Jim White

Manchester United will mourn the loss of fearsome Vidic

Nemanja Vidic needs a new challenge. That is the reason, he says, he is leaving Manchester United this summer.

That is the reason why he has ignored his manager’s entreaties to stay on. A new challenge? You might have thought that playing for a mid-table team, one with zero chance of landing a trophy in the near future, would be sufficiently fresh a challenge for a man whose entire career in England has been conducted at the trophy-acquiring end of the football pool.

What a player Vidic was for United (and frankly given his performances this season we are entitled to use the past tense even as he is still on the club’s payroll).

Fifteen trophies he helped scoop up in his eight years in Manchester: it is a rate that you suspect may not be matched over the next eight.

Giving the lie to the idea that there is no value in the winter transfer window, he arrived with Patrice Evra in January 2006. And how United needed him.

At the time they were in crisis. Though obviously compared to what is going on now, crisis is a relative term. Back then the crisis was not about losing to West Brom and Stoke, it was about slipping behind the revolution Jose Mourinho was developing at Chelsea. It was not about finishing seventh, it was about finishing second.

Yet, however fine the margins, what Vidic brought was almost immediate solution. No wonder, really. In all honesty, which footballer would you more like on your team than the Serb? What a titan. A man who put himself on the line in every confrontation, he not only gave his all, he ensured his team-mates did also. As captain he not only led from the front, he made sure everyone else followed.

Looks are not everything in football. But in Vidic’s case they spoke volumes.

He looked almost as terrifying as he was. That scowl, that glare, that furrowed brow: it was enough to remove the resolve from the most stout hearted opponent. And a glance from the skipper was equally capable of guaranteeing no-one on his own team slipped from his elevated standards. This was not just a defender who appeared to regard it as a personal affront to concede a goal, here was someone who chivvied his colleagues into similar acts of defiance.

No-one was going to shirk from a tackle knowing Nemanja would be on their case.
At full flow Vidic was a magnificent sight. When he gathered the ball at the back and rumbled forward, the guttural, visceral roar that gathered in a football stadium was electric.

In either penalty area he would defy all known laws of physics to ensure it was his head on the ball. Sometimes it seemed impossible to understand how he managed to be first to make contact. This was determination personified.

Together with Rio Ferdinand he made as accomplished a defensive partnership as any in the history of his club. Even stronger than Bruce and Pallister, even more terrifying than Foulkes and Stiles, slightly more substantial than Evans and Smalling.

Topping an astonishing number of brilliant performances, Vidic’s finest hour was in Moscow in May 2008. He was utterly magnificent in the Champions League final, his command in the air and on the ground utter and complete.

His unwavering attention drove Chelsea’s Didier Drogba to the point of distraction.

The great Ivorian striker’s self-combustion was the result of being battered and bettered by as fine a defender as he ever encountered.

And when a player physically beasts Drogba, you know you are dealing with a special talent.

The team Vidic led to the trophy that day, incidentally, is one whose memory must make every single United fan go misty eyed. Van Der Sar; Brown, Vidic Ferdinand, Evra; Hargreaves, Scholes, Carrick; Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo: it would take a brave man to suggest things were not better in those particular good old days.

No doubt it is the sense of decline around him, the clear evidence that things are not as they were, that has precipitated Vidic’s departure. That new contract might have been signed if the old boss was still in place.

Though in truth, he does not quite share Sir Alex Ferguson’s sense of good timing.

If he did, he would have left in the summer, before the superstructure which he defined began so quickly to crumble. And maybe if he had it would have been a more appropriate departure.

He has appeared semi-detached for much of this term, playing as if he had already decided to go, ever more prone to injury. He has no longer brought that old invincibility, that stalwart certainty.

United fans may be alone in expressing vocal disappointment at seeing their hero depart (everyone else will be too busy sighing with relief).

But we should all regret that he is to take his stout-hearted determination elsewhere. Tricksy wingers and fancy-dan strikers might steal the attention. But it is defenders like Vidic who stir the blood.

It is our loss.