New Years’ Eve 2011 was a difficult day for Manchester United fans. An end to an otherwise successful year that saw them crowned Premier League Champions in August came crashing down with a dismal 2-3 defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers. The first team squad was ravaged by injury, and despite a bright and emerging academy squad, Ferguson opted to patch up his central midfield by playing out of position Rafael da Silva and Park Ji-sung.
That defeat not only spoiled Sir Alex Ferguson’s birthday celebrations, but the dropped points would prove to be the difference that would lead Manchester City to the title some five months later. Little would United fans know but Ferguson’s midfield conundrum would have more far reaching, and ultimately more costly consequences.
One name you won’t see gracing that match report was then United youngster and academy product Paul Pogba. Ferguson’s decision to leave him out of the starting line-up despite his dearth of options in midfield would ultimately prove to be the breaking point of a strained relationship that saw the French-born youngster leave his home for opportunities elsewhere.
Most United fans who knew little of Pogba wouldn’t have batted an eyelid when he walked out of the door on a free transfer. United would continue to win titles under Ferguson, while Pogba developed into a formidable presence in Serie A, scoring goals galore and dominating in midfield, his apprenticeship coming alongside the likes of Pirlo and Vidal.
Four years. 124 appearances. 28 goals. Four back-to-back Serie A Scudetto’s and two Coppa Italia’s, and so it went.
Enter Mourinho. After mixed experiences in the post-Ferguson era, under Moyes and Van Gaal, the United board looked to a big name to set things right at Old Trafford.
The social media furore that heralded Pogba’s return was colossal and United utilised every inch of it. A world record signing at nearly £90 million, and the return of the prodigal son, Pogba himself was quick to talk up his United roots. ‘There are no words to be honest, it was like I just came back home. I just went for a holiday’. His smile was beaming, he was clearly happy.
Cynics will say it was all part of the play, but if he was acting then he deserves an Oscar. He went on to state, ‘It’s a big challenge too, just to come back where you come from and where I grew up, where I started’ ‘I didn’t finish what I started here’. He spoke of the familiar faces, and that in itself shouldn’t be underestimated.
It hasn’t all been bright and breezy though. The pressure on Pogba has been relentless since his return. Despite consistently being one of the first names on the team sheet, his tenure at United so far hasn’t been the stand out success it was in Serie A ,and now he’s going to come up against the team that brought him to the forefront of world football.
When Manchester United and Juventus were paired together in this year’s Champions League group stage the biggest talking point was the return of Ronaldo. But now with a supposed spat with Mourinho caught on camera at Carrington, coupled with Pogba being openly and publicly ruled out of any further captain duties, rumours are rife surrounding a potential Pogba transfer to Juventus.
United fans are used to the shark pit that is tabloid gossip and transfer rumours encircling their star talents. It was fairly quiet in Pogba’s first honeymoon season back home in Manchester, but then the papers started to pipe up. First it was Real Madrid, then just as recently as last month it was Barcelona. Now it’s not surprising that the focus has changed to United’s Champions League rivals.
United are going up against Juventus on Tuesday at Old Trafford in the first of two back-to-back Champions League bouts that will show what Mourinho’s Reds are really capable of. Despite United playing at home, the Italians just edge it as favourites. Regardless, if you fancy backing United it’s worth a look at this list of UK bookmakers. After all, this United side is anything if not unpredictable.
Despite hashtags of ‘Pogback’ and the marketing frenzy surrounding his epic return, United fans are quick to forget that Pogba spent a large part of his formative teenage years growing up in the Manchester suburbs with his family. It’s all too easily forgotten amidst the constant rumours and insinuations of strife, and many forget just where it all really began for him. In Manchester.
In the words of the man himself, speaking of the circumstances surrounding his previous exit, ‘it was a difficult moment for me because I was in love with Manchester and I was a Mancunian.’ Bearing that in mind, and in the face of rumours and media gossip, United fans would do well to remember that Paul Pogba is a Manchester United fan and you don’t have to scratch the surface much to see it. It would take a lot to see him leave his boyhood club once again.
By Adam Grimshaw