In the mid 1960s, after a very successful season, when he became the ‘King of the Stretford End’ at Old Trafford, Denis Law walked up to then Manchester United manager Matt Busby, demanding a pay hike. Upon his return from his native Scotland, as the new season began, Law found himself among the players who were put on the transfer list. United’s talisman, a part of the Trinity, had to apologise to Busby for his ‘mistake’.
In 2003, Alex Ferguson booted out David Beckham because the manager felt that the superstar footballer undermined his authority. Later Ferguson wrote in his autobiography: “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Alex Ferguson or Pete the Plumber. The name of the manager is irrelevant. The authority is what counts … that was the death knell for him.”
In 2018, after United sacked Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba posted a cryptic tweet, apparently revelling in the schadenfreude. United were gradually losing their winning mojo and identity following Ferguson’s retirement, but that was a defining moment in terms of completely shredding the club culture and Busby and Ferguson’s legacy. A starstruck Ed Woodward, the club’s former executive vice-chairman, in thrall to Pogba’s stardom, sided with the Frenchman in his fight with Mourinho. Pogba was fresh from his World Cup win with France, he was the club’s most saleable brand at that point and only two years ago, United had forked out £89 million to bring him back to Old Trafford from Juventus.
The rise of player power would eventually make the dressing room toxic. Two more managers – Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ralf Rangnick – would fell prey to it, forcing the club to finally go for a cultural reset under its new manager Erik ten Hag. From a distance it felt like Pogba, who has once again left United as a free agent, was the very epitome of that player power, someone Mourinho reportedly called a “virus” in front of his team-mates.
In 2012, when Pogba had left United for the first time, he was a rising star. The negotiations that led to the midfielder joining Juventus made Ferguson call the player’s agent Mino Raiola – he recently passed away – a “s…bag”. The legendary former manager also argued that Pogba had disrespected the club. This time, Pogba is leaving United as an enigma, with 39 goals and 51 appearances from 233 appearances.
Opinions are divided over whether Pogba failed United or it was the other way round. The club never made the right signings to complement its most expensive player. He never had a settled position on the pitch, playing as a No. 6, a No. 10, on the left wing and as a false nine even. Bruno Fernandes’s arrival restricted Pogba’s attacking presence and curbed his freedom, which he enjoys while playing for his national team. Still, he gave some magical moments on the pitch, but for a player of his talent, those were few and far between. He never looked to be committed like Juan Mata. Also, his injury record was awful.
Several times Pogba openly flirted with moves away from United, as his agent publicly ran down the club. Raiola’s interview on the eve of United’s make-or-break Champions League tie against RB Leipzig in December 2020 was arguably the worst. According to a report in The Athletic, it caused a major distraction in the dressing room, as United lost the match and were relegated to the Europa League. Pogba never publicly contradicted his agent. He also kept his own counsel, when Raiola had spoken about offering his client to Manchester City.
The iconic former United captain Roy Keane was critical about Pogba. In an interview with Sky Sports two years ago, he had said: “What I would say about Pogba, we have been saying for the last year or two that he needs to take more of a lead with the team. I don’t think he wants to be a leader. I think he will enjoy that Harry Maguire has come into the club, showing different leadership skills. And obviously Fernandes, leadership skills on the pitch. And I think Pogba likes that.
“I don’t think he necessarily wants to be the main guy. He probably wants to be the main guy on the social media side of things, but on the pitch he is thinking, ‘I’m glad of that, I will just be under that radar’. We have always said he’s got that quality, and I think he never really wanted to be that leader at Man United. He doesn’t have to be now because he’s got a couple of other lads around him and he looks like he’s enjoying himself a bit more.”
Keane’s comment rings true. The true marker of a player’s time at a club is the reception he gets from the match-goers. “F… off Pogba” said the fans at Old Trafford after United’s game against Norwich in April. The player responded to it by cupping his ear, but as it turned out, there was no way back.
A new era is dawning at Old Trafford and Pogba’s departure rather than an expensive new contract should augur well for United. But losing a player of his calibre twice for free attested terrible business, reflective of the way the club is being at the moment.