There are mixed feelings among Manchester United fans as they’ve watched their former players excel for their countries in Russia.
Mexico’s Javier Hernandez and Colombia’s Radamel Falcao, two former United strikers, both scored at the weekend. While it’s not quite like seeing an ex with a good-looking new partner, there’s definitely a feeling of “What if?”
Both are the all-time leading goal scorers for their football-mad countries and both were at Old Trafford during their prime years — if not prime fitness in the case of Falcao, who started 14 of 38 league games in 2014-15. We never saw the great striker with so much variety to his goals when he was at Old Trafford.
Hernandez would still likely be at Old Trafford if Sir Alex Ferguson had stayed. Along with Rafael, Danny Welbeck, Jonny Evans, Nani and many more, they were sold in the talent purge under Louis van Gaal.
Nobody protested when they were let go. Their form had dipped with their confidence, they were even called “dead wood” by some. Yet none of them became bad players, because they’re not. They just suffered, as the club itself suffered, through changes in manager, shifts in policy and philosophies. They’d been bred to be boxers but were being asked to perform like wrestlers or mixed martial arts fighters by different managers.
United lost more than those players’ talents, they also lost winners who’d been sewn into the DNA of a successful football club. They lost good players who became great club players because their manager knew how to make them effective, knew how to get the best from them, to protect them and take them out of the firing line when needed.
Cristiano Ronaldo is another thriving in Russia, though his circumstances were wholly different. Yet he stayed for as long as he did in Manchester because of his affection for and loyalty to Ferguson. That’s what the great man built.
But what of Hernandez, et al? I doubt he’d be the main starting striker at United now, but Ferguson knew when to use him and how to treat him. Hernandez in turn adored Sir Alex because he was the man who’d brought him to the club and given him a chance on the biggest stage.
Ferguson accepted that even if “Chicharito” had his wobbles and offers to leave, he wasn’t the only player to have ups and downs, and Ferguson always knew how to play them magnificently. In one case, he reluctantly accepted the request of one player to leave before going back to him and saying: “I’m sorry, I’ve been searching for a replacement for a month, but there are none. You’re the best player in the world in your position. I’m not going to let you go now, but I will give you a better contract.”
The player left his office feeling on top of the world.
Ferguson’s departure hurt the club badly, more badly than most people realise. Players with a loyalty to him and United changed their views overnight. David Moyes deserves some sympathy because his task was an impossible one. He made mistakes too — and he tried to be fair to players — but the United were a car with flat tyres.
Van Gaal, like all managers, wanted to do things his way. Although the circumstances of every player’s departure were different, he decided that Morgan Schneiderlin would be better than Darren Fletcher, Matteo Darmian than Rafael, Memphis Depay than Nani or Hernandez.
Hernandez didn’t go on loan to Stoke when things weren’t working out for him at Old Trafford — and he had some stinking games under David Moyes. He went to Real Madrid and won a Club World Cup.
United fans, desperate to see more and more new signings as a magic bullet for their team’s problems, welcomed replacements with enthusiasm, but most of Van Gaal’s signings failed. Even Angel Di Maria, who was one of the best players in the world when he came to Old Trafford, didn’t look good enough to get a game for non-league Trafford FC when he left.
Falcao came at the wrong time. He was still coming back from a serious injury and shouldn’t have been United’s problem, but he was. Like another great South American, Juan Sebastian Veron, he moved to Chelsea. Like Veron, he stank Stamford Bridge out.
You could point out that some of these players have underwhelmed when they’ve moved on, but the trophy-winning United sides were often better than the sum of their parts. The most recent United sides have been the exact opposite.
Jose Mourinho admitted that Hernandez would have probably scored 20 goals a season, most likely as an impact substitute, or as a replacement from the at-times-weary Romelu Lukaku. Like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he offered something different in attack, and United are often a side that needs to break down opponents. It’s one reason managers like Marouane Fellaini so much, yet I can’t see much fond reminiscing about the Belgian in the future because he didn’t play for title-winning United teams.
Hernandez, Nani et al were also sold for pitiful amounts — £7.3 million for the Mexican. He’s had offers to go to America, where he’d be a major pull. Instead, he’s chosen to stay at a higher level in Europe.
The vast turnover of players in a short time under Van Gaal has made some United fans more cautious and careful what they wish for. And made them appreciate that players can have bad runs or even seasons no matter who they play for. Michael Carrick and Antonio Valencia have both been scapegoated for poor form, but gone on to shine in their extended careers at Old Trafford.
Jesse Lingard, prone to the inconsistency that is natural for all young players, also received sustained criticism from his own fans. Ditto Ashley Young. Sometimes it was partially justified — Young’s diving stopped after abuse from his own — other times it smacks of impatience from an otherwise largely patient fan base.
Hernandez would have loved to have stayed, as would many of the other players mentioned, but the departure of one man rocked the whole ship. Under Mourinho it has since found stability, but at great expense and looking somewhat inferior as that stability takes priority over entertainment.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.