Scott McTominay due to take his place within a ceaseless debate

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 23, 2018

Brace yourselves. We are at the start of a national conversation. Not an especially high-profile national conversation, nor in all likelihood an interesting one. But a conversation that may drag out over the next decade or so, trenchant opinions going back and forth, one side viewing the other side’s stance as proof they know nothing about football.

This conversation will be about Scott McTominay. Sure, a fairly nondescript midfielder with only a handful of games to his name doesn’t immediately sound like the next topic to sweep the nation, the natural successor to Brexit or the correct way of pronouncing ‘scone.’ But this is what happens when a player’s qualities are not immediately obvious.

All of what follows should obviously come with the caveat that McTominay has barely entered our consciousness yet. There is little evidence of what sort of player he is, because he’s played so little first-team football. Firm conclusions cannot yet be drawn.

But from the little he’s played so far, we know little of who McTominay is, what he’s good at or even what he does. He doesn’t seem to have a sweeping range of passing, a thunderous shot, dazzling skill, a hard tackle. He appears to do simple things well, and quietly, for which there is of course a place.

It seems like he can be filed alongside players like Gareth Barry, or for those of you of an age, John McGovern. He’s not exactly the same sort of player, as those men, but he’s similar in that he’s undemonstrative, doesn’t do anything spectacular, if anything at all. The water-carrier who is missed when they’re not there rather than appreciated when they are.

He is the ‘less is more’ footballer, the notes the jazz trumpeter doesn’t play, the midfield equivalent of John Cage’s ‘4’33”’. He’s the sort of player who a small section of pseudy types will declare an underrated gem, and regard anyone who doesn’t see his qualities as dunces of the first order, not to be listened to on matters football.

This is not to say people should not rate him, or that he’s a bad player, or one that does not have his place: he might be, we just don’t know yet. But anyone praising him too effusively at this stage should probably be regarded with some suspicion, because he hasn’t done anything yet. Almost literally so. Can you remember a single thing he’s done in his eight starts for United this season? No. And it’s tempting to call anyone who claims they do a great big pants on fire liar.

Jose Mourinho does, on the surface anyway, seem to be a fan. “He’s a kid that chases the ball, that tries to recover high up the pitch and when he has the ball it is always simple,” he said, after McTominay started against Huddersfield at the beginning of February. “And against opponents like Huddersfield, so close and with so many bodies behind the ball, the simplicity sometimes is genius.”

That last bit was said in the manner of a man who hadn’t quite planned the end of his sentence, but let’s not overdo things here, Jose. This is a little like the appreciator of art who declares a solid block of colour to be ‘genius’: nice to look at, sure, it has both its place and uses, but steady on old son.

But for this reason it’s very tempting to assume Mourinho is somehow trying to use McTominay as a way of getting to Paul Pogba. The Manchester Lowry’s most persistent guest does get very grumpy whenever he’s asked questions about Pogba, but if you’re going to drop a bloke who cost £89million, people will probably want to know why.

And, if we are to believe that Mourinho chooses every syllable with the utmost care, it should be noted that he declared McTominay as a genius of simplicity after a game in which he’d been included in the place of Pogba.

There’s a theory that Mourinho is revelling in the idea of picking an unheralded youth product in place of the one-time most expensive player in the world, but surely even he wouldn’t be that bloody-minded. Possibly.

Instead he probably picked McTominay because he’s the exact opposite of Pogba, the doughty, dependable, predictable sort who will do as he’s told, rather than the airy creator who could just as soon go missing as decide a game with a flash of inspiration. And with that, perhaps a message to Pogba, a tutting parent trying to get through to their errant child: why can’t you be a bit more like your brother?

Hopefully McTominay is, soon enough, judged on his own merits rather than as the chalk to Pogba’s cheese. But when that day comes, people will talk about him. A lot. And prepare yourselves for that to get pretty tiring.

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