I must admit, I was surprised when Robin Van Persie’s equaliser and subsequent celebration on Sunday caused such a fuss. Yes, Van Gaal is right to say it’s stupid to pick up a needless yellow card but then we live in an age where surely a bigger danger is that highly paid footballers cease to feel quite so passionately about seeing the ball hitting the back of the net. While I fully understand his manager’s sensible objections, it did seem a bit weird that so much of the rest of the footballing world leapt in to share their unrequested views on the matter.
I’ve heard some curious arguments trotted out by those outside Old Trafford to question an action that you’ll see on a Saturday (or Sunday) afternoon on grounds up and down the country. Apparently, they claim, it’s a sign of the times: United aren’t good enough to win trophies anymore, they say, so we’re reduced to celebrating last minute goals with the kind of gusto that ought to be reserved for championships. This is, of course, nonsense. I recall the scenes when Rooney scored the late winner against city in the League Cup semi-final and Old Trafford felt like it was literally moving. Or Owen’s goal in the 4-3 derby win. Or when we put Liverpool out of the FA Cup with two late goals in 1999. In fact, for as long as I can remember, United players have always celebrated crucial late goals exactly as they did on Sunday. The only exception was last season, when we just didn’t score them.
I’ve also, incidentally, seen many celebrations from opposing teams when they’ve done it to us, including games at youth and under-21 level, not to mention the scenes last year when Chelsea (yes, Chelsea) scored late on against mighty Brentford. And who can forget Mourinho’s famous run down the line that horrible night that his Porto came to Old Trafford and put us out of the Champions League? In fact, the only major player I know of who consistently refuses to celebrate goals, crucial or otherwise, is Mario Balotelli. I’m sure I’m not alone in preferring a player who throws his shirt in the air following an important goal to one who hands it to an opponent in a half-time gesture of capitulation.
The truth is, those fans who objected to United celebrating did so because they don’t like what it signified: such scenes of unrestrained glee, alongside the spirit shown to rescue a game that appeared to be lost, are signs of a passionate, resilient group of players. We’ve still got a long way to go before we can consider ourselves contenders again, and there remain many elements of our play that require correction, but what I’ve seen in recent games is a return of the spirit and pride I want to see United teams showing. It was there in the late backs-against-the-wall displays that secured victory against West Ham and Everton, just as it was there in Blind’s late equaliser at West Brom and in Van Persie’s strike on Sunday.
We can identify areas for improvement in all of those games, but these were all performances that showed a team of players willing to fight for each other and squeeze out every last drop of sweat until the final minute in the United cause. For me, that is something to celebrate and I’m more than happy that United’s players feel the same way.