Sports and superstition make for odd bedfellows. In my everyday life, I like to keep an open mind on the “big questions”. Part of that is because quite frankly, it’s the healthiest outlook to have. On the other hand and somewhat less commendably, keeping “an open mind” also keeps me away from one of my least favourite situations: being wrong.
But I digress…
In terms of being superstitious, I’m usually not. When it comes to religion, again I keep an open mind. However, all of that falls by the wayside when it comes to the tenser moments of watching my teams.
I recall a time in my teens when I was heavily pondering the existence of God. And by God, I mean the mysterious omnipotent supreme being that reputedly created everything, not Eric Cantona, Matt Le Tissier or Mike Magee. Apologies if that offends anyone but when you’re blogging about soccer, people can take that three-letter word to mean a number of things.
Anyhoo, I was questioning the existence of said supreme being. I was even leaning a bit towards “He probably doesn’t exist”. It wasn’t til later that evening that I found myself exhibiting far more faith than I realised I had. Man United were losing to Everton. In my anxiety, I found myself putting my hands together and mumbling a quiet prayer to myself. Jordi Cruyff promptly scored. If that wasn’t miraculous, I don’t know what is.
It’s out of superstition (as well as a busy personal life and work schedule) that I haven’t written about Man United’s recent good run. It’s not just been the results – there have been actual strong performances against worthy opposition.
In my experience, there is nothing more likely to derail the performances of a team quite like a fan declaring to the world how great it all is. Naturally, after a creditable performance despite losing to Chelsea, I wanted to see if the standard of play at least would continue against Everton. As most of you will surely know, it didn’t.
It was certainly an interesting run though, for many reasons. I’ve been playing “wait and see” with Man United managers ever since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his hairdryer a couple of seasons back. Finally, it looks like things are moving in the right direction, the Everton match notwithstanding.
The odd thing though, is that for all the money spent in the summer and what I hear and read about Man United fans’ feelings about particular players, three deserving credit for this run are names that many have wanted gone for a while.
If you had told me a year ago that we’d have Louis Van Gaal in the fold, had spent an obscene amount of money to get the likes of Di Maria, Falcao and Rojo and that despite this, our strategy during our best run would be centered largely around taking advantage of Marouane Fellaini’s physical attributes…. I’d assume you’d been on whatever it is that Rafa Benitez uses immediately before press conferences.
Football fans can be hugely critical and never more so than when they’re discussing the misfortunes of their own team. Yet when the chips were down this season and we entered our most daunting run of games, it wasn’t the expensive marquee talents that many of us felt were needed who stepped up. It was Fellaini, Young and Valencia pushing themselves beyond their perceived limits to get things done.
That’s not to say that they alone have been responsible and one guy who is probably more important than he can ever get credit for is Michael Carrick. Though highly regarded, I still don’t think the level to which he operates as a retainer and deep-lying playmaker is truly appreciated. Alongside him, Ander Herrera is in my humble opinion, proving to be the true stand-out among this summer’s acquisitions. Completing the trio is Juan Mata, adding a bit more invention to the elegant industry of his partners.
I also think Rooney deserves a mention. This is a guy who has been up and down during his career both in terms of form and how he’s perceived by United fans. The transfer request in particular burnt away a lot of good will. Ferguson’s parting shot was of course that Rooney wanted to leave again and was disgruntled at being played out of position.
Yet this season, Rooney has played wherever asked and never shown any sign of giving less than his best. I’m not sold on him as a midfielder. He has heart and determination alongside a well-rounded set of attributes but asking him to relearn such an intricate role at this stage in his career is a waste of his peak in my view.
My biggest concern going forward is how we cope without Carrick. Everton may have been a blip and in truth, our primary issue was creating chances against a stubborn defence. Still, you would hope that Carrick would have done a better job of handling those lethal breakaways.
So once again, I’m back to waiting to see. I stand by my position before the season: Van Gaal should at the minimum get this team into Europe. It’s not that I can’t handle the team not winning titles or indeed any lack of success. Uncertainty certainly makes for a more interesting experience and a better feeling when success arrives.
However, from a more practical standpoint, with the resources, reputation and related advanatges that Manchester United wield, there is little excuse for not being in the top four of this league.
I’m hopeful, but cautiously so and out of selective superstition… I won’t be saying it too loud.