Harry Gregg passed away just about a week ago. For those who may not know, he was the goalkeeper on the Manchester United team, many of whom perished in the Munich Air Disaster of 1958 – when the aircraft carrying the Red Devils crashed after several failed take-off attempts in a blizzard. The Northern Irishman was credited with saving the lives of his teammates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Violet as well as a mother and newborn baby.
Naturally, given Charlton’s status within the global game – never mind the club – in many ways he became the public face of the tragedy. Particularly after the death of Sir Matt Busby in 1993. Similar, if not even more exalted status, was conferred upon the former custodian. Whenever that February day long ago came up, he was always one of those interviewed.
Perhaps unbelievably, the ex-No. 1 didn’t collect any honours during his career at Old Trafford. Yet he was one of the beacons of everything that’s good about the club over the years. It is probably an understatement of gargantuan proportions to say similar comments applied – and indeed still do – to Sir Alex Ferguson.
When considering the position in which the club currently finds itself, it’s worth remembering a few things. Firstly that the great Scot was in position for five years before garnering any silverware. And secondly – the following is more pertinent in this case – whoever came after the man from Govan was going to be on a hiding to nothing.
While acknowledging that the football landscape has altered almost beyond recognition in the interim, and certainly not for the better either, there should also be a realisation that in many ways the rebuilding job currently being undertaken by Ole Gunnar Solksjaer is not dissimilar to what his own former boss had years before in the defenestration of players such as Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and others.
It may well be the case that the man from Molde has been given more latitude owing to being a fan favourite than may have been the case if he wasn’t. However, my suspicion is that United’s current berth in the league is an accurate indicator of their current standing within their domestic game. In other words, it wouldn’t matter if J.C. himself was in charge of them, they wouldn’t be any better. To even think anything else is a case of unrealistic expectations based on harking back to the past.
Certainly, trumpeting of Mauricio Pochettino to replace the 1999 European Cup hero appears to have lost some of the inflated zest with which it was being pontificated. Simply because this season has proven the admittedly commendable results achieved last season to be down to Harry Kane and luck in equally large measure. Shorn of the England front man and even with Jose Mourinho – who to my mind is a better manager than Poch will ever be – at the helm, they have regressed to their inconsistent selves.
Point being that offloading the manager isn’t always the answer. Whether United fans might admit it or not, Liverpool are one of the most decorated clubs in the game. Still, they haven’t won a domestic league title in three decades despite a handful of manager changes. Yet each of the newcomers brought something new to the role.
Domestic and even European Cup triumphs came along but they always managed to slip up at home. That tide may be turning though. In fact, in one sense it already has. In that when Jurgen Klopp didn’t garner the Holy Grail straight away, the club reaped the reward of not panicking and pressing the eject button straight away.
Not only by way of how they fashioned a truly remarkable sixth coronation as the top team on the continent but, even more breathtakingly, the manner in which they have sculpted pursuance of the Premiership title into not so much a race as a victory march. Doing so playing football commensurate with Arsenal’s Invincibles and the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola at their zenith.
There’s a lesson in that for Manchester United – and other clubs too. The simple and/or obvious solution isn’t always the right one. In other words, the clamor for Ole to be ousted every time they lose a match is as needless as it is damaging. He on the sideline is not the problem. Blame for the malaise which currently infests the club lies squarely in the Director’s Box and the Boardroom.
As well as that, the constant overtures towards removing the man in the dugout makes even less sense when it’s considered that Frank Lampard has overseen an equally patchy campaign over at Chelsea yet there’s no talk of pressure on his position.
Now, when this was mentioned to somebody recently, the argument was that there wouldn’t be the same levels of expectations at Stamford Bridge as the home of the Red Devils. This seems scarcely credible, though, when it’s a club owned by Roman Abramovich you’re talking about. A man who has a penchant for changing managers more than most people change their vehicles.
Some would probably counter such assertions about the off-field power brokers in Manchester by pinpointing the financial outlay there has been on transfers since the greatest manager of all time left the hot seat. Ask yourself, though, when was the last time United signed a really top player or were even in the running to. Doubtless, many would probably pinpoint Paul Pogba in that category. But the enigmatic Frenchman seems to spend more time injured or sulking than actually on the pitch.
Thus you’d wonder if, as seems likely, he does depart again, would he actually be that big of a loss. On a purely football basis of course he would. Being rid of the sideshows which accompany the player – chief among them his interfering agent – might be no loss. Of even greater concern to those who run the club, including the manager, should be the amount of top players they have missed out on in recent years.
Depending on where you want to start, Pedro, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Matthijas de Ligt and Erling Haaland are all players who, you suspect, at different times would have leaped at the opportunity to ply their trade at Old Trafford. For whatever reason, that’s not the irresistible proposition it once was.
Perhaps in this instance the obvious explanation, the lack of Champions League football is the deciding factor. Maybe, also, Solksjaer isn’t the most attractive manager to work with. Though in Haaland’s case he had already done so at Molde. For all that, mind you, there have been signs, however stuttering they may be, of something better taking shape.
In Marcus Rashford they have one of the best forwards in the game. To be fair, Anthony Martial has dovetailed with the No. 10 to great effect. Maybe even more significantly, the Frenchman has stepped up to the plate with impressive fervor since he strike partner has been laid up with injury. Add to that, the productivity of Mason Greenwood any time he has featured and there’s surely enough cause for optimism to stave off the temptation to give the Norwegian his P45 at the end of the season.
The acquisition of Harry Maguire appears to have gone some way at least to curing inefficiencies in defence which have plagued any attempts at progress since the retirement of Rio Ferdinand.
The other area in which shortcomings have been glaring is in midfield. Centrally in particular. Again, however, steps have been taken to alleviate this impediment with the infusion of Daniel James and Bruno Fernandes to that sector. Already the latter has made a discernible impact in his new job while this corner must also eat humble pie as the contribution of Fred has improved markedly since the last time a soccer related piece was keyboarded here.
Having said all of the above, they are far from the finished article. Personally speaking, I’d like to see them bring in another striker. Notwithstanding the praise deservedly already lavished on Mason Greenwood, I do feel it may be asking a little too much of the youngster at this formative stage of his career to be the main backup to Rashford and Martial.
That the club has found themselves in such a position must call into question the wisdom, or lack thereof to be frank, of allowing Romelu Lukaku to leave. Especially given the alacrity with which the Belgian has been finding the onion bag in Serie A.
When all of the above factors are brought together, it may actually be the case that Solksjaer is doing quite the good job in the circumstances which he finds himself operating in. He should be allowed continue that work for the foreseeable future at least.