Alex Ferguson told a brilliant story from 1973, when he signed for Ayr United at the end of his playing career.
In moving to Somerset Park, Ferguson entered the fantastical world of manager Ally MacLeod, the man who five years later would lead Scotland’s Tartan Army to the World Cup in Argentina.
MacLeod sold the idea of Ayr to Ferguson with a level of optimism that even an energetic figure such as Ferguson found imposing. After the contract ink had dried, MacLeod produced the fixture list and reeled off how Ayr United were going to win the league – they were in Scotland’s 18-team top flight in those days.
“First game, Dumbarton at Boghead, no problem,” began MacLeod. “They are just promoted and don’t have enough experience – two points.” (It was two points for a win then.)
“Clyde at Somerset. We always win our first home game, and anyway that big Willie McVeigh is useless. You’re bound to score against him – two points.”
MacLeod continued, and Ferguson listened rapt: “Having swept us through the first six matches without a hitch, collecting the maximum 12 points, he was ready for the crunch games.
“Rangers: ‘Well,’ said Ally, ‘they won’t enjoy coming to Somerset with us top of the league – two points. Celtic at Celtic Park: ‘We are due a result there – two points.’”
MacLeod acquired a reputation and it helped give enthusiasm a bad name. The word was and is often accompanied by 'naive'
Looking back, Ferguson could laugh at MacLeod’s “fantasies and his capacity for producing them was boundless”. But at the time, Ferguson went along with “the dream factory Ally carried in his head”. Ferguson said he was “stimulated by his bubbling enthusiasm”.
After eight games of that season, when Ferguson had scored the only goal in a home win against Motherwell, Ayr United were second in Scotland. They would go on to finish seventh.
MacLeod’s idiosyncratic enthusiasm had a positive effect. He took players with him. The problem was, as demonstrated in Argentina, enthusiasm can also lead you astray. Asked before that World Cup what he planned to do afterwards, MacLeod had replied: “Retain it.”
It didn’t quite work out like that, what with losing to Peru and drawing with Iran.
Limits of enthusiasm
MacLeod acquired a reputation and it helped give enthusiasm a bad name. The word was and is often accompanied by “naive”; it is deemed a quality only in those who lack sophistication elsewhere.
Which brings us to Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The thorough nature of Tuesday’s defeat by Paris Saint Germain at Old Trafford has made some consider the limits of enthusiasm.
Solskjær's achievement in lifting a dispirited and disjointed squad left by Jose Mourinho has been greater than anyone expected when he was surprisingly announced as United's caretaker.
It seems odd to speak of Solskjær suffering, given the post he is in, albeit temporarily. He is in so many ways United's dream candidate
The club has been altered by Solskjær's personality; players such as Marcus Rashford have been released from previous inhibition. Former United youth coach Paul McGuinness has referred to Solskjær's "social intelligence".
Simply stating “We are Manchester United” with obvious pleasure has had an effect. Solskjær has been a stimulant, sparking more from the squad than Mourinho had. His enthusiasm has been productive.
Yet the squad remains the squad. This is where it becomes complex: Solskjær is being judged on a squad he did not assemble. He can rearrange it but he cannot change it.
Plenty said after Solskjær’s winning start that analysis should be suspended until things got tricky – ignoring the fact Solskjær’s eight months at Cardiff City in 2014 included Premier League relegation.
There the former Cardiff player Nathan Blake said Solskjær had been "tactically naive".
It is what Solskjær learned then that matters. If that experience has made him more robust, then good. He is a likeable, sincere man, but with Chelsea and Liverpool looming, he may need to show a degree of toughness publicly that has so far been unnecessary.
Because while the United players have responded, and the fans – and there was encouragement from the board on Thursday – there is still doubt hovering around Solskjær. There is also that name: Mauricio Pochettino.
Pochettino has something Solskjær does not yet possess: clout. Thus, even though United went to Tottenham and won 1-0 a month ago, the performance of David de Gea was emphasised. Spurs lost but did not fail. United won but were reliant on their keeper. Pochettino’s high reputation could be seen in this interpretation.
At Arsenal in the FA Cup a week later, Solskjær was given credit for placing Romelu Lukaku wide on the right and exploiting space. Even so, the praise Pochettino receives for similar adjustments is greater, as was seen 24 hours after PSG when Spurs beat Borussia Dortmund with the aid of half-time tactical alterations.
By contrast Solskjær was questioned over his reaction to the loss of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard against PSG. Status counts.
Pochettino has revealed that he keeps a football on his desk to remind players coming into his office of “feeling what you felt when you were a child, that motivation to play”. This brought comment on the purity of his enthusiasm, but it was seen as a long way down the list of Pochettino’s qualities.
Clout brings respect; a lack of it can bring condescension.
It seems odd to speak of Solskjær suffering, given the post he is in, albeit temporarily. He is in so many ways United’s dream candidate. That the Pochettino comparison patronises him is the reality, though.
All Solskjær can do is work and win and trust that true appreciation, not just fondness, grows. Because as Ferguson can tell him, the dream factory in Ayr closed its gates a while ago.
Ronaldo returns to Madrid
Cristiano Ronaldo was back in Madrid last month. He was required in court to sign off an €18.8 million payment for tax fraud while a Real Madrid player. The agreement kept him out of jail.
Next Wednesday, however, Ronaldo returns again, on this occasion as a player for the first time since leaving Real last summer. Juventus are at Atletico Madrid in a match that could have been the final.
As a scourge of Atletico, Ronaldo will receive a foreseeable reception. Not only did he score in the 4-1 Real victory over Atletico in the 2014 Champions League final in Lisbon, two years later in Milan he scored the decisive penalty kick in the shoot-out.
In all Ronaldo scored 450 goals in 438 Real Madrid appearances. Staggering. The club won four of the last five Champions League titles with Ronaldo their star.
Juve, beaten finalists in Cardiff two years ago, when Ronaldo scored twice, look capable challengers this season. But with the final at their Metropolitano stadium, so do Atletico.
Ronaldo strutted out of court last month with the smug expression of a very rich man who thinks himself untouchable. Wednesday might be a less comfortable experience.