Saturday 11 March 2023
There’s been a new man in my life for a few months now and I think I might be falling…
Oh Erik Ten Hag! The artful Dutchman, who has brought pride, respectability and a whole lot of happiness back into the lives of beleaguered Manchester United fan, may well have stolen my heart!
Did he have me at United’s return to winning ways? Let’s just look: currently third in the Premier League, winners of the EFLcup (a first trophy in 6 years), into the last 16 of the Europa League after knocking out the mighty Barcelona. Well it is undeniably a great start! Like many other fans, after years in isolation, I am able to venture back onto Twitter, risk an occasional bit of work-based footie banter and dare to tune into Match of the Day. (Not this week of course – #standbygary in our house, but that’s a story for another day.)
But my feelings have moved beyond mere gratitude for this glimpse of glory. The man is strong and principled; dare I say the managerial equivalent of a ‘super dad’. He is undeniably tough but he improves players and motivates them by communicating trust in their abilities. And I like that.
The standout example- the glorious resurgence of Marcus Rashford. After woeful form in the previous season, Rashford was dropped from the national squad and late Summer 2022 saw rumours of a move from Old Trafford. Ten Hag however, said ‘no question’ of a player of this quality being sold. And, if we believe the MEN, he is also quoted with this line
“…he knows I love him, he knows I want him to be here so I will tell him that again!”
Whatever the truth of the exchange, Rashford stayed and the results have been phenomenal. As articulated recently in the Spanish press,
“ His numbers are frightening and the feeling he left at the Camp Nou is that of a striker capable of changing a game on his own. He shook the entire Barcelona defense and was pivotal to both United goals.”
But it was Ten Hag’s reaction to our “7-0 spanking at Anfield” (Gary Lineker), when I was finally slain. Against tidal wave of social media clamour for change, he kept the same team and the same captain for the next match. When explaining this decision in a post-match interview, Ten Hag explained
“... we played 23 games in a row with one loss and in the 24th game we had a huge defeat, but you can’t ignore the 22 games before, when this team played massive good…“
Oh be still my beating heart… the man understands performance statistics! A rare, rare quality in the sporting world which, despite an embarrassment of data riches, still favour a knee jerk reaction to the immediate in any ‘analysis’ and commentary. So, successful, decent, intelligent and numerate … Erik simply could be my ideal man!
Above all however, it is joyful once more for Small boy and I to watch United matches. Football has become ‘our thing’ again as we ‘trust in Erik’ and the team to put in a performance. If we spectate together on the TV, we have rituals, lucky hats and favoured chants. If Small boy is watching with friends, we message at goals. For one cup match and birthday present, when prices fell below three figures, I bought my son a ticket to a match with his friends. A nervous moment, fellow parents, watching your child head out unaccompanied into the Old Trafford cauldron but an an exciting rite of passage nonetheless. Small boy also unwrapped Ten Hag’s biography for this birthday and that sits ever-proudly on our mantlepiece, with Erik gazing wisely into the lounge.
So, for all of this, Erik Ten Hag, you currently eclipse all other sporting heroes in my head and heart. Will it last forever? I think it just might…