Will dressing-room and terraces ever be truly United again?
Rooney performs one of the great U-turns and, despite being injured, his presence hangs over today's crucial trip to Stoke
Sunday 24 October 2010
For the second successive week, a Premier League match important enough to have been moved to the Sunday lunchtime television slot will take place after all manner of off-field recriminations. Last weekend Liverpool went into what many still see as their biggest fixture of the season under new ownership but burdened by old failings and were soundly beaten by Everton. But Manchester United supporters rejoicing in their supposed rivals' despair had not digested that day's news sufficiently; the name of Wayne Rooney was to dominate the agenda for the rest of the week and still hangs over today's game away to Stoke City, even in his absence through injury.
The best Sir Alex Ferguson can hope for following Friday's sudden reconciliation is that the dressing-room and the terraces will be truly United again, as can often happen in times of adversity. He would therefore have been encouraged to hear the views of Patrice Evra, tarnished by the fall-out from France's wretched World Cup as a troublemaker, but essentially espousing the one-for-all philosophy of Eleven Musketeers. "We need to be professional," Evra said. "I am a player, I don't like to have an excuse about what is going on around the club. We need to focus, make sure everyone does their job well. Make sure you are at your level 100 per cent. Afterwards you can talk. I believe in the team, I trust in the team. And we need to be ready against Stoke. Everyone needs to perform. When you finish the game you look yourself in the mirror and say you've done your job 100 per cent. Everyone needs to be focused on that."
At 29, Evra is very much a senior figure as Ferguson tries to rejuvenate the team – he believes they only ever have a four-year cycle at most. On a night like last Wednesday for the Champions' League tie against Bursaspor, Evra looks round and sees people like Chris Smalling, Rafael da Silva and Federico Macheda preparing to play, while Ben Amos, Javier Hernandez, Gabriel Obertan and Bebe sit in reserve. He is prepared to say his piece to the younger contingent and happily for Ferguson it echoes his master's voice: "The boss always said Manchester United is a team, not one player, not two players, it's the team. We have that mentality and everyone understands that mentality, that's why everyone is focused to do his job very well.
"Every experienced player has to take responsibility. Make sure that the young players help us, give 100 per cent, know how lucky they are to play for Manchester United. We are talking about Manchester United. That's the message we give to every young player and I think you saw against Bursaspor, every young lad wants to play. Respect the shirt because that shirt has a big history. That's the only message you need to give."
Talk of team-mates turning against the popular Rooney was exaggerated, for in general that is not how a dressing-room works. Team-mates tend not to disrespect a player who wants to better himself, even if he is publicly blaming the quality of their squad. Who, other than half a dozen graduates from the red ranks, could have cast the first stone? Rio Ferdinand, who left West Ham, then Leeds United? Michael Owen? All those who forsook their own country to follow the money and now kiss a new badge? Even Evra admits he would want away if he ever came to the conclusion that United were not good enough to win trophies.
The difference is that he does not believe they are anywhere near that point: "I will not play any more for this club if I know we are not strong enough to win the League. This is why we play for Man United. No, I think everyone needs to just focus to do their job very well. And after, we will see at the end of the season."
Talk of disloyalty can be left to supporters, and only if Rooney, or anyone else, is not pulling his weight on the pitch will he attract criticism. Even when the time for conciliation appeared to be past, Evra – the son of a diplomat – remained prepared for dialogue. "If I talk with him and he says he wants to leave, I will ask him why," he said last Wednesday night.
"There is no problem [with the other players]. It's his private life but if he wants to talk we are open because we want to help. I could be in that situation, everyone could be. We are open to help him if he needs."
In the otherwise unimpressive 1-0 victory over the Turkish side, Evra showed a welcome return to form, defending solidly and rampaging down the left flank. He has previously been well below his best this season, which may or may not have been because of fall-out from the World Cup, or even the disappointing end to United's season, denied by one point – arguably one offside Chelsea goal at Old Trafford – from making football history with a fourth successive English title.
He blames "silly mistakes" (including his own in the draw with West Bromwich Albion last weekend) for dropped points this season: "I know it is not normal for Manchester United if we don't win like five games in a row, we just draw. That is no good for Manchester United, I accept that criticism. But to say Manchester United is finished is a big mistake. Maybe some people might think I am crazy but the real problem for Manchester United is Manchester United. It is not the other team because no team beat us for the moment. We just draw some silly draws. I don't just talk like this to be positive, I say it because it is the truth and I believe it.
"Now we will see, we need to make sure we win against Stoke City because we need to start bringing back that winning mentality. I agree with that criticism that Man United has not had that winning mentality in every game. We have to make sure we bring that back on Sunday."
Passing the character test
United cope with Stoke:
15 Nov 2008 United 5 Stoke 0
26 Dec 2008 Stoke 0 United 1
26 Sep 2009 Stoke 0 United 2
9 May 2010 United 4 Stoke 0
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