s not forget this is a lad who was playing for Ireland against France a couple of weeks ago in their crucial World Cup qualifier and who scored our winning goal on the final day of last season. Will he one day be a first team regular? He’s just turned 22-years-old, who knows, but we certainly shouldn’t claim he definitely won’t make it.
So back to the question being posed by this article, was Ferguson wrong to play the kids in Europe? If we are to be short-sighted and one-dimensional, then yes. We want to finish top of the group and that has been made more difficult by our failure to get a result against Besiktas. However, the long-term effects of Ferguson’s decision could be unimaginably important to the development of these players and the future of our club. And maybe we started to see the beginning of that in our 2-0 victory over a full-strength Spurs side, who will probably finish in the top four this season. Maybe.