More humiliation for luckless Manchester Utd

Losing faith: United players watch dejectedly as their fortunes take a tumble © PA

A miserable season is getting worse and worse for what used to be England’s dominant football club. How can the Red Devils restore themselves to their former glory?

Yesterday evening, emergency phone operators in Manchester received an unusual phone call. It was from a drunken Manchester United fan, who dialled 999 and asked if he could please be put through to his club’s recently retired manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Manchester police politely told the caller to look elsewhere, but although he had had a few drinks too many, the man was right about one thing: for United, this really is an emergency.

Problems were brought into sharp focus at the League Cup semi-final against Sunderland this week. The League Cup was the only trophy United stood a realistic chance of winning this year. At the end of the second leg, after a gruelling and unconvincing game of football, United had scraped their way to level pegging.

Now, everything came down to a penalty shootout: five penalty shots at goal from each side and the team with the most goals wins.

Penalties are a psychological nightmare for footballers. In theory, scoring from twelve yards out with just the keeper to beat should be easy for a top professional. But when the pressure is on and the dreams of thousands of fans rest on your shoulders, it is easy to let fear get the better of you.

The psychological aspect shows up clearly in statistics. A player trying to score a goal for an instant win will score 92% of the time. But a player who needs to score for his team to stay in the game scores only 60% of the time.

So, when United fans watched an extraordinary four out of five penalties either sailing over the crossbar or rolling into the arms of the goalkeeper, they had reason to panic. This was the worst penalty shootout anyone at United can remember – a sign of a team whose morale has hit an all time low.

United are out of the League Cup. On this form, it will not be long before they are out of the Champions League as well. The Premiership title is already beyond their grasp, barring a miracle. For a decade, Manchester United have been the team to beat in England – the team all other teams feared. After this week, those days may finally be over.

Buying victory

What has caused this terrible decline? Some commentators point to a lack of money at the club. United is not as rich as it used to be, and the squad is no longer packed with expensive global talent. New manager David Moyes hopes to turn things around by bringing in Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata on a £37 million transfer.

But pessimistic fans think United is missing more than money. Moyes’s players look short of leadership; short of inspiration. Perhaps what is really missing is Sir Alex Ferguson, bellowing from the touchlines. That drunken emergency caller had the wrong number, but the right idea.

You Decide

  1. If Manchester United have a terrible season this year, is that a good or a bad thing? Or neither?
  2. Which is more important for football success: team spirit, or a high transfer budget?

Activities

  1. People often complain about how unfair penalty shootouts are. On your own or in small groups, try to come up with some better or more creative ways to settle a draw in football. You could hold a class vote to pick a favourite.
  2. Write a description, from a footballer’s point of view, of the few seconds between starting your run up to take a penalty and kicking the ball. What do you notice? What do you feel? Make your description as full as you can.

Some People Say...

“What goes up, must come down.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who knew footballers were such psychological softies?
It isn’t just footballers. Everyone gets nervous when the pressure is on – and nerves have an annoying way of making people perform badly.
Are there any ways to combat nerves?
There are a few. Statistics show that footballers do better at penalties when they keep facing the goal, rather than turning their backs. Also, the success rate is higher for players who focus on where they want the ball to go than for players who focus on the goalkeeper.
How does that help me?
The same principles work for all sorts of situations. First, face the challenge, rather than running away from it. Second, focus on successful outcomes, not on the disaster you may fear.

Word Watch

Sir Alex Ferguson
Perhaps the most famous manager in British footballing history, Sir Alex led Manchester United from 1986 to 2013, overseeing the club’s rise to greatness. He has been voted British Manager of the Year more times than anyone else.
League Cup
Also known as the Capital One Cup after its sponsors, this is a relatively minor trophy in the English football season. Like the more important FA cup, it allows teams from lower leagues to compete with huge Premier League clubs. The prize money, however, is just £100,000 – less than some footballers earn in one week.
Second leg
Many club competitions make teams play two matches, or ‘legs’, against each other, one at each club’s home ground. Teams normally play better at home than away because of the familiar surroundings and the larger number of supportive fans. Playing two legs rather than one balances this ‘home advantage’ out.
Level pegging
This expression comes from the game, darts, in which players used to keep track of their scores by moving pegs on an old fashioned cribbage board. When the pegs were level, the scores were equal, therefore: ‘level pegging’.
Rich
For the first time, Man U has dropped out of the top three in a football rich list compiled by the global professional services firm, Deloitte. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich now hold the first three places. But it’s not all bad news for the club – its revenues actually increased in the 2012-13 season, from 395.9m euros to 423.8m euros.

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