While pondering quietly with a Chelsea supporting colleague of mine on the merits and faults of Juan Mata’s move to Manchester United, I soon discovered that an aspect of my argument proclaiming reasons for United fans to be cheerful was intrinsically flawed. Putting to one side Mata’s inordinate ability and apparent – for use of a better phrase – old, reliable head on young shoulders, I believed that his acquisition of innumerable continental medals for both club and country in the last few years was yet further confirmation of reasons to be cheerful. While his possession of a World Cup, European Championships, European Cup, Europa League and F.A. Cup winners medals will no doubt be some source of comfort, this Chelsea supporting friend of mine was quick to point out that such things would not appear relevant had it been Fernando Torres who had moved north – a footballer who shared with Mata the joy of winning the aforementioned five and more besides.
Averaging out at over one major trophy a year, it is difficult to estimate what Torres’ legacy will become in later years. Apart from Spain’s triumph at Euro 2008, Torres’ presence in the subsequent victories has rarely been essential. Taking Mata into consideration, it appears highly unlikely that the post/pre Mourinho success’ of Chelsea would scarcely have occurred without him – reflected in his being consecutively dubbed Chelsea’s Player of the Year in two seasons where they claimed three trophies – yet the ongoing success of Spain would surely not have been impeded by his absence.
It is with a touch of irony and humour that we as football fans consider those fortunate players who happened to be in the right place at the right time, and with a more reverential regard discuss those lauded figures who ushered in the right time in the first place. Some contemporary figures of good fortune who make Torres’ contribution in recent years look like Maradona’s efforts in 1986 are known to us all as the pillars upon which many good jokes lean. Although we could comprise a compelling list of names, it’s safe to say that even Liverpool fans will agree that Djimi Traoré being in possession of Champions League winners medal cheapens the competition as a whole. Alas, let us move to consider components of the other half; those players whose arrival sparked considerable success. Late last night and early this morning, most sporting outlets released news of Nemanja Vidić’s decision to see out his contract at Manchester United and leave at the season’s close. Although some may lament his decision to release this news when he did – half way through the worst season he has known at the club – great tributes will be paid as Nemanja Vidić sees out the era he so gloriously helped bring to life.
It is startling that my longstanding image of Vidić will forever be his calamitous afternoon in that particular battle with Fernando Torres – the 4-1 defeat for Manchester United at Old Trafford. As Torres’ excellently added to the £50 million that his wares would eventually cost, the humbled Vidić was left with little option but to drag Torres to the ground and cut his losses with a sending off. Something similar was seen in Vidić’s performance against Chelsea not too long ago. A disastrous afternoon against Hazard and Eto’o in particular led to a professional foul by Vidić on Hazard closer to the centre circle than his own box. It showed a man either off the pace entirely or off the ball mentally. Nemanja Vidić, it can now be said, has grown weary of Manchester United. He is hardly alone in his assessment.
It will be with great sorrow that United fans watch the capitulation of a hub of players that brought the club to three Champions League finals in four years while collecting league titles on the way. Granted, the initial departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and the more recent retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson has already clarified the change in motion, but now we are witnessing the imminent departure of those players on which so much of United’s contemporary stable progress was built. Perhaps – although I was just too young at the time – the same feeling of unease unearthed itself as the treble winning side of ’99 slowly moved down separate paths. It bears consideration the alarming sense of the unknown that presented itself when Ferguson’s departure appeared imminent in 2002. Although relief was found and a new – and perhaps better – side was formulated by Ferguson in this wake, the departure of Vidić comes at a time when United fans have a greater idea of what the abyss really looks like.
In practical terms, what the ageing Vidić brings to United’s team now are qualities – footballing wise, perhaps not leadership wise – that can be bought. Liverpool’s edition of Torres, among other players in that class, displayed that pace was never truly Vidić’s most prized asset. Yet, in his armoury he possessed a footballing intelligence and instinctiveness that allowed him to be in the right place at the right time almost every time. Now however the pitch must no doubt seem bigger and the opposing players even faster. The future that seems to await him in Serie A if rumours are to be believed will perhaps suit his slowness of foot and waning but occasionally vibrant quickness of mind. Let us consider for a moment though this player priced at £7 million but invaluable in the rewards United reaped as he became one of Europe’s contemporary great defenders.
As Roy Keane departed and Alex Ferguson found himself more likely sitting in the dugout than parading the technical area, Vidić’s commanding presence and visually inspiring performances were a great deal of comfort to Manchester United’s players and fans. In Rio Ferdinand – by all means a better footballer but perhaps not quite as startling a leader – Vidić found a defensive partner with whom he could build a working relationship – three consecutive Premier League titles would ensue. His defensive work in the 2008/09 season however signals his separation from great to World Class. Although credit is due to many – Edwin Van der Sar of course – Vidić’s presence inspired a record breaking fourteen consecutive Premier League clean sheets. The decision on the part of the PFA to award Ryan Giggs with their Player of the Year award may perhaps have been somewhat more admissible had it not been for Vidić’s superior performances that season. His in-house recognition was not overlooked though as he picked up United’s own annual award celebrating their players’ contributions.
Nemanja Vidić is quite unlikely to ever be forgotten by those United fans who witnessed him play. However, there is no doubt that his position in the squad list is already in the process of being filled. He will not leave a gaping hole, rather a glorious monument to his services. While money is the usual stimulus behind a player’s departure, Vidić has displayed a dimension of professionalism that is forever cheerful to witness. He has served out the many contracts he has signed with Manchester United and now, in his own words, he wants a ‘new challenge’. While his impact on the pitch is not what it once was, United would be eternally grateful if David Moyes could unearth another player the like of which arrived from Serbia by way of Moscow over 8 years ago.