I recall one usually excellent journalist describing him to me, off-mic, as “the poor fluffy-chinned lamb,” whilst Gary Neville blotted his copybook live on TV by alleging that our defenders clearly had no confidence in him. I suspect neither will be repeating their errors anytime soon after such a marvellous display of bravura keeping.
Even before his stellar performance yesterday, a surprising number of Reds were already suggesting last week that he’d be a contender to be our next captain, if the Rooney boil is ever lanced.
To be fair, this judgement partially results from there being so few obvious contenders, such has been the turnover at United. Consider this, the outfield line-up last time we played Everton, just six months ago: Jones, Smalling, Evans, Buttner, Carrick, Fletcher, Nani, Kagawa, Mata, Rooney. Only one of those featured yesterday — Mata — and no one missed any of the rest.
The one player we did miss yesterday was Herrera; you’d like to think we wouldn’t have been clinging on quite so desperately in that final quarter-hour had the lad been on the pitch. But complaints were few at full-time: this had been the kind of banging entertainment of which we had been so starved last season.
There’s a world of difference between the ‘Work In Progress 2014/5’ and its predecessor: you can see what’s growing behind the scaffolding this season, whereas last year all you could make out were mouldy tarpaulins and shoddy-looking joints.
Granted, one of those old shoddy-looking joints did get onto the pitch towards the end, in the lumbering shape of Fellaini, but no one can bring themselves to believe he will be spared the builder’s skip for much longer.
This is a team that seems to be developing shape and purpose, that wants to move the ball quickly, and will grab any opportunity to express its inner artistry: in the tricks ’n’ flicks of Falcao and Di Maria, we see the echoes of Best, Hill, Cantona, and Ronaldo. As The Kids on Facebook say: “like”.
Indeed, you know things must be looking up because we now revert to the old glory days mindset of bemoaning the arrival of the international break next weekend, rather than embracing it in exhaustion.
This, despite the injury crisis: you just can’t help feeling that Falcao and Di Maria are on the cusp of breaking through to the next level of understanding, with goal-floods the tantalising promise on the horizon.
Even at the back, the locus of such recent trauma, the displays of Shaw, Blackett and McNair have heartened us. They’re all just kids, basically, but all seem more composed than their elders Evans, Jones and Smalling have been in recent months.
Don’t be under the impression we’re getting carried away, mind. No one looks ahead to the looming Chelsea and City matches thinking we’re in the box-seat for either. But we are at least enjoying ourselves for 90 minutes, despite the extended spells of coronary threat — and after last season, that feels almost as good as a trophy in the bag.
Remember: without panache, we are bereft.
Before the game, they had wheeled old Fergie and ageing Ji-Sung onto the pitch for some spurious presentation, and it felt like a glimpse into a previous century. ‘Moyes’ United’ never really had the chance to exist; last season was simply Fergie’s outfit with its balls removed. Whereas whatever Van Gaal’s mistakes or deficiencies, you cannot deny one fact: this is now his United.
And already one whispers to oneself: “will he really want to give it up in just three years’ time?” Hmm...”