Manchester United fans left in disbelief after capitulation at Leicester
Twelve hours and 10 minutes after setting off, I've just returned to Manchester after driving to Leicester and back. There's no point trying to forget about the 5-3 defeat. How can anyone forget a 5-3? Elderly Athletic Bilbao fans still recall a 5-3 victory over Manchester United in 1957 as one of their greatest games. Pictures of it are prominent in their club HQ.
Fans vividly remember West Brom's legendary 5-3 win at Old Trafford in 1978 and the 5-3 victory at Stamford Bridge in 1998, plus the 5-3 triumph at Tottenham in 2001, when United came from 3-0 down at half-time. There was a 5-3 win at West Ham in 2002, too. As in the win at Chelsea, David Beckham scored twice.
I don't intend this to build into a fan rant. I heard enough of those on the radio earlier, fans bemoaning a lack of passion and commitment -- those intangibles which people who know little about football use to bolster their arguments that their own passion and commitment should somehow be matched by footballers they've paid to see.
Talent, rather than passion, is the key ingredient at the highest level. You saw it when Radamel Falcao, clearly a superior player to Ritchie de Laet, spun past him to set up United's first.
United's side is blessed with sublime talents, but there's not enough in a defence which appeared vulnerable and disorganised throughout, though they were afforded scant protection. An injury to Jonny Evans didn't help, nor did Luke Shaw's absence; he's one of many new players who needs to be integrated.
United tried to sign Mats Hummels in the summer and didn't get him. They went for other central defenders, too, and are likely to do the same in January. But what happens until then as the Dutch master Louis van Gaal works on his newly started masterpiece? Are we in for more great goals (for both teams), more error-strewn performances? Life's not going to be dull under Van Gaal.
Earlier, I watched in disbelief as Leicester scored four times in 21 second-half minutes. It did actually happen. Watched a Leicester fan nearby. He, too, viewed it all in disbelief. By the time of the penalty for their fifth, he turned around to face the back of the stand -- and the club's Thai owners, who stood giddily in replica shirts near manager Nigel Pearson. When the fan heard the roar of a converted penalty his son hugged him.
"I can't watch [David] Nugent take penalties," said the man when I asked him after. "I watched him last year and he missed, so now I turn around and he scores."
Down beneath the stands, Leicester's club secretary told former Foxes player (and United fan) James Scowcroft that it was the greatest game the stadium had ever witnessed. Scowcroft played for Leicester the last time United visited in 2003. "I felt humiliated leaving the field," he said of a 4-1 defeat and a Van Nistelrooy hat trick. "Today the United players will feel the same."
The 3,000 United fans did sing Van Nistelrooy's name in those halcyon few minutes while their side led 3-1 -- those five minutes of gloating when it looked like a rejuvenated team were about to record a second successive victory. United fans even sang "attack, attack, attack!" because they wanted more, more, more. Conversely, United's manager, renowned as a tactical genius, bemoaned his side not killing off the game at that point, not retaining possession.
"A two-goal lead against a team from the Championship, and we lost 5-3," opined my disgusted mate Grant when I picked him up from a Leicester pub after the match. "Some tactical genius that."
Grant's a great United supporter who's visited all 92 league grounds. He's no oddball, though he'll be at Stevenage next week watching United's under-21s against Spurs. He came to Leicester but didn't get into the stadium, as tickets for the away end were particularly hard to get hold of -- one tout quoted 500 pounds for a pair. A swirl of enthusiasm after last week's win against QPR was a contributory factor in increased demand, that and United only play once a week in these Europe-free days.
Grant was among 30 United ticketless fans who stayed in the pub to watch the game, cursing and pointing at the big screen after initially celebrating.
I'm trying to tell myself that despite United's defeat, it was a good day out. The sun shone and going to watch football is about far more than the game itself. It's about meeting up with friends and a sense of community, of travelling to different towns and cities and seeing life uncaptured by those television cameras as they film fans in jester's hats making anodyne pronouncements.
Leicester's newish home may be a bowl barely different from those at Southampton or Stoke, Derby or Middlesbrough, but the area around their home is interesting: the River Soar, old factories, gas works, power stations and tight terraces around the old Filbert Street ground. Nearby is Welford Road, home of England's best-supported rugby club, Leicester Tigers. It wasn't quite a rugby score in the football, but 29,000 Leicester fans really did holler "we want six" in a game against Manchester United. Then also celebrated in a style Manchester City fans call "The Poznan," with their backs to the pitch. And they chanted: "Just like Leicester, your city is blue" to the travelling fans and "You let your country down" to Wayne Rooney after he failed to fire England beyond the ground stage of World Cup in Brazil.
That followed chants of "Argentina" from the United end in support of Marcos Rojo and Angel Di Maria. Rojo might have been more effective in the stands with them rather than on the pitch. He had a shocker, was caught out of position several times and beaten by Jamie Vardy's first touch. He clearly hasn't yet adjusted to English football, but he'll come good as Van Gaal's fills in more blanks on his canvas.
United started well. True, there was never a time when Rojo & Co. at the back didn't look vulnerable to the pace of Vardy and positioning of Nugent, but that was masked by attacking play of the type missing since Sir Alex Ferguson departed.
Daley Blind was tidy, adds balance and reads movements well. Di Maria is outrageously talented; his goal, a scoop over Kasper Schmeichel, even had some home fans applauding.
Falcao, too, as he set up Robin van Persie for United's first and hit the bar in the second half. United appeared to be cruising after Ander Herrera did his best Lee Sharpe against Barcelona impression with a back-heeled third. At 3-1 after 57 minutes, a United victory shouldn't have been in doubt. Leicester blew that theory apart four times.
Played five, won one, drawn two, lost two. And this in a run of six supposedly "easy" fixtures for the new manager. Best not get carried away just yet, best for the new players to remember that games are never over after an hour in England.