It was interesting to see Roberto Mancini claim that United’s 15 point lead was down to being “lucky”.
“Until now, United have been really lucky with everything, they have won a lot of games in the last minute – like against us when they really didn’t deserve to win,” Mancini told reporters.
Of course, the irony isn’t lost on us, with City winning the league on goal difference following two late goals against QPR. We’ll assume Mancini doesn’t want to write off that title win as good fortune.
Still, Mancini’s comments took me by surprise because it’s probably been a few years since rivals claimed that Manchester United are simply “lucky”. Back in the 90’s you’d hear it a lot, after yet another injury time win, that the reason why we were successful had a lot to do with good fortune. As United continued to win games and trophies thanks to late goals people realised how ridiculous it was to claim that it was just down to good luck. We have scored 80 injury time goals in the Premier League era, over 5% of our total, which is an extraordinary amount when you consider what a tiny proportion of a game injury time is. Of course, all great teams rely on luck at times, situations have to work in your favour, but there’s got to be more to it than that. You can’t keep winning for this length of time just because you’re lucky.
United won their first trophy with Ferguson in 1990. Almost 23 years have gone by since then and we’ve not gone longer than one year without winning something (and I’m talking about proper silverware and not including the Charity Shield in that, as Roberto Mancini and Gael Clichy would). Some might point to the money we’ve spent, but as we showed on RoM recently, the money we spent was usually comparable with teams around us and we never blew others out of the water like Chelsea and City have done, yet we’re nearly always the team to beat.
When you look at what United have had consistently throughout Ferguson’s glory days, and it’s not a bag of a magic fairy dust to make us “lucky” whenever we require, the answer for our success, but more importantly, our sustained success, is clear. Manchester United players have a winning mentality which is instilled in them by the manager. What makes that winning mentality all the more powerful is that throughout Ferguson’s time at the club we have always had a core group of players who have made their way up through the youth team ranks, so have been surrounded by that mentality since they were children.
There was the likes of Giggs, the Nevilles, Butt, Scholes and Beckham in the 90s. Some left, some remained, but then the likes of Brown, O’Shea and then Fletcher made their way through. Some left, some remained, and now we have the likes of Evans, Cleverley and Welbeck. From one generation to the next, these players grow up idolising the winners in the team that came before them and then pass that down to the next batch. A 19-year-old Wes Brown was an unused sub in the European Cup final in 1999, then nine years later he was in the starting team for the 2008 final, assisting our only goal, having played more games for United than anyone else that season.
After Michael Owen scored a last minute winner against Manchester City in 2009, Gary Neville sprinted down the touchline towards the City fans going absolutely mental.
“That’s why United are where they are,” said Harry Redknapp afterwards. “They are a team and they are all together. Gary Neville has won everything there is to win but you look at the excitement he showed at his team winning, when he wasn’t even in the team. He wasn’t sitting on the bench with his arms folded. He was jumping higher than Fergie. When we played United at White Hart Lane the week before, my coaches, Tim Sherwood and Les Ferdinand, were in the stands along with the United boys who weren’t subs. They were jumping up and down at every decision and again when they scored their goals. That winning mentality goes right through the club. Gibson and all the other boys wanted to play but they also have those feelings that they showed. There are not many clubs where you get that. It’s something you’d like to develop. It’s hard to change some people but that’s what makes winning teams. I thought it was amazing to see Neville’s feelings show and the joy he had at winning.”
In every team Ferguson has turned in to title winners we have always had at least a couple of players who absolutely love the club. Players who have grown up supporting United and have always dreamed of being in our first team.
“I’m a Manchester lad and would love to play for United for the rest of my career,” Wes Brown said in 2001. He repeated these sentiments again in 2008: “To be part of a team I have supported all my life is a great honour.”
“I am a big Manchester United fan and have been all my life,” said Evans in 2009. “All my family are huge United fans. My dad hasn’t missed a game for five years at Old Trafford. He wouldn’t even miss a United match to come and watch me play at Sunderland. So it has always been a dream to play at Manchester United.”
“I have been a Manchester United fan all my life and fulfilled every dream I’ve ever had,” Neville said upon his retirement in 2011. “I am looking forward to new experiences and the club will always be a part of my life going forward however the most important thing now is for the club to continue with the success that is synonymous with Manchester United and I will be supporting them all the way, as a fan.”
Danny Welbeck, who scored our only goal at the Bernabeu a couple of weeks ago, recently reflected on watching United in the European Cup final in 1999, when he was just 8-years-old. “I was in the front room watching with my family,” he said. “The celebrations were mental. I think the whole street went wild!”
Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have all come and gone as title rivals but United have remained. We’ve had dyed in the wool United fans in every team that has overturned the challenges of other clubs. Not just fans though, but fans that know the importance of winning and understand fully that success is what is expected from them.
We start today 15 points clear of Manchester City and if Chelsea beat them it will stay that way, with just a point separating those two. How has this happened? There was only goal difference separating us last year and we spent the season crippled by injuries, whilst they were largely unscathed, but how have they gone from champions to scrabbling about with Chelsea, who, despite being champions of Europe, have been poor under Rafa Benitez?
“A player of this quality could be one of the best players in Europe. But it’s not happening,” Mancini said of Samir Nasri in an interview with The Guardian this week. “Sometimes a player thinks it’s enough what they did the year before and doesn’t understand that every day they should improve. If you are a top player you know you can improve until the last day of your career but sometimes you get players who think it is not important to work and this is their worst mistake. Samir can do better than this year. He is a top player but he has not been playing at his level.”
Is this the difference between United and City this year? Only goal difference separated us a few months ago and then they spent more than us in the transfer window. But rather than ability or quality of squads, is the deciding factor our mental superiority?
Whilst I think Mancini deserves some credit for being honest, instead of defending all his players regardless like Arsene Wenger usually does, it surprises me that he is so forthcoming about the attitude of Nasri and possibly others in his squad. If Nasri believes he’s made it because he played a bit part role in City’s title win, why hasn’t Mancini addressed this? At United, our own players would sort out this kind of attitude, but if City don’t yet have players who care enough/are capable of getting their team mates in line, then it is Mancini’s job to do so. To admit he has players that think they’ve made it and don’t need to improve because they’ve won just one league title is for him to admit he hasn’t done a good enough job coaching them.
In his autobiography, Roy Keane spoke of a similar attitude at United following us winning the Treble in 1999. Granted, we were the first (and still only) English team to win all three major trophies in one season, which is very different to just winning the league as City did last season, but it still effected the mentality of some of our players. It angered our captain to see some of our players walking around as if they never needed to win a game again because they’d achieved it all. But the season after we won the Treble we still won the league by 18 points, won the Intercontinental Cup and were knocked out of the European Cup by eventual winners Real Madrid. If there were some players who weren’t up for the fight that season, we had enough who were, and we still went on to have a successful season.
It reminds me of something Darren Fletcher said about the reaction of our players to winning the European Cup in 2008 after beating Chelsea on penalties. Ryan Giggs, who broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s record for Manchester United appearances and scored our winning penalty that night, huddled the players together on the pitch.
“He said, ‘Lads, this is what it’s all about — let’s have it next year as well’, and we were looking at this trophy, which hadn’t even been presented to us, and there was Ryan already talking about next year,” said Fletcher. “It brought home to me what this club is about. Later, we were sitting in the dressing room and there were so many players already talking about winning it again. Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand marching around telling everybody, ‘I like this feeling, let’s keep it going’. That is why the club gets stronger and stronger. We always think we can achieve more.”
Next year they were in the final again, losing 2-0 to one of the best club sides in the history of the game, and Giggs had been laying the foundations for that game in the mind of his team mates a whole year earlier. Having a manager who is as good as Ferguson obviously helps set you apart from the rest, but it’s not just about him, it’s about how our players react to his influence. They help educate those younger than themselves, teach them what it means to be a United player and how to be a winner, and in turn, they grow up and do the same for the next generation.
We also have the most loyal players in Europe, with our players staying longer than players at any other club, meaning we have the opportunity to strengthen the winning mentality. In contrast, Micah Richards, who Oldham have a sell on clause for after a deal was agreed to allow him to join the blues, is City’s longest serving player, having joined the youth team in 2005, followed by Joe Hart who they bought from Shrewsbury Town in 2006. After them, Kompany and Zabeleta, who have both been at the club for just four full seasons, have been at the club the longest. Their players came when the money came, meaning Richards is their only player who has been playing for the first team for at least five seasons. It’s a far cry from United’s current set up. City just haven’t had the time to establish that yet but there are question marks over whether they ever will. As we have seen at Chelsea, the clubs who outspend others by ridiculous amounts tend to have a revolving door when it comes to transfers, so it will be harder for City to ever recreate the stability United has.
It would be ridiculous to expect Mancini to develop the winning mentality Ferguson has had almost 30 years to develop in just a few seasons, (although you think that with the money they spent they’d manage to be in a more respectable position than 15 points behind after winning the league last season) but City’s decline this season shows just how important it is to have players of the right mentality. Can you imagine Ferguson worrying about our players feeling as though they didn’t need to improve anymore? If there were any that fell in to that category, they would be shipped off sharpish.
During the most recent International break, Joe Hart spoke about the relationship between United and City players in the England camp. He said that they could all have a laugh together, but that Welbeck was the worst to give stick to, as “he is a mad, mad, mad Manchester United fan.” Our mad, mad, mad United fan, who grew up just four miles away from Old Trafford, scored our only goal at the Bernabeu a couple of weeks ago, showing our next crop of youngsters what is within their capabilities to achieve. When was the last time City had a “mad, mad City fan” in their starting team? Come to think of it, when was the last time they even had a Manc turning out for them on a regular basis, or even someone from the North West?
After last season, there’s no way I’ll start crowing about the title being in the bag until Nemanja Vidic is lifting the trophy above his head, but it’s hard to ignore that a contributing factor to United always being at the top or there abouts is the fact our first team squad always contains youth team products (going back to every single match day squad since 1937!) and our players are well accustomed to and hungry for success. It doesn’t guarantee you a trophy every year, but it does mean you never go longer than one year without winning something and you finish in the top 3 every season for over twenty years.
To finish, I’ll leave you with some words from Gary Neville which were in The Observer in 2010: “The idea was that you’ve never made it. With a young player sometimes you hear people saying: ‘He’s made it.’ Our idea was that you’ve never made it. You can perform well here and still be out if you don’t fit the plan. There are no passengers, it’s a conveyor belt, and if you’re not contributing to the success of the club in some way you won’t be here much longer.”
Our players are all too familiar with this lesson and that is why every season they strive to be the best. Whether it’s down to Mancini or the more experienced players at City, someone should be telling Nasri and co. that just winning one Premier League medal is barely scratching the surface. Thankfully, with that 20th title calling out to us, City are years behind when it comes to sustaining success, and long may that continue!