Matt Jones talks to former Manchester United winger Lee Sharpe about envy of Liverpool and Man City, as well as Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson
It pains Lee Sharpe to say it, but he has no issues admitting he casts an envious eye at the stylish and swashbuckling way Manchester City and Liverpool are cutting teams to shreds these days.
That used to be the way he and Manchester United played under the masterful guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, who turned the Red Devils into a devilish force in English football during his near three-decade reign.
A mammoth 38 trophies were accrued from 1986-2013 as the sublime Scotsman awoke a slumbering beast and got them flying again.
His 13 top-flight titles saw United overtake a tally from bitter rivals Liverpool that once looked unbeatable. Two Champions Leagues and five FA Cups were also reeled in.
Sharpe burned brightly but all too briefly in the red jersey from 1988-96. A succession of injuries, illness, lack of focus and the rises of Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis all contributed to stopping him fully establishing himself as a United great.
He played a part nevertheless in their return to prominence as a skillful and fun-loving footballer who helped the Old Trafford-outfit rediscover their swagger. The versatile midfielder strutted his stuff with a penchant for brilliant goals and even more eye-catching celebrations.
Something that has caught the eye of Sharpe in more recent years, however, has been United’s decline – deepened by a renouncing of the club’s famed style of play and the rise of their rivals.
Neighbours from the blue half of Manchester broke records at will last term – including the most goals scored in a Premier League campaign. Liverpool’s breathtaking style of football also carried them all the way to the Champions League final.
United fans, meanwhile, have been forced to bear witness to turgid and tentative possession-based game favoured by the prehistoric Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, who himself is at risk of becoming extinct at Old Trafford.
“It pains me to see what is happening at United,” reveals Sharpe, who will be the special guest at the DSA Open taking place at Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis course on Thursday, September 13, as part of the DHL Swing Against Cancer Golf Series.
“Last season was tough to watch at times with the team not really playing fluid or entertaining, attacking football like we’re used to seeing.
“I know he has his methods, Jose, but it makes it doubly as bad with City and Liverpool playing such attacking, entertaining football and getting great results. It makes it even worse to watch.
“I wish they played more like those two teams, absolutely. When you watch City and Liverpool, and United of old, the first pass was forward and everybody played one and two touches. We played quickly and it was hard to mark and defend against. To watch us now can be painful.”
Mourinho brought in marauding Brazil midfielder Fred in this summer from Shakhtar Donetsk for £53.1million, as well as Portuguese full-back Diogo Dalot from Porto and back-up goalkeeper Lee Grant.
But his biggest gripe was failing to bring in the centre-backs he covets. Pursuits of Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld, Leicester’s England World Cup hero Harry Maguire and Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng all failed to come to fruition.
But Sharpe wants Mourinho to stop employing negative tactics and bring the best out of a rich core of attacking talent already at his disposal.
He says: “The talent he’s got in midfield and up front is absolutely unbelievable.
“You don’t need a decent centre-half if you defend from the front and put teams under the cosh in their half.
“The talent he’s got going forward in [Anthony] Martial, [Marcus] Rashford, [Jesse] Lingard, [Romelu] Lukaku, [Alexis] Sanchez, it’s phenomenal and to not be getting the best out of them and to watch them struggling and looking lethargic and lacking in confidence, is such a shame.”
Ferguson established an empire that has started to ever so slightly crumble since the Scot’s retirement.
One thing that is overlooked is how adaptable Ferguson was, as he constantly looked to re-invent himself and his teams.
Ferguson ripped up his squads on several occasions throughout his reign, but an inability or refusal to change is something that led to the demise of his great rival at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger.
And refusing to change is something Sharpe senses could lead to Mourinho’s own downfall.
“That’s one thing showing now with Mourinho,” says the 47-year-old.
“He came over, called himself the ‘Special One’ and went out and won things. He was full of life and entertaining in his press conferences when he first came over. Now he’s dour, depressed, fed up and his team’s playing the same way.
“If you’re calling yourself the Special One you have to be able to move with the times like Sir Alex did. He always had something up his sleeve if one thing wasn’t working. He always had an alternative way to win.”
Ferguson was often said to rule with an iron fist during more than two-and-a-half decades at the helm of Old Trafford. If he fell out with anyone, it was they who came off worse.
No-one was bigger than the manager and certainly not the club. David Beckham, Jaap Stam, Paul Ince, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane were all sent packing.
Even though player power has come to the fore since the landmark Bosman ruling in 1995, it was never something United suffered with under Ferguson.
Whereas off the field Mourinho’s relationship with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is severely being tested, in the dressing room the tie between coach and star player Paul Pogba is also causing friction – with the flamboyant Frenchman constantly linked with a move away following being benched by Mourinho during a poor patch of form last season.
There used to only be one winner in a war with Ferguson. But now, Sharpe feels the manager is the underdog.
“Player power has grown over the last 10-15 years because of the wages they’re on,” he says.
“It’s difficult for a manager at that level to keep power over a group. And when you’re not winning trophies there’s not much of a hook to keep you there.
“It used to be players would never want to leave United and Liverpool. But now there’s plenty of big clubs throwing money and able to challenge in the Champions League.
“You have more alternatives as a player at a big club. I’m not sure if it’s a case of him losing control but the players not agreeing with the tactics and the way they’re playing, it’s a bit of a problem.”
*Lee Sharpe will be the special guest at the DSA Open taking place at Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis course on Thursday, September 13. It will be followed by an ‘evening with Lee Sharpe’. The event is now sold out, but people can get in touch to be added to the waiting list. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.