The road to Wembley is never easy, particularly when fires engulf the M1, leaving footballing pilgrims with a hard shoulder to cry on.
By Henry Winter
If Sir Alex Ferguson’sManchester United are to rival the remarkable feats of the club’s illustrious Treble-winners they must prevail three times at Wembley. If they do, United should get to keep the place.
As United and their fans converge on the Football Association HQ, one figure will dance seductively in front of them: 99. It is the number of goals United have scored this season and the year so indelibly associated with the Treble.Manchester City hope to silence the “we’re Man United, we do what we want” hordes but the sense of history and momentum with United is inescapable.
Arguably less charismatic than the Class of 99, Ferguson’s current crop share their strength in depth and strength of character. Partying like it’s 1999 may ultimately prove elusive, particularly with such stellar sides as Barcelona or Real Madrid still orbiting the European galaxy, but there is a steely determination to Ferguson’s team and, as in 99, Plan B looks good.
Wayne Rooney, the best all-round centre forward in the country, will watch from the sidelines as he is suspended so Ferguson calmly turns to Dimitar Berbatov, the Premier League’s leading scorer.
United’s manager can also start the impact player of the year, Javier Hernández, the most precocious young finisher in the land. Ferguson can also call on Michael Owen, so prolific down the years.
However, Ferguson revealed that another Owen – Hargreaves – had suffered a fresh injury setback and would not play again this season. The midfielder, who is out of contract in the summer, is still in talks with United over a new, pay-as-you-play deal at Old Trafford.
The presence of four thoroughbreds in Ferguson’s striking stable draws inevitable comparisons with 1999. When Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke struggled to break down Bayern Munich in the Champions League final, Ferguson famously brought on Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The rest was history.
Berbatov for Rooney? Class replaces class. Berbatov, who began the season coming off the bench and striking up an instant understanding with Hernández in the Community Shield, will be hungry for a third start in 11 games.
“It’s unfortunate for Dimitar because he’s a fantastic player but the reasons are obvious,’’ reflected Ferguson of the Bulgarian’s frequent understudying.
“The emergence of Hernández in the last couple of months has been startling. He’s improving all the time and it’s very difficult to leave a player out when he hits that kind of form.
“Every player in this country has faced that at some point in their career, when another player emerges to challenge you. That’s why players like [Ryan] Giggs and [Paul] Scholes are driven to make sure their standards are really, really high. Anyone who takes their place has got to be good. That’s the great challenge footballers have.’’
That appetite manifests itself in a formidable will to win. “There’s a great determination in our players,’’ continued Ferguson. “They fight for every corner.”
Competition for places can create unhealthy dressing room micro-climates elsewhere. Not at United. A camaraderie exists among Ferguson’s players that ensures natural individual professional rivalry never damages the collective.
All for one, one for all and all that. Take Rio Ferdinand; the centre half has helped Chris Smalling develop, the master aware the apprentice may replace him one day. Smalling is expected to start today.
“I’m lucky in the bunch of players I’ve got,’’ continued Ferguson, his eyes typically lighting up as he discussed favoured footballers. “It wouldn’t matter which game we were going into, I’d believe in these players. They’ve got a great momentum about them, which is fantastic to have at this stage.”
Indeed. United have won their last seven. On Saturday they hunt their 100th goal of the season (70 in the league, 12 in Europe, eight in the League Cup, six in the FA Cup and three in the Community Shield). A momentum grows that stirs memories of 12 years ago.
The link with the past finds its most thrilling echo in Hernández, the Mexican gunslinger whose immediate impact was compared to that of Solskjaer, the “baby-faced assassin” from Norway who joined in 1996 and sealed the Treble three years later.
Upon signing, Ferguson immediately took Solskjaer to one side and told him: “Your first season will be all about integration, getting used to the club, getting used to the training.” Intelligent and hard-working, Solskjaer settled quickly. He starred in a couple of reserve outings, scoring a hat-trick against Leeds. “He’s first-team quality,” Jim Ryan informed Ferguson. “There’s no point in him playing reserve-team football.”
So Ferguson put Solskjaer on the bench against Blackburn. He came on and scored within six minutes. A legend was born.
Ferguson is not the type to freight a youngster down with an excessive cargo of expectation. He willingly did it with Hernández. Comparisons with Solskjaer were permissible. “It was the same with Hernández,’’ said Ferguson. “When he came in we felt it would take him time to bed in, particularly having come in from Central America.’’
Hernández actually enjoyed a head start, having featured in the World Cup, “a competition much tougher than anything in which Ole had played in Norway”, added Ferguson. “There were a lot of unknowns about Ole, and we took a bit of a gamble. We saw him a few times, he was young, but we couldn’t measure his talent in the same way we could with Hernández.”
Ferguson still admits to being surprised by the ease in which the ‘Little Pea’ has slotted in to the United pod. He takes up fabulous positions in the area, almost having a sixth sense of where the ball is going to drop. “He’s fantastic,” enthused Ferguson.
“He has a natural instinct in moving about the box. There have been a few top strikers who’ve had that quality. Ole was one, so was Gary Lineker, always being in space in the box, and having a natural instinct to do that.
“Lineker probably never scored a good goal in his life. It would always come off his chest, his shin or it would get a rebound off the goalkeeper. But he was always in really good areas, good positions, and Hernández has got a natural talent to move around in the box and make space. And his timing is terrific.”
United began to appreciate how revered Hernández was on a pre-season tour of the United States when Mexican exiles queued for 24 hours to get their shirts signed by him. According to the club, United shirts are selling like hot tortillas in Mexico. A Treble, even a Double, would go nicely with that.