Sunday 18 August 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Manchester United will pay a high price for jumping the gun when appointing Solskjaer'

Ole Gunnar not up to the task at United as wheels come off in slow bicycle race for top four spot

Difficult times: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tries to console Ashley Young after Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea. Photo: Paul ELLIS / AFP/Getty Images
Difficult times: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer tries to console Ashley Young after Manchester United’s draw with Chelsea. Photo: Paul ELLIS / AFP/Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Manchester United are like a man who buys a new house only to find out a few weeks later that there's a toxic waste dump across the street. "Jim," say the friends who'd been so happy for him before his terrible discovery. "How could you have missed that?"

"I was a bit rushed," says Jim. "I got carried away."

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"Any way you can get out of this deal?"

"No, the contracts are signed and the money will have to be paid."

"Sure, maybe things will work out OK." But the friends know and Jim knows that things are not going to work out OK.

United will pay a high price for jumping the gun when appointing a new manager. It was an understandable mistake. We all got carried away by the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer story, because it is the kind of story we like to hear.

It was like something from one of those rom-coms where after many travails the hero finds happiness with the woman who was living next door all the time. We're suckers for a tale like that.

But this one is unlikely to have a happy ending. Yesterday's draw with Chelsea leaves United with two wins, one draw and seven defeats in their last 10 games. Fulham, who've already been relegated from the Premier League, have won three of their last 10. Sixteenth-placed Southampton have won four and drawn two.

United needed a win at Old Trafford to keep their hopes of a Champions League spot alive. They have the advantage over their three rivals of being able to concentrate solely on domestic competition. Chelsea, like Arsenal and Spurs, have one eye on Europe and for most of the first half their performance reflected that.

Yet after they equalised, courtesy of one of those David de Gea blunders no-one calls untypical anymore, the Blues largely controlled the game.

This uninspiring duel seemed symbolic of the slow bicycle race for the Champions League slots. None of the four contenders won at the weekend, but Spurs and Chelsea will probably limp over the line, with Arsenal perhaps qualifying through the Europa League. United will be bystanders.

His reluctance to let go of the 'Solskjaer as saviour' narrative made Gary Neville look foolish on Wednesday night. He tried to pretend United's performance against Manchester City represented some huge advance on their display against Everton. Because if the Goodison Park performance didn't provoke a backlash the manager was obviously in a terrible position.

Hence Neville's insistence that we'd seen a big reaction at Old Trafford. Roy Keane, with the bully's unerring nose for weakness, knew he was guilty of bad faith and gave his old comrade the Patrick Vieira treatment.

It didn't do any good. When United took the lead yesterday Neville was back beating his 'Ole turns it around' drum. God love him.

In reality this was the kind of performance for which the likes of Neville once excoriated Mourinho. United will end up in roughly the same place they'd have finished under Solskjaer's predecessor.

Their exhilarating run immediately following Mourinho's dismissal brings to mind the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov's cheery description of life as: "A brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." Its only significance is to have saddled United with yet another ill-equipped manager.

David Moyes was once praised for walking on to the pitch alone in an apparently impressive manner. He was gone a few weeks later but subsequent reigns were also graced with 'crisis, what crisis', style headlines and assurances that the club's next opponents would need to be 'braced for the backlash'.

The predictions that City would be in for a mighty battle on Wednesday night proceeded from the same impulse. But Burnley actually gave Pep Guardiola's side a much tougher time.

The cult of Solskjaer rests on the belief that his former membership of an all-conquering team gives him a magical ability to set things right, that Mike Phelan can help turn the clock back and Alex Ferguson can chip in a few key words of wisdom.

Liverpool fans will recognise this type of wishful thinking. It's how people used to talk about Roy Evans 20-odd years ago when he was tipped to put the club back on top because he'd graduated from the 'Anfield Bootroom'. Instead, Evans merely presided over a further period of decline.

When seven minutes of injury-time were announced yesterday a cheer rang out from the Old Trafford faithful. It was an odd moment, like when fans at a Bob Dylan concert cheer some once topical but now irrelevant political reference from an old hit. Marcos Rojo did have a header which Pedro cleared off the line, but it was Chelsea who finished on the front foot.

The cheer was a survivor from an era when visiting teams couldn't get out of Old Trafford fast enough. These days it's as anachronistic as a public phone box. That won't change under the Norwegian Wilf McGuinness.

If you're a United fan, ask yourself this. How would you feel if you heard there'd been a mix-up and that Mauricio Pochettino would be taking over? Be honest now. See?

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