A few months ago I visited Roselawn Cemetery here in County Down, Northern Ireland, so I could pay my respects to the various members of my family who are buried there. For whatever reason, the place always seems to be absolutely freezing, regardless of the time of year. It’s extremely silent too, except for the quacking of the ducks which swim around in the various lakes on the premises. What I’m trying to say is that I can think of more pleasant places to selfishly spend my free time.
Anyway, the reason for this rather morbid introduction is because, about thirty feet away from my great aunt Kate’s grave, one row over and about a dozen gravestones further along, happens to be one in which are buried the bodies of Anne, Dickie, and George Best. Yes, that George.
The proximity of the two is simply down to luck, so to speak. If it was on the other side of the grounds I doubt I would go anywhere near it, but because it’s so close, I always pause by it for a minute or two any time I’m there. On that day the grave was in a state of neglect. Extremely dead flowers were strewn on the grass, and if it were not for various items of football memorabilia that had been left by other well-wishers, nobody would be able to remotely tell that here lay what remains of the finest footballing talent that this country has ever produced.
I couldn’t help but be reminded about how things turned out for the ‘Belfast Boy’. He is a Manchester United legend, and at the time of writing he is only seven appearances shy of being tenth in the list of all-time appearances for the club, not that he’ll ever get any higher. He is also the club’s joint-fifth top goal-scorer, having only recently been surpassed by Wayne Rooney. However, he quit the club in acrimonious circumstances at the age of twenty-seven, and even though his affinity with the United fans didn’t necessarily suffer, he still left behind him a sense of unfinished business and ‘what ifs’.
My mind then wandered to other players who have played important roles in the club’s history, and how it is often the case that the relationship between player and club gets severed quickly, sometimes even brutally. Very few players are afforded the luxury of ending on a high note.
There are many examples, and I can’t delve into all of them, but in my time at least, the first cases of fan favourites being shown the door were Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath. When Alex Ferguson took over in 1986, one of the first things he endeavoured to do was put an end to the drinking culture at the club, and so he removed two of the more guilty parties. Bryan Robson was perhaps even more culpable, but being such a key player, a blind eye was turned.
In 1993, Robson eventually won the championship he had been craving his whole career, just as it was drawing to a conclusion. Despite the combination of age, his continued injury problems, and the signing of Roy Keane, he stayed on for another campaign, and by the end of it United had the opportunity to claim the Double for the first time in their history. What more fitting way for ‘Captain Marvel’ to finish at the club he had served so well than to play in yet another FA Cup final? Well, his manager didn’t see it that way, and left him out of the squad. Ferguson has stated in interviews over the ensuing years that he thinks he made a mistake in not picking Robson for the bench at Wembley, although that’s easy to say with hindsight, seeing as United beat Chelsea 4–0. There seems to be absolutely no sentimentality when it comes to team selections for cup finals, which Jim Leighton and Steve Bruce could also attest to.
When Éric Cantona trudged off the Old Trafford pitch on St. George’s Day in 1997, United’s interest in that season’s European Cup wasn’t the only thing that had just ended. While his waistline had expanded, his motivation had diminished, and the talismanic Frenchman decided that he no longer had the desire to play the game he had adored his whole life. One of his issues was the commercialisation of the game, and how the club wanted to use his likeness and name to sell merchandise. Admittedly, I probably would have been first in line to buy my Cantona lunchbox and pencil case, so I can’t really relate to that particular grievance. After sneaking off, Éric would return several times over the years, including playing and scoring in the charity game played for the fortieth anniversary of the Munich air disaster, as well as making an appearance in the testimonial held for Alex Ferguson in 1999. He eventually got the send-off from the fans he deserved, and it is rare that a match goes by without the crowd breaking out into the Cantona version of La Marseillaise.
Peter Schmeichel could have changed profession and gone to work for Rolex, never mind transfer to another team, at the conclusion of his long goodbye in the summer of 1999, such was the glorious perfection of his timing. Few others, if any, have left a club on such a crescendo as the ‘Great Dane’ did, after claiming a fifth Premier League winner’s medal, a third FA Cup winner’s medal, and captaining the Reds to his first and the club’s second European Cup, all in the space of ten ridiculous days in May. Schmeichel would play at Old Trafford again a few times over the years after leaving, although I’ll most fondly remember seeing him keep goal in the ‘Soccer Aid’ charity match in May 2006, when for around twenty minutes he played so well that I was convinced he could still do it at the highest level. But then Jonathan Wilkes, a pal of Robbie Williams, made a dick out of him in front of the Stretford End, and that notion quickly vanished.
On the opening day of the 2001–02 Premier League season, United faced newly-promoted Fulham. The thoughts of an easy start quickly disappeared just four minutes into the encounter, when Louis Saha beautifully plucked a raking Sean Davis pass out of the air, and dumped the ball over Fabien Barthez into the back of the follicaly challenged Frenchman’s net. David Beckham equalised to send the teams in level at half-time, but Saha repeated his trick in the second half, giving the Londoners the lead again. On that occasion, just as for the first strike, the towering beast of the man that is Jaap Stam was nowhere to be seen. He had also looked well off the pace in the previous weekend’s Charity Shield match with Liverpool, and even got tortured during Ryan Giggs’ testimonial against Celtic prior to that. Three days later, when the Reds visited Blackburn, Stam found himself on the bench. The following Monday, he found himself being unveiled as Lazio’s newest signing. Ferguson explained that the decision had nothing to do with Stam’s recently published autobiography, in which he revealed his scathing opinions on several of his teammates, and also accused the United manager of tapping him up before his transfer from PSV Eindhoven. Instead, Stam was considered to have lost his pace after returning from an Achilles tendon injury, and because the club had, in Ferguson’s words, ‘fixed up another player … hopefully this boy’s qualities are suited to us.’ And who was this young green horn, who was going to change the way United defended? Thirty-five-year-old whippersnapper, Laurent Blanc.
Nine months later, a suit-clad David Beckham, who was still recovering from what was apparently the first broken metatarsal in recorded history, walked side-by-side with his delighted manager around the Old Trafford pitch. The reason for this was to publically celebrate the signing of a new three-year contract, the intention of which was to tie the England captain to the club until June 2005. However, twelve months on, the finest crosser of a ball of his generation would be getting presented to the Spanish press as Real Madrid’s latest galáctico. Most people know how the relationship between player and manager dramatically broke down, after Ferguson powerfully tucked a stray boot into the top left corner of Beckham’s face, and once the former decided that the latter’s time was up, he was shown the door. Beckham played a handful of times at Old Trafford again after his departure, although for nine years it would just be with England. He eventually returned to play in front of the United fans in 2010, during a loan spell with Milan, receiving a warm reception.
Perhaps the most famous of all sudden departures from Old Trafford was that of Roy Keane, in the autumn of 2005. On the morning of Friday, the eighteenth of November, during the usual weekly press conference, Alex Ferguson stated that Keane was almost ready to return to first-team duty, having broken his foot at Anfield a couple of months previously. Then, just a matter of hours later, the wily Scot was revealed to have been doing one of his famous Pinocchio impressions, as it was announced that after twelve-and-a-half years of service, Keane was no longer an employee of Manchester United. It is no secret that the separation was not particularly amicable, and even though there was a testimonial the following May, bad blood has remained. Keane has always been his own man, exceptionally out-spoken —a fact which ultimately led to his departure —and plenty of verbal barbs have been exchanged between Keane and Ferguson via the media since then. It continues to leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Quickly following Keane out the door was one of the very few colleagues at Manchester United that he supposedly got on with. Ruud van Nistelrooy’s frustrations with a certain crazy-legged winger were becoming more and more evident by the week, with a clear correlation between the frequency of Portuguese step-overs, wayward passes and errant shots, and Dutch hands on hips. Ruud had supposedly been looking out of Manchester for at least a year prior to the training ground bust-up with Cristiano Ronaldo that led to his black-balling by Alex Ferguson. Ferguson backed the other horse, no pun intended, and the rest is history. Van Nistelrooy stormed out of the team hotel on the morning of the final game of the season, with Ferguson citing issues with certain ‘individuals’ affecting team unity, and the Dutchman was never to return, as he wasn’t even permitted by Ferguson to take part in Roy Keane’s testimonial a few days later. Despite his leaving being greeted with confusion and disappointment by many fans, the old adage of ‘One bad egg ruins the batch’ was never more applicable, as a delicious, free-flowing footballing omelette was served up in his wake.
Lastly, Cristiano Ronaldo himself parted ways with the club after one of the most protracted transfer sagas in history. His annual flirting with Real Madrid, which began in earnest in the summer of 2006, after Wayne Rooney had attempted to castrate Ricardo Carvalho in Gelsenkirchen, and which only ended when he fulfilled his boyhood dream of signing for Los Merengues three years later, became particularly tiresome. One moment that sticks in the memory is of Ronaldo gesticulating wildly in defiance at his manager, when things weren’t quite going to plan in the crucial away game at Wigan towards the end of the 2008–09 season. However, despite the disappointment of yet another key member of the squad moving to the Spanish capital, the manner in which Cristiano has conducted himself in the intervening years has been nothing less than classy. One gets the impression that he would be welcomed back at Old Trafford in a heartbeat, and not just by the fans, but by the man the player himself has referred to as his ‘second dad’. I wish he was my second dad too.
That just leaves everyone to wonder who will be next on the receiving end of a sucker punch. There was talk recently of Wayne Rooney being a future United captain, however, based on past examples, it’s just as likely that the Toxteth native will find himself on his way out of Old Trafford sooner than expected, as the indiscretions continue to pile up. Just as he did for past star players, the manager has let Rooney off the hook several times during his eight years in Manchester, but sooner or later that patience might come to an end. Perhaps Rio Ferdinand will be cast aside this coming summer, just as Gary Pallister and Jaap Stam were, when the first had young competition for places, and the second was considered to have become too slow. Whoever it is, it’ll probably be quick, but it won’t necessarily be painless.