Tag Archives: Manchester United

Man Utd's 1968 European Cup winning team

Review: Busby breathes fresh life into an oft-told tale

How to deliver a new feature-length documentary about one of the most celebrated careers in British sport – and make it feel fresh?

This is the challenge facing director Joe Pearlman with his latest film, which treads where many have previously stepped in telling the story of Manchester United’s legendary manager Sir Matt Busby.

Simply titled Busby, it charts his rise from humble roots in a Scottish mining village to European Cup-winning boss of a team he rebuilt following the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 which killed eight of his renowned ‘Busby Babes’ line-up and left 15 others dead.

As mentioned, Pearlman is by no means the first to cover this ground. Any number of books and TV documentaries have paid tribute to the man whose achievements put United on the road to becoming the global ‘brand’ they are today.

These include the magisterial 1997 television series Busby, Stein and Shankly: The Football Men, written and fronted by that titan of sports journalism Hugh McIlvanney, and a recent, well-received Busby biography by acclaimed football writer Patrick Barclay.

So, is there room on the groaning shelf of Busby-related material, both on screen and in print, for yet another retelling of his remarkable tale?

Track record

A few years ago, one might have said maybe not, but in recent times the genre of feature-length films about iconic sports personalities has been firmly established by critical and commercial hits such as Senna and Diego Maradona.

Matt Busby holds the European Cup aloft outside Manchester Town Hall, June 1968.
Matt Busby holds the European Cup aloft outside Manchester Town Hall, June 1968.

Fulwell 73, the production company behind Busby, has its own decent track record in this respect, having made The Class of 92, about the generation of young talent at United which included Beckham, Giggs and Scholes, as well as Mo Farah: Race Of His Life, Sunderland ‘Til I Die and I Am Bolt.

Pearlman’s most recent film was the Bafta-nominated Bros: After The Screaming Stops, which received plaudits for its unflinching plunge into the rise, fall and rehabilitation of 80s pop stars Matt and Luke Goss.

Of course, with Busby, the film’s key character is long gone (Sir Matt died in 1994), and the danger in such cases is an over-reliance on the same talking heads who may have featured in the many other Busby documentaries.

The other risk of returning to an oft-told tale is that some key contributors to earlier tellings will either no longer be around or not want to participate again and, in truth, there is a hint of that with Busby.

The voice of Bobby Charlton is often heard, but the Old Trafford great is never present on camera, so presumably old interviews have been used (but possibly not; it is unclear). We also neither see nor hear from Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who finally managed to drag Manchester United out of Busby’s long, intimidating shadow.

The roll call of former United players who do feature is still impressive and includes Pat Crerand, John Aston Jr, Alex Stepney, Jeff Whitefoot, Wilf McGuinness, Eamon Dunphy and a still spry-looking Denis ‘The King’ Law.

They are complemented by an array of former United staffers, the son of Busby’s right-hand man Jimmy Murphy – who took charge of the team when his boss laid critically ill in hospital after the Munich crash – plus a clutch of Busby biographers including the aforementioned Patrick Barclay.

Compelling

All make valuable contributions to the film, but what really makes it stand out as an significant addition to the Busby-United canon is its use of archive film from throughout Busby’s career, first as player and then across the four decades, from the 1940s and into the 70s, of his managerial reign.

Some serious research has taken place here, and whatever large chunk of the budget it must have cost to unearth and secure the rights to use this amazing array of raw material was absolutely worth it.


The bar has been set very high in the past few years by some excellent feature-length sports documentaries, and Busby – more often than not – feels as if it hits that mark

The die-hard United fan who accompanied me to the screening reckons to have seen pretty much every documentary made about his club, but he was astounded by some of the footage, particularly from matches in the early years of Busby’s tenure, when pitches resembled ploughed fields and the crowds looked like they had just stepped out of an L.S. Lowry painting.

We both agreed that the only disappointing aspect of the new film was a closing section which felt rushed as it hurtled through the list of managers who tried and failed to succeed the great man, and did not linger on the one who finally did – Busby’s fellow driven Scot and knight of the realm, Fergie.

At 105 minutes, it feels as if it could have been 15 minutes longer, especially as the pace early on is fairly leisurely. On balance, though, Busby certainly adds something fresh to what has, in recent times, threatened to become an overload of homage to the visionary who revolutionised the British game.

The bar has been set very high in the past few years by some excellent feature-length sports documentaries, and Busby – more often than not – feels as if it hits that mark.

Busby will be in cinemas for one night only on November 11th, available to own on digital download from Nov 15th, and on DVD & Blu-ray from November 18th.

Main photo of Man Utd’s 1968 European Cup winning team, with Sir Matt Busby, courtesy of Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images.

Stamford Bridge

Build for the future – give the kids a chance

There is something special about giving your one of own a chance. No matter all the cash being splashed about in football’s modern era, a homegrown young player breaking through will always mean much more to the diehard supporter.

This season has seen plenty of academy graduates being given opportunities to shine. At Chelsea, manager Frank Lampard has been forced into calling on the youthful talent at his disposal due to the club’s transfer ban.

The Lampard effect

For many years, Chelsea have had a reputation for nurturing and developing young players who then never got the chance to become established in their first team squad.

Until recently, the last one to actually do so was John Terry. Back in 2017, the Blues skipper said: “We’ve got so many [talented young players] at Chelsea who are ready. Monaco have a couple and everybody’s saying how good they are – believe me, we’ve got better players at Chelsea.”

Finally, Chelsea have given those youngsters a chance, and to good effect. The team currently sit in fifth place in the Premier League, two points off last season’s winners Manchester City. In many instances when the London club have struggled, it’s been the older, wiser heads that have been the problem.

When Chelsea lost two games on the bounce at home to Valencia and then Liverpool, Lampard locked his players in the dressing room and blasted his experienced players. He later said: “Without a doubt, there’s a responsibility on senior players to set the tone. The young players will look up to them and follow their lead, hopefully in the right way.”

Someone believed in them and thought ‘let’s give them a chance, what have we got to lose?’

During this campaign, Lampard has integrated six former academy players, including three who had limited game time last season under former boss Maurizio Sarri – Andreas Christensen, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Already this season the Blues legend has given debuts to Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Fikayo Tomori with Christensen and Hudson-Odoi also featuring, with a combined total of 3,370 minutes.

Another reason Lampard should be proud is that since he took over, three of those players have been called up by their national teams.

It might be too early to say that a majority of the young prospects who have come through at the Bridge this season are future stars of the international game, but they have made a real impact. Abraham has repaid Lampard’s trust by scoring nine times in 11 games for Chelsea.


Ole’s youthful plan

There is, however, a contrasting situation at Manchester United, where Ole Gunnar Solskjær has, like Lampard but for different reasons, had to lean on academy-produced talent in the early months of the season.

There has been widespread criticism of a transfer policy which is perceived to have left a lack of leadership and experience at Old Trafford, especially in the front line after Romleu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez were shipped to Italy.

This doesn’t meaning the younger players are failing, although they have so far been off the standards that United set themselves, having gone into the international break sitting 12th in the table. The youngsters have done pretty well, but their lack of experience, combined with some ineffectual displays from established stars, is hindering hopes of a Solskjær-led revival.

Playing consistently from the age of 19-22 really does put you above the rest

Before playing Leicester City, who United beat 1-0 courtesy of academy graduate Marcus Rashford scoring from the spot, Solskjær echoed the club’s message to the younger members of the league’s second-youngest squad:

“It’s a good test, it’s a great test and a great challenge for our players who want to push on. A few players are out, so the others can step up. Here’s your chance. That’s the thing here. The young kids do get chances and when they take them, it can be life-changing.”

That being said, the likes of Daniel James, who joined from Swansea City for £15m in the summer, have dovetailed nicely with Rashford, who has already played 180 times despite only turning 22 at the end of the month.

Even though there has been very little to celebrate so far this season, Red Devils supporters can at least feel happier seeing Axel Tuanzebe and Mason Greenwood turning out impressive performances despite this being what is perceived as one of the worst United sides in 20 years.

The overall benefit

For Rashford, this sort of exposure has seen him be ever-present in England manager Gareth Southgate’s plans and play at the World Cup, European Championship and in the semi-finals of the Uefa Nations League.

Ultimately, if young players are given the chance, alongside more experienced ones, to play week in week out, it really does make a difference. Playing consistently from the age of 19-22 really does put you above the rest.

With Lampard’s project in full swing, it would be a real shame – when they transfer ban ends – if Chelsea were to undo all of the hard work he has by reverting to a policy of big money signings. They have shown that using younger players alongside an experienced core can make them competitive.

Southgate must be delighted as many of the newer faces at Chelsea are English and fit his current desire for young talent ready to prove a point.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what happens in the league if you give youth a chance. In this high pressure and constantly demanding game, diamonds will appear from the rough of indifferent form and become players to lead their teams forward in years to come.

At Chelsea it’s almost puzzling to understand why it has taken so long for a project so ambitious but forward-thinking to come to the fore. A look at that Blues squad confirms there are many young players who will potentially star at the highest level for a decade or more, and all because someone believed in them and thought ‘let’s give them a chance, what have we got to lose?’.

Feature image of Stamford Bridge courtesy of Ungry Young Man via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0

A Parisian trying to stay silencieux in the wrong end at Old Trafford…

As Killian Mbappé hit PSG’s second goal to seal victory over Manchester United, flares illuminated 3,500 French fans cavorting in the away section at Old Trafford, many of them topless. 

I could contain myself no longer and cheered wildly, which is a major mistake if you are a Frenchman forced to sit in the Stretford End for a big Champions League game.

Several Mancunians looked on sternly, and the guy next to me asked ‘Who do think you are?’ I casually pretended to have had a £50 bet on Mbappé scoring the second.

‘Why am I not with them?’ I thought, gazing at the massed ranks of PSG supporters raucously enjoying one of the best nights of their lives.

After all, I had paid £150 for my seat, so having to keep quiet as my team ran out 2-0 first-leg winners – over Man Utd! Away from home! – was a frustrating experience.

Still, what a night…

Blasted

Arriving at Old Trafford, smoke bombs and firecrackers were going off everywhere and an enormous cloud of red smoke rose into the air.

The calm before the clamour at Old Trafford

Determined to attend the game, I knew my expensive seat wasn’t in with the away fans, but my heart still skipped a beat when I realised it was in the midst of United’s most hardcore followers.

I was a little nervous, but the excitement levels on my first visit to the Theatre of Dreams trumped all else.

‘How you doing?’ asked the guy next to me. I smiled and tried not to sound too French, and although I pretended to be on their side, the fans sitting around me quickly saw through this flimsy deception.

As the players emerged from the tunnel and the Champions League anthem blasted through the stands, I had shivers up and down my spine.

I opened my eyes and ears wide and tried to record all the images and senses as a souvenir of the occasion.

The fans, their chants and songs, the roars, the cheers and boos — there is no better place to watch a game than Old Trafford.

Over in the away section, the Parisian commitment was huge, and the drumbeats of war could be heard. It was tribal, electrifying, a non-stop assault on the senses.

Camaraderie

A few minutes before kick-off, the knot in my stomach served as a reminder of the game’s importance, and I joined in with the Mancunian applause as the announcer hyped up the home crowd.

‘The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying’

As the match got underway and both teams dared to play, the United fans never stopped cheering their team on. Although I was with the ‘enemy’, I could not help being swept away with the camaraderie. 

After a well-balanced first half, where both side played really good football, PSG central defender Presnel Kimpembe scored to give the French giants the lead.

It was the first time I had gone to see PSG play and not be able to cheer them freely but, in a strange way, it was unexpectedly enjoyable.

The feeling of remaining discrete, whilst observing your team dominate at Old Trafford, surrounded by thousands of Manchester United fans, was very satisfying.

Insults 

As the optimism of the home fans – buoyed by their team’s great run under interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – began to evaporate, insults greeted every period of PSG possession.

The Stretford End also had an old score to settle with former United player Angel Di Maria, and the PSG midfielder was booed to the rafters as the mood soured.

On the other side of Old Trafford, scarfs were being swung as PSG songs rang around the famous old stadium.

The excitement among the Parisian hordes was palpable, with everybody hugging each other and sweeping away the gloomy atmosphere created by the English fans.

As the final whistle sounded, a huge smile crossed my face. I clenched my fists – discretely, of course – and felt relieved. Whilst every PSG player honoured the support of their fans, I sat down and admired their excitement, feeling left out and envious.

To remedy that feeling, I joined some of my fellow PSG supporters outside Old Trafford. While the youngest yawned and rubbed their eyes, the older Parisians’ enthusiasm and elation resonated through the grey suburbs of Manchester.

A significant number of them returned to the city centre to continue their celebrations, and the remainder of the evening promised to be an exciting one…

Mourinho exits Old Trafford after exhausting United’s patience

The end came with Manchester United 19 points behind league leaders Liverpool and closer to the relegation zone than the top of the Premier League.

After an emphatic 3-1 defeat by their old rivals at Anfield on Sunday, United finally sacked Jose Mourinho as manager.

Having joined in May 2016, the former Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid boss led them to League Cup and Europa League success, and into the last 16 of this season’s Champions League.

Mourinho had lived at the Lowry Hotel since his appointment – perhaps a sign that he never truly believed he was at Old Trafford for the long haul.

Growing criticism of United’s style of play and endless tales of the Portuguese falling out with leading players, including record signing Paul Pogba, combined with poor results to seal his fate.

Attacking tradition

Despite spending nearly £400m on 11 players since he was first appointed, Mourinho let it be known that he felt let down by the club in terms of recruitment.

‘Whoever comes in will be charged with restoring United’s tradition of attack football’

However, many critics and fans argued that United’s local rivals Manchester City have spent roughly the same to much greater effect.

Whilst they weigh up their options, the United hierarchy have appointed former striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as interim manager for the rest of the season.

Zinedine Zidane, Mauricio Pochettino, Laurent Blanc and Leonardo Jardim are just a few of the names in the frame. Some pundits believe that Blanc, who played under Sir Alex Ferguson towards the end of his career, could be the man to bring the best out of French star Pogba and compatriot Anthony Martial.

Whoever comes in will be charged with restoring United’s tradition of attack football. Furthermore, with Mourinho, gone key players such as  Martial and De Gea are now more likely to sign new contracts.

Game over

Another mostly lacklustre, disjointed display in the defeat at Anfield proved to be the final straw for owners the Glazer family and the club’s board.

Xherdan Shaqiri came off the bench to hammer the final nail in Mourinho’s coffin with two deflected goals as Liverpool ran out easy victors.

Sadio Mane opened the scoring with a great volley after his cleverly timed run was picked out by an accurate lofted ball from Fabinho in the 24th minute.

Liverpool had dominated the game up to that point and deserved the lead.

However, an error by goalkeeper Alisson gave United an undeserved chance before the break when he spilled Romelu Lukaku’s seemingly unthreatening cross into the path of Jesse Lingard who, in fairness, did well to follow it up.

After the break, United looked much more fluid and compact. They were starting to frustrate Liverpool, who resorted to shooting from distance.

Afterwards, Mourinho said: ‘In the moment when the game was going down, Liverpool’s intensity was dying, the centre-backs were shooting from 30-40 metres because they could not find spaces in a dangerous area.”

Thus, Klopp then sent on the maverick number 10 Shaqiri to try and find those spaces, and there was a bit of luck about both of his goals. But on balance, it was nothing more than Liverpool deserved.

When the scores were tied at 1-1 it was a tale of two approaches. Mourinho opted to bring on a central defensive midfielder in Marouane Fellaini at half-time, whilst Klopp brought on Shaqiri to chase the win.

Incidentally, Liverpool substitutes have now scored eight goals this season. Those substitutions summed up the managers at the moment.

Mourinho, who hadn’t tasted defeat at Anfield since 2007, was in a fairly gracious mood after the game.

“They [Liverpool] are fast, they are intense, they are aggressive, they are physical. They play 200 miles per hour with and without the ball. I am still tired just looking at [Andy] Robertson. He makes 100m sprints every minute, absolutely incredible.

‘Robertson, Mane, Salah, Wijnaldum, Keita, Fabinho: they are physical players and on top of that they are good players technically. I have lot of good players technically but we don’t have lots of players with that intensity, that physicality, so when the game has high levels of intensity it is difficult for us.’

Walk away

Mourinho had previously promised the board he’d be fourth in the table by Christmas, but last week he backtracked on that prediction, saying it was impossible.

Although United fans have largely been patient with ‘The Special One’, many found this an unacceptable state of affairs for a team who finished second last season and spent £72.5m (Fred £52m; Dalot £19m and Lee Grant £1.5m) in the summer.

With their title hopes long gone, and having been knocked out the EFL Cup by Derby County, Mourinho had a relatively easy home tie against Reading in the FC Cup third round coming up in the new year.

However, the draw for the Champions League knockout stages was less kind and saw United pitted against French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain, which just about summed up Mourinho’s week.

 Leaky defence

Normally, teams under Mourinho are renowned for not conceding too many goals, but this season United’s leaky defence have already conceded 29 which is more than the whole of last campaign.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just the fact that they conceded lots – it’s the fact they have been utterly dominated too often.

‘At Inter, he once looked forward to a Champions League tie at Old Trafford, saying “I want to destroy United”. Unfortunately for their fans, Mourinho has pretty well done just that’

At Anfield, they only registered six shots in the whole game, whilst Liverpool managed to muster 36.

When Mourinho won the Champions League with Porto, he raved that his team were amazing at regaining possession, comparing them to mad dogs with a big bite.

At Real Madrid, he hailed his players’ clinical counter attacking, whilst at Inter he boasted how they could defend for five straight hours without conceding.

None of the above applied at United, where Mourinho generally seemed more determined to throw his players under the bus than praise them.

Whilst with Inter, he once looked forward to a Champions League tie at Old Trafford, saying: ‘I want to destroy United.’

Unfortunately for United fans, Mourinho has pretty well done just that – but whilst sitting in the Old Trafford hot seat – and walks away with £22m for his troubles.

Eithad Stadium, Manchester

Pass master Guardiola extends his dominance over Mourinho

Pep Guardiola once again showed Jose Mourinho who’s the boss as Manchester City ran out 3-1 winners at the Etihad Stadium over arch rivals United.

This was the 17th  time these two masterful tacticians had  come face-to face. History shows that Guardiola has the edge over the Portuguese with eight victories to Mourinho’s three. There had been an average of 2.6 goals scored in those 17 matches, indicating most have been tightly competitive.

Guardiola’s teams have scored 26 times in total when facing Mourinho’s teams, who have scored just 16. The Catalan also holds the record for the biggest win over Mourinho when Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou in November 2010.

City’s win over United shows that there is a gulf of class between the two sides, and that Guardiola has wisely spent his money in terms of buying players which fit into his style of play.

As far as the Red Devil’s are concerned, it seems as if Mourinho doesn’t have that much confidence in his team to consistently win games.

Whether this is to do with the tales of him falling out with some of his players is not clear, but at the moment United are in eighth place and well off the pace in the race for the Premier League title.

Alarming

The main issues for United are in defence. Mourinho’s men have let in 21 goals in their first 12 games of this season, which is even worse than 2016-17 where they conceded a total of 14 in their opening dozen matches.

This is a cause for concern to United fan as Mourinho has always liked his teams to be solid in defence first and foremost.

‘Pogba continues to not live up to the expectations fully warranted by his £89m transfer fee’

What was even more alarming in the latest derby game was the fact that none of the players were actually doubling up against the likes of Sergio Aguero, who can punish you if given space in and around the penalty box to turn and shoot.

But the key factor on Sunday was that United’s defenders were unable to cope with the pace and strength of City’s midfield, which had a significant impact on the game’s outcome.

What was also disappointing about this defeat from a United perspective is that it came after that memorable 2-1 Champions League victory over Juventus in Turin, where the Red Devils made a remarkable comeback by scoring two goals in three minutes to steal the points away from Massimiliano Allegri’s side.

You would have thought that win would have  given them a boost going into Sunday’s derby, but it wasn’t to be, and this sums up the inconsistency of United under Mourinho’s leadership in the last three years.

Luxury

Coming back to City, it has been a solid start to the defence of their title.  The champions are unbeaten in their first 12 games, with 10 victories and 2 draws. Can anyone stop them?

The signing of Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City has so far proved to be a masterstroke by Guardiola as it gives him the luxury of rotating his players if necessary.

Contrast City’s midfield to that of United’s as Paul Pogba continues to not live up to the expectations fully warranted by his £89m transfer fee.

His seemingly fraught relationship with Mourinho is clearly not helping matters, but we yet to see the best of one of France’s World Cup-winning heroes in a United jersey.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement at the end of the 2012-13 season, the Sky Blues have had the upper hand in terms of Premier League success.

Manuel Pellegrini took them to the title in 2013-14, and Guardiola claimed the biggest prize in English football for the first time last season.

Upper hand

By contrast, the Red Devils finished in seventh place under Ferguson’s successor David Moyes, who was sacked in the latter half of the season, with club legend Ryan Giggs taking over from the Scot.

‘City look to be passing their way to another title this season, whilst Premier League glory threatens to pass United by once again’

Under Louis van Gaal, United won the FA Cup in 2016, beating Crystal Palace in the final, but the Dutchman was dispensed with soon afterwards.

Chief executive Ed Woodward then turned to the ‘Special One’ hoping that his success all around Europe, including at Chelsea, could be replicated at Old Trafford.

Unfortunately for both men, his arrival coincided with Guardiola’s reign beginning at the Etihad, and the Spaniard continues to have the upper hand over his old rival.

City were 2-0 up through goals from David Silva and Aguero on Sunday before Anthony Martial pulled one back from the spot after 58 minutes.

However, any thoughts of a United comeback were extinguished four minutes from time as Ilkay Gündogan scored City’s third, capping a build-up involving no less than 44 passes.

City look to be passing their way to another title this season, whilst Premier League glory threatens to pass United by once again.

Photo by Liam McCallion via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

Snoozefests and stalemates: the perverse appeal of the 0-0

December 2003, Finn Park, Ballybofey. The light rain cascades against the beaming haze of the floodlights. The winter wind chills to the bone.

On a pitch that is more mud than grass, Finn Harps and Derry City attempt to play something loosely resembling ‘the beautiful game’. Wayward pass follows wayward pass, foul follows foul.

I’m six years old, huddled in a coat that is too big for me, hand-me-down hat and gloves, longing for the sweet release of the final whistle. This is my first experience of live football.

My dad has told me that when the clock on the electronic scoreboard at the far side of the ground hits 90, the game will be over and we can go home. And so I stand transfixed upon it.

In giant green letters it reads FINN HARPS 0-0 DERRY CITY. The two large zeroes loom over the old ground, over the rusting corrugated metal and cracked blue paint, like the painted eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg surveying the grim spectacle beneath — the League of Ireland’s own ‘valley of ashes’.

Thirty minutes gone. 0-0. The rain pours. 45 gone. 0-0. The wind howls. 60 gone. 0-0. A supporter curses. And at last 90. 0-0. It’s over.

The scoreless draw in football is a curious phenomenon. It has few equivalents in other sports, a match taking place without a single instance of that which the game is played for, in this case scoring goals.

And yet there is something unifying about a good old 0-0. Fans of rival footballing creeds and colours can bond over their disgust of what has played out, over the sheer tedium they’ve been forced to endure throughout the preceding 90 minutes.

‘The dullest game in World Cup history’

A 0-0 can take many forms. Perhaps the most traditional is that of the ‘borefest’, a game so bereft of clear-cut chances and attacking competence that it becomes a wonder how football ever became so popular in the first place.

An example that immediately springs to mind is the 2006 World Cup second-round clash between Switzerland and Ukraine, a match so devoid of drama and incident that the Guardian has since labelled it ‘the dullest game in World Cup history’.

‘The failure of two teams to present any kind of a spectacle is a reminder that these talented players are not so unlike ourselves — flawed and liable to underperform’

Such was the punishing nature of the spectacle, ITV’s highlights programme skipped straight to the resultant penalty shootout in a bid to prevent its viewership from slipping into a coma.

These are the matches that lead one to question the very nature of why we enjoy football. How can a sport which at its best is so enthralling be so abjectly terrible?

How can a sport which has gifted us Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle in 1996 also subject us to Ireland 0-0 England on a beautiful, primed-for-football, sunny Sunday in Dublin. There’s a cruelty to it all, but still we watch.

Indeed, perhaps the opportunity to moan and quip about such dire games supersedes the actual drudgery of witnessing it in the first place.

There’s usually more of a thrill to be found in discussing the faults of an event rather than its merits, and this often rings true when it comes to football matches. In the absence of jaw-dropping skill, we zone in on the blunders, on the general ineptitude of what we’ve seen.

In the case of a 0-0, the profligacy of an attacker, the dour, defensive tactics of the coaches, or the whistle-happy referee can become the fall-guy for our disgust.

In many ways, there is more to joy be found in assessing the shortcomings of professional athletes than the strengths. The failure of two teams to present any kind of a spectacle is a reminder that these talented players are not so unlike ourselves — flawed and liable to underperform.

The rare jewel

In contrast to the borefests, there is a unique kind of goalless draw whereby all aspects of the match seem geared towards a thrilling scoreline. There are chances aplenty, defensive mistakes in abundance, scintillating attacking movement, and yet the net never bulges.

Crossbars and posts are cannoned, side-netting is rippled, wonder saves performed, but the promised reward of a goal is never delivered upon.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of John Candy
Cardiff City 0-0 Ipswich Town. In the pouring rain. How long to go? Really…?

A memorable example is Manchester United’s stalemate with Real Madrid in the Champions League in April 2000. Ronaldo and his fellow galacticos peppered the United goal with joyful abandon but could not breach the resolve of goalkeeper Mark Bosnich.

Madrid advanced on aggregate anyway to knock out the defending champions, but many were left scratching their heads as to how the game had remained scoreless.

Perhaps the most memorable instance of a riveting 0-0 was the Euro 2000 semi-final between Holland and Italy.

The great driving force of Bergkamp, Kluivert and Overmars, who had crushed Yugoslavia in the previous round, pitted against the stern and stoic Italian rearguard, featuring such iconic names as Maldini, Cannavaro, and Nesta.

It was a game the Dutch largely dominated, but profligate finishing and a Kluivert missed penalty allowed Italy to cling on and snatch victory in the penalty shoot-out.

The pleasure in this kind of scoreless draw is derived from its rarity. For every thrilling 0-0, there are innumerable desperately awful 0-0s. The scoreline itself is inscrutable when taken at face value without having seen the action.

It displays only the finality of the result, and to assume all goalless draws are dull and insipid is an insult to the great 0-0s of the past. The thrill is in the journey to the final score, rather than the score itself.

Fear of the fall

So what is the root cause of a 0-0? Is it simply a failure on the part of two teams to deliver upon their talents? In many cases it could be view that way, but often a stalemate can arise from the mere ramifications of a result — what’s at stake.

Time and again, we see fixtures billed as the match to end all matches, the culmination of football’s historical journey, and yet they deliver a damp squib.

The World Cup final in 1994 had all the makings of a classic. The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Los Angeles — a veritable behemoth of a stadium, full to the brim with supporters salivating at the prospect of Brazil vs Italy.

‘Those afraid to tread the precipice for fear of the fall. It all breeds a grim pageant of tedium’

And yet as the baking sun sapped the energy of the players, inflicting upon them the jelly-leggedness with which anyone who has exercised in such heat can relate to, so the game descended into drudgery, an endless toil towards the final whistle and the ultimate relief of a penalty shoot-out.

The magnitude of the occasion, combined with the conditions, had suddenly rendered these two great teams impotent, a nervous husk of the sides which had swept away the rest of the competition.

A similar occurrence took place in the Champions League final in 2003 at Old Trafford, as Juventus and AC Milan played out arguably the least memorable major final in modern football history.

While it may seem unsurprising that an all-Italian final in the early 2000s finished scoreless, the reality is that these showpiece events are the games that fans and pundits look to to provide the season’s defining moments.

This undoubtedly contributes to such stalemates, the fear of being the player remembered for a mistake, or the coach lambasted for his tactical naivety — those afraid to tread the precipice for fear of the fall. It all breeds a grim pageant of tedium.

Indeed, a match with very little at stake can yield a similar cocktail of excruciating boredom and blithering ineptitude. France 0-0 Denmark, one of the lowlights of the 2018 World Cup in Russia is a prime example.

Two teams, safe in the knowledge of their progression to the next round, simply going through the motions — an insult to the fans who spent fortunes to be there, but the sad inevitable consequence of a game with nothing on the line.

Enshrined

Like it or loathe it, the 0-0 is firmly rooted in the fabric of football. Ideas to introduce rules to discourage such scorelines have been bandied around, but have usually floated away on the breeze.

Some have suggested awarding no points to either team for a goalless draw, or even settling a stalemate with a penalty-shootout to at least salvage some vestige of entertainment from a match.

But those who would seek to outlaw the 0-0 are neglecting a key truth. The joy of a good-old fashioned snoozefest is that it accentuates the thrill of the really great games. It amplifies the true wonder of football at its finest, at its most gripping.

The reason we revel in the excitement of Istanbul ’05 is because we have endured Manchester ’03. The reason I now bask in the glory of a seven-goal thriller between Finn Harps and Bohemians is because I have withstood the bleak despair of that 0-0 against Derry.

It’s the same reason we celebrate the highs of life, because they are offset against the lows that we’ve felt in the past and know will come rumbling around the corner again in due time.

The same reason we lounge in the sun on a summer’s day, because we still recall the chilling claws of the previous winter. The 0-0 helps us to appreciate and savour the good days in football, and for that it deserves our respect, if maybe not our love.

Feature image courtesy of Matthew Wilkinson via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Cardiff-Ipswich photo courtesy of Jon Candy via Flickr Creative Commons under licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Premier League preview

Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal are all favourites – but there can only be one crowned champion.

Defending champions Manchester City will look to retain their title. However, the season ahead looks to be more competitive than the previous campaign.

The pressure is on for new managers Unai Emery of Arsenal and Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri. Both managers are new and will have to adapt to the Premier League

Manchester City

No manager has retained the Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in 2009.

Pep Guardiola was the first to lead a team to 100 points in an English top-flight season, but retaining the trophy would arguably be every bit as special. “I am read,y” said the Spaniard ahead of the new campaign.

“The fear of losing the games makes me starving and hungry again. I don’t like the feeling of losing games. When you lose, you feel guilty, you feel bad. Your private life is not good. Your relationship with the players is not good. So that is why to avoid that. Just that simple fear of losing a game makes you hungry.”

Guardiola’s desire to continue winning was showcased in City’s win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. City will want to retain the title, but their supporters – and owners – also crave Champions League success.

“It’s important to be in it every season,” said Guardiola of club football’s biggest prize. “And we are going to try with all our effort to win it. But if you ask me what the most important competition is, it is the Premier League.”

A comfortable win at Arsenal in their first fixture was an excellent start is a great start, but not th one Emery was hoping for at the Emirates.

Manchester United

Manchester United were not able to challenge City in the title race last season despite spending £400m since Jose Mourinho took over. His side were 19 points behind their city rivals and even failed to play entertaining football for the Old Trafford faithful.

Mourinho had said his side face a “difficult season” unless they sign a new defender, but the Red Devils failed to add anyone new to their backline.

Despite their runners-up spot in the league and reaching the FA Cup final, which they lost to Chelsea, United still seem a work in progress and Mourinho appears to have a frosty relationship with some of his players.

Many pundits believe his pre-season negativity can only have a detrimental impact on his squad’s morale, and a failure to make a good start to the season could see the Portuguese considering exit strategies.

Tottenham

Spurs had a positive 17-18 season, finishing third in the league, but have failed to add any new players to the current squad.

Tottenham are the only side in the Premier League history to have not added anyone during the summer window.

However, manager Mauricio Pochettino feels they have, “achieved their objective” and did a “great job” by keeping their best players in the transfer window.

They did attempt to sign Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish, but were unable to come up with a deal in time.

Spurs have had top-four finishes for the past three seasons, but delays in the completion of their new stadium could have a negative effect both on and off the pitch.

North London rivals Arsenal were restricted in the transfer market by the cost of their move to the Emirates for several seasons, and some Spurs fans fear the same happening.

Their team got off to a good start with an opening victory 2-1 at Newcastle, but bigger tests await them.

Liverpool

Jurgen Klopp spent over £100m in the transfer window with Alisson, Fabinho, Keita and Shaqiri all added to the Liverpool squad.

Klopp knows the pressure is on to deliver trophies, but said: “We are Liverpool; there is no-one on this planet that expects more of us than we expect of ourselves. I really love how the players have reacted this summer and I cannot praise them enough for the way they have stayed hungry.”

Liverpool had an outstanding run in the Champions League and losing 3-1 in the final to Real Madrid was devastating, however, the football played was certainly memorable.

Klopp added: “The attitude in training and in practice, matches have been outstandingly good, the highest level. And when you consider, as it has been for other clubs also, the build-up has been disrupted by players coming back at different times [after the World Cup], it is even more impressive.”

Liverpool hit four past West Ham in style in their opener and are favourites to win the Premier League according to a Sky Sports online poll.

Alisson is seen as player to end their goalkeeping woes and should create more confidence at the back where Klopp’s teams have been lacking in previous seasons.

Chelsea

New boss Sarri is looking to make his mark in the Premier League by getting Chelsea back into the top four after Antonio Conte’s reign ended in acrimony last season despite the FA Cup win.

Having spent £71.6m on 23-year old goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga from Athletic Bilbao, Sarri has been given the funds to get Chelsea back in the title race.

Their opening win against Huddersfield will build confidence, but they looked well short of Man City’s standards in their Community Shield defeat at Wembley.

Sarri has said simply “My job is to win matches”. But having kept hold of key players such as Eden Hazard and Willian, the Italian will be expected to deliver by Chelsea’s ever-impatient hierarchy.

 Arsenal

New manager Emery began his Arsenal venture with a comprehensive home defeat against defending champions Man City.

He has made it clear what he expects from his current squad: “I want ambition from this team, I want them to be ambitious in every match. I want for 90 minutes in every match for them to be in the game and to be working hard. I want this every day, this is my ambition”.

The Spaniard is under a lot of pressure from fans to perform well following the departure of Arsene Wenger, although the Arsenal board have made it clear, he will be given time.

Arsenal have failed to reach the top-four in the league for the last four seasons. New defensive midfielder Lucas and centre back Sokratis were among the players signed this summer on a fairly conservative budget, with fan favourite Jack Wilshere released and signed by West Ham.

To conclude, the Premier League title race this season could potentially be more competitive and exciting than ever before. Expect Manchester City to become the first team to defend the title since 2009, but also expect their rivals to push them harder, with Liverpool hot on their heels.

United take the spoils in a classic encounter

So much for parking the bus…

Aware that they could not afford to slip further behind their local rivals in the race for the title, Manchester United tore up the script and tore into Arsenal at the Emirates.

They were two goals up in 11 minutes against the shell-shocked Gunners, who pulled a goal back just after the break before a third for United made it 3-1.

Jose Mourinho is renowned for his spoiling tactics away from home against other teams towards the top of the table, but that approach was ditched in favour of one more in keeping with United’s rich attacking traditions.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger will be fuming that his side were caught napping by those two early goals, but in truth this was a deserved victory for his old rival.

The Frenchman and the Portuguese have been the best of enemies since the latter’s first stint at Chelsea, and they exchanged fiery words and a shove or two on the touchline a few seasons ago.

Buzzing

United celebrate Lingard’s second

Arsenal went in to the game in good form and full of confidence but were ambushed by Mourinho’s ambition to hit them hard straight from the off.

Within the first four minutes, Antonio Valencia took advantage of some slack Arsenal defending to put the visitors ahead.

With the Gunners still regrouping after that setback, Jesse Lingard made the most of Anthony Martial’s pass and chipped the ball over goalkeeper Petr Cech on 11 minutes to put United 2-0 up. Mourinho’s side were buzzing and bossed the first half of the game.

Whatever Wenger said to his troops at half-time clearly had an impact, and Alexandre Lacazette found the net in the 49th minute to give the disgruntled home fans hope of a comeback.

Nullifying the threat of Lacazette had probably not figured in United’s game plan. A few days earlier, Wenger had ruled him out of contention because of a groin injury, but the French striker was in the starting XI. Mourinho wasn’t alone in catching a whiff of something fishy…

Arsenal now had their tails up as that pre-match confidence flooded back, and United had David De Gea to thank for some outstanding saves in the second half. The Spanish stopper was rightly lauded as man of the match after keeping the Gunners at bay.

Sure enough, as the hosts pushed for the equaliser, they left the door open for United, and Lingard duly stepped through it to score his second.

On 64 minutes, a simple, rapid counter-attack instigated by Paul Pogba ended with Lingard side-footing home to give Arsenal a mountain to climb.

Lunge

The score remained 3-1 at the end of a breathtaking encounter, giving Mourinho a first win in his past 12 away fixtures against the Premier League’s ‘big six’.

However, it wasn’t all good news for United as they headed back north, with Pogba suspended for the vital Manchester derby clash on December 10th.

The midfielder was given a straight red in the 74th minute for a reckless lunge that saw his studs planted firmly into Hector Bellerin’s calf.

Mourinho, who is known for causing a scene when he disagrees with the referee’s judgement, perhaps surprisingly stayed in his seat rather than berate the fourth official.

Neither did Pogba’s team-mates seem to take issue with the sending off, and the general consensus among the travelling support was Pogba only had himself to blame.

Derby decider?

But United will go into the derby at Old Trafford buoyed this result and their performance at the Emirates.

Can they still catch City? Pep Guardiola’s team are widely viewed as champions elect this season, but it would be unwise to rule United out of the running just yet.

City also began last season at a blistering pace before slowing down after the hectic Christmas period.

Plus, United now seem better equipped to mount a serious title challenge. Apart from the occasion blip, their struggles of the previous campaign, as characterised by too many draws and uninspiring, narrow wins, seem to be behind them.

United are clearly getting more out of Pobga, now that the £85m midfielder has been given more freedom to roam forward, thanks to the summer signing of Nemanja Matic.

Lingard is now staking a strong claim to be a regular starter, with young talents such as Martial and Marcus Rashford improving all the time, and the likes of Phil Jones and Ashley Young realising their potential.

United can definitely challenge City this season if their current form continues, but the result of this weekend’s derby could go a long way to deciding the destination of the title.

Rashford stars as United progress into the knockout stages

In terms of pure spectacle, this had nothing on Manchester United’s trip to the Emirates at the weekend.

Nevertheless, sandwiched between that 3-1 over Arsenal and this Sunday’s Manchester derby, securing United’s qualification to the Champions’ League knockout stages for the first time since 2014 would likely still have been the top priority for Jose Mourinho.

CSKA posed much more of a challenge at Old Trafford than they had at home back in September, when they were hammered 4-1, but United had to come from behind at Old Trafford to ensure they will finish top of Group F.

A two-minute salvo from Romelu Lukaku and the superb Marcus Rashford proved enough to maintain their 100% home record this season, and send the Russian side into the Europa League.

Rampant Rashford

Rashford only spent a minute or two on the pitch against Arsenal on Saturday, and the rest watching on with likely mixed emotions as good mate Jesse Lingard notched a brace to stake his claim for a starting spot at home against City. After this display, it will be a proverbial selection migraine for Mourinho against the Blues.

The 20-year-old striker was at his scintillating best against Moscow, beating the usually robust pairing of Vasili Berezutskiy and Sergey Ignashevich almost at will and acting as the spearhead of United’s attack despite the presence of his £85m partner.

It was Rashford who sparked the game into life in the third minute, racing onto a through ball from Lukaku before striking the foot of the post with Igor Akinfeev in the Moscow goal well beaten.

Ten minutes later, he forced the keeper into a smart save down to his left after being teed up by Juan Mata.

Sucker punch

It was then time for another young Englishman to come close to breaking the deadlock.

‘It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away’

Luke Shaw, something of a forgotten man at Old Trafford after a seemingly never-ending battle with injuries (and at times, his own manager), came close to marking his first start in over 200 days with a sumptuous goal when he met Antonio Valencia’s cross on the volley, only to be denied by an impressive reflex stop from Akinfeev.

The rebound fell at the feet of Lukaku, but it didn’t even seem to surprise the Old Trafford faithful when the Belgian striker could only find Akinfeev’s gloves from a couple of yards out.

As half-time approached, it was time for United to receive a dose of the medicine they had given to Arsenal at the weekend. CSKA had created very little in the first half, but they caught Shaw napping to play Mario Fernandes in down the right side, who picked out Vitinho on the edge of the box with his pull-back.

The Brazilian struck at goal, but despite his best efforts to get out of the way the ball hit Alan Dzagoev, standing in what appeared to be an offside position, before nestling in the corner of the net.

Even the CSKA players took a moment before celebrating, but the decision was indeed the correct one as Daley Blind, who had slid off the pitch in an attempt to block the initial cross, was playing Dzagoev onside.

Like London buses

It took United a while to get going again after the restart, but when they finally kicked into gear, they blew CSKA away.

In truth, Paul Pogba wholly underwhelmed in his final game before beginning a three-match suspension after being sent off at Arsenal.

However, he did offer the fans a glimpse of what they’ll be missing for the 64th minute equaliser, chipping an inch-perfect ball into the path of Lukaku, who easily held off Vasin before poking a volley past the stranded Akinfeev to level the score.

There are some United supporters who are yet to fully warm to the big Belgian, but his decision to immediately grab the ball out of the net and run back to kick-off United’s search for a winner, in lieu of any celebration, goes firmly along with the philosophy of the club and should be noted.

And so it was that just a minute later, there was a reason to celebrate for United.

Moscow, still scrambling after the first goal, failed to clear a hopeful long ball, and Mata showed his flair for the creative by chesting and volleying a perfectly weighted through ball into the path of the rampant Rashford, who buried his left-footed strike into the far corner to complete the comeback.

‘Strong reaction’

Most would expect the away support to be disgruntled, watching their side throw away a lead in a little under three minutes, but the Moscow fans instead whipped off their shirts in unison.

Maybe they were making a point about it being positively tropical compared to what they are used to in Moscow. Brave but a bit pointless.

After making six changes to his side for the game, Mourinho declared himself pleased with the performance.

“In the second half, we had that strong reaction, we really didn’t want to lose the match and I think the boys played professionally. I was pleased with the attitude of the players. They had pride to play.”

But despite securing qualification ahead of second-placed FC Basel, Mourinho refused to speculate on the identity of United’s last-16 opponent, instead saying he wanted to “shut up and forget about it”.

“I think it doesn’t matter which team we get in the draw – I don’t think that team will be jumping with happiness to play against us.”

Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

Contact

Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

willock-city
Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

willock-anfield
The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

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Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”