Wednesday 17 January 2018

Dion Fanning: Man United seem determined to sign big names and play sterile football

Dion Fanning

As sports journalists, we visit the world heritage sites of sport. The great stadiums of football occasionally become familiar working locations. Some of us have been lucky enough to visit the Maracana, Camp Nou and the San Siro. We have wwatched World Cup finals and Champions League finals in Rio, Berlin, Johannesburg, Rome and Istanbul. We cherish these memories, the opportunity to gaze over the field where Ghiggia broke a nation or to look on as David Luiz and Fred do the same.

Last Wednesday night, I visited another great venue in football's rich tapestry, Vale do Lobo, the resort where Alex Ferguson says he experienced "the first major fracture" in his relationship with Roy Keane.

It was here that Manchester United met for pre-season training in 2005. In the golf club there is a picture of the United squad going for a training run along one of the fairways. Wayne Rooney is at the front looking like he has summered well. At the back, beside Cristiano Ronaldo, is Roy Keane with a face like rolling thunder. Roy would probably dispute that this picture or his angry face has any significance. He describes the training that took place as "brilliant" in his autobiography. But that was after he had argued with Carlos Queiroz who had been responsible for choosing Vale do Lobo. "It wasn't heated," Roy said. Ferguson claimed that "Carlos was having a nightmare" with Roy.

The literature is, as you would expect, conflicting. In Ferguson's most recent book - at least for another couple of weeks as he maintains an output matching Barbara Cartland's - he says Roy "considered the houses at Vale do Lobo to be beneath the required standard and was not willing to stay in his". Ferguson says there was a problem with the air conditioning in one, similar issues in the next and something else wrong with the third. Roy, he says, wanted to stay in the "next village" the magnificent Quinta do Lago with his family. United had brought the families along for this stage of pre-season.

On this reading, it would seem like a problem familiar to many of us: the burden of choice in a consumer age, the nagging sense that we are making the wrong decision when there are so many things to choose from.

In the age of TripAdvisor, a holiday, like football itself, is a game of opinions. There may be hundreds of excellent reviews of a hotel but human nature sometimes hovers over the 'terrible' category, questioning if the dirty ashtrays have really ruined the reviewer's holiday but wondering if we are prepared to take the risk they might be exaggerating.

At least Roy wouldn't have had that burden in 2005 and when we turn to his recent book, we learn that he had already been on holiday in Quinta with his family in 2005 and having enjoyed the experience, he didn't want to move to the villas in Vale do Lobo which he felt were not children-friendly.

Again, everyone can understand this point of view, although there is one issue remaining. Each resort is, as they say, a golfer's paradise. "We're not here to play golf," Robbie Keane said on Thursday and Roy Keane has never been anywhere to play golf, certainly not intentionally. In Saipan, one of the early training ground rows centred around goalkeepers who had stopped training early but "won't be too tired to play golf tomorrow". In his latest media role as a coin-operated angry guy, Roy took on the Ryder Cup describing it as "a lot of crap", which, he said, was "over the top. The usual nonsense. WAGs. Singing".

Roy is right about golf, of course, as he is right about so many things, even if the connection between being right and being content has never been firmly established. Would there have been a torment in being surrounded by so many golfers during this pre-season trip in 2005 or would Roy have felt that he was, in some sense, getting to know the enemy?

The burden of choice was not something that Manchester United squad was overly familiar with. They worked under one of the great tyrants of football, a man who says now that discipline cost him titles but always allowed him to retain control.

The Manchester United that has emerged blinking into the light is overwhelmed by this freedom. They are consumerists now and they want the world to know they have money. They spent the summer being linked with Gareth Bale, Neymar, Ronaldo and Marcus Reus before paying at least £36m for Anthony Martial.

What doubt goes through their mind as they consider the scouting reports on Martial? Do they linger over the equivalent of the one poor TripAdvisor review, wondering if he is worth a fee which could be close to 60 million in the end if one scout is quibbling over the equivalent of dirty towels. In their role as high net worth consumers, United need Martial to cost them as much as possible, that way he'll have been a success.

United seem overwhelmed by this burden of choice, by this awareness that any player could be theirs if Jorge Mendes can make it so, but still happiness eludes them. They are, it is clear, on a journey of reinvention, hoping to effect an extraordinary transformation in which they sign the biggest names in the world but play sterile football when they sign them.

Real Madrid might have been the more inept party during the attempt to move David de Gea from one of the great clubs of Europe to another with the sophistication and composure of the bail bondsmen fighting over Charles Grodin in Midnight Run.

Florentino Perez is determined that the world will know that his club had right on their side even if De Gea was left in Manchester. United were naive, he said, giving the impression that the negotiations had been left in the hands of some unpaid interns instead of United's smartest men. They created some history last week too and the fax machine that sent the documents may one day, like Vale do Lobo, be part of football's glorious heritage.

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