On an afternoon when Manchester United and Arsenal fans took it in turns to mockingly chant that they wanted their respective opposing manager to stay in their role, it was noticeable that there was no call for Marouane Fellaini to sign a new deal after he nodded home the injury-time winner.
Fellaini has been a divisive figure since the day he arrived as David Moyes’s only senior signing in the summer of 2013 for in excess of £28 million, and remains an unwelcome hero even when he scores goals like the one that booked United a place in next season’s Champions League on Sunday.
For a player who has made such an impact so often in delicate situations over the past five years, Fellaini is a figure on whom there is simply no consensus among United fans. If anything, the majority seem to want shot of him more with every passing day.
But for those for whom it is a perceived embarrassment to follow a club with Fellaini in its midfield there could be bad news on the horizon. Because Jose Mourinho indicated after his super-sub’s 91st-minute heroics against Arsenal that an agreement is close regarding an extension to the former Everton man’s expiring contract.
“The position is that we are almost there but in football almost is not enough,” said the United manager in his post-match press conference. “I can’t celebrate because almost is not enough. I want to see the white paper with the United crest and Ed Woodward’s signature and Marouane’s signature on it.”
He added in an interview with the BBC: “I think a player that grabs the crest after scoring is telling clearly that he wants to stay. I want him to stay, the club wants him to stay. I think he will stay, it is nearly there.”
Mourinho’s latest recap of the unfolding situation is in stark contrast to his previous updates during which he had given the impression that there was little hope of the club persuading the 30-year-old to stay at Old Trafford beyond this summer.
Perhaps Fellaini has played hardball in a bid to feel loved and wanted, because those are emotions that United fans have rarely expressed towards him. He has been the butt of jokes far more often than he has been the subject of considered debate as to his strengths and weaknesses.
Only after Mourinho questioned the decision by some to boo him following his concession of a penalty at Everton in December 2016 has there been a concerted push by all United followers to get behind the Belgium international.
For the vast majority of his stay, he has been a square peg in a round hole in the minds of supporters. He scored the goal that gave United breathing space in the Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge, crucial strikes in the quarter-final and semi-final of the successful FA Cup run of 2016, and the decisive goal against Celta Vigo which sent United to last season’s Europa League final.
But despite those important goals, there are some who just refuse to consider him a part of the Old Trafford make-up.
On the surface, it is an understandable gripe. His very presence seems only to encourage United to launch the ball longer and higher than their fans have become used to over a period of many decades. To them, Fellaini is the personification of the dreary and negative football offered up by Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, while his signing served as the underlying proof that Moyes was just not up to the job at Manchester United.
But his effectiveness has promoted the case of those for whom he is a valuable member of the squad, most notably his current manager.
Fellaini will never be a fan favourite, and he knows it. He will never be a regular starter in a full-strength United side either, with his last pair of successive starts coming over a year ago. Yet that is not to say he doesn’t have a place at United.
Every team needs its squad players, and more importantly those who are happy enough to play such a role. At a club like Manchester United it is tough to keep players of world-class quality satisfied unless they are starting more often than not. And in Fellaini they have the by-product of a need to have a late option at their disposal while also having a player who knows the score in terms of his effectiveness and his worth.
Mourinho has loved having the option to turn to his big Belgian battering ram late in games, just as he did to great effect on Sunday, and he will not be an easy player to replace. So it is surely good news that Fellaini is on the verge of signing an extension to his deal, even if he is no United supporter’s ideal first choice.