Neil Humphreys: Don’t be a nice guy, Bruno Fernandes
Be a professional and leave spot-kick sharing to school playgrounds
Only Bruno Fernandes can warm hearts and raise eyebrows in a single gesture.
When he reached for the ball only to hand it straight to Marcus Rashford, the rest of us thought about reaching for a bucket.
Fernandes' selfless act has already been described as heartwarming, further proof of a thoughtful player putting his team first. But it wasn't, really.
Rashford's crusade to provide free meals for poor British children was heartwarming. Fernandes rejecting a hat-trick in favour of giving Rashford a patronising penalty in the Champions League was sentimental hokum.
Penalty sharing among pals usually belongs in school playgrounds or charity matches, not among elite athletes in a prestigious competition.
Fernandes takes United's penalties because he's a grown-up, carrying out the instructions of another grown-up, albeit one who continues to grin at the camera like a giggly mascot.
After United's 4-1 win against Istanbul Basaksehir yesterday morning (Singapore time), a beaming Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was asked for his thoughts on Fernandes essentially overriding the manager's instructions.
"If Bruno wants to give one to Marcus, so be it," said the smiley one, hinting again that the "Manchester United way" of management remains a work in progress.
Imagine being a fly on the dressing room wall when a sheepish Red Devil explained to Sir Alex Ferguson that he had handed over penalty-taking responsibilities to lift the spirits of a morose teammate.
Ferguson might have lifted both parties through a wall.
"I don't get it," said Paul Scholes in his post-match analysis. "Fernandes has taken all the penalties when he's played. He's on the chance of a hat-trick on a European night. I don't understand it."
Clearly, Scholes and Fernandes played in different eras. Fernandes plays in a delicate era of heightened sensibilities and lots of thoughts for a friend's goalscoring form in Europe. Scholes played in an era when United won stuff.
Obviously, in the grand scheme of all things Covid-19, who takes what penalties and when hardly constitutes a crisis, but it does perhaps hint at United's underlying psyche.
Apart from the uncomfortable truth - the imperious Red Devils didn't share penalties like peanuts in their heyday - there's also a slight misunderstanding of the weary "putting the team first" cliche.
Fernandes didn't. He put Rashford first. Or maybe he put himself first, having required two jittery attempts to score his penalty against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday.
Either way, the Portuguese midfielder wasn't prioritising the collective cause, despite his honourable intentions.
Solskjaer didn't put Fernandes on penalties because of the midfielder's generosity of spirit. Form, consistency and composure made him the obvious choice.
Fernandes already has nine goals this season, making it 21 in 35 appearances. He's reached the 20-goal tally quicker than any United player in history. When it comes to spot-kicks, the 26-year-old rarely disappoints. He's scored 12 and missed just once.
When the penalty was awarded yesterday, United were 2-0 ahead, but their patchy defending persisted. Basaksehir scored a late goal, hit the bar and conjured several chances. United were never entirely comfortable.
The penalty was crucial. Rashford's goalscoring statistics were not. Putting the team first meant putting the ball on the spot, but Fernandes chose otherwise.
Comparisons have been made to another act of selflessness this month, when Fernandes was on a hat-trick against Everton. Through on goal, he squared the ball to Edinson Cavani instead.
Cavani gleefully accepted his first United goal.
But the comparison doesn't quite work. Cavani essentially faced an open goal. Putting the team first meant putting in the player in the best position. Against Everton, that player was Cavani.
Against Basaksehir, that player was Fernandes. He's the best man for the job from 12 yards. The penalty was awarded in the 35th minute of a Champions League tie that United needed to win. Presenting the ball to Rashford was not the same as slipping a pass to Cavani.
And the decision isn't without precedent at United either. Last month, Rashford was also on a hat-trick against RB Leipzig when he allowed Anthony Martial to take a penalty and collect his first goal of the season.
The "pass the parcel" benevolence of such acts does play into the perception of United's softer underbelly, demonstrating the kindness of a kids' party rather than ruthless trophy chasers.
Solskjaer even insisted that his players could share the penalties around, making him sound like the happy, clapping parent at a kid's party.
Fernandes clearly means well. But in the long term, United may be better off if he worries about hurting the opposition rather than Rashford's feelings.