There are moments when it seems like there are other impossible jobs at Old Trafford besides managing Manchester United. Along with an armband, status, and a promise of criticism—some of it from the most recognizable captain in club history—comes with being the captain.
Even when Bruno Fernandes, a player occasionally accused of shooting too frequently, decided someone else needed a goal more and gave Marcus Rashford the opportunity to end his goal drought from the penalty spot at Everton on Sunday, it was not a widely praised move. “Total nonsense,” declared Roy Keane, the unwavering realist who believed that objectives shouldn’t be given away.
Paul Ince has suggested Fernandes should be stripped of the captaincy. Gary Neville has been outspoken about the Portuguese in both last season’s 7-0 thrashing at Anfield and last month’s 3-0 Manchester derby defeat, seeing his complaints to referees as whingeing and has accused him of trying to hurt John Stones.
Meanwhile, Harry Maguire, who tended to be savaged by Keane, who appeared affronted by the idea the centre-back was his successor, is now enjoying a personal renaissance now back in the ranks after Erik ten Hag demoted him in the summer. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed that, during his reign as manager, a couple of players turned down the United captaincy.
When elevated by Ten Hag, Fernandes accepted it. When asked about Rashford’s spot kick at Goodison Park, the Dutchman took a very different stance from Keane. “I want to emphasise it’s great leadership: to understand your teammate needs a goal and you have confidence in each other to give the penalty away,” the United manager said.
Meanwhile, Fernandes himself shrugged off the latest furore. “Obviously you don’t like to be criticised, everyone is the same, but at the same time I have to do what I think is the best for my team,” he said. “Probably I am not always right but in my head at the moment is the right choice, so I do it.”
There is a sense, too, that he has to be the right choice for the job. The United captaincy in recent years has often resided with the aged and the injured, the out of form and the out of the team. Fernandes is an automatic choice who appears immune to injuries. Ten Hag spent some of last season claiming United had plenty of leaders. But one of them, David de Gea, is gone; another, Raphael Varane, has lost his place in the side, even though a third, Lisandro Martinez, is injured. A fourth, Casemiro, is sidelined but also apparently in decline. Rashford is quieter and has been out of sorts.
It leaves Fernandes, but if he can look captain by default, he believes he has widespread backing inside Old Trafford. “Now there is the captaincy, there is going to be always something,” he said. “The team, the staff, everyone who works with me day by day, I think they are pretty happy with me. The way I am is the same since I arrived at the club. It has not changed since being captain. I don’t think it has to change. I am really open with everyone so no one until now has had a problem with me.”
Keane does. But Fernandes’ initial experience of United, as he made a stunning start, was largely of praise. “It is quite normal when you play for Manchester United you are going to get criticised, even if you do well or bad, if you do the wrong or the right thing,” Fernandes rationalised. “I just have to deal with that. It is normal since I arrived at the club. In the beginning was everything perfect, because when you arrive in the first game if you do something different than anyone else is doing, is going be all flowers.
“But after that I understand the tough part is always coming, because when the result is not coming, when the performances are not what everyone expects to be, because the expectations are always higher and higher. I know since I arrived at the club my numbers made myself a target so not keeping the same numbers on goals and assists is sometimes a problem for me in the criticism.”