No English team has revered and immortalised wide players with quite the same ferocity as Manchester United during their 133-year history, and it is easy to understand why given the long list of famous names that have dazzled on the touchlines at Old Trafford. George Best, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs are the pick of a bunch who made one part of the pitch their own with unique style, be it pace, dribbling, crossing, finishing or a combination of all four.
Following Ronaldo’s departure to Real Madrid and Giggs’ recent transformation into a central midfielder, however, United have struggled to find a man they could depend on down either flank. Ecuadorean Antonio Valencia was initially recruited to replace the Portuguese but was ruled out for much of last season with injury, while until the current campaign Nani remained infuriatingly inconsistent. As has always been his way, Sir Alex Ferguson spotted the issue and moved clinically to address it during the summer.
England winger Ashley Young arrived in June following a big-money, and swiftly agreed, transfer from fellow Premier League side Aston Villa and, judging by his performances so far this season, United could soon have another name to add to their list of byline magicians. The 26-year-old has made an immediate impact for the Red Devils, linking up superbly with national team-mate Wayne Rooney and forming an effective partnership with left-back Patrice Evra.
Young has a multitude of skills that the modern winger requires and complements them with a willingness to work hard, all of which has quickly made the former Watford man an instant fans’ favourite in Manchester. During his two months in the first team he has already provided a highlights reel of his dribbling ability, long-range shooting and set-piece mastery, bagging three goals and creating even more along the way.
Ferguson has been delighted with his off-season signing so far. "We tried to get him when he was at Watford but were just a bit late. He has matured at Aston Villa and his form last season was fantastic considering they had a difficult year," the Scot said recently. "Since he has come to us, he has taken the challenge very well. Some players come to a club like ours and find it difficult to settle in but Ashley has done exceptionally well. He is versatile and has a good understanding of the game."
Rising through the league
It is testament to the Stevenage-born No18’s ambition and determination that he has made it this far at all. Originally rejected by first club Watford because of his small stature, Young battled back to earn a contract and made his first appearance for the Championship team in 2003. Within three years the Hornets were in the Premier League and Young was a key component of manager Aidy Boothroyd’s side.
Watford were finding life tough in the top division, however, and a list of suitors were queuing up for Young. Martin O’Neill and Villa secured his signature and Young’s talent was taken to another level. Playing alongside other England hopefuls, such as Gareth Barry and James Milner, in a young team fixated on breaking into the Premier League’s top four and experiencing UEFA Champions League football, Young thrived and produced some of his finest form to date.
As the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur strengthened, though, Villa reached a plateau and Young, anxious to play at the highest level, longed for a new challenge. When United made opening overtures early in 2011, he grasped the opportunity. "There was never any doubt once I knew United were interested," Young revealed after the transfer was completed. "When one of the biggest clubs in the world comes after you, whether to sign for them or not is a no-brainer. I was delighted to hear about their interest. I just wanted to get my signature on the paper."
England place secured
Young has been flying ever since, creating both goals on his league debut for United before converting two stunning strikes in the 8-2 demolition of the team he supported as a boy, Arsenal. His form has been replicated for England too, with important goals in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers against Wales and Montenegro cementing his place in manager Fabio Capello’s squad. Young can now be confident of travelling to the finals in Poland and Ukraine next summer, quite the reversal of fortune after his failure to make the selection for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
In the short term, Young’s thoughts will turn to Sunday’s Manchester derby against Premier League leaders Manchester City. It will be the winger’s first experience of the Mancunian rivalry, which has only intensified after City’s impressive start to the campaign has seen them overtake their rivals, at least temporarily. This weekend he will come up against old friends Barry and Milner, now both of City, but as against the Gunners, Young will be happy to again put personal allegiances aside in his hunt for glory.