This is episode one of a wider series.
“My baby don’t mess around ‘cause she loves me so and this I know fo sho.”
Every single Manchester United fan globally must have shed at least a tear when Sir Alex Ferguson grabbed that microphone at Old Trafford.
No. I don’t mean that time when he sang Outkast to 60,000 people (writer’s note: Fergie was in the Black Eyes Peas anyway, woosh!). I mean the legendary manager’s emotional farewell speech that will live long in the memory.
“I have absolutely no script in my mind. I’m just going to ramble on and hope I get to the core of what this football club means. This is a thank you to Manchester United. Not just the directors, not just the medical staff, the coaching staff, the players and supporters. It’s all of you. This has been the most fantastic experience of my life. Thank you.”
But wait. This isn’t 2013. It’s July 2003 and Sir Alex is still at the peak of his powers (did he ever lose them?), but has decided to step down as manager with immediate effect. This leaves Manchester United in the curious position of being a footballing superpower, but suddenly without the chief orchestrator of their upward trajectory at the helm.
It’s the age of Tony Blair, the introduction of the London congestion charge and the Iraq war. Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea and the end of Concorde and Brookside.
That’s how everyone remembers 2003, right?
So what’s been going on? In the 02-03 campaign, the Red Devils won the Premier League, finished runners up in the League Cup to bitter rivals Liverpool and went as far as the UEFA Champions League Quarter Finals.
David Beckham and his exquisite haircuts have become Galácticos. Iconic veteran centre back Laurent Blanc has hung up his boots at the tender age of 37 while loyal United servant David May has headed to Burnley for the twilight of his career.
Ruud van Nistelrooy bagged 44 times in all competitions last season, so the 27 year old must surely take centre stage again for the upcoming 2003/04 campaign.
But wait, who’s this?
Sir Alex left behind a gift in the form of newly-signed 18-year old “wonderkid” Cristiano Ronaldo. He arrives from Sporting Lisbon for a fee of just over £12m after impressing in a friendly between Ronaldo’s old club and his new one at the tail end of the last campaign.
Fergie has chosen summer 2003 to retire at the age of 61 to spend more time with his family. Rumour has it however, he was actually worried that Arsène Wenger had finally built a very capable team ahead of the 2003/04 season that was looking potentially invincible (writer’s note – where’s your crystal ball, mate?).
Before putting the microphone down, Sir Alex had a final message.
“Your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important.”
But who is the new Manchester United manager? A highly rated Scotsman on Merseyside? An extra special Portuguese with a powerful ego?
It’s George Bond.
So if a Frenchman in London is potentially building The Invincibles, an Englishman no one has heard of is working on The Invisibles, a team in transition who’ve just lost their leader that no one knows how they will look or play.
George Bond, 43, has only relatively recently begun his managerial journey. With a solid, yet unspectacular 18 months managing at non-league Dartford on his CV, along with some coaching experience with the Bolton Wanderers Academy squad, this seems an odd appointment. But when has Sir Alex ever got it seriously wrong?!
The coach nicknamed ‘The Dartford Hardman’ has the biggest shoes in football to fill…Neville (writer’s note – stop it).
Speaking of Phil Neville, let’s take a look at the squad Bond has inherited from Sir Alex, and some of the promising youth prospects coming through from Carrington, which only officially opened last summer, in 2002.
The squad is in decent shape, but looks a wee bit light in numbers.
Let’s ignore Eric Djemba-Djemba.
If Bond’s time at Dartford is anything to go by, we should expect to see him employ a narrow and combative, short-passing counter-attacking system. One that is staunchly wingerless, and focuses on a key ‘lever’ in central defensive midfield.
The rookie manager reportedly loves a highly creative number 10, too. He may have just the man in his ranks for this job already.
What’s this? Ryan Giggs in central midfield before his 30th birthday? 22-year old John O’Shea as a left back? He always looked like a centre back to me! (writer’s note – be warned, there will be a lot of this ‘flashback’ humour. Sorry.)
First choice goalkeeper Fabien Barthez is said to be eyeing a move back to his first club Marseille in his native France, while 24 year old Uruguayan striker Diego Forlán certainly hasn’t hit the heights so far in a United shirt in his first season and a half, so may not be far from the Old Trafford exit.
Before his sudden retirement, Sir Alex Ferguson was said to be keen on Fulham’s Louis Saha, as well as PSG’s Gabriel Heinze and 17-year old Everton breakthrough starlet Wayne Rooney. Rooney is said to have the same ceiling of potential as new signing Ronaldo, but would he fit in at Manchester United?
United have even been linked with bitter rivals Leeds United’s talismanic frontman Alan Smith, but I think pigs might fly before we see another Cantona or Ferdinand-esque Leeds to Man United transfer (writer’s note – we get it, well done).
Let’s have a quick look at the Academy side and highlight any youth players worth keeping an eye on.
It’s a promising group overall, but I have a feeling that 15 year olds Ryan Shawcross and Darron Gibson might have decent potential.
17-year old stopper Tom Heaton looks a good prospect and 18-year old pair Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley don’t look too bad either.
What will 2003 and beyond look like for Manchester United and their new manager George Bond?
Is Wenger really building that good a team in North London?
What will this Russian’s money do to Chelsea?
Are United’s rivals Leeds really on the road to financial ruin?
Are Newcastle United the real deal after finishing 3rd last year?
Find out in future episodes of The Invisibles.
Episode two will look at pre-season results and any transfer business in and out of Old Trafford before the big kick off of the 2003/04 season.
Now excuse me while I go shake it like a Polaroid picture.
Thanks for reading.