When Wayne Rooney stepped up to take the second England penalty last night, I had this horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Having been a Manchester United fan for the past 21 years I know the tumultuous relationship between England and United. I felt that this would be it, Rooney would have his penalty saved and the weight of the nation’s disappointment would be left on his shoulders. Having had an indifferent tournament, looking unfit, out of form and missing through no fault of his own, I could see the headlines the next day, ‘England Roo penalty miss’, or something equally poor. But he scored. Sent Gigi Buffon the wrong way and England were still up in the shoot-out. But next up for England was Ashley Young. And he missed. And he had a really bad tournament. So there we go, my predictions were right, just the wrong United player who missed. In these two penalties we have a summation of the relationship between England and United, one player smashing it in, keeping England on top, and the other missed, starting to send England home.
It seems that there are three types of United-based England player. On the one hand we have the Bryan Robsons and the David Beckhams, England captains and inspirational for country as well as club, carrying them both through the hard times. Then there are the Michael Carricks and Andy Coles, for club appreciated by most fans for consistent hard work and clever play but for country never given a look-in and deemed not good enough despite being a consistent starter for the perennial Premier League winners or runner ups. Finally there are the Paul Scholes, consistently receiving plaudits for his club form from the media, from other players and from other coaches, but never truly finding his form for the country. A spell between 1998 and 2002 aside, Scholes was misused and under-appreciated by the England set- up, meaning that England missed out on Scholes in perhaps the best form of his career.
These players are willing to retire so young partly because of the years it adds to their club career, and Ferguson encourages them.
Why is it then that there is such a discrepancy between the way in which players play for United and England? One reason perhaps lies with management. Ferguson is known to encourage players not to play for their countries and miss out on friendlies because of ‘injuries’. Some United players flourish under the discipline provided by Ferguson but not the freedom that England managers have often allowed them and the egos that are present in the England dressing room, Rooney perhaps being the ultimate example of that. At United Ferguson is known to believe that no player is bigger than the club and in recent England teams one gets the impression that some players are allowed to believe that they are bigger than the team. A dressing room that allows free rein to the likes of John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole cannot impose the discipline that allows all the players to flourish.
Club divisions within the squad also cannot help. Perhaps some United playersare able to rise above the club boundaries: Beckham and Rooney for instance were/are such key players for England that such petty rivalries are irrelevant. Rooney for instance is known to be good mates with Steven Gerrard, both being Liverpudlians, and so the United/ Liverpool divide seems less important. But it is not always this way. Rio Ferdinand recently commentted that when he joined up with the England squad for the first time ‘You would have a table for Manchester United players, another for the Liverpool lads and one for Alan Shearer and his mob…I didn't know where to sit for fear I would upset one group or another and be marked down as in a particular gang’. If the divides between clubs were really that bad then some United players probably just couldn’t reconcile the idea that now they have to be bezzy mates with players who they hated the rest of the year. Gary Neville is famously anti-Liverpool and one can’t imagine that he particularly enjoyed buddying up with the likes of Gerrard and McManaman, even if he’s calmed down in his later years.
The most obvious reason to me though is that some players just don’t care as much about England as they do about Manchester United. When Scholes retired from England in 2004 at only 29, one of the reasons he gave for retiring was that he wanted to concentrate on his club career, a decision that means that he’s still playing today. Michael Carrick is the most recent player to have basically retired from England duty, saying he’s not interested in being second choice. These players are willing to retire so young partly because of the years it adds to their club career, and Ferguson encourages them. And why should they care? The media is constantly on their back, seizing easy headlines by blaming a high profile player playing for one of the best clubs in the country . But now it seems that the media may have turned a corner, With this England team at least it seems that as a country we’re less interested in blaming people and more in celebrating the team and realising our level. Perhaps then this will result in the relationship between England and United starting afresh, and we’ll have more Beckhams and Robsons and fewer Scholes and Carricks. Or maybe what really needs to change is the attitude of management, not at England but at United. One can’t help but feel that so long as Sir Alex reigns at Old Trafford for almost every player Manchester United will always come first.
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