Easter Saturday, 1993. The talented but luckless David Hirst gives Sheffield Wednesday a very early lead at Old Trafford. On a day that, if Manchester United won, they would virtually have one hand on their first League title in over a quarter of a century. Having blown a similarly promising position previously against Leeds United, questioning of their fortitude was quite understandable.
Something not helped when they’d lost two of their first three games in the newly formed Premier League to Sheffield United and Everton respectively. The latter a 3-0 home trouncing. As is often the case though, momentum was the biggest game changer as United went on an astounding run of results.
What nobody would have foreseen was it was Aston Villa who gave closest pursuit to Alex Ferguson’s charges. Meaning that, as the season wound down, the Red Devils needed every single point available.
It was yhen that one of the oldest pieces of sporting advice ever imparted in this direction. You find your good players when you’re getting beat. Fitting, then, that it was Steve Bruce, the captain, and his rearguard sidekick, Gary Pallister, who combined, with the former essaying two bullet headers home. Giving his side the win they so desperately needed. Sending Fergie and Brian Kidd delirious on the sideline.
Reason for mentioning all of the above was as follows. It was the beginning of a spell of dominance for United that continued unabated for the best part of a decade. The most obvious exception being 1994/’95 campaign when they were devoid of Eric Cantona, who at the time had developed an avid interest in spotting trawlers!
One couldn’t help thinking of same whilst looking at Everton deservedly end a couple of long runs at Anfield. Namely, their 22-year wait for a win at the venue and, even more significantly, the home team suffering four consecutive home defeats for the first time since 1923.
Now, this almost seems overly simplistic, but, the sudden drop in defencive efficiency within Jurgen Klopp’s team could be traced right back to the felling of Virgil Van Dijk. Was it accidental? I’ll let you decide. But it was hardly coincidence that Carlo Ancelotti’s charges cut through the hometown defences with the Dutchman wasn’t there to put his finger in the dyke. Not to mention that he and the goalscorer have a past.
Of course, Richarlison’s well finished effort was only that starting point for what ended up being a fourth consecutive reverse in front of an empty Kop. Surely spelling the end for what has been a surprisingly weak title defence. Though maybe on reflection it shouldn’t much of a turn up because, imperious and all as the eventual champions were last term, much of what they achieved was centred almost entirely around a triumvirate of Van Dijk, Mo Salah and Sadio Maine. All of whom have been among the most afflicted by the injury-nightmare which has undoubtedly hindered their output. Mostly because it actually underscored how dependent they were on a small core group. In short, the outgoing kingpins have been found to have a debilitating dearth of strength in depth.
Having said that, they haven’t become a bang average team suddenly, but, this season has exposed the reality that they are not bionic either and very evidently need re-inforcements at the back and in midfield. And on initial evidence, their loan signing Kamak isn’t cutting it.
Switching from Liverpool to Limerick – or Edinburgh to be more accurate – and there was clear evidence that Munster have, at long last, acquired that very commodity of which the red side of the Mersey is so evidently short – a bit of quality to draft in off the bench when the ‘starters’ as they are known in basketball have run their course on a given day.
In fact, it was quite obvious, actually, that Johann Van Graan’s team actually increased their productivity when Ben Healy took over at fly half in windy and wet Murrayfield last Saturday night. Since sustaining a serious neck injury a couple of years ago now, it is beyond doubt that Conor Murray is but a shadow of the dominant, play-making scrum half who ascended to being the best in the world in his area of expertise not all that long ago.
Which has undoubtedly blunted the effectiveness of the southern province in the collective sense. Again, however, a remedy would appear to be close at hand. In the guise of the diminutive but dynamic Craig Casey. Though it may seem unlikely, the No. 9 is even smaller in stature than Peter Stringer. Yet, if a spectator arrived in Thomond Park without a match programme, they could be forgiven for thinking the two time Heineken Cup winner had underwent a hair transplant and come out of retirement.
While the options in the half back line are without question the most important in terms of immediacy, it is actually that fresh talent is manifesting itself for other areas of the field is perhaps the most significant development.
From Kevin O’Byrne at hooker to Jeremy Loughman, Fineen Wycherely, Jack O’Donoghue, Shane Daly and Casey, Munster now have enough cover to mount serious challenges on all fronts. Until they sort out the problem at No. 10, mind you, European negotiations might be as difficilt for them as they currently are for Boris!