Sports

Final act in the hollow story of Pogba and Manchester United about to be played out



“On the plane I listened to Sexion d’Assat,” Paul Pogba reminisces of his soundtrack as he embarked on his maiden journey to Manchester all those years ago.

“It made me feel better as I landed in a country I knew nothing about. I didn’t even speak the language. In the beginning, I had no friends.”

All of this is contained in the opening minutes of ‘The Pogmentary’ and it could serve as a useful synopsis to the strange, fretful affair between Pogba and United. The five-part Amazon series – whose title was surely imagined just to drive Roy Keane round the twist – offers a glimpse into the world of the enigmatic, restless and often-injured French midfield star.

And it is a very likable world in many ways, starring a carefree, smiley spirit who is a brilliant son, father and husband, a sincere Muslim, who boasts a wardrobe more lavish than the house of Dior and will dance at the drop of a hat.

The audience gets what is always the key appeal of these curated shows: a peek behind the curtains into the Pogba household, featuring much family meal-time, warm exchanges with his French team-mate Antoine Griezeman and interminable chatting on the phone with his super-agent, Mino Raiola, who died aged just 54 last April, about Pogba’s next contract and issues like respect and happiness and, always, whether he should stay or go.

In its modern iteration, Manchester United has had two critical relationships with imperial French footballers. The first was a blazing success: Eric Cantona took one look at the forbidding northern skies, the ailing amphitheatre of Old Trafford, sucked in the Ian-Curtis moodiness of it all, turned the collar up and was proclaimed the king of the north. He got the place.

Paul Pogba has twice given Manchester a go, as both prodigal apprentice and fully-fledged superstar and its clear from the carefully edited promotional half-hour shows that he is as mystified by his club and city as many of United’s fan base have become with him. Cantona and Manchester was Burton and Taylor. Pogba and Manchester is Kanye and Kim.

Pogba’s return to United, in 2016, for a world record sum of £89 million, was supposed to be the key move in arresting the club’s slide from the position of vice-like superiority it had enjoyed in the Alex Ferguson era.

Instead, what ‘to do’ with Pogba became the most complicated aspect of the mind-bending on-field puzzle which United has become for a succession of managers. There was no return to Premier League-winning glory and dysfunction seemed to magnify through successive seasons, when Jose Mourinho was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Norwegian good-egg and 1990s folk hero who was helicoptered in to try and fill the halls of Old Trafford with the good vibes of yesteryear.

How Pogba felt about these managerial culls and appointments – not to mention his role in them – remains a mystery. He mentions Mourinho just once and by the end of the series you are left with the nagging suspicion that Pogba doesn’t even remember Solskjaer.

It’s a heavily edited exercise in frustration because within the languid athletic frame of Pogba exists a world class footballer, as evidenced with France and his years with Juventus. It becomes clear that he never felt truly wanted by Manchester – he references none of his United team-mates by name but when his French team -mate Raphael Varane signs, he has him round to the house for dinner and to meet the family, delighted to have someone he can chat with.

The documentary only serves to deepen the prevailing question which has dogged Pogba’s stuttering years with Manchester United. What’s the problem?

Part of the trouble was that the club Pogba believed he was joining as a teenager – the all-conquering Ferguson sides of the late 1990s/early 00s – was on the verge of becoming something else when he matured. The backdraft caused by Ferguson’s retirement was immense. Everything and everyone, including Pogba, was sent skittling and the clean-up operation is ongoing.

There’s an unforgettable clip out there on the ether of one of the darkest months of the Mourinho reign, when the Famous One has begun to resemble an addled figure in a Cassavetes movie.

Another unhappy mid-winter performance and as the fans stream out of the ground, a stocky, enraged supporter stops to give his view to a video-pop interview.

“We’re not Stoke,” he screams in clear anguish. Then, he disappears. It’s clear that the pain felt by that fan was, in a very real way, of a more elemental kind than that experienced by Pogba when the team loses.

Pogba’s apparent inability – or emotional reluctance – to fully hurl himself into the United cause becomes more explicable towards the end of the series. He talks about his love of the American way and, in particular, basketball and the leading lights of the contemporary NBA game.

“They’re icons. Their commercials. Their businesses,” he explains.

Pogba, as the world’s most expensive signing when he returned to United, modelled his football persona in that image. One of the problems for the NBA is that its stellar talents and commercial draws – LeBron James and Kevin Durant – wield such power that they manipulate the strings, decide which team-mates stay, get traded and even who coaches.

They are lone operators who thrive within the transient nature of the team ethos. But that model does not cleanly translate to English football, where the manager is the ultimate boss and accountability – to the fans – to perform and to care is ceaseless.

The sports headlines are still dominated by Pogba’s seemingly endless exit from Manchester United – he is packing even now. And there is much to pack. He’s 29, in superb condition, a World Cup winner, and happy out; its no bad place.

But you wonder how he will review that lost half-decade in Manchester, when he was emotionally adrift from the club with whom he was supposed to shape his legacy; whether he will one day sit through The Pogmentary and wonder why it all looks so hollow.



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