Press Red this week welcomes a new “host” – former Manchester United player, the mid 90’s reserves hot-shot Alex Notman – and some fantastic guests to kick off 2012.
Times journalist Oliver Kay and CNN sports presenter and reporter Alex Thomas joined Press Red regular, Daystar frontman Simon Monaghan to chew the fat over some meaty topics. Top of the agenda was the Luis Suarez race row, but first the guys discussed United’s 2011 and their current form.
Alex, welcome back – let’s begin with something fairly light hearted, your best of 2011?
AN : My best player of 2011 in the Premier League would be Gareth Bale… I would love to see him at United. But for me Lionel Messi is the best player in the world. Well, my favourite goal has to be Wayne Rooney’s goal against Man City.. to do that in a any game, let alone the winner in a derby game… pure class! My favourite game of 2011 has to be Barcelona 3, Real Madrid 2 in the Spanish Super Cup… that game had everything!
It did – and I agree with your Bale assessment, if we could cherry pick a player from the league, he’d be the one. Simon, on to you… A Premier League title and a Champions League Final. Breaking records in England. The eventual emergence of local rivals as serious ones, a rude awakening at Wembley… How will Sir Alex have viewed 2011?
SM : If I were him, I would be happy with what we achieved but apprehensive about whether this current crop of players have what it takes to hold of the challenge of Man City. Of course the nineteenth Premier League title was fantastic considering we were weaker then we have been for a while but it is only papering over the cracks in my opinion. Champions League final we were totally dominated with 37% of the possession and one shot on goal. It was embarrassing that we didn’t perform better. Man City’s emergence is no surprise as with that amount of money behind them they can achieve what they want but they are like Michael Carroll… Lottery Lout Millionaire… where they are skint and nothing goes right and then they hit the lottery. But in City’s usual style they will only go and mess it all up and end up skint and losing just like Michael Carroll did. Good luck to ‘em though.
OK : Definitely a success in terms of results on the pitch. To win the Premier League title (again) and reach the Champions League final (again) were two great feats with a squad that looked less than formidable. And to go into 2012 with only goal difference keeping them off first place was another great feat in a season that has seen a lot of changes to the squad. The one big problem of 2011, which he appeared certain was not going to arise, was the emergence of City as a very credible, competitive force. And it’s a bigger problem for United going forward.
AT : Sir Alex will look back on the last twelve months with mixed feelings. Breaking Liverpool’s record to become English champions for a nineteenth time was a hugely important landmark for him and the club, but he was very dispirited to see United totally outplayed, again, in the Champions League Final. It is common knowledge that Sir Alex craves another European title, above all else, before he retires. The United boss loves a challenge and that’s how he’ll view City’s emergence and the only frustration about the “noisy neighbours” will be their superior resources in the transfer market.
AN : I think he will be very pleased obviously to win his 19th league title and finally take over Liverpool’s record. I don’t think he will be happy in losing in the Champions League Final… it won’t be the defeat, but the way they lost that night. He will be pleased he has got some youth through into the team in the shape of Welbeck and Cleverley and made a great signing in Jones. I’m sure… as much as he would hate to admit it, I’m sure he has got one eye over his shoulder with the emergence of City and to lose 6-1, I’m sure will be his lowest point of 2011.
Wayne Rooney had a good 2011 after a dodgy end to 2010. Already in the news with talk of his potential departure due to an alleged bust up with Fergie. Do you read anything into it?
AN : No, I don’t think so. We all know the gaffer is not someone you mess with – as he’s proved in the past it doesn’t matter who you are, he will get rid of you! But I’m sure as long as the gaffer is at the club so too will Wayne Rooney.
OK : I don’t see this forcing a split. I was told on Sunday, after the news came out in the Mail on Sunday, that the matter was closed and both parties had drawn a line. He was recalled for the game against Newcastle (though he played abysmally). People have said to me repeatedly, though, that they cannot see the Ferguson-Rooney relationship ever getting back to what it was before the transfer request. When you think about that, it’s hardly surprising. I don’t think it would necessarily take a huge incident to bring tensions back to the boil. For a journalist, it’s a situation that is definitely worth watching very closely.
SM : I think there is more to this than meets the eye. I remember Rooney making a pledge that he intended to spend the rest of his career trying to match the standards of Lionel Messi. That’s not happening. It’s times like this we need Rooney to drag us through as he is the only player we have with any balls at the moment but he is just letting us down…
AT : It’s clear that Rooney’s and Ferguson’s relationship isn’t what it once was but it’s not the reason United are looking shaky. Rooney’s form has often been up and down, through good times and bad, and the only thing that’s certain is he will score goals again.
That bust up came about due to – apparently – a breach of club discipline. With the integrity of football clubs coming under some scrutiny, how important is it that United send a message out that club rules should be taken seriously? And should they do that even though the consequences of such action could manifest itself in results such as the Blackburn game? Kevin Pilkington wrote in his Premier League review for 7Cantonas that he was one of a few punished behind closed doors and that it’s “always been the way”…
AT : In many ways it’s surprising that football clubs ever take disciplinary action against their players nowadays – especially if that person is crucial to the side’s chances, like Rooney is. Sport is big business, there is so much at stake and players are more powerful than ever before. However, there is still the question of authority which may well have been the central issue here. The manager’s word must be final for him to effectively run the team. Sad to say that integrity is rarely a factor in modern football.
SM : I think its very important. Fergie has always said that no player is bigger than the club so I think its absolutely vital he treats everyone the same no matter who you are.
OK : We had a really good discussion about this on the Game podcast the other day. The French journalist Julien Laurens, who was one of the guests, came up with the suggestion that, rather than being dropped, Rooney have been humiliated by having to wash the kit and carry out chores at the training ground all week. I liked the sound of that. But if you want to teach Rooney a lesson, the only real way to do it is to take his ball off him and make him watch from the sidelines. Having said all of that, do you think Fergie would have taken this approach before a “bigger” match against a “better” team, eg. a title decider? I don’t.
AN : Yes they have to, you cant have one rule for one and one for another. If Rooney has breached the rules then he has to be punished, the same as any other player regardless of how things are going on the pitch. The gaffer has proved in the past that no one player is bigger than the club.
SM : I think it’s very important. Fergie has always said that no player is bigger than the club so I think its absolutely vital he treats everyone the same no matter who you are.
Prior to the Newcastle game Sir Alex said that he was dropping De Gea for his mistake against Blackburn – is that harsh, or should Lindegaard be number 1 for now?
AN : No, as I think he has made a few mistakes this season, but as everyone knows when a goalkeeper makes a mistake it normally results in conceding a goal. I think the gaffer has to either stick with De Gea or give Lindegaard a run in the side now to try and get a settled back four and goalkeeper. The third goal against newcastle the other night came from a misunderstanding from Jones and the keeper and I believe that comes from them not playing together very much.
AT : I think the goalkeeper position has turned into a huge problem for United and it’s been exacerbated by all the defensive injuries, especially Nemanja Vidic’s. Without him, the keeper needs to be a respected leader and neither De Gea nor Lindegaard are. The Spaniard is more experienced, though, so I would pick him consistently and try to bolster his confidence.
OK : To me Lindegaard looks assured and solid but lacks the quality to be a top-class goalkeeper. He’s also 27 and a very inexperienced 27 at that. De Gea has wonderful agility and ability but right now he’s low on the assurance and confidence that a Manchester United goalkeeper needs. He’s made some brilliant saves, but he has not (yet) come close to recovering from that nervous, erratic start. Hopefully in time he will because he has the far greater potential of the two, but I’m not convinced that taking him out of the firing line will help his long-term development. The important thing is that the goalkeeping coaches work on his obvious weaknesses when it comes to dealing with high balls. Who should play on Sunday? I would instinctively say De Gea, but only on the basis that I would have kept him in for the game at Newcastle. Endless rotation doesn’t help either of them.
SM : Lindegaard has been good but against teams like Norwich, Wigan, Fulham etc is where his clean sheets came from. De Gea is a flapper but an all round better keeper. It’s hard to choose between them really. De Gea needs to eat a good meal so he can cope with the English game. Eric Steele will break him down and rebuild him. He needs to forget what he has learnt in Spain as their style of play is different to ours. I think you have to show trust in him though and give him 75% of the games at the moment.
The Newcastle game exposed the Reds’ deficiencies with some cruelty. Supporters have had to accept for around 12 months that our midfield is inferior to the likes of Tottenham, who with all respect didn’t even qualify for the Champions League last season. We were right to panic when Rafael and Park lined up in centre midfield against Blackburn and on the podcast for this website we predicted and called that in Tiote and Cabaye, Newcastle had a more effective midfield partnership than anything we could manage. Familiar buzz words like “transition” are being thrown about, but with the flaws so obvious, should Ferguson be acting now to solve the problem?
AT : Again, injuries haven’t helped when it comes to the midfield problem. Darren Fletcher is missed and there is very little attacking inspiration coming from the centre of the park. Ferguson will be fully aware of this and, despite what he has said publicly, I’m sure he’ll try to strengthen in this area in January – but (and it’s a big but) only if the right player becomes available at the right price. I just don’t believe United are capable of going and splashing a record amount of cash on a world famous name like they have done in the past.
AN : Yeah, I think he should be trying very hard to sign two or three players in this transfer window, I believe that could be difference in winning the league or not. United haven’t got the strength in depth in the squad that they have had in years gone by. They used to be able to make four or five changes each week depending on the team they were playing but I don’t believe the squad is good enough to do that anymore as proved in the last few games.
SM : Well, there was the story today about Frank Lampard coming to United. I’d be all for that. He is a great professional and scores a lot from midfield which we lack. It would also give Cleverley more of a chance to establish himself without all the pressure & expectation that he currently has upon him. In my humble opinion though Tiote is a player we need. A midfield destroyer who strikes fear into opponents. I’m sorry, but Carrick is not that player.
Brilliant point about what a senior signing like Lampard could do for the expectation on Cleverley… Oliver?
OK : No, he should have been acting two or three summers ago when it became obvious that Hargreaves was a long-term problem. He’s right when he says there’s very little availability or value to be found in the January market, but this isn’t a sudden problem that has arisen mid-season. United’s midfield has been their weak point for a long time. Even when Carrick, Fletcher and Scholes, between them, were doing so well for the most part from 06/07 to 08/09, it was the area of the team where United came up short most often. Anderson and Hargreaves were signed to rectify that, but neither worked out. (Anderson has some admirers but I’m not one of them.) There are injury problems at the moment, but that is only making a bad situation look worse. I’m amazed that, having lost Hargreaves and Scholes, decided that Gibson wasn’t going to make it and been faced with a serious long-term issue with Fletcher, Ferguson didn’t buy at least one midfielder in the summer. Amazed. (And I don’t mean a Sneijder type.)
Phil Jones had a blistering start to the season but has found himself criticised because alongside Rio Ferdinand he hasn’t always been brilliant in the centre of defence – is this a fair criticism? And if so, would it be better to continue playing Jones in the combative midfield role he was enjoying a couple of weeks ago?
AN : Yeah I think he is better in midfield, but with there being so many centre halves out injured he is in there covering. It takes a long time to build up a partnership which can only be done by playing together week in, week out, and with it being such a crucial position he has come in for a bit of stick. Once everyone is fit I’m sure he will be played in midfield and will start to perform like he was at the start of the season. In my opinion, he will go on to be a United and England regular for years to come.
OK : I must admit to having been a little surprised by the extent of some of the praise showered on him by some of my Fleet Street colleagues. He’s assured, he’s confident and I like seeing a defender with the confidence to bring the ball out from the back, but I thought he and United defended very poorly in the opening weeks of the season. He’s 19 and he’s got a lot to learn. He’s got great qualities and great potential, but I’m still not certain what his best position will be. Short-term, United’s needs are such that he is going to have to play wherever there is the greater emergency. (Digression: if O’Shea had stayed, he would have had a hell of a lot of games in the last few weeks. I said in the summer that United would miss him at times, given how many of United’s defenders are injury-prone.)
AT : Phil Jones’ progress this season is simply typical football. When you are confident and winning, everything goes your way and the future is easy and bright. That horrible own goal against Newcastle demonstrated the flip side; you get no luck when times are tough. Jones’ self confidence – one of his strengths a few months ago – is deserting him. But there is no hiding place at Old Trafford. He was bought as a defender. That’s where he should play and he needs to dig deep to rediscover his own form and help the team reclaim theirs.
SM : One thing that Harry Redknapp is good at is playing players in their natural position and although Jones played well in midfield he needs a run at centre back so we can see what he is made of, or if Fergie thinks he is a natural defensive midfielder then give him a serious run there. Don’t keep playing him everywhere.
I mean, playing Carrick at centre back when he had been playing decent in midfield and leaving Fryers on the bench who can play centre back. We lacked a good centre midfield and Carrick played centre back? Didn’t make any sense not to give Fryers a start against the bottom club!
Returning to the topic of integrity in football, the biggest story of the last few weeks has been the Suarez and Evra race row. Suarez has been found guilty of making racist comments to Evra – what is your opinion of how Liverpool have behaved since the announcement, and do you think 8 games is an adequate suspension?
SM : I think for Liverpool to back him publicly was disgraceful. They are obviously buzzing of having someone as good as Suarez and would be even worse than now without him so have blindly backed him. There is no place for racism in football and Liverpool should be taking action internally as well. He said that in his country that the word ‘Negro’ does not show a lack of respect? Why did he say to Evra that he doesn’t talk to ‘Negros’ then? Surely that is a lack of respect in any country?
In any case in Uruguay it may be ‘OK’ for people to use that term (as described in Suarez’s defence) but he is a earning a living in our country and should have a little more respect for what is right and wrong here. If someone white and from England like say ‘John Terry’ were to… Kenny Dalglish tweeting ‘Let’s not let him walk alone’? That is an insult to the family of the Hillsborough disaster using the words to that song to get the Liverpool fans to back a racist? I lost respect for him after that.
OK : Rightly or wrongly, eight games surprised me at the time. I thought he would get something like a four-game ban with a longer suspended ban. What has damaged his and Liverpool’s case in the eyes of the a lot of the public — and certainly a lot of the media — is the club’s reaction to the ban, i.e the lack of contrition and the initial refusal even to apologise for “any offence taken”, which is the least anyone should say in those circumstances. It needed a more measured, more level-headed response from the start. Going to war with Evra, the FA and the world beyond has not done them or their case any good.
AT : Liverpool’s behaviour has been shocking and they’ve severely dented the club’s image. Suarez’s apology was weak and late and should have mentioned Evra by name. Although the Frenchman is certainly no saint and the FA would have been well within their rights to charge him based on his evidence of his part in the incident. A linguistics expert from S America told me Suarez’s defense, that “negro” – in Spanish – is harmless, is nonsense. To anyone other than close friends and family it is offensive and racist. And if this had happened at another JW Henry club, the Boston Red Sox, my CNN colleagues in the States would have had a field day.
AN : To be honest I’m not surprised by how Liverpool have reacted as he is their player and they will do anything to protect him. But as he has been found guilty of making racist comments, does it do the club more harm than good? It’s hard to say whether 8 games is adequate or not but one thing’s for sure, there is no place for racism in football!
Is Suarez’s apology a step in the right direction or, as Jim White in the Telegraph says, do Liverpool need to “quickly and publicly change tack?”
AN : Yeah I see it as a step in the right direction but surely he should have come out and made this statement straight away! No matter how many apologies he makes he’s going to find it difficult playing in England now!
OK : Publicly, I think they have done in the last 24 hours. Privately, they are still seething about the process. The Suarez apology is too little too late — not least because their initial belligerence is what made the climate so hostile to an appeal, which they have been forced to drop. If they had been a little more conciliatory and level-headed at the start, no one would have begrudged them an appeal.
AT : I don’t think Liverpool will change tack and the damage is already done. For me, Tony Evans in The Times has nailed this topic every time he’s written about it.
SM : Listen, what Suarez is doing and what Liverpool and Dalglish will probably do is nothing but damage limitation.
We’re halfway through the season – so, from this point, your prediction for who will win the title, and the player who will make the difference?
AN : My heart is telling me United, but if I am to be totally honest, then I think as much as I hate to say it, it is going to be very difficult to stop City… City are going to lose a couple of influential players to the African Nations tournament so it will be interesting to see how they cope with that and if United can add one or two players, then they may just pip City to the title!
SM : I wouldn’t be surprised if City won it but I still have faith that we can turn it around. We have the one thing that money cannot buy and that is the greatest manager in the history of football. City on paper last season were better than us and are even more so this season but a top manager like Fergie can weigh things in our favour.
The player who can make the difference is Rooney if he sorts his head out. Outside United we need a player like Tiote or Sniejder who can make a difference to our midfield.
OK : City to win the title. And while David Silva has been their best player so far, I think the ones who will make the “difference” in the title race are Hart and Kompany because, in the absence of Vidic, United do not have anything like that same solidity at the back.
AT : At the start of the season, I think I picked Manchester United to defend their title and I hate changing my mind. But City have been hugely impressive, they’ve got a stronger squad and the champions have their work cut out. The player who could make a difference isn’t at United… yet.
Thanks to both Alex’s, Oliver and Simon for their time.
Alex Notman joined Twitter today – you can follow him here.
Oliver Kay is a football correspondent for the Times. Follow him on Twitter.
Simon Monaghan is the front man for Manchester band Daystar. You can follow him on Twitter here, view their official website here, listen to their music on YouTube here and like them on Facebook here. Daystar provide the music for the 7Cantonas Podcast.