'I'll have a G&McT, with a slice of meatball' : Scotland's midfield. Part 2 - Scott McTominay.
Updated: Apr 14
After the 60-year Munich memorial service had drawn to a solemn close inside Old Trafford in February 2018, survivors and their families appeared to mix warmly with players, coaches and employees of previous years, as well as the current staff and squad. As often accompanies the period just after sombre ceremonies, you can imagine that the attendees, having been gripped in the fleeting acknowledgement of how precious life is, began to think and talk of things less weighty.
Some fans were present, and taking out their phones to record a final canticle which had broken out regarding the Busby Babes, managed to film Zlatan Ibrahimovic leaving before Scott McTominay similarly drew their attention. The players were seen stooping to each shake hands deferentially and respectfully with an older gentleman in the row in front. As the superstar Swede passed, it wasn't his hand who the elder grabbed, held on to tightly, and had a quiet word for.
He saved that for McTominay, who, aware that he was in a queue, nodded respectfully and tried to move on, except he couldn't, the old hand which had only recently released its grip on the last of 38 trophies it lifted with United held on, seeming to repeat the advice, nodding whilst clearly saying 'right?'. It reminded me of my mother saying 'Andrew. I'm tellin', not askin' ye'; and this was more a tellin' than a question, delivered as only a Glaswegian could... and I did what my mother telt' me.
This wasn't the first time that they had shaken hands either, for Sir Alex had met with the young Lancaster-born Scot and his family numerous times, ever since he joined the club as a 5-year-old.
In fact, Ferguson took the 'wee skelf', as he affectionately dubbed a younger McTominay, into the first-team dressing room for a Premier League match against Fulham to celebrate the signing of his scholarship, something he'd done many a time with the class of '92. It is such moments that make this latest interaction, adjacent to the stand named after the old Master, all the more poignant, as you feel it was merely the latest 'Right?' in a longitudinal conversation, with McTominay the latest in a long list of famous recipients.
Sir Alex invested in players, and in turn, they invested in him, and Manchester United, with such dedication that success inevitably followed. He knows character when he sees it - those who have the mentality and ability to play what he used to demand, 'the United Way'.
As the then 21-year-old strode away, presumably buoyed by the interaction. It was José Mourinho's turn to be told, in no uncertain terms, 'that boy is a player'. We can only infer what was said of course, but by the repeated gesticulation of Sir Alex towards the 6' 4" midfielder, now walking down the East Stand staircase, you could see that a similar transmission of data was being attempted by Ferguson.
Mourinho, ever one to extol the achievements of his fine-wine loving managerial alumni, seemed to be saying 'I know Boss, I know.'
If Zlatan and José were deferential, the United faithful were not always so. Sir Alex was questioned, and even faux-mocked amongst fans for repeatedly playing Darren Fletcher ('only gets a game because he's Fergie's son').
In the 90's this could have been fairly levelled at another Darren, but when it was clear that his son didn't possess the quality to play alongside Ince, he was moved on. Ferguson wasn't sentimental. Winning was his aim. Concerning Fletcher, before he was Scotland captain and voted into the PFA Team of the Year by his peers, he was lining up amongst the superstars of Verón and Van Nistelrooy, and even that oft out of position on the right flank.
However, as they had done before, the Stretford End grew to appreciate Ferguson's trust in a player's qualities; affectionately, if not altogether sincerely, dubbing him 'Darren Fletcher: football genius' along the way. Though, as Fletcher seemed to grow with the opposition, it could be argued that they sang this truth into existence. From '07-'11, before Fletcher's illness struck most severely, he played the best football of his career and silenced the doubters with some superb all-action displays against the very best.
In fact, Fletcher was probably United's stand-out midfielder in the 2010-11 season when he was mistakenly adjudged to have fouled Fabregas in the Champions League semi-final win over Arsenal. This wasn't just some personal tragedy either, when Fletcher turned to see his dreams reflected in suspension by 3"x4" yellow, the discerning football fan also knew that United's job of closing down Barcelona in the final was immediately more difficult as none could replace his industry, aggression and selflessness.
I say this because McTominay drew immediate comparisons to Fletcher when he broke through; both Scottish, both unglamorous in approach, both hard-working, defensively-minded midfielders making their mark at a time when United were not the best team in England (although they were far closer to it in Fletcher's case). In both periods, United fans wanted glamour, big names and immediate results. Therefore, some saw it as the latest Mourinho charade, or at least a dig at the lack of budget available, when he presented McTominay with the inaugural 'Manager's Award' at the United Awards dinner in May 2018.
However, with hindsight, it appears more like his 'football genius' moment, because no one is questioning the Portuguese now. In his own words, Mourinho 'could not accept' that the Scot went home empty-handed that night.
He is the one who has done everything. He started the season in the academy and ended it playing big games in the Premier League. I thought this kid cannot go home without an award. I always say that for me there are not young players or old players, it is just about the quality of the personality and this kid has everything that I want, so I think that it is good for the younger boys in the academy to look at him as an example of player.
José Mourinho - May 2018
This relentless personal commitment to 'doing everything' means McTominay is able to post videos of athlete-standard 5k times on social media whilst in lockdown, alongside other videos showing his immaculate touch as he kills the ball dead, Ronaldinho-style (yes I'm aware of the comparison I just made) after punting it in the air... Peter Kay-style.
He is the carburettor at the heart of the engine room; the kick-starter that is ready to go full-throttle at a moment's notice, revving up to enforce the manager's gameplan with unrelenting zeal. If you had to impress just two managers to get your car(eer) going, Ferguson and Mourinho are not a bad coupling-starter kit [that's the last auto-based wordplay, thanks].
The former, arguably the finest manager to have lived, or certainly in the conversation, advocated a terrifically enterprising and swashbuckling form of attacking football that dominated the Premier League for two decades. The latter, easily the most successful manager since Ferguson, alongside a certain Spaniard, finds a way to win repeatedly, across cultures, across languages, across styles, without compromise.
From old to new, from artists to pragmatists, McTominay counts them amongst his admirers. So instead of asking what does he actually do that sets him apart, I thought we'd retrace his rather large steps and in doing so, find the answer to that along the way, much in the way that he plays the game; his 'football genius' comes out in application of the unglamorous and dedicated approach.
The 'skelf' Ferguson referred to was clearly not the muscle-clad all-action midfielder that won praise for his performances against Manchester City and the best midfielder in the Premier League, Kevin De Bruyne; or against Busquets and Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain's Veratti in the Champions League. At the age of 18, the midfielder was almost a foot smaller, slight, and a very different player.
He was, in fact, a forward, the residual effects of which can still be seen by the impressive strikes he has converted, predominantly from defensive midfield, exhibiting a real calmness in front of goal when it matters most. My first impressions of him were just that, as back in the Summer of 2017 it wasn't during my daily foray through every Scottish player's preseason, as I didn't know of him, but in viewing a wider circle of highlights in preparation for the new Fantasy Football season, I stumbled across a gem of a finish by a certain tall, blonde United player with a 'Mc' in his name.
A quick google proved he was eligible for Scotland and England, but considered himself Scottish. Excitedly, I texted my WhatsApp groups the goal and said, 'keep an eye on this kid', which was met with the familiar swathes of pathos and indifference that often greeted my relentless positivity of the Scottish game. Now, I certainly am not saying, 'I told you so', or even 'I liked McTominay's first album', what I am saying, is that there was something in the flick of his in-step which was just... there.
(Skip to 3:46 for McTominay's first goal for United)
How much did I then, as someone who did see the first tour might have felt, feel vindicated when McTominay not only made his debut for United, and so achieved a top 20 single, but fast became their stand-out midfielder in the absence of Paul Pogba and followed it up with decent b-sides and a difficult second album too. Let's just say I bought the t-shirt, particularly after his smooth rendition of the late Bill Withers' 'Ain't No Sunshine' on a preseason tour.
Of course, my friends mocked 'you were bound to get one right' - but now, alongside Billy Gilmour, who cites McTominay as his most difficult opponent (remember he has played against Neves and Fabinho), they are finding that all along, I was right to be optimistic.
"We can almost say he's undroppable at the moment, definitely."
- Ole Gunnar Solskjær, speaking to Sky Sports, December 2019 (on McTominay's winning return from injury against Mourinho's Spurs)
How do you go from a skelf to undroppable at Manchester United? We can get a clue by those closest to him, and in Nemanja Matić's case, from those in direct competition for a place in the starting line-up. Speaking to Sky Sports after United cruised to a 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge, the Serbian was glowing in praise;
"He is amazing. He is 21 and to play like that [against Chelsea] and control the game like that is impressive... He will be a big player for Manchester United... I like him because he is a very nice guy and he doesn't have a problem to ask something before the game. I am always there to help him. When I came to Manchester, I saw within a few days he would become a top player... He is working very hard, but I don't want to say too many things about him because he is still very young. But he deserves all the good things."
- Nemanja Matić, April 2020
I wonder what word or phrase sticks out at you from Matić's generosity. It's 'nice' to hear that McTominay is a 'nice' guy, but if I was teaching here I'd be asking for more descriptive words please Nemanja, I know it's your second or third language, and I would bludgeon your beautiful native tongue with my lazy Glaswegian diction, but can we try something else? 'Could become a top player', sufficient Nemanja, but is it anything different to what you would say about your other teammates? I re-read, alongside lots of other quotes on McTominay, and in doing so I selected this as one word stuck out, from his title-winning, experienced midfield partner, that I skipped over numerous times on my rush to the 'meat' of the passage; 'Control'.
McTominay had control over the Chelsea midfield by winning the ball back repeatedly. He had control against PSG when he ran all over Veratti. He demonstrated excellent close control against City as he showed De Bruyne the easy defensive pass before shifting towards the goal, wrongfooting the Belgian and setting United on the attack.
If you're noticing a theme here it's that McTominay does this all the time, against everyone, even, or rather, particularly, against the best. McTominay sees the big games approaching and runs head-on to meet them. This is the spirit of Fletcher because it is the spirit of Ferguson. This is Man Utd mentality of old, and you can watch it below.
That his surname achieves semantic perfection by complementing 'dominate' so resplendently I'm almost embarrassed, but cannot fail, to mention. It is simply what he does, there is no better word for it. It is what people talk about when they say he 'intercepts', 'breaks up play' or slightly more negatively, 'destroys'.
In truth however, it is really only half the story, as generally, roughly half of football is played without the ball and most of the ball is played in midfield. When the other team has the ball, you need a plan to get it back or you miss out on half the game. Or as Brian Clough put it, 'they had the ball more than we did, and on our pitch, that's sacrilege'.
Without the ball, Scott McTominay is as strong a ball-winner as I can recall, he is a monster, but how is he with it? The previous illustration against Kevin De Bruyne could be a fluke, except that he showed the same cool head, deft touch and lightness of foot against Barca, not once but twice. Firstly by holding off three, and that's not an exaggeration, of the Catalonians and picking a pass out wide; before secondly, sending Arturo Vidal the wrong way and walking out of his own box.
The performance on the biggest stage was enough to earn 'best player on the pitch' from Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand in the 1-0 defeat, showing for the ball and retaining possession against the possession kings. Referring to other elements of his game, Ferdinand picked up on his progress showing that he can also pick a pass, drive forward with the ball and strike it with venom.
Continuing plaudits were accumulated throughout the 25 games he managed in the curtailed 19-20 season. Consistency was achieved across such a high standard that even though injury robbed him of a lot of football (prompting the Solskjær quote above), The Athletic awarded McTominay the Manchester United Young Player of the Year, and few could argue, though the excellent Aaron Wan-Bissaka might have had cause. I, like many, am a huge fan of the full-back but must agree with the choice of winner, and not because I'm biased.
In the period he wasn't playing, McTominay's absence was felt to the extent that Solskjær could do nothing but agree with the assertion that he is undroppable. He is fast becoming more than just a dominator, he is a leader too, he makes other players better. Like Fletcher before him, in his absence, his stature increased, except that it seems McTominay has arrived in credibility a wee bit earlier than his compatriot, no doubt because of the path the boy from Dalkeith forged for him.
'Enforcer', 'Destroyer', 'Colossus'. They all seem too trite in describing what he brings. He harries as well as anyone in the league and recovers possession, sure. But he also rarely loses possession, despite frequently attempting forward passes. He carries the ball too, bursting with pace and power in a similar manner to Yaya Touré (first Ronaldinho now this!?), whom I know he has a long way to go before emulating, however consider that no one saw the Ivorian as a twenty-goal a season man before he gradually arrived there.
What I mean to say is that McTominay continually surprises and improves, that is unarguable, and next season I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a few more goals and assists to accompany his talents. The boy can finish and pick a pass, it's the next step and the signs are there.
With Gilmour beside him, and McGinn slightly in front, Scotland have a potential midfield line-up for the next decade to rival any in the U.K., and as I don't think attitude or focus will be a problem for them, the only thing required of us is that more people start to believe it when an article is pinged to them in WhatsApp.
If, over this period, anyone accuses you of going overboard in hype just say you're agreeing with Mourinho, and if they still scoff, then play the top trump in Fergie, because 'that boy's a player'- and he's tellin', no' askin'... right?