United must retire poor form

Posted by Mark Payne

Villa Park is one of the great old football stadiums of England. It has hosted epic European ties and crucial FA Cup games and was home to the European Champions in the 1980s. The steps that greet the fans are from another era and evocative of a time before commercial endorsements and zonal marking.

On Sunday, Manchester United require a good old-fashioned victory against Aston Villa.

Nostalgia has been a running theme this season. Manchester United have contributed to this in a number of ways. Much has been made of the first victory for Newcastle at Old Trafford since Edward Heath was prime minister. Similarly, Everton claimed their first win at United since before Ant & Dec were famous. Whilst Aston Villa have been supremely fallible of late, even they might fancy their chances of a first victory over United in this ground since triceratops roamed the earth.

Another factor turning back the clock is the retirement of so many players, ex-players and notable coaches. It is understandable that a seeming barrage of books and films has followed in the wake of this. Perhaps what was not expected was the opinionated lamentation of some of United’s most distinguished alumni.

Both Roy Keane and Peter Schmeichel have taken to the airways this week to bemoan Manchester United’s performances. In some ways, this was nice to hear. It confirms that both still care passionately about the club. Indeed, Keane is a season-ticket holder and attends matches with his son.

Keane intimated during his role as a Champions League pundit midweek that United were lacking in sharpness and desire. He singled out Rio Ferdinand for attention after a particularly poor display. Ironically, Keane’s United career came to an abrupt end during a punditry session in which he criticised Ferdinand eight years ago. Keane is perhaps a man who had the forethought to destroy his current career with an application for his next one.

Nonetheless, Moyes felt the need to respond to their comments Friday. "The players would be the first to accept that we need to play better and we have to make that happen. I take responsibility," said Moyes manfully.

While the manager has nowhere near the force of character of his predecessor, he is certainly man enough to stand in the firing line. The fans also deserve credit for applauding him onto the pitch midweek. The team and the manager need support right now. It will be easier to come by when they win, though.

Schmeichel's assertion was that five or six United players are not of the required standard and should be shipped out. There are not many fans who would disagree with this, and the current manager cannot be blamed for being so short on quality. In the meantime, the club must make do with what it has.

This week, that means playing without Robin van Persie, who is now injured for a month. There are increasingly loud noises emerging that Van Persie does not like Moyes’ training methods and that these may be the cause of his current fitness travails.

"Robin has been fantastic," Moyes said. "He has been great to work with. We've looked after him. We've tried to train him and do it the way he needs to work. We've made sure he does that, and I'm sure he'd be the first to accept that."

He could not have stated this more clearly. But because Moyes is not as charismatic as Keane or Alex Ferguson, or perhaps even Schmeichel, his comment will not hit home with as much emphasis.

All around, there are documentaries and interviews with the men who contributed to club’s most successful era -- the most successful era of perhaps any club. Given that environment, the current squad will always pale in comparison.

But the fans who applauded the manager Tuesday night know this. They also know that Moyes will need time to get this right. Nevertheless, both they and those in the boardroom know that a place in the top four is now at risk. A classic victory against Villa is the least they can expect. But considering recent results, it should not be taken for granted.

Mark Payne is the author of “Fergie’s Last Stand,” now available in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @MarkJPayne.

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