By Paul Gunning
As hangovers go, it’s surely been one of the longest in history. For a while, we could all understand, even empathise. After all, we’ve all been there, waking, bleary-eyed, events of the night before playing out in our minds-eye, wondering if it was all a dream. And there’s no doubt that that night in Paris, when Manchester United beat Paris Saint-Germain felt, at the time, like the kind of night that could rekindle a fanbase’s love affair with their club, after years of trouble and recrimination.
Alas, it turned out to be little more than a one-night stand. Enjoyable at the time, no doubt, but ultimately leaving everyone wondering whether it had really been worth it.
Up to that point – the first leg against PSG aside – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been blissfully enjoying a honeymoon period that felt as if it would never end and, in the hours and days following that performance under the Paris floodlights, back in March, who could have imagined that it would be United’s last away win before late October? Or that the twenty-times champions were about to embark on a slump of epic proportions that would see them teetering precariously close to the relegation zone as the clocks were turned back?
Given the choice, perhaps Solskjaer – not to mention United’s fans – would turn back the clock and sacrifice that famous result against PSG if it meant the following few months would be less traumatic, though many would argue that such nights are what makes football so addictive. Still, there have been some truly wretched performances during that time, with defeats away to Everton and West Ham United perhaps the real low points, and Solskjaer has inevitably come under immense pressure.
That comes with the territory, of course, and the Norwegian probably takes little notice of online abuse, which is always the most vociferous and, often, uncalled for. Fans attending matches have, on the whole, been more patient, despite wondering, for some time, whether they would ever see their team score more than one goal in a game again.
All that is in the past now, however, with United scoring three – three! – goals in one game. Yes, that game was against fellow relegation dog-fighters, Norwich City, but it was at Carrow Road and came just a few short days after Solskjaer and his merry men removed that particularly determined monkey’s claws from their backs with a long-awaited away win against Partizan Belgrade.
Not just that, but United even played some good football against Norwich, at times even approaching something resembling a purr. The goals, made all the more lovely by the fact there were three of them, were lovely in their own right and, in a world where goals had become rarer than Graeme Souness heaping praise on Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay can now officially count himself as being prolific.
McTominay has many detractors but he has been one of the standout performers in this struggling team so far this season and he was United’s best player once again at Carrow Road. His self-assurance in midfield allowed the likes of Marcus Rashford, Daniel James and Anthony Martial to express themselves further up the pitch. And express themselves they did, albeit against a poor Norwich defence.
Meanwhile United’s defence – the main focus of Solskjaer’s first foray into the transfer market over the summer – once again looked strong, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka continuing to excel as the first specialist right-back the club have spent proper money on since the retirement of Gary Neville.
Who could have predicted that the return from injury of two vital players, in Martial and Wan-Bissaka, would bring about an upturn in form for Solskjaer’s team? It’s almost as if having your first choice players available is an advantage for a manager who expressly warned that it would take time, patience and no little pain to rebuild the bloated, abysmal squad of prima-donnas he inherited into anything remotely resembling title-challengers.
Whether the United hierarchy is right to show such patience in Solskjaer and his project, only time will tell, and getting carried away after wins against two extremely limited opponents would be foolhardy and premature. Still, for fans of the club, those two victories feel akin to the aspirin finally kicking in, the headache being alleviated, the stomach settled and the hangover finally being lifted.