An often-used cliché in football is the crucial importance of a General. Usually imagined as a center midfielder or central defender, this granite like figure is the heart and soul of the club. An engine room workhorse or an epic hard man worthy of a ‘tasty’ Danny Dyer expose on bravo at 11pm on a Tuesday after Britain’s Toughest Pubs. Just like Mr. Muscle, they love the jobs you hate, scrapping it out, bossing the play box to box and always on hand to put a threatening hand round the neck of any opposition player who dares to tackle one of his teammates. The modern day personification of this General figure was Roy Keane. A man blessed and cursed with ridiculously high expectations of himself and those around him. A man almost certainly destined to have been cleaning graffiti off benches in a bright orange boiler suit had he not found his calling in professional football. An unintentionally hilarious scene from a 2001 Manchester United documentary film shows Keane storming out of a relaxing team quiz night after he deems the questions too slanted in favor of his opponents. That was Keane. A man gloriously unwilling to accept defeat of any manner in any circumstance. And the shadow of Keane has continued to cast itself over the present day Manchester United for the passed 5 years.
Before Keane arrived United had already become accustomed to this type of captain. During his 13 years at the club, the fans had re-christened the world’s most boring drunk, Bryan Robson, Captain Marvel and Captain Courageous. Although not high on the list of prospective Ross Kemp interviewees, Robson was ‘hard’ in another way. Box to box, throwing himself into challenges quite willing, and able as it turned out, to injure himself in the process of driving United forward. Even in Steve Bruce, Robson’s successor, a steely “never give in” drive was maintained. Bruce was a nice guy, but still a man willing to put himself, and his nose, on the line at any cost. Bruce also had, in Paul Ince, a vice captain and foot soldier, very much in the Keane mould, willing to get stuck in on command. Keane’s predecessor, Eric Cantona, was a different type of General, but a General none the less. He was the inspiring type, the lead from the front kind who led those around him purely by virtue of being much better than everyone else. He also wasn’t shy to put the boot in when needed, even if this required him to leave the actual field of play for a bit.
This type of player is often the type that United fans and commentators like to bemoan the lack of, but is this player actually needed in the modern game? Some would point to Darren Fletcher as the natural successor to these luminaries, but he’s yet to prove his talents as anything more than expertly provincial at best. That is to say, he isn’t quite in the same stratosphere as Keane and Robson. Others would point to Wayne Rooney, the golden man-child of English football, whose natural talent is only matched by his often-kamikaze desire to win. Rooney can certainly win a game on his own but as with Fletcher, his influence doesn’t seem to spread beyond the pitch. He’s not really looked upon as captain material just yet, with Rio Ferdinand and even Patrice Evra given the armband ahead of him in the absence of Neville and Giggs. Even Cristiano Ronaldo was ahead of him in the pecking order last season. Could Owen Hargreaves be the answer? Unlikely. Even if he is ever seen in United colours again (he’s been “three weeks away” for about 6 months now) he’s still clearly not any great force of personality. Merely a hard grafter. Another foot soldier, not a leader.
But is this player actually needed? Arsenal may not be a great example, what with their inability to win anything for close to 5 years now, the same time in which United have gained 3 more league titles and one more European Cup since Keane left, but they do seem to have adequately replaced their last famous General (Patrick Viera) with a player of supremely different talents in Cesc Fabregas. Barcelona are a much better example, bereft of any singular embodiment or any particularly hard grafters, but yet the current World and European Champions. Two titles they inherited from, well, Manchester United. So United have done pretty well without this player for 5 years now. No they don’t have a Gerrard or a Terry to personify them, but they’ve done better than both Liverpool and Chelsea over the same time period. What United lack in singular leadership they make up for in little bytes. Rooney, Ferdinand, Vidic, Fletcher and Giggs provide more than enough leadership both on and off the pitch. Anderson has the potential to grow into a midfield battler, if not an emblematic presence off the field itself.
What United are missing is creative midfielder in his peak. Everyone is either too old, too young, or simply not playing to their best. Rooney, often sporadic in his performances this season, is often left to be battler, the creator and the finisher. The burden needs to be lifted from him slightly and when it is, he probably will flourish into the leader United may or may not need right now. If his 4-goal salvo on Saturday proved anything, it’s that if those around him play to their best, he can lead from the front for many years to come.