ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 15

Production of this series of articles differed in its seedling stage from standard operational procedure in that it was very much a spur of the moment decision compared to the usual incubation period most output goes through in the upstairs computing department.

At the outset, the ambition was two-fold. With no sport ongoing, it was a means of at trying to survive the emotional earthquake caused by Corona while, at the same time, recalling some of the greatest sporting action the one seeing eye has ever taken in.

What a journey it has been. Being honest, it has morphed into something more than the original intention ever was. And I’ve adored every notional mile of the journey. Hopefully you have too. It’s a story that could’ve justifiably had infinite chapters.

However, overcrowding it would only serve to devalue what has been a very special, emotional and sometimes poignant piece of work. Thus, to qoute that wonderful, timeless hit by the Travelling Wilburys, we’re coming to the end of the line.

What an expedition it has been. Seeing as GAA accounted for the first few kilometres of the excursion and has been the core of my life for the past 30 years, isn’t it only fitting to pull the horse up at No. 15.

Ironically with a soccer piece. While it could never be called a blessing, one thing that has made these turbulent times more negotiable – in recent weeks at least – has been the Premiership still being in full swing this late – by its own standards – in the year.

In fairness to the English television stations, they’ve been every bit as good as our own when it comes to showing old sport as a means of filling the void – which had been gaping for some of us – left by the dearth of current sport.

There’s absolutely no problem here in admitting that looking back at some of the old GAA action has been very much bitter sweet. Nothing will ever replace the fourth chapter of the epic between Meath and Dublin in 1991 – and the last few minutes thereof in particular – as the greatest sport the one seeing eye here was lucky enough to be cast across. Conversely, that same season’s swansong was undoubtedly the most heartbreaking day’s events one has sat through – for a variety of reasons.

Among the forgotten treasures unearthed were highlight’s of Manchester United’s annexation of a first league title in 25 years – and the very first under the auspices of the FA Priemer League – at the end of the 1992/’93 seasons. For a club of its size to have gone so long without reigning domestically would’ve been a big enough story in itself. Their ending of said title drought ever more so.

Manchester United’s Knights in shining armour

How fitting it was, too, that Sir Matt Busby was still alive when the wait for a title was eventually sated, under the guidance of a man who would become every bit the iconic father figure at the club as was his fellow Scot some 40 years beforehand.

Comparing Alex Ferguson to Busby is as futile as it is disrespectful to both men. What both achieved at the club was nothing short of astounding. Albeit for very different reasons. In Busby’s case, compared to the prevailing culture in football nowadays, that he was in situ for more than two decades is scarcely fathomable, but, add to that his rebuilding of the club – literally and metaphorically – after the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, to eventually garner the Holy Grail which the fallen heroes were in pursuit of that snowy night in Germany.

For his part, Ferguson inherited a team which had been in the doldrums for a long time and, in fact, in what could only be described as chaos before his arrival. His defenestration of the likes of Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan and – years later – Paul Ince and David Beckham and Roy Keane might have looked drastic at the time but in a very large percentage of the cases he was proven to be correct.

Roy Keane was one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest ever signings and not just for obvious reasons

With the possible exception of Roy Keane. The Cork legend was not only one of Ferguson’s greatest ever signings, but one of the best acquisitions in the history of football. It’s almost mind boggling, now, to consider that the £3.75M it took to prize the midfielder away from Nottingham Forest was a transfer record. But it was only a further demonstration of the acumen of the man from Govan. After he had already pulled off arguably an even bigger heist in luring Eric Cantona away from Leeds United for an almost criminal £1.2M

The iconic enigma that is Eric Cantona

Whatever about getting Keane from a Forest team that were struggling at the time, his tempting of the eccentric Frenchman across the Pennines from those who at the time were the Red Devils principal rivals at the time was – to my knowledge anyway – the first example of him doing exactly that, strengthening his own hand while decimating the position of those in closest pursuit. See Andy Cole from Newcastle United and Robin Van Persie from Arsenal for evidence. It’s hardly coincidence either that on one of the few occasions he didn’t his man – Alan Shearer from Southampton – the prolific striker came back to bite him in the backside whe almost single handedly firing Blackburn Rovers to the title in 1994/’95. Though in mitigation of thouse who were chasing a third title in succesion, they made a very valiant attempt at achieving it shorn of their spiritual leader for the guts of the season after the mercurial magician after he was given an extended off season having done a damn good impression of Jackie Chan!

Alan Shearer fired Blackburn Rovers to the Premiership title in 1995

THE KING IS BACK, LONG LIVE THE KING

Even allowing for Fergie’s nous for doing the right thing, the level to which those in his care took a vice-like grip on English football for more than a decade – with a few notable exceptions – must have surprised even him. A situation aided in no small part by the return of the return of King Eric. Though it seems almost unjust that not only did he with intrinsic understanding of sea fishing was gone, not only from United but out of football altogether, before they reached what the manager deemed the Promised Land by conquest of Europe in 1999.

What the Red Devils did achieve with the French connection in tow was domination of the kind stranglehold Rangers had over affairs in Scotland while I was a young fella. Though it is important to state their era of excellence had begun before the gaffer had captured Cantona or, indeed, Keane.

Mention was surely made previously in some guise or other about the days when RTE used to broadcast games from the English First Division – as it was then – most Saturdays. And how there were clear recollections of watching matches, often on the old black and white Bush television in the ancestral family home. At the time, the other shade of red were very much in the ascendancy with the added attraction that a sizable portion of the Irish team – Steve Staunton, Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge earning their crust at Anfield back then.

While I can’t remember whether the Hillsborough Disaster was seen or only learned about afterwards, but, one occasion that was most definitely seen via the national broadcaster was the day which more or less guaranteed that United’s wait for a league title came to an end. In what I think was a delayed showing.

Now, they more than likely would have secured the title in some of the games which followed anyway, but, there was something almost fitting about the manner in which the epic struggle came to an end. That is to say after David Hirst had given Sheffield Wednesday a very early lead, two headed stunners from Steve Bruce, for so long the club’s skipper and on-field leader, so deep into injury time that it nearly had people late for supper never mind dinner.

Steve Bruce and Brian Robson raise the silverware

It always seemed very unfair that, considering the pillar of United he had been for so long, Bruce was never capped by England. Or indeed Ireland, as there was obviously some connection there given that his son Alex was chosen to play for the Republic. Before making the strange decision to transfer allegience to Northern Ireland.

Despite all the years that passed, and the enormous influx of foreign talent into the Premiership in the intervening years, if picking my favourite 11 of my lifetime from the English top division, my two centre halves would still be Steve Bruce and Tony Adams of Arsenal.

The thing is, having scaled the mountain top, the more trying excerise is to attempt to stay there. What was good enough to stay ahead of the pack in one season may not be in another. Something extra, an X-factor if you like, may be needed.

By any yardstick, the Old Trafford supremo as good as outdid Aladdin and his magic carpet by landing Cantona. Which left retention of the title they strove so hard and so long for considerably easier than at first making the breakthrough. Not only that, but completion of a double courtesy of a 4-0 thrashing of Chelsea in the FA Cup final, with Cantona netting twice.

If that counted as the first burst of greatness during the Ferguson era, then the term which immeadiately followed it must rank among thr absolute worst. In the midst of which, of course, they lost Cantona after the Selhurst Park episode.

It undoubtedly caused them to miss out on the hat-trick of titles and, even worse, lost a FA Cup final to an Everton team who were up to their hocks in a relegation battle and whom those in red would normally sweep aside like crumbs on a table.

However, there was one mid-October Sunday in 1995 which will be forgotten for polarised emotional reasons. Dunderry defeated Kilmainhamwood in the Meath SFC Final and I was delighted to be able to be there to see a team backboned by Sean Kelly and Barry Callaghan and Tommy Dowd lift the Keegan Cup as my late grandmother was a native of the village.

However, to be honest, the match and everything around it paled into utter insignificance and was overshadowed by the tragic death of Kilmainhamwood’s Matthew Cunningham on the night they had won their semi final.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the sporting world that day, it was a case of the king is back, long live the king. Wasn’t it always on the cards that (a) Cantona would make his comeback against Liverpool and (b) score. Which duly occurred when he blasted home a spot kick awarded after Ryan Giggs was fouled having already made a goal for Nicky Butt just two minutes into his comeback.

As if that wasn’t venturing enough into the realms of fantasy, that he would rifle home the winner five minutes into stoppage time at the end of the FA Cup final would even put the greatest fairytale writer to the pin of their collar to better it. In the case of the manager, though, he did just that. Several times over.

“YOU WON’T WIN ANYTHING WITH KIDS”…OH REALLY?

Naturally, the two occasions after which his charges sat on top of the tree of European football would have to take precedence in any such assessment. The first one in particular as that had been a millstone around the club long before the ex-Aberdeen boss arrived on the scene. And, in keeping with the myth ‘Fergie Time’, when they did reach their Promised Land it was courtesy of a strike from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer in the depths of injury time.

The Smiling Assassin – Solksjaer after winning the 1999 European Cup

Mind you, for this hack, deserving of equally vaunted commendation was the long-serving boss’s proving of Alan Hansen’s proclamation that “You don’t win anything with kids” to be utter drivel. Not only did the likes of the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Paul Scholes contribute handsomely to the title claimed in that particular season, they went on to be the cornerstones upon which more than a decade of greatness was founded.

My favourite Manchester United player – Paul Scholes

At this juncture, it must be pointed out that for all Manchester United’s dominance at times in the Premiership, they were far from the only top class team competing manfully in those early days of the Premier League. Though it might scarcely credible now, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers and Norwich and Aston Villa were their closest pursuers back in the day.

Blackburn did, as stated earlier, break their vice-like grip for a season but in terms of sustained rivalries Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool were the most bothersome and, indeed, since the great Scot’s departure in 2013, all of the above have, at different stages, passed the former kingpins out.

Some of which were more palatable than others. Rivalries are an unavoidable consequence of what makes sport great, and, admittedly, there are timtes when nobody feeds off them more than I. However, there are times when one must simply sit back and admire sporting excellence, regardless of who it is portrayed by.

Never was this more applicable than when Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. The view has always been maintained in this seat that the Frenchman’s two title-winning troupes were the closest English football had to Barcelona in their pomp with Pep Guardiola at the helm.

That status may have, at the very least, been challenged by an astounding season’s work from Liverpool which turned a potentially Grand National style title race into a five furlong sprint prior to which half the stalls didn’t open!

What makes the latter two teams and United at their peak comparable is that, by the vast majority of parametres, there are no discernable weaknesses in any of them. At the minute, however, focus is on Wenger’s winning warriors.

In David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn, The Gunners had one of the most recognisable and efficient defensive units football has seen.

Tony Adams scoring the goal which sealed the league title for Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’

Add to that a midfield comprising – when they were unbeatable, literally – Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Viera, Robert Pires and Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp up top with Thierry Henry

Again, this undoubtedly is another of the most overused cliches in this business, but, that Arsenal side definitely didn’t win as much as the talent therein merited. Granted, part of that was down to improvement in teams around them. Initially, to a very large degree, that was Chelsea.

The assumption of power by Roman Abramovich being the first seismic change to the football world as we knew it. Whether that was down to the Russian oligarch’s alacrity at hiring and firing managers or the fact that his seemingly endless bankrolling of the Stamford Bridge club allowed them to attract some of the premier playing and management talent from around the globe to get their pay cheques from him.

Mourinho revolutionised Chelsea and to some extent English football.

Look no further than Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese, who is as divisive a character as Roy Keane though in most cases that’s down to jealous begrudgery, first came to prominence when his FC Porto side stunned Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Champions League. Thereafter he brought Chelsea from mid-table respectability to a few seasons of near complete dominance of English football.

Like any ruthlessly efficient team, much of what they achieved was founded upon a few basic tenets: John Terry at the back, Frank Lampard blossoming into one of the finest midfielders on the planet, perhaps most significantly of all, Didier Drogba did likewise at centre forward. It’s hard to know whether the place resembling a revolving door for some of the world’s finest footballing talent was a blessing or a curse but they certainly made the best of it.

Lampard and Drogba made Chelsea great

THE NOISY NEIGHBOURS WAKE UP WITH A BANG

Once the business model instigated by the big spending Russian was seen to reap dividends, the only option the chasing pack had in terms of keeping pace with the rampant blues was to try and replicate their methodf. Sometimes immitation is the greatest form of flattery.

Of course that meant more and more top quality players from around the globe rocking up in England. Which guaranteed more mesmeric football for fans to luxuriate in. The only down side to the situation – isn’t there always one – was that not every club could compete as flambouyantly as the big spenders.

Thus, while the standard of entertainment unquestionably burgeoned, the competitiveness of the Premiership diminished rapidly and, in some ways, beyond salvation. Gone were and sadly are the days when entities outside of the two Manchester clubs, a couple of the London-based ones and, latterly, Liverpool could retain realistic aspirations of attaining outright success in England’s top division.

Indeed, being dispassionately honest, it would be more accurate to say Manchester City, because, in reality, while those who Alex Ferguson once described as the “Noisy neighbours” woke up with a bang about a decade ago, those whom he used to used to guide so magnificently have become a meek shadow of their former selves and fallen into an slumber of mediocrity.

David Silva and Sergio Aguero have been the chief architects of Manchester City’s successes

The easy and/or lazy thing would be to say City’s finest era has been founded on one very, very late piece of magic conjured by Sergio Aguero against Queens Park Rangers. However, it would be unfair and plainly wrong to pigeonhole what they have achieved since being injected with Arab funds into that one unforgettable moment.

Having said that, in a bear pit where money now talks louder than ever, even they must be considered to have fallen back into the pack, to some degree at least. Owing to the winning potion which Jurgen Klopp has had bubbling in his Anfield cauldron for some time finally coming to a potent boil and scalding all the competition away.

Mo Salah has been the chief magician as Liverpool cast a spell over the Premiership

Klopp’s record with Dortmund was such – in regularly standing up to an often rampant Bayern Munich – suggested it was always a strong possibility that he would take an already talented Liverpool outflt the extra few inches required to scale the mountain top.

A few factors stand out. Firstly, that when success didn’t materialise instantly materialise, those in control at Anfield had the nous, patience and business sense to recignise the incremental progress the affable German has instigated and were abundantly rewarded for giving him time to see the crop deliver two sought after yields in a sixth European Cup and a first domestic League success in three decades.

Doing so playing swashbuckling football akin to that produced by Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ or Chelsea under Mourinho first time around. However, to this observer, even more impressive than the football they have played has been the manner in which Klopp has had a transforming effect on players who had been failures or at the very least unwanted elsewhere. Atop any such list must be Mo Salah.

Frank Lampard must wonder had somebody got it in for him when he sees the football Salah and Kevin De Bruyne have gone on to produce for their respective employers thereafter. Mind you, a few of those who followed Ferguson into the Old Trafford dugout failed to get the best out of their recognised flag bearers like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial and, in particular, Paul Pogba.

Paul Pogba has regained his spark under Ole Gunnar Solksjaer

Now, perhaps this is the old sporting romantic coming out in me, but, to this corner, it has been no surprise to see United’s latest Gallic wonder flourish under the popular Norwegian. Some will undoubtedly scoff at the following analysis but it is my honest belief that there are times when the languid midfielder appears to lack confidence. It’s hardly coincidence either, as the former prolific forward has a bubbly positive air about him it would be impossible not to be taken in by.

From the time Ferguson retired in 2013, or, maybe even before he’d gone, it emerged that he had, seemingly, anointed David Moyes as the one to replace him. Thus, the former Preston North End and Everton boss was dubbed ‘The Chosen One’ by both the media and the United faithful. It could hardly be dismissed as nonsense to deduce that Moyes being Scottish was a quite considerable factor in his thinking. There could be no denying the sandy-haired overseer had done a fine job at Goodison Park, but there’s an astronomical difference in looking good at a club synonymous with wallowing in mid-table mediocrity and taking over one of the biggest entities in world football.

Notwithstanding the fact that whoever took over from Ferguson was being blessed with a poisoned chalice and, consequently, on a hiding to nothing, Moyes actually didn’t do bad at all and was in my view absolutely entitled to more time. If the above line of thought was applicable to Moyes, then it absolutely was also for his replacement Louis Van Gaal and, indeed, the individual who replaced him so rapidly, a certain Mr M.

The club’s treatment of the veteran Dutchman was as disgraceful as it was shambolic. The sight of the patron of false tan literally firing the FA Cup on the table knowing full well he was getting his marching papers the next morning was the greatest illustration of the clueless disrespect the greedy Glazers have for the club whilst at the same time gorily exposing the gross ineptitude and incompetence of Ed Woodward.

Mourinho is, quite obviously, not everybody’s cup of tea and it wouldn’t take an scientist to discern why. However, no matter what anybody thinks of the man, it is beyond question that he delivers results. With United, that meant collecting the Europa League and the League Cup as well as also securing a very creditable runner up berth with what was as poor a team to grace the home dressing room at Old Trafford in my lifetime. The one redeeming feature of which was Zlatan Ibrahimovich, who was, in a glaring illustration of Woodward’s idiocy, allowed to leave instead of persuaded to stay. Not to mention the amout players the club have been linked with in recent seasons and still failed to sign.

THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE

The friendship that has always existed between Alex Ferguson and Mourinho is fairly well known at this stage. Bottles of wine regularly being exchanged between the pair once the combat between their respective charges had ceased. When the septuagenerian vacated the Manager’s office at Carrington, very quickly the wise decision to put the most prolific manager the game has seen on the Board Of Directors.

Thus, there can be little doubt he has become a major part of the power behind the throne. Something like the acquisition of his former adversary would have had his fingerprints all over it. As would, I suspect, the decision to bring Paul Pogba back to the club. Belief in his influence around the place would not, however, stretch to the point where he would have sanctioned the sacking of the individual concerned in particular.

Whatever about that, there surely can’t be a morsel of pondering as to whether he would’ve been involved in or at least given his backing to the somewhat surprising decision to bring Ole Gunnar Solksjaer back to the club. Nobody had heard of the Norway international when he was taken out of Molde. Very few could pronounce his name, even less had a clue how to spell it. Very quickly, mind you, he established himself as one of the most efficient and adored signings any club ever made. In this corner, his story as a player with United often resembled Jody Devine’s years with Meath. In that both men did their best work when coming in off the bench. For Jody’s Kildare, see Ole’s Bayern Munich!

How often over the years has it been said that great players don’t necessarily the best managers, whereas one doesn’t have to be a top notch player to excel whilst patrolling the sidelines. Ferguson is undoubtedly the best example of same there’s ever been. For his part, based on a fair appraisal of his time in charge at his old stomping ground, Solksjaer appears destined to be as big a success controlling things outside the playing arena as he was inside.

My late uncle Tom was a firm believer that, when it came to gambling, newcomers always get off to a flyer. The line of thought comes to mind when assessing the former forward’s tenure as commander-in-chief to date. Remember, those under his care went unbeaten for 11 games after his arrival. There was a rocky patch, of course there was. Every team has them, every manager has them.

Delivering again: Solksjaer is turning United’s fortunes around

Strip away the most recent setback against Southampton – which was down to growing inefficiencies in David De Gea’s performances which will presumably be rectified by his expulsion once the season concludes – and their form of late has resembled how United were at their zenith what feels like a very long time ago.

Much of which can be traced to the manager’s influence on both the players and the place in general. Aside from Ole’s nous in the transfer market manifesting itself in the recruitment of Daniel James and, in particular, Bruno Fernandez, one need look no further than the transformation for the better in Paul Pogba.

Gone are the ridiculous hairstyles, the gharish looking boots, the conceited, spoilt brat, lazy attitude. To be replaced by exhibitions of the precocious talent which persuaded his former employers to give Juventus £89M to get his services back.

Probably at this stage wouldn’t be a bad time to inject a bit of realism. Have they improved? Without a doubt. But not to the extent that they are on the same page as Liverpool or even Man City. Not within a mile of it in fact.

However, progress is being made. Looking at their remaining fixtures, garnering seven points out of a possible nine is more probable than possible. Indeed, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t beat Leicester either. If things go as expected, then, that should be more than enough to guarantee Champions League football for next season, whenever that might begin.

That in itself would represent a further step of progress. Another move towards knocking the newly confirmed champions off their …perch!

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