Wayne Rooney says if Manchester United wins the current Premier League campaign, it would be one of the club’s greatest triumphs ever.
Even though United have won with “kids”, done the Treble, seen off Abramovich’s Roman empire, outlasted Arsene Wenger’s brilliance, and, before all that, conquered Europe in spite of the terrible tragedy of Munich 1958, Rooney still has a point – which, let’s face it, he rarely does.
For the wonderful footballer that he is, and for the excellent service he has granted Manchester United – bar that episode his agent cooked up about him leaving – Rooney is rarely one to go to if you’re looking for insightful sound bites.
On the surface, too, it seems pretty stupid to place this season up there among United’s collection of momentous achievements, especially with everyone going on and on about how we ain’t seeing a vintage United right now.
Knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League, completely outplayed in the Europa League round of 16, and not making the quarter-finals of any of the four cup competitions they took part in – that’s pretty tragic for a club of United’s stature.
Against a backdrop of such under-achievement, a Premier League trophy – which would be won with many a mediocre performance, and against equally under-performing rivals – would seem more like a consolation prize to some.
But I kinda-sorta have to agree with Rooney, taking into account what’s happened not just in this season, but the last few.
In the past, talk about United’s successes have always come with the caveat that they were big spenders. They bought success, and success bought more money; which as a United fan, I’d have to admit is rather true.
From Bryan Robson to Andy Cole to Juan Sebastian Veron (all three were British record signings), United have consistently been one of the biggest players in the transfer market over the last few decades.
Now, though, United are not just facing one club with seemingly unlimited resources, they are facing two, and possibly three if you consider Tottenham Hotspur.
They say staying on top is harder than getting there, but to get back up there having been pushed down is probably even harder.
First, Chelsea came along, and suddenly Manchester wasn’t the choice destination in England for the world’s best anymore. Michael Essien, Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba, Joe Cole, Damien Duff and John Obi Mikel were just some of the players who spurned United’s advances at the time.
When United managed to finally get back on top – thanks in no small part to Abramovich’s own tinkering – Ferguson said it was one of his greatest ever achievements.
Now we have Manchester City, whose pockets seem even more bottomless than Chelsea’s, if that even makes sense.
And this is why I’d have to agree with Rooney. League triumphs are rarely just about great goals, pretty football, star players in form or an impressive post-season highlight reel. On that end, United’s season has been an abject failure.
City, almost down to each player in the starting eleven, have been superior. Apart from Rooney and Antonio Valencia (let’s leave Paul Scholes out of this, cos City fans will just call it “desperate”), it’s hard to make a case for any United player to get in the City first XI.
But in terms of managing a club over several seasons, establishing the right culture, instilling a winning mentality, and maintaining a united dressing room, this season has been a resounding success, a culmination of the efforts of the last few years – regardless of whether United win the title or not.
In that sense, I’d have to agree with another individual who hasn’t been making much sense of late – Kenny Dalglish, who said there are things more important in a club than winning points (though a kit deal is certainly not one of them).
Since Sheikh Mansour took over City in August 2008, United have patiently and painstakingly rebuilt their squad knowing they’re not even the destination of choice in Manchester anymore.
Apart from the failed Dimitar Berbatov experiment, the rebuilding process has gone magnificently.
While City plumped for Robinho, Chelsea for Fernando Torres, and Liverpool for Andy Carroll, United sneaked bargain-buy Javier Hernández in, who has now scored more goals this season than both Torres and Carroll combined.
While City were busy trying to soothe Carlos Tévez and Edin Džeko’s egos after their respective strops, and Chelsea tried so desperately to accommodate Torres, United simply promoted Danny Welbeck from the academy, and he has fit in like a glove.
And instead of splurging on Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder – the Dutch pseudo-celebrity who though isn’t as much a trouble-maker as his former teammate Mario Balotelli, does have the makings of a prima donna – United gave the earnest Tom Cleverley a chance, and he was influential during United’s early season charge before he was struck with injuries.
Since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, the average age of United’s signings has been 22, and that’s including Berbatov (27) and Michael Owen (29). The most expensive buy apart from Berbatov has been David de Gea, £18mil (though with all the “undisclosed” fees these days, it’s hard to know for sure).
Of course, there were some (inexpensive) misses along the way. Think Gabriel Obertan, Mame Biram Diouf, and… wait for it… Bébé.
It hasn’t been easy for the fans who’ve been crying out for a big name signing, and even the relatively “old” and established Ashley Young hasn’t exactly set Old Trafford alight; but looking ahead, it’s the right way to go, and if United do go on and win the league now, Alex Ferguson would be vindicated.
So City might win in the style stakes this season, with their devastating displays rightly earning players like David Silva, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and Joe Hart plenty of personal acclaim; Rooney is still right – the success of United’s planning over the past few years makes this season potentially one of their sweetest victories yet.