There is no right or wrong way to support your football club. It’s a deeply personal journey for us all. Yet every club has certain characteristics to which those that love them can all relate. Manchester United is no different.
If every United fan was asked to pick a defining image, a single moment in time, one that summed up what the club meant to them, the images would fill volumes.
Eric Cantona’s regal celebration, shoulders back, head held high, surveying his kingdom, immediately springs to mind. Roy Keane’s terrifying snarl, veins pumping, eyes wide and wild, every sinew strained, too. Or
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s beaming face as he slid on his knees in ’99.
Many of the images that define the Sir Alex Ferguson era were provided by the many wonderful wingers that played under him, however. Indeed, great wingers – for which United have always been famed – came to define Ferguson’s quarter of a century at the club. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Ryan Giggs was a constant presence during Ferguson’s twenty year period of success.
Giggs was a child when Ferguson first laid eyes on him and, unlike Lee Sharpe, who came just before him and was every bit as talented, put everything he had into making the most of his rare gift.
For those such as me, watching from the sidelines all these years, there remains no more stunning and inspiring sight in the world of football than Giggs, in his prime, in full flow. That goal against Arsenal in the ’99 FA Cup semi-final was a moment of footballing perfection, yet it was also just what Giggs did, with varying levels of success, week in, week out. He pushed boundaries, took risks, lived dangerously, and made your heart pump and your soul sing.
And Giggs was just one of many. Remember Andrei Kanchelskis? A sensational player that had the perfect blend of raw power, sublime close control and exceptional football intelligence. Oh, and his near-post finishing will never be bettered.
David Beckham also demands a mention, though he was never a conventional winger. What he lacked in speed and dribbling technique, however, he compensated for in abundance in energy, delivery and technique. Probably the finest crosser of a ball I’ve ever seen, he redefined what it meant to be a winger. With him on the pitch, you always felt there was a chance.
Cristiano Ronaldo was, perhaps, the last great winger of the Ferguson era and, aside from Giggs, probably the closest United have ever come to replicating the greatest of them all – George Best. And there’s no higher compliment than that.
I was there for both Giggs and Ronaldo’s debuts and recall experiencing similar feelings on both occasions. You just knew they had the potential to be truly great. And they both fulfilled that promise.
Since Ronaldo left, however, there has been a dearth of talent on United’s wings. Antonio Valencia did okay for a time but was never of the required standard, while Ashley Young, though a likeable chap, as a left winger is incomparable to Giggs, whom he was bought to replace. As for Angel Di Maria and Wilfried Zaha, the less said the better.
Adnan Januzaj excelled in that first, breakthrough season under David Moyes, but now finds himself languishing in a relegation battle with Sunderland, having gone off the rails for one reason or another. Perhaps he will shine again in United red, but he is fast running out of time.
And now Memphis Depay, the last great hope to turn up on United’s flanks, is gone.
Thus, this great club, so long associated with sensational wingers, finds itself relying on the likes of Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata to provide the width and invention for which it is so famous. All three are excellent players, but none of them are natural wide men. Martial did well on the left last term but has struggled under Jose Mourinho, while Rashford often seems lost on the flanks. As for Mata, he simply lacks the pace required for the role, often succumbing to his natural inclination to drift into more central areas, where he is much more effective.
Only Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jesse Lingard seem a natural fit out wide. Mkhitaryan has quickly established himself as a fan favourite. Quick, direct and sublimely skilful, he can cause panic in opposition ranks. It is, however, his first season in English football and he has struggled, at times, to impose himself, while Lingard is inconsistent and probably a squad-player at best.
Perhaps I’m being old-fashioned. Perhaps this is the modern way and traditional wingers simply no longer exist. Still, I can’t help but pine for days gone by, when the electric rush of expectation would sweep through the Old Trafford stands whenever United’s wide men picked up the ball and set off like a line-hugging missile, twisting opponents’ blood, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
Great wing-play was always a hallmark of the great United teams and, perhaps, one day will be again. For now, though, we’ll just have to rely on our memories.