The following is an excerpt from a draft manuscript from author Wayne Barton on the 2007/8 season.
In this chapter, we are in early February, 2008.
It was another two weeks until the 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster, and as the Gods would have it, the club’s opponents closest to the date were Manchester City on the 10th February. And even though United still had to face Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur, the anniversary had been dominating headlines for weeks. The Premier League had given permission for both clubs to wear plain kits, without sponsors or crests (though City chose to have their badge), and numbered 1-11 (though City, again, decided to use their usual squad numbers).
In the build up to the Portsmouth game, United were urged by Kevin Parker — chairman of the City supporter’s club — to abandon their plans for a minute’s silence. In September 2005, City fans had interrupted a minute’s silence for in respect of late United player Noel Cantwell, and it had been reported that in recent away games, City fans had been chanting “We’re all going to the golden jubilee” in reference to the disaster. City manager Sven Goran Eriksson and captain Richard Dunne had been forced to go to the lengths of putting their signatures on a letter begging their supporters to behave but Parker felt it was an unfair responsibility to ask their fans not to ruin a silence dedicated to the people who died — including former City goalkeeper Frank Swift. “We have to accept that while there is some friendly rivalry between supporters there is also a good deal of hatred,” he said to the Daily Star. “There will be some City fans not wanting to go along with the recognition of the disaster. United seem insistent on having a minute’s silence but we think it is completely the wrong thing and we can’t understand why they are digging in their heels.” Parker also said that he was ‘surprised’ the Cantwell silence lasted as long as 35 seconds before being interrupted.
However, David Gill insisted that the club would proceed with its current plans; after George Best passed away in November 2005, he had been remembered with a minute’s applause, but Gill said on this occasion it was not appropriate. “On the day of the City game we have various elements planned and we will have a minute’s silence,” Gill said. “We believe quite firmly that this is a tragedy and, though we understand the modern move to applaud, like we did for George Best, we believe it is not appropriate in this particular circumstance. We believe it should be a minute’s silence. We have discussed this and other aspects with City and we hope and believe that all supporters – including the 3,000 City fans – will respect that and act appropriately.”
Mark Longden, a spokesman for the Manchester United Independent Supporters’ Association, agreed: “I haven’t spoken to a single United fan who thinks a minute’s applause is appropriate. I feel sure the vast majority of City fans will want to respect the Munich tribute but it only takes one idiot to ruin everything. I urge people to respect the minute’s silence. And if somebody does make a fool of themselves, I also urge United fans not to react.”
Before that, though, the potentially difficult task of Portsmouth awaited. Boosted by the news Harry Redknapp would continue as manager (after he’d previously walked out on the Fratton Park club to manage their most hated rivals Southampton), Pompey had ambitions of playing European football, and with Chelsea their opponents after visiting Old Trafford, Redknapp was looking for positive results to prove his team’s credentials. “We need to be at our best for Old Trafford,” he said. “They are scary on their day. They can rip you to pieces, so we have to make sure we are difficult to beat. It’s a nice easy week with United and Chelsea, but I’m looking forward to that. It is better playing those teams in the position we are in now. When I came back here a couple of years ago and we were sitting bottom of the league, it was no fun.”
United’s stars weren’t taking the game for granted. “In the end, the team who holds their nerve the best will win the title,” said Ryan Giggs, who had been in this position many times. “It also comes down to the team who can best handle the amount of games they have left to play. Around the end of the season, there are so many games. The team that can best cope with all of those competitions and use their squad best will be the one that comes out on top. We know that the teams in contention are more than capable of going on a ten or eleven game unbeaten run. The team who can do that, particularly at this stage with games running out, will have a great chance of winning the title.”
Michael Carrick felt it could be a crucial few days, with United due to visit Spurs at the weekend. “Weeks like this can define a season,” said the midfielder. “If we can get the three wins we’re aiming for, then we’ll be in good shape.” Conditioning was important, and whilst Carrick and his midfield colleagues could benefit from the chopping and changing which should theoretically be ensuring their freshness, it was a different case for Carlos Tevez, who had had to carry the can for most of the winter with those injuries to Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha. “I’m just playing at 70 to 80 per cent of my capabilities,” Tevez told Argentinian journalists. “I’m finishing matches very tired and struggling a great deal to recover. In the final 25 minutes of games I feel like I’m dying. My energy flags.”
Thankfully for the former West Ham player, his manager must have been listening, and named him on the bench for the Portsmouth game; and thankfully for United, by the time he was brought on in the 73rd minute, this game was wrapped up and another goal was not necessary. It seemed as if Tevez’s personal feelings were shared by the rest of the team, who, after being forced to wait until the latter stages of many recent games to secure victories, quite fancied the idea of putting a game to bed early on and conserving their energy. In the tenth minute, Paul Scholes — back in for his first start — flicked the ball to Ronaldo, who chested it back to Nani and then spun to race for the return pass, which had been floated over the Portsmouth defence. Former Arsenal defender Sol Campbell raised a hopeful hand for offside but it was nowhere near, and neither was Campbell for that matter, as Ronaldo composed himself and finished smartly from the angle. It was number 26 for the season for the winger and number 27 followed shortly after.
Ronaldo looked to play another one-two, this time with Rooney, though his chances of getting on the end of the return pass were slim as it was slightly over-hit. However, Campbell had blocked his run anyway, and the referee awarded a free-kick. If you’re a Manchester United supporter reading this (and chances are, you probably are) then you probably don’t need me to tell you what happened next. With the kick being situated just right of centre, it was the ideal place for Ryan Giggs to take it; only one problem, Giggs wasn’t playing, and Patrice Evra, the only other natural left-footer, was never going to pull rank over Ronaldo. Ji-Sung Park and Michael Carrick got on the end of the wall towards David James’ right, and the common consensus was that he would smash it across goal — Ronaldo, however, as he was often doing, defied expectations. Some goals, when witnessed live, possess a certain sort of magic. And there was certainly an element of that for this goal, as Old Trafford seemed to quieten in respect and awe before erupting in celebration. Yet this Ronaldo free-kick, scored as it was in the near top corner, was the sort of goal which improved on each viewing and each different replay angle as you struggled to understand just how the player had mastered such an incredible technique. David James in the Portsmouth goal looked, for a moment, as if he would make an attempt for it, but knew it would be fruitless.
Redknapp made changes at half-time but his side couldn’t find a way back into the game and United should have added to their lead long before Ferguson decided to rest his star men Ronaldo and Rooney with seventeen minutes left. They might have expected more following the early start but nobody was leaving Old Trafford disappointed, and Sir Alex couldn’t wait to talk about what he’d seen his player do. “David Beckham’s strike rate was pretty good, Eric Cantona used to take them too but Ronaldo’s strike rate is phenomenal,” he said. “That without doubt must be the best (free kick ever scored in the Premier League). From that distance he is going to hit them. No keeper in the world would save that. The boy practises. It’s a delight to see, terrific. I think it was a fantastic performance – one of the best this season. I can’t believe it was only two. We missed a few chances, but at the end of the day you’ve got to think about the performance.”
Portsmouth assistant Tony Adams conceded that they’d been blown away by that early start. “United were exceptional, especially in the first 45 minutes,” he admitted. “From our point of view, we didn’t play that well and we didn’t keep the ball. We didn’t turn up in the first half but we did get into them more in the second half. Their substitutes bench is phenomenal and it’s a difficult place to come when you’re not playing well yourselves. Our players will grow and they will learn from this. We need to get back on track because we have a tough game against Chelsea at the weekend.”
Ronaldo’s free-kicks were certainly proving to be a highlight of the season and his technique for striking them was one being copied by school kids up and down the country. Three or four steps back, hitting straight through the ball instead of getting your foot around it in the Beckham style. For Manchester United, it was proving successful with devastating effect. “It grew out of my own persistence when I was still a boy starting to play football,” said Ronaldo. “I began trying on my own initiative again and again and I realised I might even be good at it, so the coaches started to encourage me even more to practise these moves. At the end of training, I would stay and shoot at goal persistently and I was always preoccupied about improving my technique with every move I made. I’ve continued to work on that aspect of my game with both Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United. Each football player has an individual style and I have mine. Thanks to a lot of work and my desire for perfection, I have a technique of my own for taking free-kicks. The secret? I will not reveal it, for I would be giving a trump card to my opponents. I can only state that the success or failure at the moment of taking free-kick is directly related to the position of the body, the way one runs towards the ball and the way one positions one’s feet. At that moment, I think only about which side of the net I am going to aim for. I look at the ball, I look at the net and I say to myself ‘Take the kick, Ronaldo’. Then I shoot.”
As the Tottenham game loomed, Ferguson implored Wayne Rooney to be more selfish if he wished to start improving his own goal tally. Rooney hadn’t scored in a home game for more than three months and had missed a bunch of chances in recent games; he had scored seventeen goals fewer than Ronaldo already this season after finishing the 2006/7 campaign as joint top scorer. “Wayne has a wonderful appetite for the game,” he said. “You wish every player of yours had the same appetite and desire to play. It’s such a joy to see a lad with that natural desire and enthusiasm to play. However, Wayne worked too hard on Wednesday and that cost him the opportunity to get goals. He got involved in a lot of the play and should have scored a couple of times. He was unlucky with his second chance because David James [the Portsmouth goalkeeper] closed him down so quickly he didn’t have enough time to put enough weight on his lob, which made it easier to save. Wayne’s doing fine but we said to him after the game that he didn’t need to expend so much energy dropping back into the midfield. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were in control there, so all Wayne has to do is make sure he looks after his energy.”
Fergie felt that his side must win at Tottenham due to the form of their title rivals. Arsenal had lost just once all season heading into February and Chelsea had only lost three times, and just once since they’d been defeated at Old Trafford. “I have to look at dangers posed by Arsenal and Chelsea and ask myself whether they will go to the rest of the season undefeated,” said the United boss. “Chelsea have done that in the past and so have Arsenal, so we’re taking nothing for granted. “Maybe we will have to do that because it’s getting really tight now. There was a period earlier this season where we were losing points when I didn’t think the eventual champions would need such a big points total as recent seasons. We’ve lost three away from home, then Middlesbrough beat Arsenal, and we were thinking it could be different. But the last few weeks have seen the teams at the top get back into a routine of winning. There’s a long way to go. Once you get involved in the Champions League and the FA Cup, you never know. After the initial departure of Jose Mourinho, I thought that Chelsea got back into a reasonable pattern very quickly. Avram Grant has the same record Jose did after 28 games there, so he’s doing well. With the players they have and the experience they have, plus four players coming back from the African Nations Cup, they will have a strong squad. So you have to expect they will be there at the end. There are vital games coming up, with Arsenal coming to us, Liverpool too, and us going to Chelsea.”
The league title would seem to get further away before it got closer, however; Chelsea dropped points at Portsmouth in a 1-1 draw despite Nicolas Anelka’s first goal for the club, and Arsenal won at Manchester City. United, meanwhile, would score last minute goals in their next two games, but were about to feel as if they’d blown their chance of retaining the league title.