Friday, December 14, 2018

The Shape of Things to Come


River Plate's extra-time win over city rivals Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final was a great day out for the Bonaerense fans who had made the trip to Madrid, as well as the Argentine expats living in Spain.

My River-supporting friends from Ponferrada, four and a half hours' drive to the north-west of the capital, could not believe their luck when CONMEBOL announced the premier competition of South American club football would be coming to Spain.

But the atmosphere in the 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, although warm, was not as fiery as the first leg was at Boca's 49,000-seat La Bombonera or as passionate as it would have been at River's 61,688 seat Monumental arena in Buenos Aires.

Only 4,000 fans of each club had crossed the ocean but nevertheless the occasion felt auspicious, in the home of the reigning UEFA and FIFA champion club and also with a historic connection to Argentina as the field where the great Argentine ball wizard Alfredo Di Stefano dazzled for Real Madrid and pioneered international team competition.

The game itself was a lively affair with plenty of goalscoring chances but the cauldron of the Superclasico between Buenos Aires' great rivals was not conjured up.

While River had lost home advantage thanks to some of their violent aficionados, they still won the cup in the end thanks to their Colombian midfield orchestrator Juan Quintero, whose exquisite strike was a tribute to the technical heritage of South American soccer.

The irony of the trophy named after the continent's rebels against Spanish rule returning to the home of its colonial masters was somewhat lost although as CONMEBOL's boss Alejandro Dominguez correctly confirmed, it was "an exceptional decision in exceptional circumstances."

Equally ironic was that the the Spanish Football Federation and Players' Union have been fighting La Liga's plan to stage league matches in the United States, beginning with the Barcelona v Girona clash in January, yet moved hell and high water to bring the Boca v River game to Spain.

As it stands, that particular game looks dead in the water as Barcelona have withdrawn, scared by UEFA threats to ban them from the Champions League for up to two seasons and FIFA threats to ban its players from their respective national teams. Yet you can bet your last Euro we have not heard the last of such ideas. Javier Tebas, the chairman of La Liga, is ploughing on having taken the bold or rash step of penning a 15 year deal with Charlie Stillitano and Relevent Sports.

While it was sold as helping out the South American confederation in its hour of need as they searched for a safe venue for their showpiece, the successful staging of the show in Madrid will inevitably sow the seed of future big South American matches crossing the Atlantic or heading north to Mexico or the USA, all countries which would fill stadia the size of the Bernabeu.

As a football fan who grew up with terrace culture, playing matches overseas remains anathematic to me, but as a European I have to admit the sight of two big South American sides thrashing it out in Spain was a rare treat.

Another region of the world desperate for big-name soccer is the Middle East of course and victorious River Plate are now in the United Arab Emirates for the FIFA Club World Cup, where a final with Real Madrid no less looms on the 22nd of December in Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps the genie of matches being played overseas is now out of the bottle.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On the way to Wembley with Woking


Clubs five leagues apart facing off? The F.A. Cup must still retain some magic.

Last Sunday I watched my home town team, Woking, a team from the sixth level of English football, beat Swindon Town, a team from the fourth, 1-0 away to reach the third round of the F.A. Cup.

Swindon had made four changes and their fans were far from excited at the prospect of playing a non-league team, even if it meant a plum tie in the next round.

Out of the 3,654 in attendance around 1,000 were from Woking. The tickets were a steal at only £10, around half of what Woking charge as a matter of fact, but the locals were still not up for it.

A true supporter always feels empathy with fans of other teams and there was something melancholic about visiting a stadium barely a fifth full, when at the start of the nineties there had been a lot of excitement about the place as stylish passing football flourished under Ossie Ardiles and then Glenn Hoddle.

With such paltry crowds and takings, one could only wonder how Swindon could hope to thrive again.

Playing two divisions below in the semi-professional National League South, Woking's win was an act of (modest) giant-killing. For little teams a cup run is only a temporary fillip; in the case of the Cardinals the main battle remains getting out of the division into which they were relegated last season.

Despite a drizzly, gloomy day in the West Country, the Cards' 54th minute goal from Jake Hyde, a former trainee at the County Ground as it happened, sparked an explosion of bliss in one corner of the County Ground. The final whistle was the cue for more delirium.

So the reward for our 15 minutes of fame is a home tie with Watford in the 4th Round in January. The Hornets are not the Gunners or the Red Devils it is true but nobody in Woking is moaning about bagging a Premier League side.

If Ruud Gullit or Paul Ince had drawn Arsenal or Manchester United out of the urn instead then the  little tiled roof of Woking's Kingfield Stadium would surely have been taken off.

Memories of our greatest day resound. In January 1991 Woking were also playing in the sixth tier of English football but defeated West Bromwich Albion, then in the second, 4-2 away in the third round of the F.A. Cup.

Talk about delirium, that day for Woking fans was an ecstatic trip to heaven and beyond.

That chilly day in the West Midlands remains probably the happiest day of my life, when my dismal, concrete home town suddenly and fleetingly became, mirabile dictu, the toast of the nation.

In a dusty drawer, I still have the yellowing sports pages of every Sunday newspaper from that weekend as Woking led the headlines and I continue to believe that the council should erect a statue of our Gibraltarian hat-trick hero that day at the Hawthorns, Tim Buzaglo.

When I met the real Mr Buzaglo in the flesh a year or so later I was truly star-struck.

For those who grew up with professional teams for their local clubs it is hard to grasp the non-league fan mindset.

Our clubs are not on the telly and our supporting lives consist of treks to rackety little stadia in peripheral settings and hunting around for news and results. Sometimes we used to travel on the same coach as the players to games, so small was our away following.

My formative football years as a teenager were spent watching the Surrey Senior Cup, F.A. Trophy et al and I felt inside at the time that all those freezing Tuesday nights on terraces with my acrylic red and white scarf for comfort were something special, although I could not quite articulate why.

As a teenager, football appealed to my burgeoning masculinity and sense of tribe and at lower levels of the pyramid, supporters feel more deeply connected to their team. I felt pride and belonging chalking up as many Woking games as I could. Football was my favourite thing so the 1991 win at the Hawthorns was the apex of my life hitherto.

Surrey itself is a football backwater, despite its proximity to London. It has no professional sides so the F.A. Cup affords us our only moments in the sun.

Sutton United's 2-1 win over top-flight Coventry City in 1989 is generally considered the pinnacle of Surrey football history and the go-to example of non-league giant killing but in Woking we would argue our win at West Brom was the greater.

Four divisions separated the teams in both those games but while Sutton won 2-1 at home, Woking won 4-2 away. In the next round we both played top-level teams on the road: Woking lost 0-1 to Everton and Sutton lost 0-8 to Norwich City. In beating a top-flight side however, Sutton retain their claim to fame.

Non-league football has not changed as much as the professional game since. The terrace culture of standing and surging when you score is still alive, as is running up and down steps to berate or celebrate, while the ability to move away easily from idiots is a great advantage over all-seat stadia.

Even the luxury of switching ends at half time remains common. You feel closer to the players because you physically are.

There is still something very endearing about the simply-produced programmes, parochial sponsors, cheap food and drink stalls, damp and rotting wooden stands, hospitality suites in otherwise condemned buildings and perhaps above all the loyal, decrepit old timers who still hobble to every match come rain or shine.

The English football season is largely a winter one, played in the worst weather of a country with a notoriously bad climate anyway. To subject yourself to 90 minutes of crap football in that environment so regularly says something about the powerful draw of the sport.

In 1991 after our miracle in the Midlands we were drawn at home to Everton but switched the tie for financial reasons. Our towering £1 million stand remains as the legacy of that controversial but in the end probably wise move.

We lost 1-0 away at Goodison Park to a Kevin Sheedy shot in the fourth round, unable to repeat the magic of the Hawthorns but with fond memories of an unlikely trip to Merseyside one January Sunday for a tenth of our population.

There will be five divisions' difference again for Woking in the next round of 2019's F.A. Cup.

Impossible again? Nah, we are only four wins from Wembley.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, November 26, 2018

England Expects Once More


Euphoria is high in the home of football after Gareth Southgate's side completed a calendar year in which they reached the World Cup semi-finals with passage to the last four of the UEFA Nations League.

Ranked fifth in the world by FIFA last month, the Three Lions' win over fourth-ranked Croatia in the UEFA Nations League can only help when November's rankings are announced shortly.

The atmosphere at the national stadium was a memorable one, the most exciting in fact since a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Poland five years ago.

Following England's FIFA U-17 World Cup and UEFA U-19 wins in 2017, a strong narrative has now emerged of a fertile talent pool flowing swiftly upstream into an energized national team run by the former U-21 coach, who is just the man to give youth a chance.

The meaning of Jadon Sancho running around for the England first team in a competitive fixture a year after playing for the U-17s was impossible to ignore. Perhaps as with Owen Hargreaves a decade before, the fact he has not played professionally in England had helped him reach the national team faster.

Hopes are high then for a successful Euro 2020, whose final is at Wembley, followed by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, when England's field of dreams should be in full flower.

But so much can change so quickly in football and encouraging though the 2-1 win over Croatia was, one swallow does not make a summer.

So much for the dawn of a new England in Russia: Half of them were missing at Wembley and the three-man defence had reverted to a traditional back four, albeit garnished by the elegant Ben Chilwell at left back with his elegant crosses.

It has also been conveniently forgotten that England registered three straight competitive defeats in 2018 as well.

Only one goal separated them in Russia from Croatia, but the final whistle was a particularly sobering one, met with a unanimous consensus that Southgate's young bucks had been out-gunned, out-muscled and out-thought by a more battle-hardened group of warriors.

That was followed by a resounding 2-0 loss to clearly superior Belgium in the Third Place Playoff and then a 2-1 defeat at Wembley in September to a rejuvenated Spain.

Southgate's stable was a work in progress that night in London compared to Luis Enrique's reborn La Roja thoroughbreds and as we waxed lyrical over our cultured visitors there was certainly no euphoria or giddy talk of us winning the next World Cup as there is now.

While there was still broad support for Southgate's youth revolution, there were also tough questions asked as to why he was still ignoring playmakers like Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jonjo Shelvey and penetrative wingers like Andros Townsend and Theo Walcott.

Two months later the wind has changed direction again. England are through to the last four of the Nations League and Spain have been relegated after losing at home to England and away to Croatia, whom they hammered 6-0 as recently as September.

Southgate's England are still clearly on the right track, lighting the clearest career path hitherto from the national youth sides, integrating the St George's Park national training centre and maintaining a modern playing style of building from the back.

But the road to international success is a long and rocky one full of troughs and peaks, advances and setbacks. Talk of a new England is understandable but still premature.

At Wembley against Croatia, Andrej Kramaric was given an age in the box to lead Eric Dier and Ben Stones a merry dance before scoring, while Jordan Pickford almost conceded with an error in the first half and Jesse Lingard cleared off the line in the second.

England grabbed two scrappy goals after the break but had missed a hatful in the first. Harry Kane might have scored the clincher but had otherwise looked under par, as he has for Tottenham this season.

Such details are lost in the champagne of victory but the margins between winning and losing narratives remain as fine as ever.

On that basis, any optimism about the future should be cautious.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The World is Never Enough


In an effort to stop Vikings pillaging its monasteries and ravishing its coastal towns, ninth century England came up with a solution: Buy them off.

For a while it worked. The rowdy Scandies sailed back across the North Sea with their long ships chokka with gold and the Anglo-Saxons breathed a sigh of relief.

The only problem was, the Vikings still loved loot so they came back for more and the English paid them off, again and again and again, with what became known as Danish money, or Danegeld.

The latest plan for a breakaway Super League, revealed by Football Leaks via Der Spiegel, confirms the concept of Danegeld is alive and kicking in European soccer in 2018.

Super league plans have been in the ether for about twenty years now and by any stretch of the imagination fans do not want to go down that road, but the executives of the continent's top clubs  keep pushing at what is for now a locked door, deaf to any criticism or appeals to morality or a sense of history.

The 2016 email from Bayern Munich legal chief Michael Gerlinger which was leaked worryingly asked another lawyer whether his club would still have to supply players to national teams in the future if they broke away.

Make no mistake, international football faces an existential threat from a small cabal of greedy men, no matter how globally popular the World Cup is.

American soccer bigwig Charlie Stillitano was another conspirator named by the expose.

His company Relevant Media are behind the recent crazy project to bring La Liga games to the USA. But he has been personally hawking the idea of a European breakaway around UEFA's top sides as well.

The plan Der Spiegel highlighted was for 16 teams to go it alone - the entry requirement being merely those with the largest TV audiences and therefore marketability.

The list of the clubs already collaborating to bring this about comes as little surprise: Barcelona and Real Madrid, Arsenal and Manchester United, Juventus and Milan and Bayern were mentioned.

Other clubs mentioned were Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG and Liverpool and all would have guaranteed participation for at least 20 years, completing the transformation of the football pyramid into the eternal hegemony of the NFL.

UEFA headed off the 2016 mutiny with restructured payments from the Champions League to the big clubs and this effectively allows them to play in a super league every season anyway, where the top stars earn astronomical, many might say obscene, salaries.

The fact the top four from each of Europe's Big Four leagues enjoy guaranteed qualification and almost a third of all takings go to clubs who have been high achievers for the previous decade in itself almost constitutes a closed shop.

The idea that a Nottingham Forest, Porto, PSV or Steaua Bucharest could win the continent's premier trophy now is laughable. The big clubs have the future sown up and should be content.

But their dream of leaving UEFA for yet more fathomless riches never goes away.

The Champions League was born not a plan to improve football but of the desire of European football's governing body to stop breakaway plans in their tracks.

As a result, domestic cups and even the once great UEFA Cup have been denuded of their previous appeal while the Cup Winners Cup was drowned in its wake.

The top players in Europe earn tens of millions of pounds every year and even some benchwarmers rake in six-figure weekly pay packets.

These salaries mean players are now astronomically separated from the supporters, yet only a generation ago footballers took the bus to the stadium and nobody seemed to mind.

Despite the ever-increasing torrent of revenues from broadcast rights acquisitions, the world is not enough for the greed-obsessed big clubs.

The executives of Bayern, Juve, Real et al are constantly employing commercial lawyers with non-disclosure clauses, sending encrypted emails and meeting secretly in plush hotels across Europe to plan their grand getaway.

When it learns of their latest plot, UEFA buys them off but cannot keep sating their insatiable hunger forever.

As soon as 2021 we could see the start of football's Brave New World, where the gates to advancement for clubs are firmly and forever locked.

God Bless the boys at Football Leaks for telling the world what the rich and powerful in football are up to while we sleep.

Perhaps if we are all aware what is going on there might just be a chance to save the game before it is too late.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Please Keep Off the Grass!


In England we used to speak of Wembley's "hallowed turf" in the build up to the F.A. Cup Final.

Everyone knew the phrase, though it is not said much anymore. 

Tottenham Hotspur's game against Manchester City on the 29th of October saw the playing surface of our national stadium appear more like a chewed up third division ground from the 1970s.

Hallowed ground? A desecrated temple, more like.

Wembley's green lawn that night was a badly scuffed and muddy disgrace in its middle section, with the ersatz lines of gridiron and the faded red and blue inks of a big NFL logo staining the centre-circle. 

The narrower dimensions of the gridiron field were clear from the long scarring on either flank where the army of NFL players and assistants stand for most of their games (picture from Evening Standard).

Only a day earlier the mastodons of the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars had fought out a competitive American Football match over three gruelling hours on the same pitch. There was no way in heaven it could have been ready for Premier League football 24 hours later.

Of course, Spurs were only playing at Wembley because their new arena in Haringey had not been finished in time, but three NFL games and an Anthony Joshua boxing match have damaged the playing surface quite seriously.

Barely two weeks earlier the Football Association had declined Jaguars team owner Shahid Khan's bid to buy the stadium for £600 million, following a lack of unanimity on the FA's council and the support of only a third of the consulted public.

Khan wanted to move the Jaguars from sunny Florida to drizzly Brent and make them a permanent London 'franchise'. 

With sell-out crowds at Wembley the expectation of a London NFL side has now reached fever pitch, but it is surely time to cool this fervour. 

After witnessing the appalling state of the grass at the Spurs v Man City match, it felt like the rejection of Khan's plan was an almighty deliverance from the prospect of having around ten NFL games at Wembley instead of the current three.

Spurs ironically have signed up to host two NFL games at their new ground next year but will not be the new base for a team. Unlike at Wembley, there is precious little space for tailgating at White Hart Lane and the neighbourhood is not London's most attractive.

The NFL is welcome here but it must aim at building its own arenas, just like MLS teams have done in the USA having moved on from unhappy ground-sharing with NFL clubs. 

But Khan's plan was different as it involved buying and taking over Wembley, our national stadium, for the primary purpose of hosting American Football. 

If the game's homeland still has anything approaching a soul, that must be a non-starter.

But is that rose-tinted romanticism? The twin towers have been demolished, the field where Bobby Moore raised the Jules Rimet aloft has been turned 90 degrees, Wembley Way is not a majestic avenue but a mundanely tiled walkway flanked by concrete warehouses and malodorous fast food stands.

But if football means more than just an entertainment option, it must have icons and sacred spaces. 

Football need not be the only game to be played at Wembley but it must come first and foremost. American football and other sports must gracefully know their place there.

In short, it is time to bring back the hallowed turf.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

LaLiga brings 'El Clásico' closer to its fans in Hong Kong and Macau

Christopher KL Lau

The passion and power of the greatest football rivalry in the world has been exploding across the Asia Pacific especially in Hong Kong and Macau. LaLiga, the top football league in Spain has been actively promoting El Clásico and recently, there were several 'El Clásico' viewings held at six different locations across Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Football fans were treated to a famous 5-1 Barcelona victory over arch rivals Real Madrid which resulted in the sacking of Real Madrid's manager, Julen Lopetegui.

LaLiga brings El Clásico closer to its fans in Hong Kong
Ross Harvey - President of the Barcelona Fan Club
"We are really satisfied with this opportunity and being able to bring one of the most awaited matches of the seasons closer to the fans in Hong Kong", said Eduard Castell, LaLiga delegate in Hong Kong. "We are committed to bringing fans here LaLiga experience and strengthen our presence in the region". More than 275 fans went to the different locations to enjoy Barcelona’s victory over Real Madrid. The popularity of La Liga has exploded recently and in the 2017/2018 season, LaLiga had over 3 billion viewers worldwide in 182 countries carried by 85 broadcasters. The league is reaching out to all corners of the world as a entertainment brand that sets the standard for football globally.

LaLiga brings 'El Clásico' closer to its fans in Hong Kong

In recent years, LaLiga has continued to bolster technological innovation and immerse itself fully in the digital sector to connect with its fans. It has embraced diversified social platforms to reach and engage with the new generation of fans in Hong Kong. Moreover, LaLiga has embarked on a new eSports adventure with EA Sports and debuted the LaLiga eSports team for the first time outside of Spain. In collaboration with the China eSports Football League (CEFL) and Tencent, three players were picked by LaLiga to participate in a two-legged tie knockout on FIFA Online 4 against CEFL All-stars in Chongqing, China. Through the eSports projects, LaLiga is able to bring itself closer to young fans on a global scale.

LaLiga brings El Clásico closer to its fans in Hong Kong

LaLiga brings El Clásico closer to its fans in Hong Kong
Barca Hong Kong Fan Club

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Mourinho's Damoclean Days


Sanchez saved the day but when your number might be up, a week can be a long time in football.

Saturday at Old Trafford was a dose of high drama, a 90 minutes of back-and-forth narratives which makes the Beautiful Game so intoxicating.

Desperate for a win with rumours swirling of an imminent managerial casualty, Manchester United went 2-0 down to lowly Newcastle, shockingly, within only ten minutes.

Funereal bells for Jose Mourinho's job could surely be heard pealing from afar.

The theatre of dreams had turned into the last-chance saloon for the increasingly so-called Special One, who had zipped his jacket up to its high neckline in a symbolic effort to keep out the world.

At the best of times he tries to keep his public emotions in check, like his predecessor Louis Van Gaal showing an uncompromising brick wall to the world, although one feels with the Portuguese it is merely a tactic rather than his character.

There was no need for the travelling Toon army to sing "Sacked in the Morning"; by half-time every hack was penning an obit for Mourinho in Manchester. The Daily Mirror was licking its lips at having been bold in predicting his firing that weekend, in bold letters on their back page.

Then bang, the riot act was read in the changing rooms and a second-half transformation saw United claw back the deficit and take all three points from an Alexis Sanchez winner. The fat lady sang and the dead man walked again.

In the clear light of Sunday however, it still looked like Mourinho had a huge job on his hands to keep his job at Old Trafford.

That remains the common consensus following the Red Devils' stunted start to a season.

Never mind the recent stumbles - a spot-kick loss to Derby in the League Cup, a Champions League draw at home to Valencia and a dismal 3-1 defeat by West Ham in the Premier League, tenth in the table after seven games is far too low for a club of United's fame, following and resources.

This comeback victory was certainly welcome and may well have bought Mourinho breathing time, but once the international break is over a quartet of tough asks await: Chelsea and Manchester City away in the Premier League and home and away tussles with Juventus in the Champions League.

Stranger things have happened of course but it is hard to see the Red Devils grabbing four wins out of four, though Champions League progress may keep Mourinho's seat safe.

For what it is worth, and it may be precious little, he did receive a text assuring him his job was safe on Saturday morning and as recently as January signed a contract to keep him at the club until 2020.

But Van Gaal was fired with a year left on his deal of course and David Moyes was shown the door only ten months into a six-year signed commitment by the club.

The warning signs of a permanent rupture have been there for around a year. Mourinho appeared distant and mournful to journalists in the second half of last season, as if he was sending a message between the lines that all was not well.

Then a summer of moaning about the lack of signings and sullen resignation from the manager set an exceptionally negative tone to the season's start. More bitter resentment than a hopeful new beginning.

Mourinho's gloom carried over into an opening day 0-3 home loss to Tottenham, who are not even the team they were last season. Arsenal also lost at home in their first home fixture, but Unai Emery has turned the team around and they are on a winning roll.

If the axe falls, it will not be controversial. Mourinho has won only the Europa League and the League Cup in his two campaigns at Old Trafford.

Despite a squad which other managers would give their eye teeth for - who can complain of lacking resources when David De Gea, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez are playing for you, Mourinho's Man U remain a sum of their parts, lacking fluency, rhythm or identity.

When a manager is "on deathwatch" so to speak, it is hard to know the truth from the outside. It is easy for the press to launch into cliches like "he has lost the dressing room" or to assert that some of his players are deliberately underperforming to "throw him under the bus."

Pogba in particular, the brightest of his heavenly bodies, is frequently dull and insipid, allegedly itching for a move in the New Year.

His flat first half against Newcastle added credence to that suspicion. But then Mourinho apparently energised him in the dressing room, empowering him to take control of the match, and he came out firing on all cylinders.

In general, the Portuguese is a man frustrated by his inability to make the team gel and constrained by the need to keep his job, so he limits himself to passing asides about his employers leaving his requests unfulfilled and to journalists he just bats away probings about his side's shortcomings, reducing press conferences to dour, unanswered monologues.

Perhaps the problem is that his neutralising style of play which worked so well with Chelsea has been overtaken by the more attack-minded Manchester City, Juventus and Real Madrid and he is unable to adapt and evolve.

The statistics show United play deeper and more defensively than most of their rivals, eschewing the 'gegenpressing' high up the field popularised by Jurgen Klopp. Better to sap their flamboyant enemy then hit them with a sucker punch against the run of play, thinks Mourinho.

While one cannot argue with his trophy haul across four countries, his footballing philosophy has the whiff of growing obsolescence.

It is hard to sack a man whose team is winning however, so Sanchez's rescue goal on Saturday may come to have as much resonance as Mark Robins' famous FA Cup goal against Nottingham Forest which saved Alex Ferguson from the sack and let him build his dream at Old Trafford.

But Mourinho must salvage the season and realistically bag some silverware with an eleven which is still disjointed and who only fitfully spark into life.

At the end of the day it is a results-based business, unless someone's personality clashes too many times with one's employers or employees. Alas for Mourinho, his previous jobs suggest his character will sooner or later, no matter the personnel.

If he is to leave, the January transfer window seems the opportune time to let a new man shape the side and it is hard to believe Ed Woodward & Co. have not already sounded out some alternatives, not least Zinedine Zidane.

Saturday was a relief for all concerned, especially for a manager who spoke of "a manhunt" after the match and being blamed for the rain and Brexit, but it will all begin again the next time United fail to win a match.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

It has always been a cruel and unforgiving game, football where you are only as good as your last result.

But that has always been the deal, even for 'The Special One'.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile