This is the second instalment at our series looking back at the 2007/08 season. This time out we look at United’s games with Manchester City, Tottenham and Sunderland, while controversy raged on about the futures of Gabriel Heinze and Dimitar Berbatov.
It was a similar story in the first Manchester derby of the season. Ferguson opted to play a front three of Giggs, Tevez and Nani, and called up young Frazier Campbell to the bench as an alternative striking option. With Owen Hargreaves surprisingly called up to make his debut alongside Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, United could hardly have hoped for a more controlled and composed midfield. City, under new owner Thaksin Shinawatra, had spent over £40m with the promise of more to come. Rolando Bianchi, Vedran Ćorluka, Elano and Valeri Bojinov all for fees north of £5m.
It, was, ironically, a player who cost them nothing — Geovanni, the midfielder who had scored against United for Benfica to eliminate them at the group stages — who scored the decisive goal in what was being billed as the most expensive derby in history. His 31st minute effort from twenty yards deflected off Vidic and went past Van der Sar. Michael Johnson had hit a wayward shot from a similar distance a minute earlier; before that, City had spent the entire opening half-hour penned back in their own half. United could have scored a couple by that point, with Nani denied on three occasions by Kasper Schmeichel. When Schmeichel was beaten to the ball by Vidic, the ball was cleared from danger by Richard Dunne.
Geovanni was the match-winner but it was Dunne’s defensive partner, Micah Richards, who put in the best performance of his short career so far, a man-of-the-match display filled with blocks and last ditch tackles to give some impression of how City were stretched. Vidic hit the bar with a thunderous header early in the second half and United brought on Campbell who looked as if he might threaten, but it was to no avail. Ferguson had watched his team dominate three games and come away with just two points, their worst start to a Premier League season since the very first back in 1992.
City, on the other hand, celebrated a perfect start with their 1-0 win, leading to some premature suggestions of a power shift. What did have some truth, though, were observations that United had yet to rediscover the cutting edge, and even though they were missing both Ronaldo and Rooney, some journalists believed the problems ran deeper. “United still look like they need another striker, with Sir Alex Ferguson forced to send on untried 19-year-old front man Frazier Campbell in the closing stages,” wrote Daily Star journalist Bill Thornton.
Ferguson didn’t disagree that his team looked as if they lacked the clinical edge but was calm enough to know that it was present at the club, just unavailable to him on the day. “It just wasn’t our day,” he said. “We have been very wasteful in front of goal. That’s the nuts and bolts of it. I don’t think it’s a case of saying City were lucky, simply because we had so many opportunities ourselves. It’s our own fault because of our shortcomings in the last third of the field. You wish you had your main strikers there, of course. But we didn’t have and you saw the evidence of that. With the number of chances and possession we had we should have won.”
Still, there was no getting away from the hugely underwhelming start United had experienced. “We’ve got ourselves in an uphill fight now,” he admitted. “Ten years ago we could have handled that because we were always good in the second half of the season. Now, we are going to have to be! The most important thing is to get a win under our belts, so our next match against Tottenham is a very important game for us.”
Ferguson had been in typical bullish mood, with the type of reaction normally reserved for much later in the season, saying that his team would “definitely win” in their next game against Tottenham. Spurs’ visit to Old Trafford enabled a much closer look at Dimitar Berbatov, a player who had been strongly linked to United through the summer. “I told Dimitar that I love him and he told me that he loves me as well,” Spurs boss Martin Jol said. “He thanked me for bringing him over here and I said I would rather die than sell him. I also told one manager that (inquired about him) that I would rather die than sell Dimitar Berbatov.”
Jol was under pressure after Spurs had lost both of their opening games, at Sunderland and then at home to Everton. A 4-0 win over newly-promoted Derby County had done little to dampen speculation that the Dutch manager was set to be sacked. Rumours of his departure had been present since the back end of the previous season, though Jol appeared to have won himself some time with a turnaround in form in the latter months, and had been backed with funds in the summer — Gareth Bale, of course, went to White Hart Lane as one for the future, whilst Darren Bent at £16.5m, Younès Kaboul at £8m, and Kevin-Prince Boateng at £5.4m were very much for the present.
Before the game, Ferguson voiced his support to his opposite number. “It is no secret that I interviewed Martin Jol for the position as my No2 when Carlos Queiroz left to go to Real Madrid as manager,” he said. “Martin has an outstanding record in Holland where he worked with very meagre resources. He does not need me to tell him what a good job he has done. It has all been very sad and a knee-jerk reaction to Tottenham’s bad start to the season. The chairman has said his full support is behind the manager and I just hope the support is right.”
Ahead of the game, United were linked with a move for Bolton’s Nicolas Anelka, but had apparently been startled when their local rivals quoted a price of £12m. Money wouldn’t have been an issue, as in the midweek, the Gabriel Heinze saga had been resolved. Like a child who is told they’re going to Alton Towers but instead are taken to Disneyland, after being told that United were within their rights to refuse to sell him to Liverpool on the 20th August, by the 23rd, he was being unveiled at Real Madrid alongside Arjen Robben after agreeing terms on an £8.4m deal.
Heinze believed that the controversy over his exit would not affect how he would be remembered. He said: “Manchester United fans are not stupid. They will not forget everything that I did for the club and everything we won together. I am not worried about their reaction. I only did what I felt would bring about a solution that in the end was not to be. I never thought Real would be my final destination.”
Ferguson, for his part, continued to blame Heinze’s agent. “We’re disappointed because he was a great warrior for us. But the role of agents these days – there are different types and some are completely in control of their clients,” said Ferguson. “They do their banking, their investing, their holidays, so they become controlled by them and dependent on them. I don’t think Gabby was getting the right information from his agents. I said hello to Gabby at the tribunal, but obviously it was very difficult because he was with his three barristers, two agents, interpreter and Spanish laywers — I think there were 20 of them. It must have cost a few bob, that. A lot of big egos. I’ve no problem with Gabby.”
Meanwhile, United’s new star Nani was in the press, insisting that he would continue with his spectacular back-flip celebration whenever he scored. “Mr Ferguson has not said anything to me and I will continue to celebrate my goals in my usual way,” he said, before saying he was enjoying his early days in England, thanks in no small part to his friendship with Cristiano Ronaldo. He said: “I thought it would be difficult but I feel I am playing well. He (Ronaldo) is a friend with whom I spend quite a lot of time away from the pitch.”
With United kicking off in the unfamiliar position of 19th, the circumstances surrounding this glamour fixture of English football were not exactly conducive to an open, attacking game of football, but it was nonetheless an absorbing encounter. Berbatov showed just why United were keen to prise him away from Spurs, as he set up a chance in the first minute for Robbie Keane, whose effort smashed against the crossbar. The hosts were stung and Spurs had a good spell of possession before United finally fought back; Tottenham old boy Michael Carrick unleashing a 25 yard shot that was deflected wide.
That was really the best moment for the Reds, as Spurs spurned more chances — Ricardo Rocha headed wide, and then, when Berbatov thought he’d beaten Van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand was there to clear off the line. Shortly afterwards, Berbatov had another chance, but his close range effort was blocked by Wes Brown. Replays suggested that the shot struck Brown on the arm and of course Spurs players were furiously demanding they should have a penalty, but Howard Webb, the referee, waved play on.
Minutes later, Carlos Tevez had a shot of his own cleared off the line. As United regrouped and prepared to attack again, Nani picked the ball up around thirty yards from goal and it seemed as if he would surely lay it off to a team-mate. Instead, though, he held on to the ball, and unleashed a shot of such ferocity it was difficult to comprehend how he had generated such power. The ball took the slightest of deflections from a Spurs player and flew past Paul Robinson into the top corner. Nani duly celebrated in the same way he had with his two pre-season goals, thrilling the crowd again with a back-flip. The 68th minute strike was enough to win the points, but a nervy finish to the game saw Berbatov go excruciatingly close to levelling it up.
“Of course I am bitterly disappointed because we absolutely deserved something from this game — maybe even the win,” insisted Jol afterwards. “We were comfortable throughout, I thought, and we had as many chances as they did. Plus we should definitely have had a penalty — Brown has used his arm and spread himself to block the shot like a keeper and you can’t do that. They scored a marvellous goal but we had chances too, we just needed a bit of luck or a decision to go our way. As for me — I’m not under pressure. The chairman’s backing me and you can see today how the players are desperate to play for this team so there is no problem.”
Sir Alex agreed that it was a tight game but, perhaps inevitably, defended his players. “That was narrow, touch and go, nothing to choose between the two sides,” he said. “They dug in and got forward a bit and there was really nothing in it in the second half. I thought we lacked a little bit of confidence. Players are anxious, there is a lot of expectation here, and what was required was to dig in, show great commitment and we did that. As for the penalty appeals, at the time they protested so much I thought it was a penalty, but Wes said it has hit him on the chest. It does hit him on the chest, I’m sure of that.”