May I be the amongst the first to prematurely wish you a happy New Year? All the happier for United’s win at Burnley on Saturday night, of course, which left us occupying the dizzying heights of fifth place.
Let’s hope such a lofty position doesn’t give poor fragile Paul Pogba a nosebleed, lest he need three more matches off to recover. His omission from Saturday’s team, which readers of this column may recall was suspiciously foreshadowed here on Friday, caused us many a bitter chuckle. Or rather, Ole’s laughable public reasons did; He sounded like a teacher excusing an errant pet pupil by inventing a homework-eating dog on his behalf.
Fortunately, the rest of the team were made of sterner stuff than the supposedly delicate Parisian puff-pastry, and were competent bordering on the mildly impressive at Turf Moor. Admittedly, the thuggish opposition were terrible, and it’s usually been a very happy hunting ground for United, but still; Watford is too fresh in the mind to be taking such evenings for granted. That 2019 rarity, a clean sheet, completed the class worksheet: B-plus, silver star.
So the year and decade end on a slightly more elevated note than expected. United have ‘only’ lost the same number of league games this season as City, which is not something you’d have predicted back in August. We are one step away from a Wembley cup final; we are still in Europe, with a favourable draw; and a Champions League place is no longer out of the question.
Given that this autumn has seen us at waving distance from the relegation zone, and has regularly resounded to questions about Ole’s future, you might even be excused for feeling quite chipper.
So what if ‘best player’ Pogba might leave? So what if Haaland hasn’t come? So what if we decide to risk waiting for Eriksen to come for free? Perhaps this hitherto underperforming, commitment-doubted, mediocrely-coached bunch of players and primadonnas is turning the corner?
Gah. I almost made it to 2020 without invoking the Turned Corner again but it’s no use. Waiting for that corner has ended up as the theme of the decade, never mind the year. Who would have thought, as reigning champions back on New Year’s Eve 2009, that this would turn into the most rambunctious decade since the 1970s, at least in terms of leadership traumas?
United had five different managers between both 1971-1977 and 2013-2018; and in both decades, we’ve had to labour under the heel of neighbours City as a result.
My childhood diary entry for New Year’s Eve 1979 is full of abusive remarks about Dave Sexton, and wistful observations about Debbie Harry. I was being a tad harsh on the former; he was about to deliver his best five months in the job, and thus kickstart the 1980s in style — or, at least, as close to ‘style’ as Deadly Dave ever got, anyway.
Which in turn reminds us; say one thing for Ole — he does at least appear to have an intellectual and spiritual commitment to getting United to play in the right manner. Mourinho, Van Gaal and Moyes never really convinced anyone that they had a playing vision to suit our perennial demands.
People are prepared to give Ole the benefit of the doubt because they think he ‘gets it’ — even though many will quietly admit they still doubt his capacities to get there. There have been rare moments, watching United’s young front three or four getting their act together and zestily bombing on, when you can see what might yet be. Hey; just as the early ’80s ended up being a thrillfest for United, perhaps we’re in for a new Roaring Twenties?
Unfortunately, just like the ’80s, we may also have to get used to facing a massive Liverpool-shaped impediment.
Sigh. On reflection, I think I preferred the 1990s. See you here again in 2020 to dissect the Arsenal and Wolves matches, and let us all meanwhile hope Paul Pogba manages to change his calendar without suffering a selection-threatening papercut.