It used to be said that there were sections of the press who liked nothing more than to “build ’em up and knock ’em down.” We seem to live in a more sophisticated age than that, now, but only in so far as that the up-building and down-knocking processes engaged by the media have become so frantic and chaotic that it can be impossible in any one moment to be able to fully process whether any particular individual or institution is supposed to be lauded or despised. But what happens when a football club – and not just any football club, but a huge one with a global following and aspirations of European domination – signs a new player for a lot of money and no-one knows anything at all about him? Welcome to Manchester, 2015.
When Manchester United confirmed the signature of Anthony Martial for an amount of money confirmed as “a very large amount of money indeed,” the gasps of astonishment coming from the football fraternité in France were so loud that they could be heard quite audibly from the other side of the English channel. Martial had been hidden in plain sight all long, having spent the last two years at AS Monaco, learning his craft, scoring the occasional goal or two and generally (also apparently) being a promising young professional footballer. It is understood that, earlier this summer, Tottenham Hotspur bid €10m for him (according to some rumours – others put this amount at a lot higher than this), but baulked at Monaco’s valuation of twice that amount. When Manchester United came a-knocking as the window started to move before slamming shut, it was suggested that his club surely couldn’t believe their luck. Manchester United were bidding A Lot Of Money, with contractual add-ons amounting to Even More Money that would lead to a final cost to the club of A Very Large Amount Of Money Indeed.
The press scoffed, of course. Coupled with the failure of David de Gea to complete his move to Real Madrid – which, if my half-interested reading of the circumstances surrounding it is in any way true, had something to do with Manchester United opting to return documentation confirming the transfer back to Spain by carrier pigeon, or similar – the arrival of Andrew Martial at Old Trafford was a sign of a club in a state of panic, the footballing equivalent of a man in a twenty-four hour petrol station at five to eleven on Valentine’s Day night, wondering whether the purchase of a cup cake scented car freshener could be spun to his partner as a satirical take on the commercialisation of the day in general. They didn’t have a striker. They had more goalkeepers than the rest of the Premier League combined. Manchester United, it was indicated with only a cursory between the lines reading, were looking like candidates to join Chelsea in the Autumn 2015 edition of Crisis Premier League Club Quarterly.
Then, of course, came the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool at the weekend, a weekend that had already been pretty successful for Manchester United, what with Chelsea losing at Everton, Manchester City looking less than stellar for the first time this season in winning at Crystal Palace, and David de Gea signing a new contract with the club which ensured that he was in a position to be able to reclaim his position in goal. It was, however, a match that was, for the most part, a scrappy, dislocated affair, played between two teams who seemed determined to take the sting out of a traditionally volatile fixture by playing it at as pedestrian a pace as they could get away with.
As the second half wore on, though, Manchester United eased in front without ever seeming to shift particularly far from first gear. It wasn’t that they were playing particularly brilliantly, more that Liverpool were abject and apparently disinterested, but with twenty minutes of the second half played, Adonis Martial took to the field. Football journalists the length and breadth of Britain double-checked their thesauruses for “martial/marshal” related puns. And then it happened. Well, not quite. Andronicus Martial looked fairly anonymous for much of his first twenty minutes on the pitch and Christian Benteke even hauled Liverpool back into the match with a startlingly brilliant bicycle kick first, but THEN it happened, a soft shoe shimmy shuffle past the Martin Skrtel-shaped statue that Liverpool had erected in defence prior to kick-off and a low shot across Simon Mignolet and into the goal. Cometh the hour, cometh the man-child.
There’s nothing else that English football loves quite as much as a healthy ladle-full of hysteria, and within half an hour of the start of his debut for Manchester United, Ambrose Martial had delivered exactly that. Not only had he scored a goal on his debut, but he had done so with a flash of élan that hadn’t previously been seen at Old Trafford for what feels like some considerable time. And not only had he done this, but he’d done it against Liverpool, in a match with a level of significance that a nineteen year old ordinarily surely couldn’t even be capable of understanding the significance of unless they’d been born and raised on the streets of, say, Urmston or Toxteth. Yet somehow – possibly with the assistance of a Clockwork Orange-esque contraption force-feeding his eyes images of Sammy Lee looking happy and That Night In Istanbul, all accompanied by the soundtrack to The Exorcism Of Emily Rose – he managed it. In the space of eleven seconds, the biggest waste of money in the history of English football had reinvented himself as the biggest bargain in the history of English football.
It’s a relief to know this, one way or the other, at least. For a moment, we might have been forgiven for thinking that very few people in England had the first idea who Antoine Martial even was until English clubs started to declare an interest in him during the summer. The foolish amongst us might have assumed that drawing a conclusion on the basis of one moment of sublime skill would be a gross over-exaggeration, and that it might be more sensible to assume for now that this is clearly a young player of considerable potential, but for whom there remain many pitfalls ahead if he is going to fulfill this potential, especially if he is charged with the job of sparking greater life into the entire Manchester United team single-handedly. In the meantime, the process of simultaneously building him up and knocking him down will doubtlessly continue. Fortunately for us all, this only seems to take nanoseconds, these days. Still, at least in scoring a goal on his debut against Liverpool, Augustus Martial has begun the process of writing his chapter in the story of Manchester United Football Club – martial lore, if you like.
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