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On being welcomed back to the World by Manchester United

Visiting hours are 9 to 5 and if I show up at 10 past 6
Well I already know that you’ll find some way to sneak me in –AMorissette

Think back to August. In those long forgotten times there was far more dark cloud than silver lining in Manchester United’s outlook for the coming season. On the pitch the club was sluggish, struggling to score, looking shaky at the back. Off the pitch the media harried the manager over the lack of a major signing. Hope and Optimism were off in a pub somewhere in Beswick drowning themselves in Guinness and Macallan.

Between matches an increasingly desperate Louis van Gaal retreated into the darkest recesses of Old Trafford to stare into a dark, polished stone. The enchanted globe allowed him to scout players all over Europe as he sought a striker to solidify his young squad’s attack. An image of Harry Kane going through his paces at the Spurs training ground would shift to the Allianz Arena where Thomas Müller was working his magic with Bayern. Then Munich would fade, replaced by the form of a young Spaniard named Pedro coming off the bench at the Camp Nou to show his class and give Neymar, Messi, or Luis Suarez a breather at the end of a Blaugrana tilt. LvG grew steadily confident the last was the player to sign. Suddenly though the globe would go black and another strong mind would wrest control of the stone from the United manager. Flames would frame the blackness and a foreboding shape would fill Van Gaal’s gaze. The figure would coalesce into the form of a dark lord wearing a suit, tie, and wireless specs.

“David de Gea is mine,” the dark lord would command in a crisp Castilian accent. “You will sell him to me!”

Whenever the specter commandeered the stone Van Gaal had to summon every ounce of willpower to tear himself away, such was the power and influence of the evil master of Real Madrid. These intrusions filled the Dutchman with fear. He could not afford to lose his three time player of the year. United’s squad was not yet strong enough. Nonetheless it soon became evident the young keeper knew of the dark lord’s interest and was eager to go into the service of the black tower of Bernabeu. Desperate to keep his number one Van Gaal put him under guard and resolved not to let him on the pitch until the transfer window closed, after which the dark lord would temporarily lose the power to bring the player to the black land of Madrid.

However the Argentinian replacement the manager signed to cover for his young dreamer only exposed the uncertainties in the squad’s rearguard. As well, while Van Gaal was distracted by the sorceries emanating from Madrid, the malicious little troll known as the Special One lured United’s coveted forward Pedro to his stronghold under Stamford Bridge. At the same time the masters at Bayern made it abundantly clear their talisman Müller would not be changing alliances and Spurs refused all advances for their young warrior Kane.

The picture was bleak. It appeared United would have to begin the season with only their captain Rooney to lead the line and he was suffering his worst form in memory. If there was an undiscovered hero out there, a young warrior from a tiny kingdom, LvG would have to look deep into the stone, finding the courage to resist the dark lord of Madrid. Otherwise the club’s best hope would be to tread water, maintaining a place in the top four of the Premier League table and putting any dreams of a title in Van Gaal’s sophomore season, something he had accomplished at both Barcelona and Bayern in his spells there, out of their minds.

Had you told me at the time United would scrape by until De Gea was reinstalled between the sticks, the defense would come together surprisingly well, the wrongfully disgraced Spaniard would perform as though he had never been exiled, Van Gaal would find his young warrior in a remote principality, and that despite Rooney continuing to struggle the club would be top of the table little more than a month later, I would have called you a liar on every count other than the captain’s prolonged woes.

Had you also told me on that late August evening that I would be struck by a hit and run driver on my walk home, leaving the lower portion of my right leg shattered, my brains scrambled, the hearing in my right ear gone, my entire body covered in abrasions and contusions, then went on to say pneumonia from the particles inhaled upon impacting the pavement would cause doctors to place me in an induced coma for a fortnight, waiting for my lungs to clear so I could safely undergo surgery to insert a titanium rod in the injured leg, and had you concluded by forecasting several months in hospital and respite care, well I would have considered you a lunatic as well as delusional. I might have called a cab though.

The fact is, magically for United if tragically for me, all that has come to pass. I awoke from my coma, took a few days to gather my wits and come to terms with the gap in my memory–I don’t remember the accident itself or, obviously, the two weeks immediately following–then contacted my far flung family. Happily my uncle sent me a new laptop (mine did not survive the hit and run), enabling me to watch bits of two or three matches as my concussion effects subsided. As my head cleared United was poised to move top of the table and improve their standing in the Champions League with a solid victory over Sunderland and a spirited fightback against Wolfsburg. Apparently Hope had stumbled out of that Beswick pub, blinked at the intensity of the morning sun, and decided to put in a decent shift.

Then again, the first quarter hour against Arsenal on Sunday suggest she probably cursed the blinding light in the bright blue sky and, arm shielding her eyes, shuffled back into the soothing darkness of the pub, where three shots of whiskey wiped out the memory of the Gunners three early goals. United did fight back, especially as the first half closed, but one has to wonder what ancient spell the wizard Wenger discovered in which dust-covered tome allowing his typically carefree side to produce such a swarming defense. It seemed whenever a United player claimed possession or received a pass there were two or three red shirts immediately closing him down. Theo Walcott’s swashbuckling slide tackles revealed a new commitment to two-way play from the Londoners.

Is the result a devastating hit and run which signals the end of United’s season? Hardly. It’s just notice the club has a lot of work to do and, for all the talk of the Premier League losing an automatic berth in the Champions League, a reminder United still reside in Europe’s most competitive league. Knowing something of hit and runs I can say with authority the road back is neither smooth nor pain-free. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on things an unexpected development will put you on your ass, as did the fellow who thought he’d help me by suddenly yanking open the door I was carefully backing through last night. United’s loss to Arsenal wasn’t the hit and run–Fergie’s retirement was. The defeat at the Emirates was just Van Gaal’s side being knocked on its ass. After the euphoria of being top it was a welcome back to the real world. The measure of the side will be the amount of determination they show in picking themselves up against Everton after the international break.

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