Captains, Leaders, Winners


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On Saturday 22nd September 2018 Sir Alex Ferguson was given a rapturous reception as he returned to The Theatre of Dreams for the first time since making a remarkable recovery from ill health. It was a heart-warming moment and as our beloved Sir Alex pumped his fists in the air I was hoping nervously for a rip roaring dismantling of the opposition that the great man himself would be proud of. Instead, I witnessed a shameful, one dimensional version of football that left me feeling visceral and crestfallen. After being a goal to the good, another lacklustre performance without any type of swagger and leadership ensued. As usual, David De Gea performed heroics in goal as he was called into action several times during the match. Blessed with innate reflexes and shot stopping ability, it’s easy to see why our agile acrobatic goalkeeper has been the club’s most consistent performer in recent years and regarded as the best in the business. Frequently turning in man of the match performances with his composure and leadership, the Spanish keeper embodies all the qualities associated with being a Manchester United winner and arguably worthy of a place in an all-time Manchester United XI.

Down the years Manchester United have not only entertained supporters with quick flowing counter attacking football, they have also provided the spectacle of brave, industrious leaders whose extravagant displays across the hallow turf of Old Trafford have endeared their loyal and devoted following. Being a Manchester United fan, I have been fortunate enough to witness various inspirational figures rallying those around them and expressing their hunger, desire and appetite for the one thing that matters most – winning trophies! Players such as Sir Bobby Charlton, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson and Nemanja Vidic contributed to the memorable legacy of the club’s history which will live long in the hearts of Manchester United fans everywhere.  

Captaining United comes with great responsibility on and off the pitch, an honourable accolade which bestows upon the captain trust, both from the club and supporters. My current expectations of United as a team of leaders and winners remains unfulfilled and Saturday’s match against Wolverhampton Wanderers was one of many confirmations as to why we lack desire and killer instinct to bury teams convincingly. Since the late nineteenth century approximately 45 players have captained Newton Heath or Manchester United. Up until four years ago, I had many fond memories of exceptionally great captains spanning thirty five years and I would be doing these great servants a disservice if I failed to mention them in this article.

Bryan Robson possessed a great sense of occasion and was often instrumental in big matches. A famous 1984 3-0 UEFA Cup win at home against Maradona’s Barcelona, the 1985 FA Cup semi-final replay with Liverpool and that momentous night in Rotterdam 91, to name a few examples of this assertion. The Captains Club author Simon Wadsworth stated “For anybody who, like me, watched Manchester United through the 1980s, when English football was dominated by Liverpool, there was one compensation – we had Bryan Robson.”  

At the start of the 1985/86 season Robson and United came flying out of the blocks in scintillating form, winning their first ten matches and talks of a first championship since 1967 began to surface. However, an injury plagued Robson notably impinged on United’s title chances as their form dipped rapidly. United finished the season in fourth place as their lack of squad depth and leadership quality proved costly. With the exception of the tenacious Mark Hughes, ‘Captain Marvel’ was the main driving force behind Manchester United during the Ron Atkinson era of the 1980s. This simply wasn’t enough to dislodge Liverpool off the top of English football.

As Robson reached his twilight years as a player, Steve Bruce was viewed by Sir Alex Ferguson as the perfect replacement. Characterised as a courageous, tough, and dependable leader, Steve Bruce fought tooth and nail for the red jersey, even breaking his nose on occasions.  Author Simon Wadsworth wrote “His face pays testament to somebody who was prepared to put his head anywhere if it meant scoring a goal or, more often than not, saving a goal.” Vocal in the dressing room and a great organiser of the defence, Bruce brought into prominence set piece goal scoring abilities and was the club’s penalty taker before Dennis Irwin arrived at the club. Examples of this were the memorable fight back against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in 1993 where he bagged a brace and his remarkable 1990/91 season which saw him bang in nineteen goals, eleven of them being penalties. His determination, enthusiasm and motivational capacity transmitted itself throughout the team and proved a key facet in Manchester United winning their first ever Premier League title in 1993, ending a twenty six year wait. 

The following year, he skippered United to a League and FA Cup double. This team established themselves as an incredible collective force that packed power, skill and pace in abundance which brushed teams aside effortlessly. Players such as Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichael, Paul Ince, Mark Hughes and Dennis Irwin were all leaders in their own right, winning duals all over the pitch and each contributing to the primary task of wanting to win. I have often wondered how this ‘mean machine’ would have fared in Europe if the three foreigner rule didn’t apply. 

Eric Cantona for me was Manchester United’s best ever signing. A shrewd move by Sir Alex Ferguson, which proved to be the final piece of the jigsaw in United’s team as it marked the beginning of Manchester United’s dominance in England’s top flight. Despite much controversy at times during his career, the big Frenchman and United were a match made in heaven. An enigmatic presence, blessed with eloquence, skill and an arrogance that exuded brilliance, the Theatre of Dreams is where Cantona belonged. Revered by Manchester United supporters, Cantona provided the panache and razzmatazz they had been longing for since the days of Best, Law and Charlton. His eye of the needle passes, exquisite touches, important goals and moments of magic made him the ultimate team player.

Upon his return from a somewhat exaggerated FA ban for his infamous kung-fu kick in 1995, Cantona carried on where he left off. Grandiose in his appearance, telling in his performances with a winning arrogance that helped to stave off his adversaries. This was evident during the 1995/96 title winning campaign where on numerous occasions up he stepped, to score and single handedly win matches 1-0.

The following season, Cantona excelled marvellously in his new role of club captain after Steve Bruce and Manchester United parted company. Feeling valued, Cantona took the young, raw and talented Class of 92 under his wing and accompanied them on their footballing journey of personal growth and development. Collars up, Cantona thrived on this admiration as he led United to the title in 1997, just days before Cantona announced his shock retirement. During his time with United, Cantona facilitated a team of winners on the football pitch. With the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Butt, Giggs and the Neville brothers wanting to emulate the attitude and application of the majestic Eric Cantona, it’s no surprise that they carried on their winning mentality and professional approach throughout their footballing careers. 

Whilst at United, Cantona collected four titles in five years. If it wasn’t for his moment of red mist it might have been five championships in five seasons, possibly six in six years if you include his 1992 league title with Leeds United. Football fans up and down the country often remark about the best foreign footballer ever to grace the Premier League and Ronaldo, Henry, Bergkamp and Aguero are usually mentioned, which I fully understand. However, with his trophy haul and unique stamp on English football, I can’t quite comprehend how Eric Cantona isn’t talked about in the same breath as the aforementioned.

After the sudden retirement of Eric Cantona, who better than Roy Keane to take on the captain’s mantle. A dominant, aggressive and fierce competitive midfielder, the lad from Cork was known for his non-stop box-to-box energy, tough tackling and ball winning attributes. Metaphorically speaking, his locker was filled with tenacity, quick tempo passes, stamina and his ability to push the team forward when needed. Admired by most for his leadership and influential presence, ‘Keano’ also set impeccable standards that others dare not follow. Keane’s temper often frightened those in close proximity and such was his will to win, he never thought twice about dishing out a rollicking when he felt it was necessary and this applied to team-mates as well as opponents – just ask Patrick Vieira. 

Professionalism, commitment and honesty were important footballing values for Keane, ones that matched those of Sir Alex Ferguson. Keane’s outlook revolved around putting the team first and a defining feature of this was in Turin against Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi-final where a late lunge on Zinedine Zidane after a wayward pass from Jesper Blomquist earned him a yellow card resulting in a cup final suspension. A booking for Paul Scholes in the same match put him out of the final too but such was the selflessness attitude of both players, it did not deter their willingness to see Manchester United through to the final. Essential factors including Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole’s lethal strike force and United’s never say die attitude were key components for success during a phenomenal 1998/99 Treble winning season. 
  
Following Keane’s departure, it was refreshing to see a home grown player in Gary Neville leading United out on match days. The experienced and ever dependable Fergie Fledgling, regarded as United’s greatest ever right-back, was an obvious choice to sport the captain’s armband. His powerful celebrations after Rio Ferdinand’s last minute winner against Liverpool at Old Trafford in 2006 epitomised what a true Mancunian was all about. In my lifetime I can’t think of another player more proud to wear the famous red shirt of United. Although Neville wasn’t the quickest fullback and probably not the most gifted technically, his reliability and reading of the game were second to none. Gary Neville’s leadership, work ethic and integrity can never be questioned and therefore earned him a place in Manchester United folklore.

After a shaky start to his Manchester United career, Nemanja Vidic found his feet at United. It was no surprise that the Serbian International grabbed the captain’s armband with both hands and began to repay Sir Alex Ferguson’s faith in him. It was evident that ‘Vida’ possessed the ability, temperament and desire that matched Sir Alex’s captain’s criteria. A fearsome presence, relentless in his efforts in keeping things tight at the back. Together with the elegant and classy Rio Ferdinand, they formed a formidable partnership that Sir Alex Ferguson described as ‘tough to beat’. Rio played with his head and Vidic with his heart. Together they led United to a record breaking title in 2011 followed by our last championship two years later. Let’s not forget Carlos Tevez a fighter on the pitch with fire in his belly and of course Cristiano Ronaldo, a match winning genius who always demanded the ball.  With players of that ilk, the European Cup was always on the horizon.

With Sir Alex Ferguson in charge of Manchester United, Wayne Rooney’s precocious footballing displays as a teenager meant it was a matter of time before United captured his signature. After a stunning debut hat-trick against Fenerbahce, Old Trafford witnessed the making of a player destined to win football's elite prizes. I’m not a big fan of a striker captaining a team and I must admit, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic towards ‘Wazza’ as a United captain. I tend to reminisce more about his earlier years where his vibrancy, hunger, energy, prolific goal scoring, passing, work rate, team work and bad temper had me on the edge of my seat at Old Trafford.  An aggressive, physical presence with the ability to hunt down defenders, Rooney played a huge role in Manchester United’s trophy laden years and banging in 250 goals made him the club’s all-time leading goal scorer. A true winner! 


The post Roy Keane era saw Michael Carrick, one of the Premier League’s most decorated footballers play a fundamental role in the heart of Manchester United’s midfield. United’s only summer signing in 2006, Carrick provided the missing link needed to bring back the Championship which had eluded them for four seasons. Carrick’s not your usual robust, box-to-box or physical type midfielder. Nevertheless his exceptional reading of the game and superior distribution of the ball were up there with the great midfielders of his generation. Pep Guardiola said “I am a big fan of Michael Carrick. He’s one of the best holding midfielders I’ve ever seen in my life”. I say no more.

With Antonio Valencia being United’s longest serving player, announcing him as the next captain seemed to be a more conventional decision by Jose Mourinho and understandably so. Victorious in his duals, the battling Ecuadorian’s athleticism and aggressive style of play have made him a favourite among the fans.

The captain’s role seems to have changed somewhat over recent years with the more traditional, vocal leader being replaced by one who leads by example through their playing abilities and for me, Valencia and De Gea are both fine examples of this. These two aside, I struggle to pick out any bonafide contenders that could effectively lead our current crop of talented players to the next level. Jose showed great faith in Academy product and World Cup winning sensation Paul Pogba by handing him the captain’s armband in the hope of the player spearheading United forward in their quest for trophies. However, the ‘adopted Manc’ as he once described himself looks a shadow of the player who shone brightly at this year’s World Cup. His hit and miss performances have lacked the consistency and reliability associated with being a Red Devil. His second half display in a superb 3-2 come-back against Man City last season and a masterclass against Young Boys in the Champions League are mere templates in performance that I expect from the big Frenchman.

In the past I have expressed my hopes for Mourinho to combine his pragmatic style of football with a more expansive approach. With Pogba coming up through the youth ranks and understanding the culture of the club, I can appreciate his frustrations regarding Jose's brand of football. I do not know the full extent of everyday developments at the club’s training ground and there are two sides to a story. However, openly undermining the manager, who brought him back to the club and promoted him to captain duty isn’t the manner in which a Manchester United captain should behave.
    
I am mindful not to displace my frustrations for United’s limited number of leadership personnel onto Paul Pogba. I do agree with Jose Mourinho’s previous statement that United lack the personality, leadership and character required to be worthy champions again. I mean, what good is an army without a Commanding Officer. Losing the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Rooney, Van Persie and a title winning backbone of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra, it’s no coincidence that Manchester United Football Club have fallen down the pecking order of success. At present, the manager does not have the battle axes he’d like at his disposal, namely a bad loser or two with quality who can bully opponents and act as infectious to his team-mates. Players who can accept challenges, demonstrate their capabilities and prove themselves as winners and leaders on the football pitch is what Manchester United must strive for.  



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