No doubt as to what was the dominant angry shout of the past week: “That was never a pen!” (Well, leaving aside Neymar’s dad yelling at King Eric.) Whether the howl emanated from all of Paris — and, admittedly, much of the watching world — on Wednesday, or all of the Manchester end at the Emirates last night, the result was the same: Matches cruelly decided on the wisp of a refereeing whim.
Whingeing about refs and pens is both the oldest and most boring of all football fan behaviours, so let’s just agree that United deserved their technically correct though iffy-looking penalty in Paris, while Arsenal’s spot-kick was a revolting outrage against humanity, and we can move on.
That’s the great thing about having a column; my decision is final, and I also find that — hey! — I’m always right too. Well, almost always; I admit I never felt the Paris victory coming, which of course made it all the sweeter. Whereas I think a few tired Reds suspected yesterday was going to be a bit of a hangover job for all concerned. And so it proved to be; almost a classic ‘just back from Europe’ game of the sort we used to know under Fergie.
But what a strange match. United were dramatically more wasteful upfront than they have been in months, and there was an all-round sloppiness and lack of zest more reminiscent of the José days than the glorious Ole era. Even so, United easily did enough to win the game, and one is left ruefully reflecting on what might’ve been, had either of the first-half woodworked shots gone in.
Poor old Fred was back to his usual substandard, and also had one of the worst footballer minutes of the season, messing up at one end and then the other, all of which adds to the suspicion of some that his performance in Paris was a fluke. But even the hitherto superb Lindelof looked out of sorts, while Princes’ hero Rashford racked up wrong decisions and disappointments.
Yet in a sign of how the mood has changed, few Reds afterwards were complaining as loudly as they would have been had Mourinho’s team put in that underpowered display. Ole’s built up several weeks’ worth of credit, and everyone concerned will be desperate to keep giving his regime every benefit of the doubt until May.
Defeat has slightly complicated our ‘mini-league’ task as we fight for two spots with Spurs, Arsenal, and Chelsea, although the way bottling Spurs are plummeting under Potless Poch, you could be forgiven for thinking we might yet be on Easy Street come mid-April.
One euphoric home and away colleague, still possibly slightly inebriated after returning from Paris, has just assured me none of this matters because Ole is going to be lifting the European Cup in May, thus obviating the need for a top-four finish. I did chuckle when he told me this, but you will recall Chelsea winning the tourney from a far more improbable position this decade. Why shouldn’t we dream a little? After six years of nightmares, aren’t we due?
Back to more prosaic circumstances and slightly less elevated competitions viz. Molineux in the FA Cup next weekend. It’s clear to all this will be an awkward tie at a ground that can still whip up an atmosphere and where the locals will have the long-lost whiff of Wembley in their nostrils.
Back in the early 1970s, Wolves were a very good example of something now lost to the game: Medium-sized provincial clubs who could give anyone a stern test and who felt entitled to tilt at trophies. They reached a couple of Wembley showpieces and even a European final that decade; and in Dougan and Richards, they had charismatic players any ‘big club’ would covet. (They also bred Alan Sunderland, who later broke every Red’s heart.)
Older heads will wistfully recall one of the greatest United Cup matches of all time there back in 1976, also at the quarter-final stage. Just as now, United as a club were in full ‘rising phoenix’ mode, newly promoted and yet racing towards a possible double. The Red Army mounted one of their ludicrously overpowering away day invasions, and no one who was there will ever forget the pandemonium that greeted Supersam’s extra-time winner in the 3-2 victory.
Rashford’s winner in Paris on Wednesday was, I suppose, potentially just such a moment for this generation. Because this is the stuff that supporting United is supposed to be about; it’s not the trophies — it’s the glory. Ole gets it; so Give It Ole.