It wasn’t supposed to end like this. At least one, but possibly two, three or four of United’s modern day greats said their farewells to the fans on an Old Trafford occasion that couldn’t possibly have been further removed from the triumphant celebration which marked Sir Alex’s home retirement almost exactly 12 months before. In the end, two sides with nothing to motivate them played out 90 minutes of what amounted to little more than a glorified friendly, and the night ended with the feeling that what we had just witnessed, at the end of a wretched season, was more about the future than the past. With the legacies of Vidic and Ferdinand slightly tainted by the events of the preceding months, the joyless 2013/14 campaign and the anaemic, subdued atmosphere, even Ryan Giggs’ semi-rousing address felt half-hearted. It is time for the club and the new manager to clear the decks and start again, and the potential moving on of a clutch of the finest players ever to put on a red shirt feels like the natural end of a great era. There will be few who believe that the time isn’t right. In the end, what most will remember about the final home game of the season is a possible glimpse of the future, of youth and raw talent, the foundations on which Manchester United’s greatest sides have been built, as Adnan Januzaj, James Wilson and, to a lesser extent, Tom Lawrence stole the show. With Louis Van Gaal surely set to be announced as manager in the coming days this feels like a new start, the birth of another cycle, welcome, if twelve months too late.
Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have been two of the greatest centre backs ever seen at United and one can put forward a compelling case for them being the finest in their position in the Premier League era. To have witnessed them in partnership for over eight years has been a blessing, and for all the plaudits and admiration showered on the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, little of the club’s unparalleled success in that period could have been achieved without the solid foundations that they provided at the back. They forged the perfect defensive twosome, complementing each other’s games perfectly. Ferdinand provided the pace, technique and grace and Vidic the bravery, crunching tackles, aerial might and all round brawn. Their introductions to the club were equally contrasting, The Serb a relatively cheap, little known January purchase, reserved and understated, Ferdinand a brash, club record summer signing, arriving off the back of being the outstanding centre half at the 2002 World Cup and parading around Old Trafford in a ‘look at me’ white suit. The latter fitted in straight away. The former took half a season to find his feet, his early months featuring a chastening run-around by David Bentley in a 4-3 defeat at Ewood Park. Few then could have anticipated the performance levels that were to follow.
And yet their departures, Vidic to Inter and Ferdinand (should Van Gaal consider him surplus to requirements, as currently appears to be the case) to God knows where, feel ever so slightly sullied by the events of this season. Not to the degree that their legacy will be tarnished, for their accomplishments leave them hugely in credit, but their final months have been a disappointment, both on and off the pitch. Whilst many of the players were unhappy with David Moyes’ stewardship of the club, often with good reason, Ferdinand made his disapproval most clear through social media and briefing of journalists. At times it seemed to cross the boundaries of what is professional for a footballer earning over £100,000 a week. Those unhappy at work will always make their displeasure clear to colleagues and friends, and a world-class footballer being instructed to take lessons from Phil Jagielka would invoke understandable anger, but placing criticism in the public domain is a step too far. To an extent such behaviour could be forgiven if on-field performances remained at a high level, but in a season in which most of the squad have disappointed, Ferdinand’s efforts have been as wretched as any. He is an individual who has never been to some fans’ taste and should he leave it appears that he will do so quietly and without the reverence that his accomplishments warrant. The defeat at home to Sunderland may have been his last game at Old Trafford and few, at this point, will be sad to see him go. He simply doesn’t warrant a new deal and has become a somewhat divisive presence, a figure who symbolises the need to clear out the old to make way for the new. We knew this day would come, but it will be a shame if it ends like this.
Vidic is another whose performance levels have dropped this season, although not to the extent of Ferdinand’s. The Serb has never quite recovered from the serious knee injury he sustained 2 1/2 years ago in Romania, but his consistency and focus have suffered this year, possibly as a result of the uncertainty over his future and the widespread disapproval of the manager’s methods. It has never appeared that Vidic was giving any less effort and, as club captain, he has remained a figure from whom the younger defenders at the club could learn much. He has been professional throughout and kept his own counsel, but the decision to allow himself to be pictured signing a contract with Inter Milan in the middle of a desperate campaign was misguided and upset some fans. To see your captain putting pen to paper on a deal with another club was, unquestionably, difficult to take. It is not that he wished to leave that was the problem; few can begrudge him the opportunity to experience another league, city and culture while his legs still carry him. But the release of a visual realisation of that commitment to another club as his side floundered brought understandable concern about his devotion to the cause. We will never know, but one suspects that under Fergie it would have been kept under wraps until closer to the season’s end. Regardless, it is clear that he has always given his all and his words to the Old Trafford crowd, thanking the club and the fans for his time at the club, were genuine and many are sad to see him depart as a figurehead if not as a player. The occasion did not do him justice, but he will not be forgotten and one suspects that his iconic song will be sung for years to come. It voices an adoration which Ferdinand, for all of his sustained excellence, never captured. He is a born winner and the tepid victory over Hull and muted lap of honour was no way for him to depart, but he will leave with our best wishes and will no doubt be a valuable acquisition for a struggling Inter. For all of the focus on the need for a new midfield at United, replacing Vidic and Ferdinand may well be an even bigger task. Whereas many can reel off a long list of talented midfielders who could excel at the club, there appears to be a dearth of truly world class centre backs at the moment and those with talent will be coveted by a number of extremely wealthy clubs. Regardless, the acquisition of at least one high-class central defender is a must this summer.
The future of Ryan Giggs is the most unclear. The word “legend” is perhaps overused in football, but for United’s most decorated player its use is entirely appropriate. If one player truly deserved a glorious send-off it is the ageless Welshman. It seems incredible that many fans consider Vidic and Ferdinand to be ‘over the hill’ at 32 and 35 respectively, but can see sense in retaining an individual, in a player/coach capacity, who will turn 41 during the next campaign. That is a testament to the ability and professionalism of the man who ‘gets’ United to an extent that may never be replicated. His short stint as interim manager demonstrated the esteem with which he is held at the club and the feeling that he can go on to one day fill the position full time. But not yet. It feels unsatisfactory that his future is so unclear and that resulted in relatively muted appreciation of the dedication and commitment to the club and the joy he has brought us after the Hull match. After coming on as a sub his every touch was loudly cheered and each sight of goal brought a loud chorus of “shooooot”. But the City keeper pooped on the party by saving Giggs’ late free-kick and the lap of honour felt almost inappropriate given the disastrous season we have just witnessed. That is understandable given the triumphant final day celebrations of the recent past. But if ever a player deserved to go out in fairy-tale style then it is he. His speech to the crowd at full time hinted at a continuation of his association with United next season, but his body language (at least once on the edge of tears) betrayed uncertainty. If the new manager decides that he can continue to contribute as a player then few will question that wisdom, but if he hangs up his boots Giggs will surely be better served learning the managerial trade elsewhere with a view to returning to take the top job in the medium term. We will surely never see his like again.
But whilst the Hull match marked the final home game for the veterans (and quite possibly a number of other squad members) it will be long remembered for the glimpse of the future. Ryan Giggs’ decision to select Januzaj, Wilson and Lawrence provided interest and intrigue to a game which would otherwise have attracted little of each and for which many fans had little appetite. It was a demonstration, confirmed by his post-match address, that the Welshman understood the need for regeneration at a club built on youthful talent and endeavour. All three took the opportunity given to them, the former two in particular outshining the more experienced names around them. We know all about the immense ability and potential of Adnan, but of late his appearances have been few and far between. On Tuesday he confirmed that regardless of his tender age he should be a key player next season and beyond. Wilson is familiar to watchers of the youth teams, demonstrating talent, awareness and composure that set him apart from his United peers. But transferring youthful promise and prodigious goal-scoring to the senior team is an enormous challenge, one that the vast majority of centre-forward prospects fail to achieve. My mind drifts back to former Real Madrid striker Javier Portillo, who was incredibly prolific at junior level, breaking Raul’s youth scoring record with 150 goals. Heralded as a star of the future he failed to make the transition to senior football and has since experienced a peripatetic career that has not come close to matching his promise or the hype that surrounded him. Wilson deserved his opportunity and he took it with both hands, scoring twice and demonstrating ice-cool finishing and a poacher’s instinct reminiscent of a certain Dutchman. For him the hard work starts now, but it is hard to imagine that a new manager will not have made note of his contribution. If the pre-prepared script hadn’t quite played out as Ryan Giggs might have liked it to have done it most certainly did for the debutant. There is nothing that United fans love more than a youth team product fulfilling his potential and with both his temporary manager and Robin Van Persie showering him with praise post-match there is now great excitement surrounding his future development. We cannot wait for this wretched season to end, but suddenly there is some excitement about next year.
Lawrence rounded off a night that should reiterate to any young player at United that hard work can push you right through to the first team in a way which would be all but impossible at the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. Largely unheralded in the early part of the season he exploded during loan spells in League One and the Championship and put in a performance full of endeavour against Hull. Perhaps his long-term future will be away from Old Trafford, but Ryan Giggs demonstrated that young players will always get a chance at United if they show that they deserve it. It is what sets them apart from many elite clubs and thus Wednesday night should fill us with pride at the end of a campaign during which it has felt like the club has lost so many of the qualities that make it great.
The game against Hull will be long remembered, but not for the reasons we imagined. This was not a fitting send-off for Nemanja Vidic and, potentially, a number of his colleagues. It appears that Patrice Evra is now minded to stay for another year, but the end may be nigh for Giggs, Ferdinand and several others. Their send-off was far from the exit of their dreams and a night which could have been a celebration of their contributions fell a little flat. But it was a hugely symbolic night for a reason we simply didn’t anticipate. This was a changing of the guard, the end of a glorious cycle and, we hope, the beginning of another. With a new manager set to be announced, a man with a clear footballing philosophy and a history of trusting young players, and some youthful talent and promise, we suddenly have much to look forward to. The time is right to let go of the past and embrace the future. Bring it on.