If it wasn’t for the fact he’s an egotistical, overrated bore, who played for United’s arch-rivals it would almost have been possible to feel sorry for Steven Gerrard this week as during his time commentating for BT Sport he reminded us, unnecessarily, that he’d never lifted the title – as Paul Scholes stifled a grin.
It’s not just that Stevie Mee lost the chance to win a title in the most spectacular fashion, as his pointless rallying cry, undoubtedly more for the benefit of the television cameras than his team mates, was rammed down his throat as Demba Ba duly capitalised on the sort of defensive ineptitude that would make Phil Jones blush. No, what must truly stick in Gerrard’s throat like an undigested piece of Scouse stew, is that not only does he have the same amount of title medals as everyone who lives on my street, he also has to live with the fact there’s around two dozen former United players who’ve lifted the Premier League, who by rights were lucky to even be playing in the competition.
Knowing the likes of Tom Cleverley, Luke Chadwick and Darron Gibson have all managed something that was beyond him, must really grate when Gerrard looks back at a career, that involved more or less getting closer to that coveted title only to throw it away in no small measure thanks to his own hubris.
Regardless of how much United fans dislike the former Liverpool skipper there’s no doubt he was as talented as midfielders such as Anderson who managed to lift multiple titles, which begs the question: how did he miss out when so many others of lesser ability lifted the Premier League with such regularity?
The answer is simple: Sir Alex Ferguson. No matter whether you were the tea lady or the star striker Fergie demanded excellence from all involved at United and he invariably got it, managing to raise the levels of some of his squad to such a degree that when they left Old Trafford it was often for such gilded destinations as Stoke and Sunderland rather than the Santiago Bernabeu.
Yes, United won titles because of legends such as Eric Cantona, Keano, Ronaldo and Robin Van Persie, but in the games when injuries had mounted up or the Reds needed someone on the fringes to step up, then Fergie could rely on his lesser paid players to do so, who can forget Kiko Macheda in 2011, Phil Neville in crunch games against Arsenal when the Gunners were still relevant, or John O’Shea in the last minute at Anfield – reliving every United fan’s dream.
The squad wasn’t just a bunch of players who rocked up in May to collect a medal and a pat on the back from Sir Alex, it was men who knew what was expected of them and what would happen if they didn’t meet said expectations, they’d face a rollocking of biblical proportions in front of their team mates before losing their place at Old Trafford and being shipped off to the jungle of mid-table obscurity, rather than just see a drop in Twitter followers or their Instagram posts receiving less likes.
Sir Alex assembled a team built around a solid defence and three or four match winners, be that Cantona, Sharpe, Kanchelskis and Giggs, or Yorke, Cole, Scholes and Giggs, or Ronaldo, Berbatov, Rooney and Giggs, but when one or two players were missing, or even three or four, be that solid consistent first teamers, or match winning superstars, the manager knew he could bring in the quality to not just soften the blow but make it almost unnoticeable.
You only need to look at arguably the greatest night in United’s history to see how the squad were vital to the club’s success, a starting eleven missing their two main midfielders- and for me the two greatest midfielders the Premier League has ever seen – with Jesper Blomqvist in the starting XI, were able to lift Europe’s greatest prize and win the coveted treble thanks to two substitutes, one of whom had barely played all season.
United’s ‘second string’ was never second-rate and that’s something that’s almost become forgotten in the post-Fergie malady many of us find ourselves in as we focus our attention on whether the record-breaking transfer is living up to his price tag, or last season’s top scorer can return from injury to save us.
When Ronald was out, Nani would step up, or when Keano was banned we could rely on Nicky Butt, now though it’s a different animal as we see players failing to compensate for being less talented than their team mates, with the kind of effort that would make it forgivable.
This weekend’s horror show at Huddersfield was a case in point of how United’s squad has slipped so far over recent years, with our early season form against easily beatable opposition when Mourinho had almost a full squad to choose from, papering over the cracks that there’s too many players who simply aren’t up to the job, or at the very least aren’t proving themselves worthy of wearing the shirt.
Any team would miss Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly and even Marouane Fellaini who has been in fine form, but in the past any team would have missed Scholes and Keane, or Ronaldo and Tevez or Saha, or whoever was missing during the Fergie-era as the club still not only challenged for the title, but in Europe as well.
It’s easy to start naming players who didn’t perform on Saturday, it would actually be far easier to name those who did and I’m sure we all have our own favourite squad player we’d like to load into a cannon and fire face first into the Irwell, but there’s no doubt that collectively the squad needs to step up before we start talking about a January spending spree that may or may not be necessary.
In all honesty I can’t recall a time as a United fan when the ‘jury was out’ on so many of our players among the fans, it’s startling how many of our current squad haven’t fully proven themselves to a the majority of supporters despite in many cases dozens of opportunities to do so.
Mourinho may be getting a lot of grief for questioning the players attitude but in many ways he’s right as it’s not ability that stopped the Reds winning at a club that will almost certainly be fighting relegation all season, but the bit the man formerly known as Special failed to address is his own part in allowing players to think big wins over crap teams means you can take a few weeks off even trying. Fergie didn’t just sign good players, or promote them from the academy, he motivated them to raise their game, he moulded them into ‘United class’ and gave them a task in the team that wasn’t beyond their capabilities. It’s time for Jose to do the same.
We can all laugh at Gerrard, as we all do, but unless the manager gets every player in United’s squad performing to their very best, it may be Stevie having the last laugh.