Cutting a somewhat distant figured amidst the joyful scenes on the pitch after Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Estonia was Darron Gibson. The Derry-born midfielder may be on the books of one of the world’s best clubs, but his failure to even make the substitute’s bench at the Aviva is evidence that the “Manchester United” label next to his name is looking more and more in need of change in recent months.
Urged to move in search of first-team football by Giovanni Trapattoni, Gibson ridiculed the idea of turning out for a side like Stoke and settling for mid-table; but his failure to ever become more than a fringe figure at Old Trafford requires that, if he has any ambition of even making the 23 man squad for this summer’s European Championship, he must leave the Reds. He has been capped 16 times since his debut in 2007, but his last competitive appearance was way back in March against Macedonia, followed up by a friendly appearance against Croatia in August. Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan, who play for Ipswich, and ironically Stoke, respectively, hold down the starting berths. Keith Fahey (Birmingham) and James McCarthy (Wigan) are the likely competition.
He has been left out in the cold by Alex Ferguson this year, and an injury problem further alienated him from the squad; with Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, JS Park, Tom Cleverley, and even the ancient Ryan Giggs have all been preferred in recent seasons, and a new generation of young central midfielders led by Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba give the Derryman the bleakest chance of becoming a United regular. It has also become almost popular to ridicule him, whether for his perceived lack of skill, or for his choice to represent the Republic of Ireland, and his Twitter account debacle was certainly another blow to his morale.
But even a short look at his goal compilations show his potential, and with the right club there is every chance that he could well turn his career around, both with a new club and for Ireland. His goal against Wales in February was the perfect example of his gifted right foot. After playing a nice one-two with Whelan, Gibson took a touch and rocketed a shot into the top corner of the net from 25 metres, a belter of a goal. Similarly, he grabbed a goal and had a memorable assist for Antonio Valencia in United’s 4-1 demolition of Schalke in last year’s Champions League. He also had a real screamer against West Ham in December of 2009, the highlight of a performance the Guardian labelled “impressive…an even more irresistible strike (than his brace midweek against Spurs in the Carling Cup)”.
Despite not seeing much consistent game time at United, Ferguson still felt him useful enough to keep him a part of the first-team picture for the past four seasons, including spells where he did seem at least a relevant cog in their successful machine when given runs in the team. His main problems seem to relate to his lack of chemistry when thrown into the team; he is criticized for being “anonymous” and not asserting himself enough into the game, and lacking the tenacity in the tackle of countryman Roy Keane, whom he was perhaps foolishly compared to earlier in his career. Darron Gibson is a different player than Keane; Gibson can operate as a box to box midfielder, but his best role is one where he can be given space to his primary weapon- his right foot. If given space and a good team around him, Gibson can spray composed passes, both on the ground and in the air, and has the long-range shooting ability that makes him a threat anywhere near the box, as well as from set pieces. His defensive work-rate may not be the best, but this is something that can be improved with a new set of responsibilities. Physically, he won’t be pushed around, and the real chance to start every game and built a repertoire with his new team will undoubtedly have benefits for his game.
The all-important question that may eventually decide his legacy as a footballer is the decision that lies in front of him now; where to next for the much-maligned Gibbo. Sunderland had an agreement in place at the end of the summer window, but his wages were rumored to be the stumbling block, despite Gibson himself admitting that “it has come to the stage where I’m nearly 24 and I’m going to have to go somewhere else if I don’t start playing regularly…I just want to go somewhere thats right for me.” But who will take the forgotten midfielder with a powerful right foot in? Steve Bruce’s interest indicates that he is still rated as a man capable of cutting it in the Prem. West Brom, Everton, Aston Villa, and Wolves, where he spent a loan spell during 2007/08, could all be potential destinations. An extra incentive could be his bargain price tag, with the manager not likely to stand in the way of any move, especially a permanent one.
The lure of interest from Celtic, even if just a loan spell during the 2nd half of this season, could also prove to be a worthwhile move for the Irishman who might find more backing at Parkhead then among other grounds because of his Republic of Ireland connection. Neil Lennon’s side are similar to United in that they always challenge for domestic trophies and regularly feature in Europe, and with their struggles this season new blood will be needed.. His chances of nailing down a starting spot are also good, although wages may again prove to be a problem if the Glasgow side show any interest.
Though relatively young, Gibson has quickly gone from the front pages to old news. Stuck in limbo behind the scenes for the club team second to only Barcelona in the world, his career that once looked so promising is now at a crucial defining juncture. He may well continue to fade into mediocrity and be remembered as average, succumbing to the abuse and criticism that has seemed endless in the past two years. But Darron Gibson may just have a chip on his shoulder, a desire to prove to the media, fans, and himself that he truly can be top-class; the only guarantee is that he’ll need to show it whenever he next lines out in a competitive match, and from thereon after.