Sunday 17 December 2017

Powell can still stand out from United's mediocrity

Manchester United's Nick Powell
Manchester United's Nick Powell

Sam Wallace

For all the money that Manchester United have spent post-Alex Ferguson, and £250m of it by Louis van Gaal, it is notable that when the United party are whisked out of a stadium by security, in the way that famous people are, it is often still Ferguson himself who attracts the most attention from the locals.

It was that way on Tuesday night as the United squad left the Volkswagen Arena, the proverbial legion of the damned, with mumbled excuses and very little eye-contact, put together by three managers working to three criteria.

Has it come to this? Did the club's official Azerbaijani integrated telecommunications partner really spend all that money so Guillermo Varela could play right-back in the most important game of the season?

In this strange United squad with little in the way of a core, there are the grandees in the dusk of their careers and the academy boys co-opted amid another injury crisis.


In between there are only a few the club would wish to keep at all costs, David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and perhaps Morgan Schneiderlin among them - but what about the rest?

Too many bought at different times for different reasons, like Juan Mata, acquired to bolster a manager who was sacked within three months.

Memphis Depay, a player whom it felt crucial United sign at the time - although less so now.

Marouane Fellaini, a curiosity from another era: stoic, useful, obliging. You can imagine him doing exactly what is asked of him, be it defensive midfield, unorthodox No 10 or decorating the training ground Christmas tree.

Observing the United squad of 2015, in all their Europa League-resenting glory is to see opportunity - opportunity for someone.

Since Ferguson walked out the door at Old Trafford there has been no one grand plan, rather there have been several overlapping grand plans and still no one knows how much it might cost to get things right.

Yet among those things in Van Gaal's favour is his willingness to try different players, especially young players.

Which is where Nick Powell walks in, 21 years old, seven months from the end of his United contract and unexpectedly sent on against Wolfsburg on Tuesday evening for the first time since another cup competition disaster, against MK Dons last year.

Amid the United gloom on Tuesday night, the kindest thing you could say about Powell's post match behaviour as he left the stadium was that he was not set much of an example by some of his team-mates.

But there can be no further mitigation for the sneering contempt with which he responded to a request for the standard post-match interview.

In a lobby full of football reporters who have seen, in their time, some seriously bad attitudes on the other side of the cordon, Powell went straight into the all-time top 10 with that effort.

What would one have asked Powell, given the chance? How the current United represent an incredible opportunity for a young player. How everything is up for grabs at Old Trafford: the present, the future, the identity of the next team, the first proper trophy of the post-Ferguson era.

Powell was the first player Ferguson signed from the fourth tier of English football since Lee Sharpe in 1988. He was trusted by Ferguson in the early days, and then when the old boy left in 2013 it all started to unravel.

Under David Moyes, who favoured more experience, Powell was sent on loan to Wigan, where he thrived. A drink-driving conviction in 2014 meant he could not go on pre-season to the United States under Van Gaal and that, along with an injury, put him out the reckoning further.

Later last season he went on loan to Leicester City where there are different versions of why it did not work out, some of which reflect poorly on Powell.

What cannot be denied is that since a serious hamstring tear in March, which required surgery, Powell has worked hard to return to first-team contention. Those close to him have heard the stories that he is out of love with the game and ready to walk away and they say they are not true.


After rehab, he played just two games in the club's U-21s before coach Warren Joyce recommended his return to Van Gaal's first-team squad.

While he is by no means the answer to all of United's problems, he might just be the answer to one of them. When Ferguson signed him, he gloated that the teenager, who had scored a spectacular goal for Crewe Alexandra in the League Two play-off final, had been pursued by every major Premier League club.

When it came to transfers, Ferguson by no means got them all right, but some of those he did get right had extraordinary careers.

United are off to compete the Europa League in the new year, which for some will be an indignity too great to bear.

Powell should look at it another way. Come June, he may never again be a United player but it is his good fortune that over the next seven months just about anything is possible for a young footballer at a club crying out for a few to stand out from the mediocrity. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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