Of the 11 Manchester United players who started in the FA Cup at Yeovil Town three years ago, only David de Gea, Luke Shaw, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera remain at the club. Rafael, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett, Darren Fletcher, James Wilson, Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao have departed, along with two of the three substitutes who came on that chilly day in a 2-0 win, Jonny Evans and Angel di Maria.
There is rightly much excitement at United over the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, who is expected to debut in Yeovil. Sanchez is a world-class player but United fans should see Di Maria’s brief stay in England as a cautionary tale.
Another South American and another hugely talented winger, Di Maria arrived with a similarly exalted reputation and was also given the No 7 shirt. Despite being the most expensive player in Britain, the Argentine started only 24 games and scored four goals before leaving after a year. Granted Di Maria was frustrated with United’s football under Louis van Gaal, something which has improved under Jose Mourinho.
Sanchez, unlike Di Maria, has extensive Premier League experience and Yeovil is a good place to start with his new teammates, even if the Friday night kick off is deeply unpopular with the travelling United support who face a five-hour trek each way from Manchester.
Yeovil, from a relatively isolated town of 45,000 in Southwest England, spent the first 108 years of their existence in non-league football, where they were a relative giant, famously in 1948 dumping Sunderland, then a big spending top-flight club, out of the FA Cup. Promotion to the Football League in 2003 was followed by further success. By 2013 they were in England’s second tier, where they lasted one season. United beat them in the cup at Huish Park in 2015 in between successive relegations. Twenty first in England’s fourth tier, the Glovers are now fighting to stay in the Football League.
They have few expectations against a team 88 places above them in the football pyramid, the publicity and money from hosting United will suffice, but Sanchez will be judged closely and will hope to follow some of the more successful debuts of United players.
Wayne Rooney’s hat-trick against Fenerbache at Old Trafford in a Uefa Champions League game was among the most memorable. Rooney was 18 and clearly showed on his debut that he could play on the big stage. His 36-minute hat-trick, with goals coming from his left foot, right foot and a free kick, all three came from outside the area.
Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t score on his debut, but he did have a significant impact after coming on against Bolton Wanderers for the last 29 minutes of United’s opening Premier League game of the 2003/04 season. United were leading 1-0 through a Ryan Giggs free kick when Ronaldo took to the field. The Portuguese winger ran at the Bolton defence, winning a penalty. The game ended 4-0, with further goals from Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Scholes, age 18, enjoyed a memorable debut himself in 1994 in a League Cup game at Port Vale, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win. It was a blow for the local Member of Parliament who had complained in the House of Commons that United had fielded a weakened side for her constituents to enjoy.
Van Nistelrooy also got off to a flying start in his league debut, with two goals against Fulham in 2001. The prolific Dutch striker scored 37 times in his first season for Manchester United.
Giggs’ first league start came against Manchester City at Old Trafford in 1991. He is credited with scoring the goal in a 1-0 win, though he has his doubts.
“The game flashed by and the manager came up to me at the end and asked if I’d got a touch on the ball for the goal,” Giggs told this writer recently. “I shrugged my shoulders. ‘You got a touch,’ said the manager, who wanted me to claim it as a goal. Thinking about it, maybe I did get a shoelace to the ball. I’ve had goals taken away from my in the past which I thought were mine, so I’m claiming that.”
In more recent times, 17-year-old Federico Macheda was brought off the bench as title-chasing United trailed 2-1 at home to Aston Villa. Ronaldo made it 2-2 before the Italian striker curled the ball into the far corner beyond Brad Friedel in front of the Stretford End.
“I looked up and the ball was already inside the net,” Macheda smiled as he recalled the scene. “The stadium was going crazy. I didn’t know what to do.” Macheda is now in the Italian second division with Novara.
Marcus Rashford’s two debut goals for an injury hit United against Midtjylland in 2018 catapulted him into the first team. His side were going out of the Europa League until his double inside 12 second-half minutes.
Sanchez will be hoping to make the headlines in Somerset – for all the right reasons.
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