By Mark Payne
Manchester is a great place but like all cities it has grubby corners. To the south lies Wythenshawe, which is often trumpeted as the largest council estate in Europe, whatever that means. At the end of the nineties I worked in a pub there and remember it as an area with a lot of heart, but certainly bleak and full of trouble too. Marcus Rashford was born there.
Last night he started a game for Manchester United and scored two goals to put them through to the next round of the Europa League. Make no mistake; in eighteen years Mr Rashford has travelled an awfully long way.
The prism of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United reign casts strange light on this excellent result. A European victory involving five goals at Old Trafford should always be cause for celebration. In the 1980s it would have been bedlam. These are strange times indeed though for the followers of England’s biggest football club.
The Dutchman cannot be faulted for his approach to blooding youngsters in the first team. In recent weeks, Jesse Lingard and Guillermo Varela have played superbly considering their callow experience and United fans ought to be careful what they wish for when the word ‘Jose’ is mentioned.
This truly was a Manchester United night. The problem, as is much discussed, is most of the things leading up to it. Under Van Gaal, United have put in several respectable runs of results before folding embarrassingly. This is what happened just last week against the same Danish opponents and Sunderland.
So whilst there should be much rejoicing at seeing United plunder goals, with one of their own breaking through, the matter of slipped standards cannot leave the agenda. United are in the Europa League only because of their failings earlier in the season. It is almost a false kind of glory.
Nonetheless, any kind of glory will do I suppose when Manchester City are greedily expanding on the other side of town. What most United fans would like to see is evidence of a clear trajectory back to the summit of European football. UEFA’s second-string cup competition doesn’t fit neatly with that ambition.
The horrible reality has begun to dawn on most fans that we are in for a tough couple of years. Our rivals appear stronger, better-equipped and with more intelligent purpose than United currently have.
This season, shameful as it has been in the Premier League and European Cup, remains salvageable through good runs in this competition and the FA Cup and a resounding turnaround in league form.
Given that rationale, Van Gaal’s men can only beat the team in front of them. Memphis Depay even found it within himself to play some football for a change and reminded everyone why he commanded such a large price tag last May. One good performance does not a career make though, and he has a long way to go to shrug off the Nani comparisons.
Arsenal and a more exacting examination await at the weekend. The injury list is long and grievous at present and the manager could not be blamed for adoping a safety first approach against the Gunners.
Defeat would see the calls for the manager’s head return and the shouts for Jose Mourinho will grow louder again. Would Jose though, have started an 18-year-old in a crucial European game when his job was on the line?
Like I said, be careful what you wish for.
Mark is the author of Fergie’s Last Stand, just £3 this February
Follow him on www.twitter.com/markjpayne