Why Manchester United fans' ridiculous booing of Ashley Young makes absolutely no sense
“Thanks for the warm welcome, Singapore,” Ashley Young wrote. He was not being sarcastic. His tweet was posted before Manchester United faced Inter Milan; before he was booed when he came on, and the majority of his touches were jeered. It was not the sort of hot reception he was anticipating.
United’s ultimate utility man, the player Louis van Gaal used once as a centre-forward and who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has selected as a centre-back, has added another role to his repertoire: scapegoat.
If the barracking of Young felt particularly pointless given that it came in a pre-season friendly, and may be irrelevant if his status this season is as the understudy to Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw, it also seemed a sign of the times; an indication of the way that social media has had a corrosive effect on culture. A place where extremist voices sound loudest and generate an extreme reaction.
Perhaps supporters several thousand miles from Old Trafford felt they were speaking for the fanbase. Solskjaer did, after all, stress the importance of putting the ‘united’ into Manchester United.
Yet the booing was not merely cruel. It was simply wrong, and not just because of the possible impact on the player. Young had a sorry spring, whether with his red card at Wolves or torrid night at the Camp Nou, when he was outclassed defensively and had the wrong sort of 100% record with his crosses, which all missed their desired target.
But it's also because few players merit being singled out by the boo boys less. In a time of underachievement at Old Trafford, Young has often been an overachiever. At a point when others’ commitment to United has been in doubt, his has been unquestioned. In an era when too many costlier players have failed to live up to their reputations under any manager, Young has survived under five.
He has been United’s master of selfless reinvention, the winger turned wing-back and then full-back. He has shown up some of the bigger names, displacing Angel Di Maria from Van Gaal’s side, and was a key contributor in a top-four finish. Young did so in an alliance of the unlikely lads, with Marouane Fellaini. Now he feels like a surrogate for the departed Belgian; the personification of United’s fall from grace. It is undeniable that the modern Young would not have got in the teams of 1994, 1999 or 2008. Nor would he command a place in the Liverpool or Manchester City sides of 2019.
But that is scarcely his fault, just as he is blameless if, when he wears the armband, he feels like an undistinguished successor to the colossuses who have captained United. He is no Denis Law or Bobby Charlton, Bryan Robson or Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona or Roy Keane, Nemanja Vidic or Wayne Rooney. He probably wouldn't claim to be, either. Others made him a United player and captain. Within his own limitations, Young has made the most of his chance.
The 34-year-old is not a cause of United’s decline but a symptom of it. Indeed, at times, he has been valiantly trying to prevent it. There was a point towards the end of Jose Mourinho’s reign when he felt like United’s best outfield player: not in terms of ability or profile, but in his wholehearted efforts for a struggling side that were an indictment of more glamorous talents.
He has actually been one of United’s best signings of the 2010s and, if that feels like an indictment, it should be an illustration that problems began elsewhere.
If boos feel anathema to Solskjaer, with his view of United as a magically, mystically happy place, there are more deserving recipients – from Ed Woodward and his various former managers, to disastrous or disappointing acquisitions such as Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, Alexis Sanchez and Fred. But most are not around to satisfy the urge to lash out. Young is. He is the easy target, but also the wrong one.
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