by Paul Gunning
There are a whole host of reasons why the 2013/14 season can feel like a mirage to Manchester United fans.
Chief among them, of course, is the memory of David Moyes fretting on the Old Trafford touchline. Was he really our manager? Or was it a sick practical joke, a nightmare from which, at times, it felt we would never wake?
Yet another reason for that fateful season to be tinged with a sense of sadness, is the form of Adnan Januzaj during that ludicrous campaign.
That year, the young Belgian was one of the only bright sparks in the darkness, yet it can feel, these days, like it was all a figment of our collective imagination. Like that Adnan Januzaj, the boy who it appeared could do anything, and who had the world at his feet, was simply a fictional, fantastical character living out a fairytale that duped us all.
Januzaj enchanted us and for a while we believed. Indeed, even now, two years on, as he departs to be reunited with Moyes, the man who, against the odds, managed to get the best out of him, many of us still believe.
It may seem bizarre, deluded even, given all the evidence against him, that so many of us are still clinging to the hope that the myth of Januzaj will one day become the reality again, that he will somehow rediscover the form and flare that had us swooning as he glided over the Old Trafford turf during that glittering debut season, when we would catch our breath as we watched him work his magic.
Comparisons with United greats of the past were whispered in hushed tones by enthralled fans of all generations in the stands. The Belgian’s graceful movement, his delicate dropping of a shoulder here, a flash-of-red change of direction there, the way he left defenders prone, bamboozled by his brilliance, all pointed to the brightest of futures. It felt like a new star had been born, and the number eleven shirt, immortalised by George Best and Ryan Giggs – the two players Januzaj’s slaloming style felt most reminiscent of – duly followed.
Alas, under Louis van Gaal, Januzaj floundered. He wasn’t alone there, of course, but his was a shocking decline made all the more confounding given the Dutchman’s lauded record with prodigiously talented youngsters. Yet Van Gaal never took to him and, as rumours of Januzaj’s poor attitude and his early success going to his head abounded, he became something of an enigma, rarely seen other than in the reserve ranks.
It is fast becoming the story of his career that we keep on hoping that a new coach will rekindle the spark that set Januzaj alight. Yet Thomas Tuchel couldn’t do it during his dismal loan spell at Borussia Dortmund, his early international career was spent on the fringes before fizzling out entirely, and now Jose Mourinho, after just a couple of months at the helm, appears to have seen enough.
Januzaj himself is said to have felt ‘humiliated’ by his new boss’ decision to banish him to the reserves once more and it will surely benefit everyone for him to spend another spell elsewhere. Perhaps Moyes can once again give him his wings and make him soar, albeit in the less rarified Sunderland air. If not, the player labelled a wonder-kid will have us forever wondering if it was all a dream.
Still, many United fans, who were so enthralled by Januzaj’s majesty during that breakthrough season, will be relieved that his move is not a permanent one. There was too much potential for him to be discarded already. He offered too many moments of profound footballing beauty for us to give up on him entirely. He is still young and has had the great misfortune of bursting onto the scene during the most tumultuous time in the club’s recent history, when upheaval became the norm, the ground frequently shifted beneath us all and it left us all wondering if things would ever be the same again.
Having had the number eleven shirt snatched away from him already, Januzaj’s United future looks bleak. Nevertheless, the hope remains that he will one day return to the club and dazzle us once again, that what appears to have been a mirage will turn out to be anything but, and we can once more sing about the boy who can do anything.