- Manchester United captaincy is a heavy Burden But Bruno Fernandes is the only choice.
There are times when managing Manchester United does not seem the only impossible job at Old Trafford. The captaincy comes with an armband, a status and a guarantee of criticism, some of it from the club’s most iconic skipper.
Even when Bruno Fernandes took an unselfish approach, a player sometimes accused of shooting too much deciding another needed a goal more and allowing Marcus Rashford to end his drought from the penalty spot at Everton on Sunday, a gesture did not bring universal acclaim. “Absolute bloody rubbish,” said Roy Keane, the uncompromising pragmatist who took the view that goals should not be gifted.
Paul Ince has suggested Fernandes should be stripped of the captaincy. Gary Neville has been outspoken about the Portuguese in both last season’s 7-0 thrashing at Anfield and last month’s 3-0 Manchester derby defeat, seeing his complaints to referees as whingeing and has accused him of trying to hurt John Stones.
Meanwhile, Harry Maguire, who tended to be savaged by Keane, who appeared affronted by the idea the centre-back was his successor, is now enjoying a personal renaissance now back in the ranks after Erik ten Hag demoted him in the summer. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed that, during his reign as manager, a couple of players turned down the United captaincy.
When elevated by Ten Hag, Fernandes accepted it. When asked about Rashford’s spot kick at Goodison Park, the Dutchman took a very different stance from Keane. “I want to emphasise it’s great leadership: to understand your teammate needs a goal and you have confidence in each other to give the penalty away,” the United manager said.
Meanwhile, Fernandes himself shrugged off the latest furore. “Obviously you don’t like to be criticised, everyone is the same, but at the same time I have to do what I think is the best for my team,” he said. “Probably I am not always right but in my head at the moment is the right choice, so I do it.”
There is a sense, too, that he has to be the right choice for the job. The United captaincy in recent years has often resided with the aged and the injured, the out of form and the out of the team. Fernandes is an automatic choice who appears immune to injuries. Ten Hag spent some of last season claiming United had plenty of leaders. But one of them, David de Gea, is gone; another, Raphael Varane, has lost his place in the side, even though a third, Lisandro Martinez, is injured. A fourth, Casemiro, is sidelined but also apparently in decline. Rashford is quieter and has been out of sorts.
It leaves Fernandes, but if he can look captain by default, he believes he has widespread backing inside Old Trafford. “Now there is the captaincy, there is going to be always something,” he said. “The team, the staff, everyone who works with me day by day, I think they are pretty happy with me. The way I am is the same since I arrived at the club. It has not changed since being captain. I don’t think it has to change. I am really open with everyone so no one until now has had a problem with me.”
Keane does. But Fernandes’ initial experience of United, as he made a stunning start, was largely of praise. “It is quite normal when you play for Manchester United you are going to get criticised, even if you do well or bad, if you do the wrong or the right thing,” Fernandes rationalised. “I just have to deal with that. It is normal since I arrived at the club. In the beginning was everything perfect, because when you arrive in the first game if you do something different than anyone else is doing, is going be all flowers.
“But after that I understand the tough part is always coming, because when the result is not coming, when the performances are not what everyone expects to be, because the expectations are always higher and higher. I know since I arrived at the club my numbers made myself a target so not keeping the same numbers on goals and assists is sometimes a problem for me in the criticism.”
Those numbers peaked at 28 goals and 17 assists in 2020-21; it is the outstanding season any United player has had since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Perhaps it was unsustainable; so far in the current campaign, Fernandes has a more modest four of each, but three of his goals have been winners.
If he was appointed to lead by example, a night when United could exit the Champions League, a game against Galatasaray when they are without Rashford, Casemiro and Martinez, among others, is the sort of fixture that calls for inspirational captaincy. But, as Fernandes recognised, the days when it was all flowers for him are long gone.