So Wembley is one step, albeit a long one, away. At least we can put relegation fears on the back burner. The build-up starts here.
Long ago, Newcastle United became engulfed in the sleazy saga of Freddy Shepherd and Doug Hall, exposed by the News of the World’s fake sheikh after, as Wikipedia delicately puts it, ‘mocking the club’s own supporters for spending extortionate amounts of money on merchandise, calling female supporters “dogs” and mocking star striker Alan Shearer by calling him the “Mary Poppins of football”, all while frequenting a brothel’. Monsieur Salut and Jerry Lawton* found themselves covering the tale for their respective newspapers (the Telegraph displaying a sense of humour by sending a Sunderland fan to do it). We gleefully watched United lose a midweek match at home to Crystal Palace and became firm friends. It’s taken a while to get Jerry, a staunch Man Utd fan, to do a ‘Who are You?’ – we haven’t always been in the same division – but here it is ahead of the Capital One Cup semifinal second leg …
Salut! Sunderland: So you allowed us to raise our hopes. Is the scripted version that you now breeze past us in the second leg?
In seasons past I would have replied, “not so much of a breeze…more a full force gale”, but the climate has well and truly changed at Old Trafford and, quite frankly, anything can happen. We are going to enter the game without at least three of our best players – Van Persie, Rooney, Vidic – and possibly a fourth in Patrice Evra, who limped off against Chelsea, so we will once more be a long way short of full strength. However, though we lost comfortably on Sunday on paper, I thought we played quite well. The players should be feeling angry, frustrated, hurt (by yet another appalling referee’s performance against us), and wounded. And that may make us dangerous. It’s too close to call.
And is the league cup suddenly important to United?
I think every single trophy is important to United, particularly this season. Even winning the Community Shield was important to David Moyes because, though a talented manager, he had not won anything when he took on the manager’s job. I’ve thought from the start to win any trophy and qualify for the Champions League would be seen as a successful campaign in the circumstances. Nothing that has happened since has changed that view. And despite a whole host of apparent weekly crises, it is still possible. At the start of the season we could only possibly win four trophies (Community Shield aside). To claim the league in light of the disruption of Sir Alex’s departure, the return of Jose at Chelsea, the continued multi-million-pound investment by City and the long-awaited opening of Arsene’s wallet at Arsenal was always going to be extremely unlikely. I thought our best chances would lie in the cup competitions. So it is proving.
Whatever you feelings on the second leg, what on earth has gone wrong at Old Trafford?
I don’t think too much has “gone wrong” at OT. I just think we are a club understandably in transition following the departure of the most successful manager in football history. I don’t think the United team Sir Alex left behind was his strongest and he went at a time when another re-building exercise was required. Some of our big name players are entering the “autumns” of their careers and new blood (3 or 4 signings) is needed. I think it is only right the new manager is given the chance to perform the rebuild. My only criticism would be the decision – and I am not sure whose it was – to change not only the manager but also the chief executive and entire backroom staff during the summer. I would have preferred to see David Gill, an experienced transfer-handler with a proven track record, remain as chief exec for at least one more season to ensure Moyes had the best possible chance of securing the players he felt he needed to take on such a big job. Also throughout Sir Alex’s reign United’s footballing style has been instilled in players at every level from junior to first team, allowing them to seamlessly progress through the ranks. I can understand Moyes’s desire to have his trusted lieutenants around him in his new position but to change the entire first team coaching set up en masse is bound to have de-stabilised that smooth-flowing system. I expected us to lose a few games without the “Fergie factor” which I believe added around five per cent to the team’s performance. But what I didn’t anticipate is the effect the removal of “Fergie fear” has had on referees’ handling United games. It would appear the removal of the threat of the hairdryer treatment if they allow their performance to drop has sparked a spree of appalling refereeing displays this season.
Is it healthy to have SAF breathing down Moyes’s neck at every game or is Moyes simply not up to it?
I think it is too early to know if Moyes is “up to it” or not. He needs time to build his team and will then be judged on the results of that team. United is a club that puts long term stability above short term results. I expect him to be given at least two full seasons to prove his worth. For me whether Sir Alex is at games or not is irrelevant. He is a fan as well as a director and has every right to be there. I hope Moyes is too busy concentrating on the game to even notice him.
What did you feel was a realistic minimum expectation for United at the start of the season and has that changed?
For me the minimum expectation should have been Champions League qualification. Add to that a trophy and the season would be considered a success. However in light of the long-term injuries to our two biggest stars – Rooney and Van Persie – plus injuries to other key players like Carrick and Vidic I could even forgive us missing out on a Champions League spot (ouch…did I just say that?)
Does your own support go back to before a time when United more or less expected to win every game as a matter of right?
My love of all things United stretches back to the first ever game of professional football I saw – our 1-0 defeat to Southampton in the 1976 FA Cup final. I was eight. I lived in a remote village in Lincolnshire. The nearest then-league club – Grimsby Town – was 25 miles away and live football was rarely on the box back then. It made an instant impression. I can still see the late Bobby Stokes shooting past Alex Stepney whenever I close my eyes. Even when watching matches as a neutral now I find it hard to explain why I seem to instinctively pull for one side or the other, sometimes in the face of traditional rivalry. And for some reason in 76 I fell in love with the losing team. It went deep and never wavered, even though ALL my school pals in deepest darkest Lincolnshire were Liverpool fans. I suffered as Liverpool collected league title after league title and European Cup after European Cup clinging to the belief the odd head-to-head victory meant we were secretly `really’ the best. And then Sir Alex arrived to prove I was right all along! But I firmly believe football is not all about winning. Despite our woes in this rollercoaster season I am enjoying it more than any since I had the good fortune of watching Cristiano Ronaldo pull on his boots. For me winning is like a fine rare chateaubriand – it tastes fantastic when you’re not used to it but if you experience it every day it soon becomes the norm and your enthusiasm wanes. That’s why I appreciate the odd McDonald’s (a good way to describe our performance at the Stadium Of Light).
And does it ever bother you that a majority of those who’d declare themselves United supporters would struggle to place Manchester on a map?
It never upsets me people all over the world choose to support the greatest club on the planet. I think it is a sign of fine taste, judgement and a love of the game and how it should be played. What does bother me is those fans who, after a few defeats in this transitional season, seem willing to turn on the club, players and new manager so rapidly. They are the supporters I would not miss.
Did Sunderland’s lamentable start to the season surprise you or did you see the PDC gamble ending in tears?
I can’t say I was surprised at your early season woes. Much as I love personalities, and PDC is certainly one of those, his reign had dressing room malcontent written all over it. You seem to be a tougher prospect now under a talented manager though I still think your squad is light and a few injuries to key players will make it “squeaky bum time” in May.
We’ve had loads of connections in recent years – Keane, Bruce, O’Shea, Welbeck, Evans, Yorke, Bardsley, Cole, Saha, I could even mention David Bellion though you wouldn’t thank me. Which if any stick/s in the memory>
All of them – except David Bellion! Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole are the three who stir the fondest memories for their performances in our astonishing 1999 Treble season. Keane was Captain Fantastic. Cole and Yorke were the best tandem strike force I have ever seen. I’d actually forgotten Cole donned the red and white stripes, though I don’t believe he scored for you? Steve Bruce is the man whose late late goal won the league and helped invent Fergie time. It looks like his experiences at the Stadium Of Light are inspiring him to do wonders at Hull City. Danny Welbeck’s loan spell turned him into an England striker. And Johnny Evans is a fine centre-half. Louis Saha was such a talent but never seemed to want to play for us and had more injuries that an A&E unit. I understand Mr Bardsley’s newly-found goal-scoring ability has helped spark your recent revival. And judging by the way we defended corners against Chelsea we could have done with Mr O’Shea and his old OT pal Wes Brown at the weekend! Did I forget to mention David Bellion? Yes? Oh well, never mind!
Who are the greatest players you’ve seen – or wish you’d seen – in United colours and who should never have been allowed near them?
I am truly blessed to support a team which has been graced by two of the finest footballers in the history of the game. The greatest I have ever seen play live at United is Cristiano Ronaldo. He simply has everything. Pace, power, skill, aggression, drive, passion, hunger…..I could go on. I think it says a great deal about the man that he is named `best player in the world’ at a time when Lionel Messi is still getting a game.
The other United genius is George Best. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing him live but never tire of watching TV footage of him running rings around defence after defence.
Others falling not too far behind for me include Eric Cantona, whose sense of the dramatic makes him an all-time great, Peter Schmeichel, the best goalkeeper ever, and Ryan Giggs, whose longevity at the highest level puts him in the elite. His `dream goal’ in the 99 FA Cup semi-final reply against Arsenal would place him there on its own.
Honourable mentions should also go to Paul Scholes, for his quiet man attitude throughout a career of wonderful passes, amazing goals and shocking tackles, David Beckham, who if he had a left peg even half as good as his right could have been one of the best ever, Ole Ole Ole for his Treble-winning injury toe-poke in 99 and Cole and Yorke rolled into one, who were together unplayable.
I would like to see Gareth Bale in a United shirt….preferably on Wednesday!
And what have been your own high and low points as a supporter?
My highest point as a supporter – and probably of my life – was when Ole Gunnar Solksjaer put the ball in the Germans’ net to clinch the 99 Treble. I could not be at the game and had to watch on TV at home – alone in a darkened room – as we got completely outplayed for 70 agonising minutes. I felt sick to my stomach at the Bayern players’ premature victory celebrations and leapt so dramatically in the air when Ole scored the winner I went dizzy, lost my hearing and almost passed out. Then I wept like a baby! I went straight to my local off licence and bought two bottles of the Dom Perignon which I drank with my baffled then-girlfriend. She later tersely observed I never bought it again at any stage during our seven-year relationship. Football eh? Bloody hell!
My lowest point was being beaten 1-0 at home by League One Leeds United in an act of third round FA Cup giant-killing in 2010.
As my Leeds-supporting wife celebrated wildly I sincerely announced our marriage was over as none of my United-supporting friends would forgive me for wedding such a villain. I told her had I known how passionate she was about her home town club I would never have proposed in the first place, I would be contacting a divorce lawyer in the morning and suggested she did the same. Then I shut myself away in the office for three hours. Remarkably, and perhaps foolishly, she remains Mrs Lawton!
Where, hand on heart, will United and Sunderland finish up this season? Top four in order and bottom three (or other two!)?
I think we will finish fourth and Sunderland….err…..oh dear!
1 – Chelsea
2 – Man City
3 – Arsenal
4 – Man Utd
18 – Sunderland
19 – Fulham
20 – Cardiff City
One journo to another: does football get the press it deserves?
As a news man I obviously think sports reporters have a licence to write whatever they like, unsourced, with impunity. But they would probably say the same thing about me. What I find genuinely hilarious are endless wild football transferrumours that never come to fruition and how a club’s season can go from success to disaster on the outcome of a single match. Beyond that…no comment!
What aspect of the modern game most inspired you? And what appals you?
Like millions I was inspired by Fabrice Muamba’s astonishing recovery from his mid-match cardiac arrest and the amazing work he has done since to raise awareness and funds to make defibrillators readily available across Britain. I am also inspired by young footballers who come from nowhere and suddenly break through at the highest level initially at least without fear, ego or cash. We’re currently lucky to have one of the finest in Adnan Januzaj.
What appals me are referees who think the game is about them and not the players and the fact that in 2013, when you can tune in to a live match on your wristwatch, we still don’t use to technology to ensure decisions are accurate.
Brazil 2014: excited already or too much of a club man to care?
My excitement is already building for the tournament which is one of the greatest spectacles in the world. I am even hoping to be there. But then again I would be excited about a trip to Brazil for a tiddlywinks contest.
Will you be at our game or watching on the box? What will be the outcome and how do you see the final going?
Unfortunately I’m covering a court case at the moment and won’t be able to go to the game so will be watching on TV. I think we may just sneak it after extra-time and then play City in the final, which – of course – we will win!
* Jerry Lawton on himself: I am the chief crime correspondent at the Daily Star in London. I have been a United supporter all my life (see above) and will be long after death.
Interview: Colin Randall
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