Old Trafford makes for a colourful place these days. Amid the inevitable red, from the seats of the fans to the shirts of the players, there are swathes of gold and green. Worn by Newton Heath, Manchester United's original identity, the green and gold have been adopted by the supporters leading the protest movement against the continued ownership of the Glazer family.
There are plans to distribute 50,000 banners and 10,000 whistles today, to make their dissent clearer and louder. Nevertheless, it has been an essentially peaceful protest, based on backing the team. For once, however, they have reasons to be ambivalent about a United win; not in today's game against Stoke, but in the title race as a whole. Should Wigan halt Chelsea and hand the title to United, it could set a dangerous precedent for the American asset-strippers, who have signalled their intention to stay by rejecting a bid for the club this week: dispose of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez and win a record fourth successive title and what is to stop them expecting a vast annual profit as well as silverware? Would it create a false sense of invincibility?
Sir Alex Ferguson has pointed out that United have already committed funds in the transfer market, recruiting Mame Biram Diouf, the Senegalese striker who joined in January, the Mexican forward, Javier Hernandez, and the Fulham defender, Chris Smalling, who will arrive in the summer, at a combined cost of £20 million (Dh108.7m). Proof of investment, perhaps, but a sign the club is buying on potential. Ronaldo and Tevez had already realised it, finishers who were the finished article. Their absence leaves United shorter of bona fide match-winners, superstars and men at the peak of their career.
Only one of the current crop answers all three descriptions. The gulf between the impact of Wayne Rooney and that of the other forwards is dangerously large especially, when, Rooney apart, two of the greatest sources of inspiration are footballing pensioners. Prudence and loyalty were combined as United determined to get another year out of Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who have each signed a 12-month contract extension. Each is merited yet nevertheless it smacks of short-termism, of postponing major decisions for another year. Well as Scholes and Giggs, in particular, have performed, the probability is that each will be a lesser player next year.
Prolonging distinguished careers is cheaper than paying premium prices for the elite of the global game. There is a tradition of valiant veterans as, more famously, there is of youthful talent. But there is also a record of spending heavily when required or desired; sometimes badly, as in the case, as in the cases of Juan Sebastian Veron and Dimitar Berbatov, but often well: expensive additions, from Tommy Taylor, in 1953, and Denis Law to Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, via Bryan Robson and Roy Keane, have added to the United legend.
Besides the optimism and excitement it would generate, there is the sense of competition; Manchester City will spend, the probable champions Chelsea seem likely to. Even Arsene Wenger is threatening to wield his little-used chequebook. For Ferguson, the answers cannot always be found within. Even he has conceded the need for a couple of players. The questions are of position and experience, of calibre and cost, of character and quality.
The next three transfer windows may contain a requirement for a goalkeeper, a partner for Rooney, a dominant midfielder, given the problems of Michael Carrick's form, Owen Hargreaves' fitness and Scholes' age, plus a centre-back, with Ferdinand's injury problems and uncertainty whether Nemanja Vidic will remain in England. Certain individuals' futures have been clarified, with Jonny Evans signing an extended contract and Ben Foster likely to leave. But disappointment can prove the catalyst for renewal. For United, should they finish second, the question is if the picture at Old Trafford will be brighter next year.
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