The Invisibles – 8 – My Milkshake Brings All The Boys To The Yard

This is the eighth and final episode of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. And they’re like, it’s better than yours. Damn right, it’s better than yours. I can teach you, but I have to charge”

“Let days like this define you.”

Bond almost whispers the words.

The dressing room falls silent as he paces back and forth, the mirror-shine black shoes the Dartford Hardman had looked out for this exact occasion squeaking slightly on the floor, before he stops rigidly, and takes a deep breath.

It’s Fulham at Old Trafford in the Premier League, but the reality is that it is so much more than that.

“Win today, and we will be Premier League champions. Wenger and his Arsenal are so far off the pace, we don’t even need to look over our shoulders for that lot. Chelsea and Liverpool? Well that’s a different story.

Every one of you, to a man, has made this club proud this season. It’s time to put your name down in history.”

The April air is colder than usual, but United appear from the tunnel to a red-hot reception. Bond has the boys lined up exactly as we’ve learned to expect this season. Well drilled, aggressive, attacking.

As the players warm up, it’s hard not to notice a certain England right back. Gary Neville always felt the need to work harder than everyone else. Like the rest of the team were more naturally gifted, perhaps more athletically gifted too. Not today. Today Gary is a man possessed, still running drills and sprinting back and forth, right up until the whistle is blown to start the game. Anyone close to him can hear his murmured words of self-motivation. “La la, la la, la. Warm it up. La la, la la, la. The boys are waiting.”

The game kicks off, and the boys look pumped up. Apart from Paul Scholes, who, well, looks like Paul Scholes.

Unbelievable.

What an anticlimactic 45 minutes.

This incredible half time incident happened in 2004, but not at Manchester United vs Fulham, believe it or not.

Referee Graham Barber puts his whistle to his lips, and the players march off the pitch, clearly agitated by the goalless first half.

Emotions are high. There is quickly escalating bickering between Kaladze and Rio and furious captain Roy Keane almost kicks the door off the dressing room while roaring. Phil doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, but moves from teammate to teammate, sometimes consoling, sometimes slapping them on the back in a misguided attempt at firing them up. Mostly though, he is just panicking.

Phil Neville.

The atmosphere calms slightly as the gaffer closes the dressing room door with a bang. Bond delivers a few final words of encouragement.

“I believe in a thing called love. Just listen to the rhythm of my heart. There’s a chance we could make it now. We’ll be rocking ’til the sun goes down. I believe in a thing called love. I also believe in a thing called winning the f*cking league. Let’s. Get. It. Done.”

In a time when Dido was in the charts with songs that sounded like hollow disappointment manifested in sound, The Darkness were a welcome novelty escape.


It’s now the 93rd minute.

The ball floats across the box from a delicately chipped Cristiano Ronaldo cross. It’s like its in slow motion.

It soars high past Luis Boa Morte and Andy Melville, who are spellbound by the flight of the ball.

Old Trafford holds its breath as the rising Ruud van Nistelrooy can’t quite reach it, and the chance looks like it may have passed.

The Dutchman takes an Alain Goma elbow to the ribs and heads for the turf.

The ball bounces, and Junichi Inamoto can’t bear to look.

Neither can George Bond, his bench or over 60,000 United fans in the stadium.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is at the back post and catches the ball with a neatly poked volley from three yards.

Of course he does.

The ball ripples the net.

Manchester United 1. Fulham 0.


The challenge that was laid down is now complete.

Start the post-Fergie era ten years early, and stop Arsene Wenger’s iconic 2003 squad from becoming the mighty Invincibles, by retaining the coveted Premier League trophy. To end 16 points clear and Arsenal finishing 5th was an incredible bonus!

So United may have tumbled out of Europe a few days later to the ridiculously absurd Inter Milan side of the time. But hey, Inter went on to win the UEFA Champions League, so let’s not feel too downhearted about that.

The plan for Bond was always to come in, stablise and overcome, then leave with his head held high. These are the players who helped him do the unthinkable to the apparent Invincibles.

RVN – 31 goals. Giggsy – 20 assists. CR7 – 7 MOTM awards.

Bond calls Sir Alex and then Sir Bobby Charlton to receive their heartfelt congratulations.

The pandemonium eventually subsided and the team saw out their remaining league fixtures in a relatively straightforward fashion.


It’s the end of May 2004, and the end of the short road for the gaffer.

Bond hugs a few of the staff, from the physios to the ticket office ladies.

His stay in Manchester has been a welcome one.

Old new faithful.

The BMW M3 keys appear from the Dartford Hardman’s pocket, and the signature Motorola Razr is flung onto the passenger seat.

The familiar thump of Bond’s car stereo booms out the new Kelis album as he gets ready to leave.

George Bond is wasting no time in moving on to pastures new. He was given a very specific brief, and he has come in and smashed it.

Paolo Maldini gives the gaffer a knowing nod, Nicky Butt delivers a small wave.

The squad are gathered in an arc around the boss’s car in the car park, to see him off.

But wait.


Much like Sir Alex had left a Ronaldo-shaped gift as a new addition to a star-studded Manchester United on his departure, no self-respecting manager, short-term or otherwise, can really leave now without following suit.

….Could this really be happening?

George Bond is a firm believer in stewardship. Leaving things better than how you found them.

This move will definitely do that for Manchester United. Even in all their glory.

Of course it’s happening.

Have a look.

! ! !

Dreams do come true!

Thanks for reading and supporting this short series throughout. I really appreciate any comments or feedback either here or on Twitter, now that it’s over.

See you all again soon.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 7 – Bring Me To Life

This is episode seven of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“Wake me up inside. Save me. Call my name and save me from the dark.”

Welcome to 2004.

Shrek 2 is the movie of the year, and you can’t get turning for news about Paris bloody Hilton.

It’s a good time to be at Old Trafford right now.

The new year has been good to George Bond’s Manchester United. Form has been impressive, serial killer Harold Shipman is no longer with us, and the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed from the screenshot above, there is some silverware in the bag!

A disappointing/embarrassing dumping out of the FA Cup at the 4th round at the hands of a rampant Bristol City team aside (Writer’s note – they won 1-0 in the replay after a bore 1-1), Bond’s boys lifted the Carling Cup!

Glory glory Man United!

It was a closely fought 1-0 victory at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium over Ranieri’s Chelsea. A delicately chipped goal by Ryan Giggs floated past the stranded Marcos, and there was nothing the Londoners could do to claw the game back in the last half an hour.

Chelsea captain and man of the match on the day, John Terry, was said to be forcibly stopped from remonstrating aggressively with best pal Wayne Bridge about who was at fault for the goal. Bridge wouldn’t even shake his hand at the final whistle…

In happier times.

The 4-0 smashing of rivals Liverpool was a real boost, especially when an injury to Edwin van der Sar when Bond had already used all three of his substitutes meant that Rio Ferdinand had to deputise with the gloves on for the last ten minutes! I do love an outfield player in goals. Not quite as much as a goalkeeper playing outfield, but it is still a wonderful sight.

You love to see it.

A tight away goals victory over the mighty Bayern Munich tees up a tasty UEFA Champions League Quarter Final double header against Zaccheroni’s Inter Milan. Inter have a back five of Javier Zanetti, Fabio Cannavaro, Marcel Desailly, Marco Materazzi and Ivan Cordoba, all playing in front of Francesco Toldo. So scoring a hatful of goals really shouldn’t present a problem (Writer’s note – You are nailing this sarcasm, well done).

Defeat on the day didn’t stop United progressing.

A match against rivals Leeds sandwiched between the League Cup final, a tough fixture against Spurs and the second leg against Bayern, forced Bond to field a team of reserves and youngsters. Thankfully for the Dartford Hardman, it paid off!

The players partied afterwards in the dressing room to the dulcet tones of nu-metal upstarts Evanescence. “I f*cking love this song!” exclaimed an overly excited, air guitar-playing Kieran Richardson, before respected coach Brian McClair gestured for him to calm down.

Nice to see some of the younger Red Devils get in on the action.

It looks as though the dressing room split really did happen, but not to detrimental effect. There truly seems to be a mentoring culture, with the older players lending a hand to the young.

Sometimes this means Solskjaer running Eddie Johnson through some first-time finishing training. Other times it means Roy Keane showing Ryan Shawcross, 16, and Fraizer Campbell, 17, how to tie a tie.

There’s a knack to it.

There are ten league games left, one trophy in the bag and George Bond is calling the boys together ahead of the final push.

A fantastic campaign so far.

“Boys! There are just ten games left of the season. We’re 13 points clear of Chelsea, and you’ve just shown me that we can beat them on our day to win a trophy. Liverpool and City are chasing, and Wenger’s Arsenal are 6th!

Ruud…your 18 goals have been a Godsend.

Giggsy…12 assists is more than anyone else in the league this year.

Phil…get a haircut.

Four out of the five top completed passes by players in our division are in this room! Give yourself a pat on the back!

Tim Howard takes it literally and puts his shoulder out trying to reach, much to Nicky Butt’s amusement.

Take the ball, pass the ball.

Eric. Kleb. Thank you for your commitment. Without your motivational playlist mixtapes, the footballers at this club could not go out on the pitch and win.

Do you know something, lads?

A man reaches a certain age when he realises what’s truly important. Do you know what that is?

His legacy.

The room falls deathly silent.

Have a think about that. That will be all, gents.

Bond dramtically rips up a squad photo of Wenger’s supposed Invincibles, letting the pieces all fall to the floor in silence. He pats his Invisibles each on the back as they shuffle out of the conference room. Ronaldo winks as he passes Bond, Wes Brown has a tear in his eye.

Paolo Maldini and Gary Neville share a perplexed look as they meander out quietly, until finally Gary has to speak up…

“Wait, gaffer. Was that last quote from Meet the Fockers?!”

He’s right. It is.

Inspirational.

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 6 – In Da Club

This is episode six of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“Go, go, go, go go, go, go, shawty, it’s your birthday. We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday. We gon’ sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday.”

“Aaaaaarrrrrrrghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.”

George Bond awakens, his pounding head in his hands, his leopard-print dressing gown half open, one Fred the Red slipper hanging off of a cold foot.

The last of his empty late night beer bottles clink together on his living room floor, as the young manager tries to piece together what happened at the United Christmas Party last night, before that taxi home…

18 HOURS EARLIER

“It’s going to be, you know….lovely ladies? I just know it.”

David Bellion is standing at a mirror in his hallway, the 21-year old perfectly trimming his goatee ahead of the Manchester United Christmas party. A teenage Cristiano Ronaldo clutches a lukewarm bottle of Stella in David’s living room, sitting up on the kitchen counter, swinging his legs.

“What, like, dancing ladies?” The Portuguese wonderkid nervously ponders, wincing as he takes a sip of “delicious” beer.

“Well the gaffer said he has a big surprise for the Christmas party lined up, maybe a special guest or two. That must be it!”

“Surely not, David. Although that would be awesome!”

The boys giggle like schoolgirls, play one last game of PES on the PS3, destroy the ozone layer with Lynx Africa, then head downstairs for their taxi.

MEANWHILE…

“I am fed up with this sh*t.”

Paul Scholes isn’t quite as enthusiastic about the night out. The 29 year old is needing coaxed into making an appearance at the party by old pal Ryan Giggs.

“Come on mate. You always say that. Then you and Butty have a couple of drinks and play that game where you flick Keano’s ear and see who he catches first. It will be good, don’t give us it.”

Scholesy sighs like he is dialling into a conference call with a printer supplies company as Alan Smith pulls up outside, his blonde hair dazzling under the streetlights.

MUCH LATER IN THE EVENING…

The Christmas party is in full flow, Ricardo Carvalho has broken his elbow and left for A&E after tripping over his own feet on the dancefloor. The Ignition Remix by R Kelly will do that to a person.

Paolo Maldini looks effortlessly cool, all black polo neck and sipping red wine. Ruud van Nistelrooy joins him at a table right at the back, while Gary and Phil Neville have shown up in costume, dressed as Laurel and Hardy. Mike Phelan doesn’t see the funny side, but new boys Lucio and Kaladze share a laugh and a cigarette at the side door as they arrive.

George Bond rises to his feet, the beer and whisky clearly starting to hit the gaffer right between the eyes.

“Boys! Listen. It’s been another GREAT month. Beating the scousers on penalties in the cup. And…a Norwegian masterclass destroying those so-called ‘invincible’ London muppets led by THAT Frenchman, 5-0!”

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the four goal hero that day, face turning red, sinks behind a cocktail menu he is pretending to read, like he wants the ground to swallow him up. The noise level in the room drastically drops as people start to pay attention.

“We’re top of the league with a game in hand, we’re through to the last 16 in the Champions League and most of all…..*hiccup and stagger*….I love every, f*cking, one, of, you.”

The room is starting to realise just how drunk the boss really is. Even Darron Gibson and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, who had snuck in their own alcohol, can’t quite believe what they are seeing.

“On that note. I have a surprise for you all…”

Ronaldo and Bellion share a giggle, elbowing each other in the ribs and sitting up excitedly.

The DJ smashes some buttons and 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ BOOMS out of the Hilton Hotel’s speakers.

Lights flash and a curtain twitches, then opens, as the special guest comes slinking out…

Ronaldo and Bellion are crestfallen.

It is not a young, attractive, woman with a great sense of rhythm in eye-catching attire. Of course it isn’t.

It’s a 33-year old Dutch man, standing almost six foot six in height, grinning like the Cheshire Cat in a two-piece suit, holding a pint of Heineken.

“It’s our new goalkeeper, Edwin van der Sar!”

Bond finally sits down.

Roy Carroll shouts something completely inaudible and charges out of the hall. 17 year-old Tom Heaton puts down his Capri Sun and chases him out the door towards the taxi rank, clearly concerned.

The iconic shot stopper sheepishly steps down from the stage, wiping his brow from the sweat caused by the heat of the dancefloor’s blinding white spotlight. He takes a seat beside Paolo and his fellow countryman Ruud. Is there now a clear divide in the Man United dressing room? The young and old?

It has been so far so good for Bond and co, but will the wheels come off the 2003-2004 campaign in the new year? Or do the Old Trafford boys have what it takes to see out the season with some silverware?

In other news, Mick Jagger has just become Sir Mick Jagger, and DVD sales have just overtaken VHS for the first time in history.

What a time to be alive…

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 5 – Where is the Love?

This is episode five of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“Yo, what’s going on with the world, momma? Yo, people living like they ain’t got no mommas.”

Old Trafford is absolutely rocking. Red streamers dance in the air and kids in the stands hug their Dads as the final whistle blows.

It’s November 2003. BAC’s Concorde? Finished. Liverpool’s Brookside? Gone. Manchester United’s UEFA Champions League hopes? NOT OVER YET!

Back in the game.

The talismanic Ruud van Nistelrooy had smashed home a simple finish on 41 minutes, after initially having his penalty saved by Dionysis Chiotis, the exquisitely-named but ultimately unlucky AEK Athens goalkeeper. It was Ruud’s 10th strike in 16 games in all competitions so far this season.

It’s a different player, however, who has captured the recent attention of the Red Devils faithful.

“Shareeeeef don’t like it. OH KALADZE, OH KALADZE! Shareeeeef don’t like it. OH KALADZE, OH KALADZE!”

United’s new signing from Milan, Kakhaber Kaladze, has a song. Yes, it might be more the fact that his name fits perfectly into The Clash classic ‘Rock the Casbah,’ more than his 1 assist in 10 appearances that has caught the fans’ imagination, but the 18-times capped Georgian waves his appreciation anyway, as he leaves the pitch with a rare smile. United now top the group going into the final two games.

Rapid.

Wes Brown has been injured for what feels like years. His torn knee ligaments have kept him out since last season, and the players even missed his mid-October birthday. The “fastest kid alive” according to United captain Roy Keane, looks a shell of his former self as he visits the boys in the dressing room after training. A crutch under each arm and a party hat perched on top of his shaved head only adds to the tragedy.

“I can’t wait to be back boys. Rio, keep that spot in defence free for me.”

A silence falls in the room and Lucio stares down at his boots. Ricardo ‘one sub appearance’ Carvalho lets out a tiny laugh that triggers a coughing fit, as the awkwardness escalates. “I’ll be off then, boys.”

Wes Brown sighs as he shuffles off towards his car. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer grins like a cartoon troll just to get through the social tension.

Brown and Solskjaer.

“Now listen up!”

It’s Carrington and George Bond has called everyone in early. The Dartford Hardman wants his team firing more consistently. Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen and Ricky Sbragia stand alongside Bond, and the players can sense it’s no laughing matter. “Some of you lads need to sharpen up. You can’t come inside for lunch until every one of you has run himself into the ground. Literally. Unless you’ve run so much that you’ve passed out at least twice, you won’t even get a cup of tea without my say-so!”

Scholes and Giggs share a concerned sideways glance, but Gary Neville stands up and roars in approval, like a Spartan on the edge of battle. Phil springs up in support, but is immediately shot down before he can make a sound.

“Not you, Phil. You can go to the garage for the papers,” Bond commands.

Phil will ponder this for years to come.

United’s utility man could have proved useful here, apart from the fact that he was supposed to get The Telegraph and The Guardian, but instead returned with four packs of green Rizla.

George Bond’s head is in his hands as Neville walks slowly out of his office, backwards, mumbling “how was I supposed to know?!”

Better.

The month of November was a relative success for The Invisibles, all things considered. Unfortunately Paolo Maldini may have seemed more of a romantic purchase than a functional one for Bond, as he seems to struggle with the pace of the Premier League at 35. Young hotshot Ronaldo’s stock continues to rise, however, as he performs encouragingly (3 goals and 5 assists in 17 games), mainly operating wide on the right flank, opposite Ryan Giggs, United’s very own Welsh Wizard.

Sylvain Distin, a defender who would later be 35 years old for what felt like five seasons in a row at Everton.

Manchester rivals City were dispatched 1-0 via an Alan Smith header, in a tightly-fought match.

Captain of Manchester City on the day was a newly-signed player that a certain demographic of you reading this will react to with a warm sense of nostalgia and joy.

I wish United had got in there first. So does George Bond.

Deportivo in undoubtedly the strongest period of their footballing history, completed a group stage double over United with another Diego Tristan winner, but November results were otherwise positive!

Nice one, George.
Respect.

In other news, an iconic rival calls it a day. Thank God.

As George Bond gets in his M3, his Motorola Razr rings (yep it hasn’t been released yet, but Bond of course knows a guy), the melody interrupting the Black Eyed Peas CD that automatically bursts into life at the same time as the ignition. The manager’s adrenaline spikes when he realises who’s agent it is who is calling. Bond can’t believe the good news he’s hearing. “Shut up, just shut up, shut up,” he responds. Bond doesn’t immediately realise he’s inadvertently quoting will.I.am and pals.

In a case of art imitating life (again), come January the 1st 2004, it looks like the Red Devils might just be signing an iconic new goalkeeper!

Bond hangs up with a smile.

A future legend?

What could possibly be in the next episode as we see out 2003? Oh that’s right, it’s only the famous Manchester United Christmas Party! (writer’s note – that is 100% not a thing)

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 4 – Cry me a River

This is episode four of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“You don’t have to say, what you did. I already know, I found out from him. Now there’s just no chance, with you and me, there’ll never be. Don’t it make you sad about it?

Smash! Thud! Bang!

Manchester United manager George Bond is woken suddenly in the night by the sound of smashing glass and staggering, heavy footsteps.

He springs out of bed and grabs his ‘Kill Bill volume 1’ official replica (yet genuinely sharp) katana from it’s stand, almost accidentally stepping on the DVD case of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with bare feet as he creeps out of his bedroom door.

The noise is coming from just outside the front door at the bottom of the stairs. What’s going on?!

The door opens and Bond’s blood pressure immediately drops back to a normal level when he realises who it is.

It’s John O’Shea, and he’s absolutely hammered.

“I’m sorry gaffer.” The 22-year old defender’s words fall out of his mouth like the remnants of his last can of Boddington’s. “I had a terrible dream.”

George Bond is furious, but too intrigued to explode. “Breathe son, what’s wrong?”

“I had this horrible nightmare that I ended up in the North East at a club that just kept getting relegated. Also, folk kept showing up and poking cameras in our faces for some documentary thing. I was so upset after our night out, I even forced Gibbo to drive me here, look! He’s worried too. Don’t let it happen to us, gaffer!”

The manager’s mood changes and the door slams shut. “I’ll see you in the morning at training, gents. Get some f****** sleep.”

Well that’s a relief.

Things have started alright here in Manchester for Bond. Drunken night visits aside. United’s solid, yet unspectacular start to the season continues, and as of Halloween 2003, they sit second in the Premier League to an oddly overperforming Manchester City side. A side led by Kevin Keegan and featuring Trevor Sinclair in incredible form, alongside Eyal Berkovic, Claudio Reyna and former Liverpool pals Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler.

It’s only one point.

The Champions League on the other hand has been a tougher endeavour. A surprising Old Trafford defeat to Deportivo La Coruna courtesy of an emphatic Diego Tristan strike, coupled with a disappointing 0-0 draw away at AEK Athens has left United third in the group, with all still to play for.

UEFA-cking underperformers.
Average overall.
Check those names!

After being beaten 1-0 away at Charlton with Matt Holland in incredible form, United took on their most bitter rivals on their patch, Liverpool at Anfield. An incredible array of talent lined up on both sides. Despite a first half brace from Dutch Fergie-botherer Ruud van Nistelrooy, United threw it away in the second half to draw 2-2.

A footballer, apparently.

After the match, Liverpool’s Igor Biscan told the press, “It’s incredible, really. I can’t believe I’m still here.”

I don’t think anyone has ever answered ‘no’ to that question.

George Bond has already parted with some £47.5million of United’s money on the quintet of Carvalho, Smith, Maldini, Lucio and Kaladze.

He has his eye on one or two others, however.

El Torero.

Juan Roman Riquelme is reportedly one of Bond’s favourite players. Despite the Dartford Hardman‘s tough exterior, he does love an elegant number 10, and the nonchalant brilliance of Riquelme absolutely embodies it, arguably more so than any other player in world football. There’s a challenge, however. Although Rijkaard is as keen to see the back of the enigmatic playmaker as much as he was Italian legend Paolo Maldini, he is on loan at Villarreal until the summer of 2005. That’s 18 months away. Any deal for the Argentine would have to wait until then.

It’s the last day of October, and the ghouls and ghosts who have reared their head this season so far are having their usual party the night before All Saints’ Day (no, not the band or the ripped jean-makers).

Terrifying.

Talking about ghouls and saints, permanently angry, yet hilarious miniature Scotsman Gordon Strachan won manager of the month for driving his Southampton team into the top half of the table.

It’s the Manchester United Halloween 2003 party (writer’s note – is that a thing?) and Phil Neville (yet to make an appearance this season) is doing everyone’s head in, even his own brother’s, with terrible puns, like calling the buffet food “ghoulicious,” while dressed as a vampire.

CR7 loves a bit of teenage showboating.

Paul Scholes and Paolo Maldini are disgusted (and certainly not in costumes), while Cristiano Ronaldo is in his socks, doing keepy-ups in the kitchen with a golf ball, lipsyncing to Justin Timberlake. The charistmatic youngster is trying to impress Eric Djemba-Djemba’s plus-one, who sips a gin and tonic, not really paying attention. No one has actually seen the Cameroonian outside of his six minutes of combined playing time across two late sub appearances this season, so it’s odd that his girlfriend is here.

Rumour has it he and Kleberson play a lot of Championship Manager together, just to see what it would be like if either of them were to actually start a game.

The Invisibles are starting to come out of the shadow a little bit, but Bond and his boys have a long way to go.

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 3 – Sound of the Underground

This is episode three of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“It’s the sound of the underground, the beat of the drum goes round and round. Into the overflow, where the girls get down to the sound of the radio.”

Monster hit “Sound of the Underground” by a pre-tattooed arse Cheryl Tweedy and pals reverberates round an empty Old Trafford, via the powerful PA system.

The sun is shining but there’s a typically cold north-west chill in the air. Phil Neville is passing the ball back and forth with Mickael Silvestre on the pitch, getting in a bit of pre-training training, like they always do.

“Miki. Weird how this song is about plumbers eh?” Phil muses. “Listen to the words mate. They are talking about bathroom walls, water running in the wrong direction and overflows. Odd, innit?”

Silvestre shrugs, passing the ball back six feet along the turf with a precise left boot. “I like the ginger one” is all the Frenchman can muster in response.

George Bond’s typically booming voice echoes across the pitch as he assembles the players, the underground’s sound cutting out immediately.

“There’s a few new boys I want you to meet.”

Manchester United have returned to the transfer market to add to the acquisitions of Alan Smith and Ricardo Carvalho. But who is it this time?

Absurd attributes.

It’s the Brazilian Lúcio. This is a major move. The 25-year old shakes hands with everyone, but is smiling at Rio Ferdinand first. It’s almost like they know this could be a defensive partnership made in heaven. The now ex-Leverkusen stopper is more or less the perfect footballer. A physical monster who works harder than anyone on the pitch but has a graceful dribbling style to complement his defensive skills. This could be the most important signing of Bond’s short reign so far. £10.5million is a steal.

The Georgian Politician.

Next from the tunnel jogs Kakhaber Kaladze, also 25. He is feeling the cold. A black scarf covers most of the Georgians face as he nods to his new teammates. A forever underrated utility man, Bond parted with the best part of £20million to bring in the Georgian from Milan. Equally adept on the left side of defence as he is in defensive midfield, Kaki, as Nicky Butt has decided to dub him, is strong in every department. Click on the above image and have a look for yourself. It doesn’t cost a thing to click on it. Unlike Kakhaber Kaladze, who was very expensive.

As the fifth and final early season signing at Old Trafford casually appears at the mouth of the tunnel at the corner of the pitch, the excitement in the squad is so palpable that Ruud van Nistelrooy starts coughing uncontrollably, while youngsters Ryan Shawcross and Phil Bardsley both faint, the latter bashing his forehead on a training cone as he hits the turf.

A living legend of the game is now a Red Devil.

“Buongiorno” says the iconic Italian Paolo Maldini, with hair so perfect it causes a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo to kick over a stack of Powerade bottles in anger and do stepovers by himself in the opposite corner of the pitch for the rest of the day.

The legendary defender joins Manchester United for just £1.9million from Barcelona. At 35, he’s just getting started.

Wait…Barcelona?

Not Maldini’s favourite person.

In an odd twist of events that can only be comparable to the John Obi Mikel saga between United and Chelsea that those of you with a time machine will recall, Maldini officially left Milan for Barcelona a few days ago for a fee said to be £1.3million. Now this coincided with the squad registration deadlines for the upcoming UEFA Champions League. As the last 48 hours have unravelled, it is said that Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard had promised Paolo the run of the Nou Camp as a key man. When pressed in a conference (see what I did there?) he confessed that the 35-year old was ultimately being signed as back up to Giovanni van Bronckhorst and youngster Fernando Navarro, and may not even be registered for the Champions League.

Not the plane Paolo Maldini would have used.

One private jet hop and a handful of signatures later, Paolo Maldini was a Manchester United player. United having agreed to shell out the paltry £1.9million required to release him from the Barcelona contract the ink had barely dried on. He’ll certainly get the playing time he desires in Manchester.

Training ends but Alan Smith stays out a bit later, practicing headbutting bricks out of the Manchester sky. He is watched by Darren Fletcher (19) and Kieran Richardson (18), who share a giant bag of Monster Munch sat in the dugout, comparing Nokias.

It’s the opening day of the Premier League season, and after the disappointment of the penalty shoot out defeat to Arsenal in the Charity Community Shield, this is a must win fixture. The first opponents? Bolton Wanderers.

Smashed.

A Welsh masterclass and a debut brace from brick-header Alan Smith dispatches of Bolton comfortably. Big Sam had fielded a strong side notably including names like Iván Campo, Jay Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff, but it evidently wasn’t enough for a rampant United.

An enthusiastic Romanian.

Next up was an away trip to Birmingham which ended in a 2-2 draw, before a 1-1 at home to Chelsea; where Alan Smith scored again.

Mid-game, Adrian Mutu was subbed off for Eidur Gudjohnsen as Ranieri thought it was strange that he could run at 125mph for 45 minutes, before crashing out completely, complaining of a cold.

A nice touch in 2020, as I happily break narrative to include this image.

So George Bond has completed his transfer business, is unbeaten in 90 minutes and performances have been solid but unspectacular so far.

The ins and outs. £35million net spend.
The boys.

The Dartford Hardman gets in his car and zooms away from the stadium, with Girls Aloud blasting out of the stereo.

What does no nonsense Londoner George Bond drive?

A growling 338 bhp 2003 BMW M3 of course. What else?!

The “Bond car” (writer’s note – shut it).

It’s been a decent start, but there’s much more in store…

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 2 – All the things she said

This is episode two of a wider series. To start at episode one, click here.

“All the things she said, all the things she said, running through my head, running through my head. All the things she said, all the things she said, running through my head, running through my head.”

A Portuguese teenager with awful teeth but incredible hair swaggers into the United dressing room for the first time.

“Who’s this w*nker?” mumbles captain Roy Keane, under his breath.

Welcome to Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo.

George Bond has his feet under his office desk, so to speak, but does not quite have command of the Old Trafford dressing room just yet.

Sharp. Of course.

An awkward silence falls in the room as Paul Scholes switches off the radio, right at the moment the gaffer follows the Portuguese wonderkid through the door. Scholesy has his signature ‘resting disgust’ face on, as a click silences the sound of Phil Neville’s favourite jam, from Russian pop sensations, t.A.T.u.

Phil is crestfallen. “These girls are destined for big things” the enthusiastic full-back always says.

The Croydon-born George Bond has dealt with his fair share of footballer egos managing at Dartford, but nothing like the player power that is starting to take grip of the game, especially in the top flights of Europe.

Bond’s gravelly voice punctures the silence.

“Boys. Pre-season has been average at best. We’ve got Arsenal in the Community Shield first, and we need to show these mugs who’s boss.”

He isn’t wrong. About pre-season form at least.

The results are nothing to write home a blog about.
A natural motivator?

Enniskellen-born backup goalkeeper Roy Carroll now thinks he’s spurring on his teammates, as he rises to his feet on the back of George Bond’s sentiments and encourages the dressing room with a long but speedily delivered monologue.

Unfortunately no one in the room can understand his thick Northern Irish accent.

Kléberson’s nerves get the better of him and he starts clapping excitedly midway through. Rio Ferdinand clips the Brazilian round the ear, then points at Roy Carroll, still mid-rant, by this point foaming at the mouth.

Recruitment for Manchester United in pre-season has been laboured. Despite being reigning Premier League champions, players haven’t exactly been lining up waiting to sign on the dotted line.

Some of the best prospects of 2003. REJECTED.

The Dartford Hardman also had to kindly tell a couple of clubs to “do one” when it came to keeping a hold of England right back and staunch one-club man Gary Neville. He’s not going anywhere.

That bid from Liverpool was rejected too, by the way (writer’s note – sort these screenshots out, mate). GNev remains.

We are back in the dressing room and Cristiano has nervously perched himself beside the locker with Diego Forlán’s face on it. The underwhelming Uruguayan wasn’t the only player shown the door this summer, leaving a dressing room seat empty.

Bye bye.

But two new faces have joined Manchester United in the first wave of the post-Sir Alex era.

Absurdly good at 22. Look at those 20s!

Despite playing for United’s bitter, yet skint rivals Leeds United, Alan Smith moves to Old Trafford for £15million. The move was rumoured in the media for quite some time, and it looks like Smith might line up alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy in a new-look strike partnership.

A solid option.

The other new face is Porto’s Ricardo Carvalho. Having just won the UEFA Cup with the Portuguese giants, the centre back chose to wear the red of Manchester instead of the blue and white of Porto in this season’s Champions League. A low-risk move for the 25-year old that Jose Mourinho was seemingly happy to part with for a tiny £1.8million.

We hear that Bond’s backroom team are working round the clock on further potential deals, but there is nothing concrete to report as yet.

Could a move worth more than £10million be in the pipeline for the 25-year old Brazilian international?

The strongest rumour links United with Leverkusen’s superstar defender Lúcio, but we hear that work permit conversations are challenging.

Booooo.

In other transfer news: Manchester City sign public enemy number one Alpay (no surprise), Arsenal have decided to foreshadow their destiny by opting for Glasgow Rangers’ 21-year old midfielder Mikel Arteta. Olof Mellberg has joined Chelsea for £4.4million, as the first signing of the Abramovich era.

Wow.

Oh. That happened too.

The day has arrived!

It’s the Community Shield 2003. It’s Manchester United vs Arsenal. The curtain raiser that means absolutely nothing, but can really tell us everything about the season ahead.

The 22 players take the pitch and George Bond cuts a nervy silhouette on the sideline as he paces back and forward as the game kicks off, the capacity crowd in Cardiff erupting in applause.

Carvalho makes his debut, but fellow Portuguese Ronaldo is carrying a knock so misses out. Arteta gets his Arsenal debut in the midfield, alongside captain Patrick Vieira.

It’s a tense affair early on, with chances at both ends.

Roy Keane is breathing fire from his nose, however, when Robert Pires lobs debutant American Tim Howard in the United goal on 42 minutes.

The only other notable chance in the first half came from elegant Frenchman Thierry Henry ghosting past Nicky Butt before smashing the bar with a long range drive.

Oh no.

Despite Nicky Butt’s impressive volleyed equaliser from a tight angle with 18 minutes to go, the match plays out an entire 120 before Bond’s Invisibles live up their nickname, and go missing when the penalty shoot-out occurs.

No glory today for Manchester United.

The Battle of…the Millennium Stadium.

On his way off the field, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gets mistaken for a child and is almost removed from the pitch by a steward. Eric Djemba Djemba takes the wrong turn in the tunnel and ends up in the car park with an angry mob of Red Devils fans. He doesn’t show up again until 48 hours later.

The era after Fergie may prove even more challenging than everyone thought.

Thanks for reading.

FM Stag

The Invisibles – 1 – Hey Ya!

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.”

That speech by Andre 3000 Sir Alex Ferguson. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

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.

Becks. No longer a Red Devil.

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?

No, not the inexplicably pregnant-looking Kléberson.

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?

No.

It’s George Bond.

What? Who?!

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.

It’s ok to feel warm and fuzzy looking at these screenshots. Honestly, it is.

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.

Could this be how George Bond’s side lines up? With a fit and uninjured Gary Neville, no less.

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.)

“Ah…flashback humour.” – Tyler Durden.

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.

A few names in there I recognise from somewhere…

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.

The Theatre of Dreams.

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.

FM Stag