Going into the last weekend of the season (and repressing the terror that months of absolutely no English football fills me with), I can’t help but notice that a lot of the talk still seems to surround Manchester United. This is despite the fact that they have the title sealed up, while there is still plenty of sweat to be shed by those teams at the bottom of the table. In fact, it is actually because of the fact that they have the title sealed up.
Of course, Newcastle are worried that Sir Alex Ferguson will field a massively understrength side to rest up his players for the Champions League Final on Wednesday, and so are concerned that Hull City, in whose hands the Magpies’ safety lies, will pick up three points against the Champions. And while I hesitate to keep the focus on the Champions, I have to admit that I actually feel that Hull could be the ones who should be feeling hard done by and that by fielding an understrength side, Manchester United could do their Newcastle counterparts a favour.
Some Newcastle fans have expressed concern that Alex Ferguson may actively attempt to allow Hull City to win in a motivated effort to see Newcastle relegated. The motives cited for this alleged vendetta include the fact that Alan Shearer, Newcastle’s current boss, refused to sign for Fergie back in his playing days, and of course a manager scorned never forgives; as well as the famous rivalry that developed between the two clubs when Newcastle ran United close for the Premier League table, eventually causing Kevin Keegan to go a bit mad…
Strangely though, the reason for Keegan’s famous rant was actually a similar one to the issue that is currently surrounding the two clubs. Ferguson, in what may have been his most effective use of mind games ever, suggested that other Premier League clubs weren’t trying very hard against Newcastle as the season came to a close because they wanted to see someone other than his side lift the title.
Whether that was the case or not, it does seem to have a strange sort of resonance with the current debate. If Fergie implied back in the day that the teams playing Newcastle should field their strongest side to make the title race fair, then surely he is similarly obligated to field his strongest side to ensure a fair relegation battle.
However, I doubt very much that the teams playing Newcastle all had major European finals days after their fixtures, so Fergie perhaps has grounds to suggest that analogies between these two incidents aren’t accurate. And indeed, I think the game has evolved since then too. It is very much more of a squad game now, and the players that fergie fields will all, after all, have to be registered to United. It’s not like he’s going to field a random team of Sunday League players, and so I think he’s perfectly justified in fielding what could be seen as a ‘weakened’ side vs. Hull.
However, even if United do field a team of kids against Hull, I actually think, contrary to Newcastle’s obvious paranoia, Hull could be the ones to suffer as a result. Sure, facing the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and all of United’s other stars wouldn’t be easy, but I happen to think that if those players were to line up against Hull this weekend, it would be an easier game than playing against youngsters like Macheda and Welbeck.
This is for two reasons mainly. First of all, just imagine that Fergie does send out the big guns. They’re gonna be stepping out onto the pitch knowing full well that they’ve got a huge game just a few days later. They really, really want to be playing in that huge game, whereas they know that very little seems to rest on this game for them. Also we must consider that Hull City will be fighting for their lives, and so are likely to give a full blooded and committed performance.
And so from those suggestions, one may reasonably infer that any ‘first team’ player, who can be reasonably confident of his place in the team for the Champions League final, would be treading rather lightly for the duration of the match with Hull. They don’t want to tire themselves out before such a big game, and nor do they want to get injured, and rule themselves out of the final. So arguably, a full strength United side would be a very flimsy and uninterested opposition for Hull to face.
On the other hand, consider the consequences of Ferguson fielding a team comprised mainly of reserve and younger players against Hull. These guys know that United have a big final in a few days time, and they know that as it stands, they’re unlikely to feature. However, they know that they have a chance, against Hull, of impressing the manager, and perhaps earning themselves a place in the Champions League final squad, and even a cameo off the bench, depending on how events unfold.
Not only that, but they will want to take their opportunity not just with regard to a Champions League final but also with regard to their overall Manchester United future. While we know that Fergie likes to have a fairly full squad, we also know that he is not shy to add to it, and so if they are seen to not be making a valuable contribution, they could easily find themselves shipped out of the club over the summer.
So you would have to expect that a Manchester United ‘B’ team would be a very determined and very motivated side that would be very keen to defeat Hull City and show their manager just how good they are. And when you compare the idea of that side with the idea of the very cautious and relatively unmotivated side that Fergie’s ‘A’ team would surely be, you have to say that Hull may prefer to play the superstars.
Of course, some may attempt to counter this argument by suggesting that even though a ‘B’ team would have the motivation to beat Hull, they may lack the talent to do so. However,I happen to disagree with that view, and that is meant with no disrespect to Hull. In fact, I think we even have evidence for the fact that a United reserve side can be very strong when we look back to the FA Cup Semi-Final where such a side pushed Everton all the way to penalties.
Yes, Everton never quite got going in that game, but credit must go to United’s players for that. They worked tremendously hard and though they never quite made a breakthrough, they certainly showed dangerous moments. And consider that that match was played against a formidable Everton defence that featured Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka, two of the best defenders in the League. Then consider that Hull’s defence is well, not as good.
I have to say that overall, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Yes, there are reasonable arguments that suggest it’s not fair that Newcastle played a full strength United side twice while Hull will only play such a side once. But at the end of the day, even if Fergie, in the interest of ‘fairness’, put out a full side against Hull and told them to give it their all, they wouldn’t. So yes, we may feel a bit sorry for Newcastle, but I think to do so would be a bit naive.
After all, United’s youth academy is nothing to take lightly. Just look at the famous team that won the 1999 Champions League, and see how many graduates from the very same youth academy featured in that match. Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, the Nevilles, Butt and many more all graduated from that academy, and they all had to make the step up to first team at some point. Hull could be unfortunate enough to witness the stepping up of a whole new generation of United youngsters this weekend, and if they do so, I don’t think they’ll get an easy game at all.
So yes Newcastle fans, on the surface, life can seem a bit harsh. But look a little deeper, and consider the facts, and you’ll see that actually, fate may have been kind to you. But even if it hasn’t and Hull do pick up an unlikely win and you are relegated, don’t bore us all by claiming that it is the sole reason why you went down. You’ve been pretty useless all season, and have let matters slip out of your hands. So if you go down, it is no ones fault but your own.
And while it is a shame that we have to focus so much on United, the Champions with nothing to play for, rather than those poor teams at the bottom who face a massive weekend that will play a large part in their club’s futures, I guess for those fans who have spent a week dreading the coming of this weekend and the possible consequences it could bring, it may actually be a good thing. We often feel that our own clubs don’t get the attention they deserve, but for fans of Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Hull and Sunderland, I’m sure there has been a bit too much focus on their clubs this week. They’d love to be happily out of the spotlight and secure in mid-table mediocrity.
It hasn’t worked out that way though and ultimately, come the weekend, all eyes will swivel to face the bottom of the table. Make the most of it though everyone, because although I hate to bring it up, this will be out last Premier League weekend for some time, and there’s nothing else quite like it. Best of luck to those teams at the bottom, it’s a terrible feeling, I’ve been there and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Well, almost anyone…