As the referee’s whistle called time on Manchester United’s narrow victory against Stoke City, it wasn’t so much of a cheer that reverberated around Old Trafford but a monumental sigh of relief.
With three points in the bag, a Fergie-esque late comeback and the pressure on David Moyes – at least for now- lifted, it was all smiles for the Red Devils as they headed away from the Theatre of Dreams with a home league win for only the second time this season.
However, it cannot be ignored that before Wayne Rooney and Chicharito headers turned things around for United in the final ten minutes, Saturday afternoon saw 80 minutes of frustration, anger and – for the first time in decades – fans turn on one of their own.
When Portuguese winger Nani was replaced by teenage starlet Adnan Januzaj in the second half, a large number of the United ‘faithful’ greeted his departure with the biggest cheer of the day, before allowing the disgruntled figure to trudge off the pitch to a chorus of boos and criticism. As a season ticket holder in the Stretford End for 13 years, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard so much abuse directed towards someone in the red shirt.
It can’t be denied that Nani is one of the most frustrating players at the club – technically gifted and fantastic on his day, but lacking any sort of consistency. His performance against Stoke, although far from his finest hour, wasn’t anywhere near the horror show that many would have thought having heard this reception.
Earlier in the first half there had been signs of what was to come for the 26-year-old, as his multiple long-range shots sailed harmlessly clear of Asmir Begovic’s goal, leading to thousands of groans and complaints from those stood behind it.
However, in a season where United have found goals hard to come by and in a match where they only managed five shots on target, should fans really be discouraging a player who has scored countless long-range efforts in his time at the club from trying his luck?
Suspicions that Nani may have been unfairly treated by the crowd were later confirmed in the second half as both Januzaj and Wayne Rooney had equally as dismal long range efforts, yet were applauded and encouraged by the supporters.
Bearing in mind that the latter has asked to leave the club twice in recent years whereas Nani has just committed his long-term future with an extended contract, the treatment of him on Saturday seems even more uncalled for.
It’s no secret that Moyes’ tenure at the club hasn’t got off to the greatest of starts, and it would appear that the winger is the current scapegoat for many fans. Already this season that title has been passed around the likes of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, before things finally boiled over at the weekend. Although victory against Stoke may have papered over some of the cracks at Old Trafford, things are still far from rosy at the club, and even less so for United’s Portuguese international.
With Patrice Evra recently putting pressure on the squad by calling for the club to take a maximum number of victories from their next ten games, you have to wonder how long before a misplaced pass or another wild shot off target will result in the knives coming back out for the much-targeted Nani. Or perhaps, with the possible prospect of a World Cup next year and a desperate need to impress- how long he’ll be willing to put up with this sort of treatment from his own supporters.
Jon Taylor | @jontaylor91