The transfer of 19-year-old centre back Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers to Manchester United has had some puzzling aspects. In the first place, why was Jones so dead keen to go to Old Trafford at all?
Yes, of course we know United are the top English club, however poor a figure they may have cut against Barcelona at Wembley. But they already have two celebrated international centre backs in Rio Ferdinand, even if he seems subject to injuries these days, and Vidic. Plus the presence of Chris Smalling, alongside whom Jones has been playing in the central defence for the England Under-21 team.
Secondly, what possessed the Indian owners of Blackburn, Venyk’s to put a price on him as relatively low as £16 million, as recently as last February? True, there have been top-level resignations of executives at Rovers of late, but those who’ve resigned were nominally at least in power when that figure was decided. Liverpool would have paid £6 million more for the player, and he would certainly, despite the longevity of Jamie Carragher, have had more of a chance of regular football there in his usual position. Though it’s known that he can operate if required, in central midfield, which might be the kind of compromise, hardly ideal, which United might implement.
Venky’s were ruthlessly quick to dismiss Sam Allardyce, who now has the unenviable task of reviving a West Ham team about to lose half its regular players. It’s to be hoped that one way or another, Jones will get regular first team football at Old Trafford, but then what of the £10 million Smalling, whose transfer from Fulham for that large amount – all things even in soccer are relative – provoked surprise, so soon after he had moved from the Non League obscurity of Maidstone?
One’s never quite sure about just how shrewd Alex Ferguson’s transfer policy is. He and United have surely caught a cold over the sad failure of Bebe, who cost United a fantastic and in retrospect, fatuous fee when he arrived from Portugal, from a club which had picked him up for peanuts but now pocketed a staggering £7.4 million for a player whom, by his own frank admission, Ferguson had never watched in the flesh. Now he is off to Turkey and Besiktas, with United predicted to lose £5 million on the deal.
Yet what could have been a more inspired acquisition than that of the 22-year-old Mexican striker Chicharito, who has galvanised the United attack, edging out the ultra subtle skills, not to mention the 20 goals, of Dimitar Berbatov? And it was Ferguson, where Howard Wilkinson had dismally failed at Leeds United to get the best out of Eric Cantona, who with his shrewd psychological handling (all, indeed, is not intransigence and bullying) turned the Frenchman into the toast of Old Trafford.
When it comes to centre backs, however, Ferguson’s record has been somewhat erratic. He signed the present manager of France, Laurent Blanc, when that once commandingly elegant defender was well over the hill. And in what seemed one of his recurrent fits of petulance, he sold the big Dutchman Jaap Stam to Lazio, evidently piqued by Stam’s criticism of him in Stam’s autobiography. There are also memories of a disastrous Italian goalkeeper.
“We perhaps needed a touch more arrogance on the ball,” said Stuart (“Psycho”) Pearce, after his Under-21 side had undeservedly pulled a draw out of the fire in Denmark, against a hugely superior Spanish team. Pipped at the post by Welbeck’s well taken goal, probably allowed to score their own goal – which, by Pearce’s honest admission, could have been many more – with the help of a hand.
“Arrogance on the ball” must join a host of other footballing phrases of obscure meaning. How can it be parsed? Could it mean that when the ball does come, however, sporadically, into the possession of an England Under 21 player, he snarls defiance at the opposition? And how should one contrast the phrase with arrogance without the ball? It would be interesting to know how Pearce would essay to create such qualities. Do Barcelona, now seen as the footballing ideal, manifest arrogance on the ball in their glorious, short passing football?
Pearce seems, on the face of it, to be calling for a technical approach, a state of mind, which are well beyond the reach of the average English player. One always admired him in his vigorous playing days for his own committed, if not arrogant, approach. Even if a salient memory is of sitting in the press box in Bologna and watching his disastrous first minute, under hit back pass – no arrogance there, or was there? – snapped up by the San Marino striker who duly and astonishingly scored. Whereupon the press box consisting almost wholly of English journalists exploded with laughter. Arrogantly, perhaps.