Iceland: A Saga of the World Cup Underdog

From football anonymity to World Cup debutantes in a little over a decade.


When you fly into Keflavík International Airport and peer down through the clearing fog, a vast, sparse tundra awaits you, where roads run through the rock and snow like discarded ribbons of tarmac, and the emptiness seems staggering.

How then has this charming yet frigid rock in the northernmost regions of the Atlantic managed to become nearly as synonymous with the upcoming World Cup as the likes of Argentina, Germany and Brazil?

For the World Cup conjures images of glittering stadia drenched in summer sun beneath azure skies. Yet here, nestled between brooding mountains and iron-grey seas, the burgeoning Icelandic passion for football has captured the hearts of millions.


For many years, though, most people’s perception of Iceland was little more than an icy, barren wilderness whose chief exports were ethereal-voiced songstresses and enormous men who threw ovens over hedges.

What happened to a country with almost no professional footballing pedigree for the public perception to shift so vastly?

In order to understand the secret of Iceland’s fortunes, we have to go back to January 2004. It may seem like a small event in the grand scheme of football, but the turn of that particular year saw Iceland gain its first ever UEFA-accredited coach. For a nation of 330,000 people, or to paraphrase Partridge, roughly the population of Coventry, this was monumental.

Before then, Icelandic football was firmly routed in the amateur game. Plucky Nordic footballers, some of whom would traverse the lower leagues to emerge into the Premier League; veritable giants of men, not known for their technique or prowess on the ball, but for their physicality and refusal to concede defeat.

Think: Hermann Hreiðarsson.  And even then, he was relegated with every Premier League side he played for. The Icelandic Roger Johnson, in essence.

However, as of 2015, that number of trained coaches in Iceland has risen from one to 669, including 17 coaches who possess a UEFA Pro Licence. Over the same period, Iceland rose from 93rd in the FIFA rankings to an all-time high of 21st following Euro 2016. As they approach the World Cup, they currently sit in twenty-second place – ahead of the likes of Sweden, the USA, Serbia and every Home Nation besides England.

Training coaches properly may seem a simple strategy – and in essence, it is – but its a strategy that has worked for others. Take Germany and Spain, for example, the two foremost footballing nations in Europe over the past decade.

As of 2014, both nations possessed by far the highest number of professional coaches – Germany: 6,934, Spain: 15,423 – and it’s no small surprise that the two nations have won four of the last five international trophies available to them.

Not for a second is anyone suggesting Iceland could be the next World Cup winners (well, maybe the folks over at the Reykjavík Grapevine) but their insistence on properly coaching football from a young age has reaped similar dividends to Spain and Germany, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Yet for Icelanders, the transformation of the sport from the amateur realm to professional has been gradual, and one which has still not permeated the way they approach the game.

Vidar Halldórsson, a prominent sociologist from the University of Iceland, explained,

“[Icelanders] still build on valuable elements from amateurism, where the players somewhat approach playing for the national team as play rather than work. The Icelandic teams are in this sense built on: intrinsic motivation, friendships and strong teamwork – which are elements that have been fading from commercialised sports.”

In essence, Iceland treat football for what it is – a game. And while the British media piles the pressure on the next 23 hapless players who have been picked to face the firing squad, the Iceland team will be approaching their first ever World Cup utterly buoyant.

But this progression hasn’t come from just putting the time and money in place to train a generation of coaches alone. Instead, a rather simple factor has helped catapult Iceland from perennial flirters with the top 100 to fanciful dark horses: playable pitches.

In case it escaped your attention, Iceland is, well, to put it mildly, pretty cold. And we’re not talking the sort of cold that would prompt most Britons to dig out their ‘big coat’. Oh, no. During winter, temperatures plummet, snow is abound and the country lives up to its moniker. If we had this weather in the UK we’d to abandon any pretence of running around and go down the pub instead.

Heimaey youth football tournament © James Brooks

For many years, this has been a contributing factor to why Icelandic football has struggled domestically and on the international level. Only since the turn of the century has the Icelandic FA put effort into renovating the existing facilities and introduce purpose-built, all-weather pitches. Many were built next to schools to allow children to participate in the sport, as the KSI put it, “purely for fun.”

While children up and down the UK are being shoved onto full-sized pitches when they could still be mistaken for an inhabitant of Hobbiton, and are then duly screamed at by over-expectant parents every Saturday morning, Icelandic kids are kicking a ball about all year round for the pure hell of it. Precisely as youth football should be.

With this marriage of facilities and coaching, interest in football has soared, and with it so have the results of the national team. More players than ever ply their trade overseas in Europe’s top leagues, and while it may have taken a generation to achieve it, the wait has been well worth it.

For a country that hadn’t once qualified for a major tournament to qualify for two in the space of four years is testament to the extraordinary progress that can be made if you give football the patience it needs to develop.

Cardiff’s Aron Gunnarsson has been Iceland captain since 2012. ©  Jon Candy

Usually, when a country qualifies for its first ever World Cup appearance, they’re summarily written off. The likes of Zaire in 1982, Iraq in 1986, Jamaica in 1998 and Trinidad and Tobago in 2006, all arrived on the grandest stage and were dumped from the competition at the nearest opportunity.

“Lacking in experience” was a reproach levelled at most of them; basically a polite way of saying when your goalkeeper is a postman, your striker is 46 and your captain plays in the Ukrainian fourth division.

Yet Iceland come into this World Cup with the attention of many an outsider. This plucky little country of bearded Vikings are the smallest ever country to be represented at a World Cup finals, and it helps that they’ve already proved they’re not akin to a spot of pillaging after they dispatched Portugal and England en route to a quarter final finish in Euro 2016.

While very few observers genuinely believe Iceland can win the whole thing (short of Thor manifesting on the pitch and smiting every opposition player in sight) the fact they’re even there is an achievement in itself.

Who’d have thought fifteen years ago that Iceland would be heading to the World Cup, let alone whether they’re 250/1 to win it!

And despite being drawn into a group with Lionel Messi’s Argentina, Icelanders can feel tentatively optimistic of escaping into the knockout rounds. Since their third place finish in 1998, Croatia have failed to progress past the group stages since, while Nigeria have never progressed past the round of 16 in their entire history.

With the watchful gaze of Odin looking over them, don’t be surprised to see Iceland steal a march into the last sixteen.

Put that microphone down, Björk, step away from the squat rack, Hafþór Björnsson, and set your TV channels to Smite – Iceland’s latest saga is only just beginning.

Farewell Antonio Cassano: Italy’s Flawed Genius

After 19 years, one of the game’s most eventful characters has finally called time. Again.

This year saw Italian football wave goodbye to one of its greatest sons. The illustrious Francesco Totti, revered in Rome, called time on a career that had spanned 24 years with a single club. A Serie A Champion, a World Cup winner and a recipient of the Golden Shoe, despite the limitations of playing for boyhood club Roma, Totti enjoyed a glittering career.

Conversely, fast forward a mere two months and one of the Italy’s more colourful characters has also decided – albeit not without controversy – that the time has come to hang his boots up.

When you compare Antonio Cassano’s career with that of compatriot Totti, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Whereas Rome’s finest star rode off into the Mediterranean sunset with a chorus of 55,000 ringing in his ears, Cassano – once dubbed the “bad boy” of Italian football – leaves the game behind in a manner most befitting of his eclectic career.

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Only eight days after having signed for Hellas Verona at the ripe age of 35 – and having not played a single league minute since May 2016 – Cassano duly announced he was retiring; only to then reverse the decision the very same afternoon.

A week later, following claims by his wife he was now cancelling his contract with the club, the farce reached its epic conclusion when Cassano once again confirmed he was retiring from the sport altogether, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

So, what happened to the man AS Roma once signed for €30 million at the tender age of 19? Ostensibly, as with so many footballers, a talent that promises so much is hard to sustain in the gruelling realm of the modern player.

When he arrived in Rome having become one of world football’s most expensive teenagers, Cassano had already acquired somewhat of a mythical status at his home club, Bari. Dubbed “the jewel of old Bari” after a series of scintillating performances, his effortless ball control coupled with a deft technique and low centre of gravity drew comparisons with Napoli hero Diego Maradona.

So when Roma shelled out more than they had on previous club record signing Gabriel Batistuta in 2000, it seemed like Cassano was on an upward trajectory to the summit of the game.

Playing at Roma gave Cassano the perfect opportunity to learn from one of Italy’s best. By this stage in his career, Francesco Totti was established firmly as a Roman legend, having lifted only their third ever Scudetto in 2001, and was already a permanent fixture in a lethal Italian national side.

Yet, Cassano, rather than capitalise on the opportunity, cut somewhat of a troubled fixture in the country’s capital, publicly falling out with Fabio Capello, before causing Luigi Delneri so much grief as to completely omit him from the league squad.

His on-field antics did little to endear him to the Giallorossi faithful. Rather than handle himself with the magnanimous nature of Francesco Totti, his on-field spats, tantrums and bust-ups became a spectacle of ridicule.

The first signs of the attitude that was to plague Cassano’s career began to surface, but in spite of his off-field issues, he was still voted Serie A Young Player of the Year twice while at Roma, in 2001 and 2003.

But after four seasons in Rome, including a spell as captain, Cassano’s time at the club came to an unsavoury end. After clashing with club officials over a new contract, he drew the ire of Totti himself and his fate was sealed. A hasty €5 million transfer to Real Madrid followed and his career took a nose dive.

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In a season-and-half, Cassano went from dangerously-talented wonderkid to overweight bench-warmer who was fined for every gram he remained over his playing weight. It was here that the demons that had simmered during his time at Roma began to surface with alarming alacrity.

His laid-back manner on the pitch came under due scrutiny, and his lacklustre approach to training earned him few friends in the Spanish capital.

Moreover, tensions with old foe Fabio Capello resurfaced, the Spanish press nicknamed him “Gordito” and he managed just seven league appearances in his only full season with the club.

President Ramon Calderon described Cassano’s attitude as unsustainable, and when you consider this extract from the Italian’s autobiography concerning his time in Madrid, you can see why:

“In Madrid I had a friend who was a hotel waiter. His job was to bring me three or four pastries after I had sex. He would bring the pastries up the stairs, I would escort the woman to him and we would make an exchange: he would take the girl and I would take the pastries. Sex and then food, a perfect night.”

Despite the abject failure of his move to Spain, Cassano managed to resurrect the smoking husk of his career at Sampdoria. The mid-table Genoan club were in dire need of a spark of genius, and Cassano duly obliged.


Showcasing his talent of old, he established himself as the club’s main man with 37 goals in 106 appearances. Yet, the re-emergence of his dormant talents did not quench his volatile on-pitch nature. He continued to be regarded in footballing circles as a man more infamous for his tantrums and refusal to accept any of his team-mates as equal to himself than a man famous for his talents with a ball.

However, soon enough, after three-and-a-half seasons, the diminutive forward was on the move to a top club once again as he was snapped up by AC Milan. It was here that he formed an enviable partnership with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and collected his one and only Scudetto medal.

Yet his time at the Rossoneri was marred, although this time the misfortune that befell him was not of his own making. Diagnosed with a heart defect in his second season, Cassano missed the majority of the campaign following surgery. His stay in Milan was to be short; with the departure of Ibrahimovic and Silva to PSG, Cassano requested a transfer and jumped ship to cross-city rivals Inter.

From there, Cassano embarked on the well-trodden road of so many Italian mavericks before him, and became somewhat of a journeyman, turning out for Inter, Parma and Sampdoria in the final throes of his career.

It’s an all-too-familiar shame that, for a footballer so innately talented, Cassano never truly reached, or even came close to, the heights his early potential hinted at. When in full flow, there were precious few in the game that could match his guile and trickery; his deft technique and uncanny ability to split an entire back-line with one impudent ball. The almost churlish manner in which he enjoyed inflicting upon others the most acute embarrassment.

There was an unbridled joy that bordered on temerity about the way Antonio Cassano played the game of football. The game was about him, and him only.

Thus, it is probably the most fitting testament to Cassano’s tumultuous career that the wizened old Fabio Capello once coined the term “Cassanata” after his one-time prodigy: to describe a player entirely incompatible with team spirit in football.

Never change, Antonio. Never change.






The Best XI Never to Win the Champions League

Building the perfect XI from the unlucky geniuses who never won Europe’s greatest prize.

The Champions League final for 2017 is approaching, and with it comes a possible fourth crown in the offing for one Cristiano Ronaldo. If Real Madrid were to clinch their twelfth European trophy, and become the first team of the modern era to retain it, they’d make not only Ronaldo but a raft of their players multiple-time winners.

The Portuguese winger-turned-poacher already has three winners’ medals to his name, while the likes of Ramos, Kroos, Benzema and Modric all have two apiece.

But of their Italian opponents, there’s one man in particular who must be dying to get his hands on the one trophy that has eluded him for over two decades. In a career spanning 22 seasons, Gianluigi Buffon has tasted success in Serie A, Serie B, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana, the UEFA Cup and the World Cup — but it is the greatest club competition of them all that remains so tantalisingly out of reach.

Should he fail for the third time in his endeavours to become a European champion, he would join a supremely illustrious list of footballers never to have got their hands on club football’s most famous trophy.

You can forget Ronaldo, Messi, et al; these are the very best of the rest*.

*For the sake of argument, players eligible for the list must have played in the competition since its re-invention in 1992 as the Champions League.

GK — Gianluigi Buffon

With the likes of Schmeichel, Kahn, Casillas and Neuer already in possession of a coveted Champions League winners’ medal, there’s really only one man whose name could fit snugly amongst this pantheon of giants.


A more reliable custodian of the goal you’ll be hard pressed to find throughout the history of world football, the 39-year-old Buffon has still yet to claim Europe’s biggest prize despite appearing 109 times in the competition.

DF — Lilian Thuram

In a career that saw him turn out in Europe for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, the powerful French full-back – who counts Serie A, Coupe de France, Coppa Espana and Coppa Italia medals amongst his collection – and never once got his hands on a Champions League winner’s medal.


Like Buffon, he fell short at the final hurdle in 2003, when Juventus were defeated by Milan at Old Trafford, but for a man who was part of the dominant French national side of the ’90s and ’00s, it seems incredulous he never reached the illustrious summit of club football.

DF — Fabio Cannavaro

There are few footballers who win the Ballon d’Or, and there are fewer still who win it in spite of being defenders. Yet the elegant Italian, the leader of Italy’s victorious World Cup side in 2006, managed just that, becoming the fist centre-half to scoop the accolade since Franz Beckenbauer in 1976.


However, although Cannavaro played for giants like Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid, the classy centre-back finished his career without a winner’s medal in the Champions League; one which would’ve completed an extremely enviable personal collection.

DF — Sol Campbell

Whereas Cannavaro embodied the elegant, graceful side of defending, Sol Campbell was all about sheer power. The hulking centre-back, who acrimoniously leapt across the North London divide from Spurs to Arsenal, was the man at the heart of a defence which became the first in Premier League history to go unbeaten in 2003/04.

sol campbell

However, it was the 2005/06 season where Campbell came so close to tasting European glory. In the final against Barcelona, the centre-back had opened the scoring for the North London side, only to see the Catalans register two late goals and take the trophy back to the Camp Nou.

MF — Michael Ballack

The legendary German midfielder, who was an integral part to the successes of Bayern Munich and Chelsea in the mid-’00s, ended a tremendously profitable career in 2012 without ever tasting glory in a European competition.


The heartbeat of every midfield he performed in, Ballack drove both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen onward to European finals, only to suffer defeat in both. Frustratingly, the story for Ballack was familiar on an international level: he was a runner-up in the 2002 World Cup with Germany.

MF — Daniele De Rossi

The highest-scoring midfielder in Italian post-War history, the Roman icon has had fewer chances for European glory than most on this list because of his utter devotion to boyhood club Roma.

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Despite being on the end of a 7-1 thrashing to Manchester United in 2008, De Rossi ranks as one of the finest ball-winning midfielders of his generation, and looks finally set to assume club captaincy of Roma at the sprightly age of 34. So there’s still time to get himself off this list.

MF — Lothar Matthaus

Perhaps the man on this list who, both figurative and literally, came closest to lifting the famous trophy, Lothar Matthaus was substituted off in the ’99 final at the age of 38 with his Bayern Munich side leading an under-performing Manchester United 1-0.


Yet, in the final 90 seconds, the legendary playmaker’s dreams of a first – and at his age, possibly last – European crown went up in smoke. For a man who remains Germany’s solitary Ballon d’Or recipient, football can seem a cruel sport.

MF — Pavel Nedved

When the Italians were dominating the football landscape in the ’90s and ’00s, playmaker Pavel Nedved was at the peak of his powers in a Juventus side gleaming with stars. Gliding across the grass with unmatched grace and poise, he’s recognised as easily the finest player the Czech Republic produced.


The 2003 Ballon d’Or winner came closest in 2003 when Juventus lost on penalties to Milan. Somehow, the UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and Serie A medals aren’t going to make up for missing out on the big one.

FW — Ruud van Nistelrooy

For a man that claimed the Champions League golden boot in three out of four seasons during his time at Manchester United, it’s a staggering injustice Ruud van Nistelrooy never even reached a final, let alone had the chance to win the competition proper.


One of the most lethal penalty-box strikers in the world, the hulking Dutch forward made goal-scoring look the simplest thing in the world. But, despite illustrious tenures with Manchester United, PSV and Real Madrid, he never did get his hands on the elusive big-eared trophy.

FW — Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Of course, for the mercurial Swede, there is technically still time for him to scrub his name from this list, but with the clock ticking on, it might just be one step too far. Incredibly, the supremely-talented Ibrahimovic has actually never reached a Champions League final.


Instead, he’s fought off accusations of mediocrity to hammer in 49 goals in the continent’s top club competition, which were it not for a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, would’ve won him a golden boot or two during his time with PSG.

FW — Gabriel Batistuta

Like De Rossi, Batistuta never really came within a sniff of lifting the Champions League trophy, but nonetheless made his mark in the competition with Fiorentina, where he proved he wasn’t just all about smashing goals past Italians only. Are you reading, Mark Bosnich?


The most feared striker of his – and probably any other – generation, Batistuta was the complete forward: lightning quick, supremely athletic, strong in the air and a powerful finisher with both feet. In his prime, he was untouchable — and his talent warranted at least an appearance in a Champions League final.

A bittersweet take on United’s season thus far

United fans of the past three decades have enjoyed a pretty good life, what with Sir Alex Ferguson sweeping aside all that stood before him, conquering both England and Europe with a swagger that garnered as much ire as it did admiration.

He built and re-built teams that were as dynamic as they were dominant, familiarising Manchester United fans with success. Success that many of them hadn’t witnessed since the heyday of Sir Matt Busby.


So, it’s with the last 25+ years in mind that Manchester United fans have had to temper their expectations. David Moyes floundered beneath a deluge of expectation; Louis van Gaal — despite winning the FA Cup — alienated supporters with his stagnant brand of possession football; and so, following these disappointments, faith was placed in a man who had long coveted the head role at Old Trafford.

The thing is, in spite of all his undoubted brilliance, José Mourinho hasn’t exactly restored the club to its winning ways.

There is certainly an arrogance about United fans — even being a fervent one myself — that demands success, as if it is some God-given right, rather than earned through graft, guile and sheer bloody-mindedness.

With Mourinho, there is the expectation success will follow, especially when the club shells out in excess of £130 million in transfer fees for some of the footballing world’s most promising names.

But with United stuttering through an indifferent start to the season, what’s missing? With the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and De Gea, Mourinho has a glittering squad at his disposal, yet this behemoth of a club languishes in 7th place, having been soundly beaten by Chelsea, outplayed in the Manchester derby and staunchly boring the entire of Merseyside to death.


First off — play people in their actual positions

As anyone who’s played football to any half-decent level will testify, attuning your game to a host of different positions is tricky. Sure, there are the gifted few for whom versatility is second nature, but understanding the tactical and positional differences of a winger and a striker take time to comprehend.

And that’s going some way to explaining United’s sheer lack of both excitement and proficiency this season.

It may be a sign of the lack of genuinely talented wingers in the squad, but sticking Marcus Rashford out on the flanks is doing nobody any favours. With his fearless nature and direct running, the last place you want the young England star is 30 yards from goal and approaching the byline rapidly. The same goes for Anthony Martial.


Their frightening pace would be far better serviced through the middle, but not necessarily at Ibrahimovic’s expense. Late on in games, tired legs are going to have a hell of a time keeping up with Rashford and Martial.

Concerning the wide areas, United have a man in Henrik Mkhitaryan who was at the top of his game last season; drifting in off the right-wing to register 11 goals and 15 assists in the Bundesliga as Dortmund finished runners-up.

But it seems as though this United squad has an abundance of talent, all of whom want to play in that coveted ‘number 10’ role — Rooney, Mata, Pogba — and who are similarly bringing a distinct lack of balance to the side.


Let’s take Paul Pogba. Undoubtedly he possesses a wealth of talent, but he has the positional awareness of a man registered blind. His inclusion in the side warrants a solid base in midfield, potentially robbing the side of creativity going forward. There’s no scope to play Pogba in a midfield two — he too often leaves his partner woefully exposed.

Which brings us neatly onto the next point:

Mourinho needs to establish his first-choice XI — quickly

Unfortunately for United fans, Mourinho has too often got his starting XI and tactical set-up completely wrong for the big games.

Struggling to piece together the jigsaw of how the fuck you fit Paul Pogba in this United side, Mourinho has frequently opted for the lumbering figure of Marouane Fellaini in centre midfield. A curious charge when you consider the big Belgian’s talents as a footballer: he can head the ball. Aaaaand that’s about it.

In years gone past, United have dominated the English and, to a lesser extent, the European scenes thanks in no small part to their strength in centre midfield. Keane, Scholes, Butt, Carrick, Ince would all walk into today’s side without a concern.


But if you insist on playing Pogba, who anchors the midfield? Do you entrust the energetic and criminally-underrated Ander Herrera, sacrificing his creative instincts in the name of solidarity? Or do you trust in Michael Carrick who, although is certainly into the winter of his career, has a proven time and time again he has the ability to dictate play from the centre of the park.

And what of Morgan Schneiderlin? The aggressive ball-winner seems to have been entirely overlooked alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger when both can offer more consistency in the centre of the pitch that Fellaini.

But that’s not the only area of the pitch Mourinho is struggling with. The right-back berth seems to have been filled, albeit we pray only temporarily, by Antonio Valencia; a man whose ability to defend is less compelling than his attempts to speak English. So many times the Ecuadorian is caught out by even the merest hint of intelligence in an opposition winger; sure, most won’t beat him for pace, but the man doesn’t seem to know what offside is!

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Similarly, Mourinho’s proclivity for playing Young and Lingard in important fixtures beggars belief. These are two men who epitomise one of the bleakest problems that English football is facing: we seem to appreciate a lack of actual footballing talent as long as it is compensated for by a willingness to “put a shift in”.

Since when did top-level international footballers rely solely on their ability to work hard? Carlos Tevez works bloody hard, but he’s also a terrific goal threat to boot; the same goes for Luis Suarez, who never gives defenders a moment’s rest. Cafu would steam up and down Brazil’s right flank in the 90s, yet he could cross a ball like no one’s business and tackle like a bull.

Panicking is going to help absolutely no one

Football fans are fickle, and perhaps none more so than Manchester United fans, many of whom expected a continuation of the club’s phenomenal success once Fergie had waved a fond farewell in 2013.


Moyes’ head was called for extremely early on, while van Gaal hardly lasted much longer before the masses turned against him. Already there are rumblings of disquiet amongst the United faithful who seem to have once again rolled out that old chestnut “playing the United way”.

Well, what is the United way? Rampaging wingers and an attitude that boldly proclaims, “You score four, we’ll score five”? See how far that gets you against Barcelona! The modern game is changing and so is the entire landscape of football.


Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the last old-school managers, who ruled the club from top to bottom, and in José Mourinho, United, at least, have a man of similar ilk. Players desire to play for him; they want to impress him. And that’s what the club needs.

Scholes, Giggs, the Nevilles, Keane — all players for whom playing for Manchester United meant something. United fans were blessed indeed to witness such a crop of players come through their club at one time, and it’s a feat that will likely never be repeated, but United still possess the tools to re-establish themselves at the pinnacle of the game.

This season has been lukewarm to say the least, but it has produced moments of startling potential. So despite the current lowly state of affairs United find themselves in, with City dropping points, Chelsea’s slow start still hampering them and Liverpool’s complete inability to beat anyone in the bottom five a title challenge really isn’t that far off.