Roy Keane was in one corner of Old Trafford, sitting, snarling. “That we’re talking about them trying to finish fourth shows how the standards have dropped on and off the pitch,” he said. And as if to prove his point, in another corner of the ground, the roof was leaking.
No player in Manchester United’s storied history has an influence as powerful on the modern-day club as Keane. He is its yardstick and moral centre. The former player who the current crop are often unfavourably – and sometimes unfairly – judged against.
The 30th anniversary of his finest hour – that awe-inspiring self-sacrifice at the Stadio delle Alpi – came to pass on Sunday, unhappily coinciding with a United performance that was meek, inhibited and afraid. In other words, Turin’s exact opposite.
Many questions have been asked of this group of players in the days since. Many more came in the hours leading up to this 178th Manchester derby. Their character and attitude was doubted, not least by their own manager.
It seemed as though those doubts would be answered here. A little, at least. Whereas Sunday’s performance was described as spineless and dispiriting, there was a backbone this time and, for 54 minutes, reason to believe too.
At Goodison Park, Marcus Rashford had ran down blind alleys. Paul Pogba had slumped his shoulders and held out his arms in sheer exasperation at team-mates failing to pass to him. Fred was as Fred has been since his arrival, bewildered by the mess surrounding him.
It was different for this visit from a Manchester City side hoping to take a step closer to a successful defence of their title. Even if those United players knew victory would help Liverpool back on to their perch, there was a certain spirit about their play.
Rashford willfully ran under the numerous long balls sent over his head. Pogba was willing to play those passes but also break from deep at speed. Even when Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane established a comfortable City lead, United did not fall back into bad habits.
But then character and attitude, that’s the easy part. They are the bare minimum expected and the qualities that Keane’s acolytes will tell you he brought with him to work every week, no matter the occasion, no matter the context or how badly the last game had gone.
To be successful, you need more than that. You need quality, first of all. You need a coherent plan, not one that is easily sussed out within a quarter of an hour. And sometimes, you also need to be free from the burden of expectations. Not followed by the ghosts of the past.
To see City shift through the gears after a testing first half, when a game United tried to press and harry them into submission, was to see a club uninterested in what it has already achieved and instead chasing new histories, driven by an insatiable appetite for success.
For their cross-town rivals, it could not be more different. History weighs heavily on United and more so than usual these past few months. The references to 1999 have been numerous. On the morning of this game, there was a training session at The Cliff.
And then there is the permanent appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer itself – an unambiguous attempt to find meaning, stability and comfort in the glories and traditions of the past.
Solskjaer’s appointment is a decision that is still less than a month old and one which may yet pay off. Yet after a seventh defeat in nine games – United’s worst run since 1962 – it is beginning to look hasty.
This victory, meanwhile, makes it likely City will become the first Premier League champions in a decade to defend their crown. They are expected to then win the FA Cup and become the first English club to secure a domestic treble.
And yet even then, they will fall short of what Keane, Solskjaer and their United team-mates in ‘99 achieved, this season at least. Some standards are set incredibly high, almost impossible to match or exceed. And when that is the case, it is best to look forward, not back.
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