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03rd Aug 2018

COMMENT: The strange phenomenon of ‘Martial FC’ could well be the new normal

Nooruddean Choudry

Anthony Martial is something of an enigma.

He is a player of undoubted natural ability and huge potential. The way he can carry the ball past a number of opposition players and finish with instinctive precision elevates him beyond many in his age group. Not only that, but he does it with such style. Some players make every action seem laboured; Martial can make the hardest technique look effortless and silky smooth. In terms of pure aesthetics, the comparisons to Thierry Henry make perfect sense.

That said, for whatever reason, his career at Manchester United hasn’t quite flourished as his first season form promised. Rather than establishing himself as an undroppable young superstar at the club, his involvement has been restricted to the odd cameo and occasional flash of excellence. Although still young in relative terms (especially in the context of Henry’s career), he will be 23 this year and must be eager to justify all the hype that surrounds him.

For many, the sole reason why Martial’s career trajectory hasn’t sky-rocketed as expected is his current club manager. The sense is that Jose Mourinho has done little to nurture Martial’s precocious abilities and simply does not appreciate the gem of a player he has on his hands. Whether or not Mourinho rates the young forward, there are more fundamental concerns as to whether the manager’s tactics will ever allow a player like Martial to flourish.

Such mitigating circumstances accepted, there are those who place at least some of the responsibility at the feet of Martial himself. His focus and discipline have been questioned to varying degrees, as has how much effort he puts into knuckling down and adapting to his manager’s needs. There are two sides to every story of course, and most of the finger-pointing at either coach or player is conjecture. From the outside, it is hard to know the full story.

That said, the player is subject to the kind of fanatical devotion amongst certain sections of the Manchester United support that verges on bizarre. Not because there’s anything wrong with having a special affection for a favourite player, but because their ardour is so intense. It means that any discussion about his merits or faults very quickly descends into shit-slinging farce. In fact they exhibit the kind of sectarianism that would make an Orangeman blush.

So notorious has the phenomenon of ‘fanboying’ the Frenchman become that the most fundamentalist of his disciples are widely known by the mocking moniker of ‘Martial FC’. The clear implication is that so consumed are they with the player himself that club allegiances comes a distant second. The term ‘fanboy’ is especially apt for Martial FC members, as they seem to be overwhelmingly male and, one would assume/hope, very young too.

As much as they love the player – and work hard to build a social media cult around him – they probably do him few favours. There are many reasonable fans who very much rate the player, but are loathed to be tarred with the Martial FC brush. It’s bafflingly toxic too. The zealots seem intent of badmouthing anyone who stands in their boy’s way. That ranges from detesting Jose Mourinho, to belittling fellow starlet Marcus Rashford by comparison.

As good as Martial is and could become, it’s weird that he attracts such fervent personal support. It may be born from the media and rival fans making mirth of his price tag when he first joined the club. That the Old Trafford faithful closed ranks in support of the player at the time is commendable; how some have allowed that to morph into a full-blown religion since is less so. You half expect his most passionate devotees to follow him to another club should he leave.

Maybe it’s an age thing. Perhaps football fans of a certain maturity don’t understand that the sport has become less about clubs and more about players. In this era of individual brands and personality-driven advertising, maybe Martial FC and its ilk are the new normal. It could well be that in the future, the very idea of supporting an actual football club, regardless of the players and managers who pass through, will seem rather quaint and faintly ridiculous.

Whether a sign of things to come or a strange anomaly, Martial FC is perhaps the most striking example of some football fans actually acting like a player is greater than the club. And as much as Manchester United may one day regret letting Martial go to another club and fulfilling his potential elsewhere, they would at least be rid of the strange church of Saint Anthony.