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Marvin Emnes Offers Another Glimpse of What Might Have Been

Tuesday 21st February 2017
As seasons go, 2008-09 was among the best for the Premier League. Manchester United won the competition, which is always a good thing for me. Liverpool finished second, also a good thing. Great heroes require villains nearly their match. Rafa Benítez knew how to be a villain. His notorious "facts" rant in January  2009, when Sir Alex Ferguson took a few verbal jabs at a 'Pool squad then still atop the table, was classic monologuing. Chelsea finished third, apropos for a side who went through three managers during the campaign. Arsenal finished fourth. It was their sophomore season in their new Emirates digs. As the construction debt was still being serviced, Gooners were still only too happy to agree with their parsimonious French boss that Champions League qualification was more important than winning trophies. Ah, good times.

What made 2008-09 so special, however, was the quality and goings on lower down the table. David Moyes came as close as he ever would to the Champions League with Everton. Martin O'Neill had Aston Villa on the cusp of former glory. Roy Hodgson politely placed Fulham in the thick of the fight and, even though Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra had moved on, Clint Dempsey remained to provide an American accent. Tony Pulis and Stoke were firmly entrenched at the Britannia. Phil Brown was telling tall tales at Hull City. Even though it was becoming evident there were problems with shady ownership when Harry Redknapp jumped ship at Portsmouth, the Icelandic banking scandal bankrupted West Ham's owner, and Man City's chairman and former Thai Prime Minister went into exile to evade corruption charges, Mark Hughes, Robinho, and (honestly) Stephen Ireland were laying the foundation for City's ascension.
Even further down, a Middlesbrough side that featured Gary O'Neil, Robert Huth, Brad Jones, Tuncay Şanli, Stewart Downing, Mido, and Alfonso Alves somehow managed to get relegated. Partial blame might fall on Gareth Southgate, at the time still working out how to be a manager. Downing's service was at its highest quality. Tuncay could make any defender look the fool. There just wasn't any consistency. There was also a young Dutchman, though you wouldn't guess so from his name, who caught the eye. Unfortunately, erratic performance would become a byword forever attached to his moniker.

Marvin Emnes had the speed, skill, and flowing hair to be a star of the highest magnitude. He just never seemed to bring the entire package with him most match days. He only managed two goals for Boro during that campaign. Yet, the flashes were there, teasing much more was possible. Emnes broke out in 2011-12, scoring eighteen times in forty-eight appearances when Tony Mowbray trusted him to be the main man. The next season his performance declined again, only six goals in twenty-eight matches. Dribs and drabs followed as he was repeatedly loaned out then recalled from Swansea. He signed permanently with the Swans after the 2013-14 campaign but was loaned to Blackburn for 2016-17, where he has been in and out of the line-up. Thirteen starts and nine substitutions have produced three goals and four assists, with roughly a third of his one-and-a-half shots per game on target. Still just twenty-eight, the talent remains to deliver so much more.

Emnes only started Sunday's FA Cup match against Manchester United because Sam Gallagher was unavailable. Leave it to Mr Inconsistency to decide to show up against my club. Surrounded by center halves Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo and deep lying midfielders Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera, all of international quality, the man who has never been capped by l'Oranje brought his A game.
Movement, pace, skill, and a heavy, shifting shot were all on display. On the quarter-hour, he forced Sergio Romero to parry away a blistering volley. Two minutes later, a feint and turn freed him to split the United defenders with a through ball for Danny Graham who picked out the far corner to give Rovers a surprise lead.

Match commentators chose the obvious though ridiculous narrative, repeatedly comparing this relegation-threatened Championship side to the 1994-95 Premier League Champions. But embattled owners Venky's are not Jack Walker. Current manager Owen Coyle is not Kenny Dalglish. Graham is not Alan Shearer. Most importantly, this side's back four isn't Henning Berg, Colin Hendry, Graeme le Saux, and Ian Pearce. Emnes' unexpected good work would be undone within ten minutes. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, on the counter, curled a pass around and between widely spaced defenders with the outside of his right boot for Marcus Rashford to run down. The teenager did, then bypassed an isolated Jason Steele and calmly slotted the ball home.

United couldn't shake Emnes and right-winger Liam Feeney, however. The pair continued to create chances for teammates, testing United's resolve. At the hour mark, José Mourinho cancelled Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba's day off, throwing them into the fray. Ibra soon chested down a perfect lob over the defense, but hurriedly whiffed on the volley. He made good with his second opportunity. Pogba went back to retrieve the ball, looked up, called out "Red Rover, Red Rover, I'm launching the ball over," and, with Zlatan timing his run perfectly, delivered another pinpoint entry pass. This time, the Swede took his time, opened his body, and tucked the ball into the far corner.
United were deservedly ahead but not yet in the clubhouse. Emnes and Co refused to concede. Blackburn's answer to Rashford, twenty-year-old Connor Mahoney, came on at seventy-seven minutes for Feeney. He immediately began running at Matteo Darmian and Rojo. One such incursion led to a shot which revealed the difference between Romero and United's number one, David de Gea. The Argentine was unable to turn the volley towards the side, instead spilling it forward for Emnes to have another go. Romero slowed that down, but it fell behind him to Anthony Stokes. The Scot knocked it into the net. Celebrations were correctly cut short by the linesman's raised flag. Offside.

After the match, Mourinho praised the opposition. He suggested that, should Blackburn play as they did on this occasion, they would escape the drop. If Owen Coyle can coax some consistency from Marvin Emnes, convincing him to play to his level rather than the opposition's, there is no reason to doubt his side will. Unfortunately, history tells us that's a big ask.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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