From Tom Davies to Zlatan…

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

In one way the past seven days have been all about the most depressing aspects of the modern game. The speculation surrounding Dimitri Payet and Diego Costa in two corners of London posed the question whether the loyal footballer is an endangered species. Our Premier League was built on old traditions and new money. We can fool ourselves a lot of the time into thinking that so many players came to England for the traditions part. Many came for the money and many will leave for the money.

And yet it was a good week because it finished yesterday with the two matches which made up the Merseyside v Manchester theme to the weekend. Happily neither game disappointed. I came home with some faith restored.

I was at Goodison Park to see Everton put four goals past Manchester City. As a former City player when I talk about the new money, I have to acknowledge that the Manchester City of today is barely recognisable from the Manchester City that I played for sometime back in the last century. The club has a top shelf stadium, a top shelf manager and a large top shelf squad – and the shelf didn’t come from IKEA. Yet one thing remains intact, the tendency for City fans to still mutter the words “typical City” on days like yesterday.

Typical City. There is a still a tendency to do things the hard way, to stutter on the afternoons when they most need to make a big statement. For ten games at the start of the season City dazzled and Pep looked like he was the Second Coming. If you were a blue it was made all the better by the idea that across at Old Trafford Mourinho was showing signs of cracking up under all the pressure.

Pep must wonder where it has all gone wrong. Did nobody tell him about “typical City” when they were wooing him. On Sunday, they were undone by an Everton team which got nearly everything right on a cold afternoon in their rickety but beloved stadium. It was a pleasure to see the performance especially of Tom Davies an eighteen year old local kid who has been at Everton since he was eleven years old. Romance isn’t dead in the
Premiership yet.

From my childhood I remember Tom Davies’ uncle, Alan Whittle, playing for Everton and for Palace. I had a chewing gum card with his face on it. That’s how old I am! Like his nephew, Whittle came through at Everton, had the same blond locks and all out style. Everton have a brilliant tradition of bringing their own talent through and this lad could be exactly the sort of player they need.

Tom Davies, a local kid scoring his first Premier league goal for his local team and walking off with the man of the match award on a cold January afternoon was a breath of fresh air at the end of the week.

He wasn’t the only bit of old style tradition. On Saturday West Ham’s big man Andy Carroll softened the effects of Payet’s shallowness by delivering a goal straight from the pages of Roy of the Rovers. It was a moment of defiance and brilliance which might just be the turning point for West Ham’s difficult season.

But was Andy Carroll’s bicycle kick on Saturday afternoon just the greatest goal ever scored at the London Stadium or was it the greatest bicycle kick in the history of football?

Ask Zlatan. He would be the first to tell you that his bicycle kick from thirty yards against England in 2012 edges Andy’s effort out. It was so good that even England fans had to tip the cap to him.

Back then viewed when we were viewing from a distance, Zlatan was still a big unit but somehow we didn’t take him seriously. We certainly didn’t take him as seriously as he seemed to take himself. He was just a guy with a naff pony tail and a knack for fancy goals and referring to himself in the third person.

Yesterday against Liverpool when Manchester United needed somebody to lead from the front in the second half, those of us who have been skeptical got more evidence (late in his career I know) that he is the real deal.

Three months into his time in England Zlatan says that he has conquered the place. Maybe he has. People who try to explain Donald Trump have said that his enemies took him literally but not seriously. His followers took him seriously but not literally. I would never accuse another human being of suffering symptoms of Trump but we have learned in the last few months not to take Zlatan literally but to take him seriously. Most of the things he says he seems to say with his tongue in his cheek. There is more humour to him than we gave him credit for. And he takes his football very seriously indeed.

Yesterday United were in trouble at half time, suffering problems (or “poglems”, if you wanted to point the finger) with defending high balls at the back. They came out and played more directly for the second half and Zlatan’s goal, his eleventh in eleven Premiership matches, was a great example of the art of heading.

Neither United or Liverpool are exactly where they want to be either on the league table or on the field but neither Klopp or Mourinho will be as worried this week as Pep Guardiola is.

Liverpool left Old Trafford with a point and were sightly disappointed by that. United’s winning streak ended but it seems like an age since they lost a game of football and when they threw Fellaini on for the second half and went for the direct route they showed that they know there is more than one way to skin a cat.

Zlatan is a very modern player, well travelled, well paid and well looked after by a mega agent, but a lot of what he does beyond the flash and the goals is sheer hard work. Has he conquered England as he says he has? Well before Zlatan, the most hyped figure to come out of France intending to conquer England that I recall was Napoleon. The little fella never managed it but he did say that “a leader is a dealer in hope”. Zlatan gives United hope through his leadership.

Arriving at thirty five years of age, he seemed like a gamble and a vanity project for Mourinho. Now signing him up for another year (or as Zlatan might say, Zlatan signing up United for another year) makes good sense. They say that when Zlatan visits your house, then you are the guest. He is big enough to have made Old Trafford his own house. He is thriving and as far as I know he’s not learning Mandarin.

The Premier League gives and the Premier League takes away. Some good old fashioned toil and romance made up on Sunday for a bad week. From Tom Davies to Zlatan, there were signs that the game will survive and thrive, despite itself.

By Niall Quinn