At the risk of alienating most readers with my first sentence, I must begin by stating this: I am a Manchester United supporter.
I have supported United for as long as I’ve loved football, which dates back to the moment they embarked on a twenty-year period of unbroken success.
And then, eighteen months ago, and almost overnight, they became rubbish.
In this post I want to explore the strange phenomenon of United’s sudden decline, and the way I have experienced it as a fan. Specifically, I want to describe something unexpected that has happened to me: I think I might enjoy watching United more now than I did when they were good.
I’ll begin by reminiscing about the glory days, before returning to the curious contentment of the present.
Under the covers with Alan Green
Like so many people in their early-ish thirties, I became a football obsessive during the 1990 World Cup. It’s a tournament that gets a bad press – and objectively it probably deserves its reputation. But look at it from my perspective. Before Italia ’90 there was no football. Then suddenly there was football, in the form of a World Cup, in Italy, soundtracked by Pavarotti and Des Lynam, and featuring the skill of Stoijkovic, the certainty of West Germany and the nights of Toto Schillaci. And millions of penalty shoot-outs. You can forgive me for remembering it as a genuine life highlight.
I’m from Glasgow. Unusually, my family weren’t remotely interested in football (hence me being effectively unaware of the game until I was eight years old). Less unusually, but still relevantly, my family aren’t religious, so I had no cultural inheritance one way or the other. Y’know, in terms of Celtic and Rangers. Or Rangers and Celtic, if you prefer.
So there I was, at eight and a half, with a sudden fascination for football and no one to guide me.
These were the long forgotten days before Sky Invented Football, so I fed on scraps of football highlights shown on things like Jim White’s Scotsport or Dougie Donnelly’s Sportscene. I started reading Match and Shoot, and studying the footballing history books, but my allegiances were still up for grabs.
It was in this context that I became interested in Manchester United’s European Cup-Winners Cup campaign. It was the first year that English clubs were allowed back into European competition after the post-Heysel ban, and United managed to win the Cup-Winners Cup against Barcelona in Rotterdam. I remember that final quite clearly, but my main memory of that entire season is Clayton Blackmore scoring a free kick in the quarter final away leg against Montpellier. I listened to the match on the radio and it sounded like he’d scored from about 300 metres out.
You can see the goal after 2 minutes 33 seconds here. I remember being slightly disappointed that he hadn’t shot from the halfway line when I saw it on TV, but it’s still quite an ambitious effort. Not the best goalkeeping, it must be said…
Nowadays the ready availability of dodgy internet streams has meant that I don’t really listen to much football on the radio. It’s a shame really, because bad games are so much more memorable when it sounds like you’re going to concede every time the other team gets the ball (why do they always seem to be on the edge of your penalty area?).
Anyway, United finished sixth that season (I had to look that up) behind George Graham’s last title-winning Arsenal side. I remember listening to Alan Smith scoring a hat trick on the night they were confirmed as First Division champions and they sounded quite glamorous. Looking back, it’s a surprise I wasn’t snapped up by the Gunners.
Meanwhile, I was fairly sure the rules of football obliged you to support a team from your own country. With no desire to embrace Old Firm life, I tried to be an Aberdeen fan. I even had videos of their most famous victories (mostly from the Ferguson era) and a family friend gave me match programmes to read. I really gave it a go, and Eoin Jess was an early hero of mine. But the magnetic pull of Old Trafford proved irresistible.
The 1991/92 season was the last before Sky invented football. Famously, Ferguson’s first proper title challenge fell apart around Easter, and Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds side won a deserved championship. I remember being gripped in early April by the gloomy certainty that United had run out of goals. I realise now that the players had simply run out of energy, and lacked a match-winner to turn draws into wins when we needed them most. Luckily, that man arrived the following season.
Eric Cantona (for it was he) was my hero in my teenage years. No player is more revered among United fans. He transformed our team and our club, and made everything possible. And one of my favourite things about United is our “12 Days of Cantona” song that we only sing in December. It keeps it special, like Christmas.
I was a very, very shy teenager. Imagine how much I looked up to Eric, with all of his conviction, amour propre, panache and imagination. I used to ask myself “what would Eric do?” and then realise to my disappointment that there’s no way I could ever do what Eric does.
One of the things Eric did that I could and would never do happened at Selhurst Park in January 1995. I was in bed with a winter illness and was half-listening to the Crystal Palace vs United game on the radio. Out of nowhere Cantona was sent off for kicking Richard Shaw off the ball. Eric was a bit of a liability at times in those days, so his red card wasn’t the greatest shock of anyone’s life. But no one saw the next bit coming.
Incensed by Matthew Simmons’s goading cry of “it’s an early bath for you, Mr Cantona!”, Eric provided us with the most iconic sporting image of the 1990s.
I thought it was the coolest thing ever. And I’ve never heard a single United fan criticise Eric for doing it.
An unlucky Rosencrantz figure in the aftermath of the kick was my other teenage footballing hero: Peter Schmeichel. He’s oddly unloved these days, after playing for City, being called a wanker in every other player’s autobiography and generally sounding a bit ambivalent about our club. But he didn’t deserve to have a cup of tea thrown over his head by a Palace fan (after 1 minute 15 seconds). He was trying to protect them from Eric!
Cantona and Schmeichel were the key figures of the following season, which was when I knew I had properly lost my mind to football in general, and to United in particular.
The 1995/96 season is famous for many reasons – “you’ll never win anything with kids”, Newcastle’s brilliant run to Christmas, Keegan’s meltdown and so on. For me, it was the first year my mum and dad got Sky, so I was able to watch Eric’s return from his eight-month ban (against Liverpool) on TV.
He created a goal within five minutes and scored an equaliser from the penalty spot late on. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d seemingly win (or draw) matches for us by himself.
From March onwards he was a force of nature. How about this for a purple patch:
4th March: Newcastle 0-1 United (Cantona)
16th March: QPR 1-1 United (Cantona 90th min)
20th March: United 1-0 Arsenal (Cantona)
24th March: United 1-0 Spurs (Cantona)
6th April: City 2-3 United (Cantona with first goal)
8th April: United 1-0 Coventry (Cantona)
But Eric wasn’t quite doing it all by himself. The finest individual performance of that season was in the first match of that run (away to Newcastle) by Schmeichel.
Newcastle absolutely battered us that night. It was probably the best they ever played under Keegan – far better than when they beat United 5-0 (a completely freakish result based on about five attacks). But they ran into the best goalkeeper in the world playing the game of his life.
The footage of that match on YouTube makes it seem like quite a balanced game, but it was anything but. Newcastle had something ridiculous like 50 shots, and United barely saw the ball. But Peter saved everything they threw at him, and when we finally broke upfield we could rely on Eric scoring with his only chance.
That was the night when the will of the United players was unbreakably welded to the desire of the fans. The treble was still more than three years away, but the drama of the victory at St James’s Park foretold what was now possible.
For me too there was no way back. From then on, the imperative of victory infused every match. There could be no days off – United were on a mission.
The highs were exhilarating; the lows bleak.
It was stressful stuff.
And in the midst of all that, Eric suddenly retired. Luckily for us, our greatest leader was ready to take over the team.
For four seasons, from the start of the treble year to the end of the 2001/02 campaign, I maintain that Roy Keane was man of the match in every single game he played.
Eric was an inspiration to me and I continue to revere him. But the relationship between Keano and the United crowd over that period was something else entirely. It was…elemental.
More mental than elemental in recent times, perhaps, but what a player he was at his peak.
He’s remembered as a sort of demented defensive midfielder who intimidated his team-mates into winning. This is fair, but incomplete.
Roy never gave the ball away. And he wasn’t a sideways passer – he was always progressive.
He was also a brilliant finisher, when the mood took him – or rather, when he was forced to conclude that he’d have to provide the goals as well as prevent them.
In short, Keane was the complete midfielder. And more to the point, he was the complete competitor. If there was a gap in his skill-set, he’d fill it.
There were occasional rumours between 1996 and 1998 that United might sign Zidane. I don’t know if this was ever a realistic prospect, but can you imagine? The two greatest players of their generation in the same midfield – UEFA would have had to instal a handicap system to give our opponents a chance.
Alas, Zidane played for Juventus and did his best to stop our charge to the 1998/99 treble. But even he couldn’t do anything about that.
The treble season was overwhelming. I was in my final year at school and could probably have done without the intensity of that season.
Better writers than me have described the wild inevitability of United’s route to what became known as the Promised Land. But here comes my version of events.
As everyone knows, the vibe started to build from the FA Cup 3rd round game against Liverpool.
We were a Michael Owen goal down with one minute left, when suddenly Cole and Yorke combined to fashion an equaliser in front of the Stretford End. That should have satisfied us for one day, but the players streamed forward and Ole Gunner Solskjaer forced a winner in injury time.
I remember that Solskjaer goal as if it was yesterday. My parents remember it too. Apparently I was really rather loud.
This became something of a theme. Whenever United needed a goal in the second half of that season, they’d generally find one, and usually in unusual circumstances. And I’d do a bit of screaming when they did.
Even when the goalmouth was untroubled, I was pretty loud throughout those spring 1999 matches. If I had somehow found myself in the Sky Fanzone, my commentary would have been as follows: “Go on Roy…c’mon Roy…watch him Roy…brilliant Roy…do him Roy”.
And whenever he won a tackle, the noise I made, and which was made by the Old Trafford crowd, was a sort of “Ooohaaaarrrrgjj” sound. Half organismic, half aggressive. I’ve never heard that sound in a football stadium since.
You’ll have read about Keane’s performance in the European Cup semi-final away leg in Turin. Just in case there are any readers unaware of the events of that evening, he got an early booking for a foul on Zidane (with the aggregate score at 3-1 to Juventus) which ruled him out of the final should United get there. In an entirely abnormal reaction, he decided to invest every last drop of energy in ensuring his team-mates reached the final. He scored shortly after his booking, and drove United on to a relentless, demented 4-3 aggregate victory.
Looking back on the treble side, I realise that I barely noticed some of the players. We had some incredible footballers, but I couldn’t see anyone on the pitch apart from Roy Keane. Even Scholes, who I grew to truly love, occupied a mere supporting role to our incredible captain.
Every tackle. Every pass. Every clearance. Every shut-down. Every bollocking. Everything Roy did, I heard myself purring “c’mon Roy”. Out loud. All the time.
And it wasn’t just me. The Old Trafford crowd operated at an almost unsustainable level of frenzied alertness whenever Roy occupied our midfield.
And yet cruelly, just like the retired Cantona, he couldn’t join us for the European Cup final we’d been building towards for such a long time. The players and fans would have to find their own way on the biggest night of the lot. It was a stressful business, I can tell you.
That famous night in Barcelona
You know what happened in Barcelona, but it’s a tale worth re-telling.
I said earlier that no one in my family could guide me in my footballing explorations. That wasn’t quite true. My gran was a massive Celtic fan. She came to Scotland in the 1940s and maintained her Irish accent and her love of football until she left us a couple of years ago.
She also loved United, because of George Best. She would probably have liked me to be a proper Celtic fan, rather than a mere sympathiser, but she never let me down in her commitment to my team.
I phoned my gran when United won the treble. The “conversation” that followed is a memory I’ll never forget.
As you are doubtless aware, United were awful in the 1999 European Cup Final. We set up with Giggs on the right wing, Beckham in centre midfield and everyone confused about the game plan. We should have lost quite heavily. Indeed, if Bayern Munich had any luck whatsoever we would have done.
Happily, Peter Schmeichel (in his final match for the club, and wearing Roy’s armband) was unprepared to concede a decisive second goal, and the muscle memory of our outfield players propelled them inevitably forwards in the game’s final stages.
Just think how much I wanted it. I had kicked every ball for years. I’d even found myself in the almost unique situation of being able to predict the manager’s team selection. Prior to the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal, made famous by Giggs’s incredible solo goal, I predicted that Solskjear and Sheringham would replace the knackered Cole and Yorke. The Sky commentators nearly combusted when the team sheets confirmed I was right. That was probably a sign that I was thinking too much about the condition of the players. (For years, United fan sites ran betting games where you were encouraged to guess the manager’s first team. Most weeks were roll-over weeks).
And then on the last day of league season, when we needed to win to be champions, Spurs had a free kick at the edge of our area in the last minute of stoppage time. A Spurs goal would have handed the title to Arsenal. You wouldn’t expect Spurs to try very hard in such a scenario, but the best cross ever was suddenly curled into our box.
The second the ball left the free kick taker’s foot, I calculated where it would land. Less than a second later the ball was headed away from that very spot by Roy Keane. He hadn’t even been within the same postal district when the kick was taken, but he was there when it mattered. The final whistle blew seconds later and we were champions.
We won the FA Cup in the easiest final we’ll ever play a week after winning the league, and then headed to Barcelona. Losing Keane and Scholes to suspension was, unavoidably, a problem, but no one realised how badly we’d play in their absence. We were awful.
I phoned my gran at half-time, and we were both unhappy. The players weren’t expressing themselves; the passing was rubbish; there was no energy at all. They really needed to remember how they’d reached the European Cup Final.
Well, they didn’t really play much better after the break, but the team’s demanding, relentless indefatigability eventually told. After I had moaned for the hundredth time to my mum and dad that “we haven’t done ourselves justice”, it happened.
Over the previous four seasons, since that night at St James’s Park against Newcastle, I’d found myself marking United goals by jumping around my parents’s living room and making more noise than was entirely necessary. Well my parents’s neighbours hadn’t heard anything yet.
We were a goal down, a minute into injury time, when David Beckham swung a corner into the Bayern box. Schmeichel had run forward to make a nuisance of himself, and he managed to get himself involved. A bit of pinball ensued, before the ball dropped to Giggs on the edge of the area with the chance to make himself a legend.
A few weeks earlier, I had been in the western isles with my family. I was forced to watch United’s European Cup semi-final first leg against Juventus in a country pub, surrounded by the sons of the lairds who owned the land. They were utter pricks, and obvious rugby types, so I wasn’t hugely impressed when they started to analyse United’s tactics.
“Ooh, rubbish defence Man Yoo!”
C’mere and say that ya fanny.
We escaped from that match with an injury time equaliser from Giggs; a brilliant, decisive volley into the roof of the net. I let my aristocratic friends know all about that one.
Alas, Ryan didn’t have a similar rocket in his boots when the ball fell to him against Bayern Munich. Instead of a fizzing half-volley he could only manage a mis-timed trundler…which led straight to Teddy Sheringham’s instep. Teddy’s instep sclaffed the ball onwards into the net, and we had yet again refused to be beaten.
I made some very loud noises in my mum and dad’s living room. And so did they.
My immediate reaction was that we had managed to guarantee extra time and would surely go on to win the game in the additional 30-minute period. This was also, apparently, the view of our assistant manager, Steve McClaren. But straight from the re-start the players drove forward, and Ole won a corner.
Events were suddenly unfolding at delirious speed. One minute earlier, we were deservedly losing. Then we had an equaliser out of nowhere and would surely finish the job in injury time. And now Ole had won a corner, and suddenly no one watching, whether United fan, Bayern fan or neutral, was in any doubt about what was about to happen.
With a panache worthy of Cantona, the United players made decisive eye contact with the object of their desire, and sealed the deal.
Beckham allowed the pulsating adrenaline of the United fans to take his corner for him, and landed it perfectly on Sheringham’s head. From there it was propelled diagonally onwards to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s big toe, from whence the ball was pranged into the roof of the net.
From the moment the ball left Beckham’s foot, there was no question where it would finally settle. Everyone knew. United were simply fated to win that final. I don’t know at which point I started screaming, but I know I didn’t stop for quite a while.
At some point in the aftermath of Ole’s winning goal I found myself behind my parents’ couch, with my United shirt in my hands. I had previously been wearing that shirt, and sitting some way in front of the couch. But there I was. And within moments it was over.
We had won the treble.
I phoned my gran. She sounded emotional when she answered. And then I realised that I had completely lost my voice.
It was there five minutes ago when we were losing! Somehow in the excitement of scoring twice in injury time I managed to lose the power of speech. I had to hand the phone to my mum. And then I had a wee cry.
We had done it. I was in bits. I had left school a few days earlier, and now the mission that all of my Old Firm-supporting classmates had smirked at was complete. What was I going to do now?
Recovering from fever
In his classic fanelogue, Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby describes how he felt the pressure was off after his beloved Arsenal won the 1989 championship in the most dramatic of circumstances. Michael Thomas’s last-minute goal won them the league and (so he tells it in his book) in a sense excused Hornby from having to engage emotionally with football thereafter. He’d spent years hoping they’d win, and then they’d won in the most absurd circumstances. Nothing could ever compare to that moment, and he’d experienced everything he’d ever wanted, so after the 1989 title he didn’t really get worked up about football again.
Oddly, the miraculous events of Anfield in 1989 have been echoed and indeed surpassed by Arsenal’s rivals in subsequent seasons. United will always have Barcelona. Liverpool will always have Istanbul. Even City managed their own moment of glory, with Agueroooooooo’s injury time title-winner in 2012.
But I know what Hornby meant. United won the title in each of the two seasons after the treble, but I don’t really remember that much about those title races. It didn’t really matter. We scored twice in injury time in the European Cup final to win the treble. What have you done?
I went to university immediately after the treble win, and realised that drinking with my best mate Bob was an enjoyable social pastime. So much so, that I didn’t realise the Tokyo World Club Championship match, between United and the South American champions Palmeiras, was subject to a time difference. As such, I missed the entire match, so I didn’t see Roy scoring the goal that secured us the status of world champions. But who better to do it?
But it was just a temporary adjustment. I still needed them to win. And Keane was taking care of that for me. Honestly, he was amazing in every single game. You’ve never seen anything like it.
But just as Eric couldn’t be part of our treble win, Roy wouldn’t be part of our next great side.
It was a truly outstanding Arsenal side that pushed United all the way in the league and FA Cup semi-final in our treble season. But Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team were even better; the best team United encountered in England since I’ve been paying attention.
I hated Arsenal in the treble season. Really loathed them. And I hated them even more when Keown did that strange monkey dance in Van Nistelrooy’s face a few years later.
Our 4-2 win at Highbury in 2005 was one of the most deranged matches I’ve ever seen, and I really lost my composure towards the end. That was the game that began with Keane squaring up to Vieira in the tunnel. I watched the match in the pub, surrounded by Scottish people who basically didn’t care, and must have looked like a maniac. You’re not really supposed to scream at the TV in my parents’s local, nor is it customary to make thumbless hitchhiker gestures at the Arsenal players. Sorry everyone.
But if I hated Arsenal, I really despised Jose’s Chelsea.
I thought they were everything that is bad about modern football. Crude, memory-less, macho, funded by a Russian asset-stripper: there was very little for me to like. And then they played horrible football, nicking goals on the break and then shutting down the game. They had to be stopped.
Now, the hypocrisy is not lost on me, nor the sheer factual inaccuracy of much of that description. But that’s what I thought, and that’s what most United players and fans thought too.
So the 2008 European Cup final was a battle between good and evil.
United achieved nothing in Europe between the treble season and the 2007-08 campaign. The nine-year drought – and the rise of our rivalry with Chelsea in that period – put paid to any Hornby-esque relaxation.The overwhelming need to win came back. If anything, it was even worse after we conquered Europe once – the thrill of a magical adventure turned into something more like a sense of obligation.
The fact that we’d have to play Chelsea in the final merely added to the heavy sense of dread.
I was so much more nervous before the 2008 final than I had been for any match in the treble season. The fear of losing – to them – outweighed the anticipation of us winning.
(In fact, I’ve only been more nervous before a United game on one occasion – the 2005 FA Cup final against Arsenal. I had to turn off the TV and go for a walk an hour before kick-off because I thought I might be sick. And then when we lost on penalties I didn’t speak to anyone for the rest of the night. And we had visitors. My visitors.)
Mourinho had departed by the time his team reached the final, but it’s widely appreciated that his senior players – Cech, Terry, Carvalho, Drogba and Lampard – simply seized control from Jose’s nominal successor and ran the team from the dressing room. There was certainly no sense that their standards had dropped. I was terrified that they’d beat us.
But United had a great side that year. Keane had gone and the team had been restructured with a different tactical emphasis. We had a back four, and then a front six who buzzed around with freedom to swap positions. Among the front six were some excellent players, but one man stood out from them all.
Eric was a beacon of self-assurance when I was an insecure teenage mess. Roy projected certainty when I was a young adult with no real life plan. And then when I reached a stage in my mid-twenties of feeling at ease with my fairly normal life, Cristiano Ronaldo emerged gloriously as the very incarnation of flamboyant brilliance. That’s the United way – they always give you something to conjure with.
The United and Chelsea fans had to travel all the way to Moscow for the final. Wherever they went, the United fans drowned out all other sounds with their new favourite song: Viva Ronaldo.
And United started brilliantly, completely dominating for half an hour, and opening the scoring. Naturally it was Ronaldo who scored.
And then the dread set in. Lampard scored with a deflected shot, as usual, and Chelsea’s power and determination began to overwhelm United’s movement and imagination. The baddies looked like they might win.
That Moscow final was the most exhausting game I’ve ever watched. Hargreaves has spoken about how exhausting it was to play in – he stayed in the shower for an hour afterwards, trying to heat the tiredness out of his limbs. I can’t even begin to imagine how knackered the players must have felt after it was over.
As everyone knows, the match was eventually settled by a penalty shoot-out. John Terry slipped on the rain-soaked pitch and shanked his shot wide when he had the chance to win the cup. Let’s see what that meant to the United fans.
Just as in injury time in Barcelona nine years earlier, a sense of inevitability gripped events after Terry’s miss. United finished the job, and I was so tired and relieved I could scarcely muster much of a celebration.
The emotions were so different from the wild euphoria of 1999. In the aftermath of the Moscow final I realised something odd had happened. I had come to respect Chelsea as worthy rivals.
It was as if the rain that drenched the pitch towards the end of the final had washed away Chelsea’s gaudy veneer and revealed those players as the warriors they were. In their determination, their will, their indomitability, I recognised in the Chelsea players some of the qualities that marked United out as special. They were the real deal. I’ve admired them ever since.
I don’t think I was alone in experiencing this awakening. Something happened in Moscow that forged a bond between the two teams. A shared experience of something like trauma, maybe.
And around that time I realised I didn’t hate Arsenal any more either. Not just the contemporary team, who were no threat – the good teams from 1999 and 2003 as well. They were worthy foes after all.
Okay, so maybe it’s a worry that it took me until my late-twenties to grow up and appreciate other teams. But either way, it was a strange and oddly pleasant feeling.
I didn’t even hate City! That said, they did test my patience a couple of times.
During the 2011-12 season, I experimented with internet dating. With a characteristic lack of planning I foolishly arranged to meet someone for the first time in the afternoon of the Manchester derby. I checked my phone just before she arrived to discover City had taken an early lead. I wasn’t too worried though – we always won the derby.
The date didn’t really go anywhere, so after an hour or so of stilted conversation we went our separate ways. I checked my phone again. The final score was confirmed as United 1-6 City.
Six! What the hell happened there?
I started seeing someone towards the end of the season, by which time it seemed clear that City would win the league. On the last day of the season they only required a win against a truly awful QPR side to secure the title. I was so sure it was a done deal I arranged to meet my new romantic interest for a potentially-crucial third date, about an hour after the last day’s matches were due to end.
In the event, the City players and fans shared a massive collective meltdown and found themselves losing 2-1 at the beginning of injury time. From nowhere, United were going to win the league.
And then Dzeko scored with a header, and then Aguero scored with a shot, and City were champions. I allowed myself to believe we’d win for one second in the whole season – and a second later the title was snatched away again. A truly horrible moment.
And then I had to go and eat dinner with my new girlfriend. I don’t know how I got through it.
To this day I’ve never watched a replay of the Aguero goal. I don’t need to. It’s etched in my memory like a war atrocity.
I’ve never really approved of teams weakening their rivals by signing their best players. It seems a bit unsporting to me. Rangers and Celtic always used to do it to the other teams in the Scottish league and it served simply to ensure the SPL’s famous lack of competitive excitement.
As such, I was a bit non-plussed when United announced the signing of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal at the start of the 2012/13 season. A brilliant player, clearly, but wasn’t it a bit uncouth to ruin Arsenal’s title chances like that?
I soon got over it. Very few players have clicked into gear in their first season as smoothly as RVP. Only Van Nistelrooy and Yorke really spring to mind by way of comparison.
United cruised to the title that season after Van Persie scored decisive goals against all of our rivals to give us a massive cushion. As such, there was a curious lack of tension or excitement about that campaign – there was simply no way we would fail to win the title.
The luminous highlight of the season was Van Persie’s volley against Aston Villa on the night we secured the title.
Just look at this. It was almost too good a goal – and a reminder that we’d essentially bought in the skills we needed to win the league. If you’re prepared to pay for the best in the business, you can expect that sort of high class output.
It was a long way from the romance of the Class of ’92 growing up together and becoming legends, but it was undeniably enjoyable.
Little did we know that Robin’s hired virtuosity would represent the end of an era – and point the way to a new direction for the club.
There is a name that I’ve scarcely mentioned during this piece, but which overshadows everyone and everything else I’ve described.
Shortly after Van Persie’s title-winning hat trick, the news broke that Alex Ferguson was about to retire from the manager’s job. And sure enough, following an incongruous 5-5 draw with West Brom on the last day of the season, he was off. We were on our own.
Ferguson was in charge when I first got into football, aged eight, back in 1990. He was in charge when I had a big dental operation in Primary 6. He was in charge when I went to secondary school. He was in charge when I sat my Standard Grades and Highers. He was in charge when I went to university. He was in charge when I got my first proper job. He was in charge when I left home. And he was in charge when I met my fiancée.
Throughout my conscious life, Alex Ferguson was a constant presence. He was someone I could rely on to always be around.
I learned more from Ferguson that I have from anyone outside my immediate family, and probably more than I did at school or at university. By never criticising his players in public, but clearly never accepting poor conduct in private, he taught me about responsibility and loyalty. By evolving his management style from the authoritarian approach of the early 1990s to the consensual approach required to lead multi-millionaires, he taught me about leadership and pragmatism. And by building a thrilling, treble-winning team out of a group of teenagers from Greater Manchester, he taught me about glory.
Latterly, his mantra was “power and control”. Ferguson’s instinctive grasp of the need to combine soft with hard power, and of the possibility of maintaining greater control by strategic delegation and pragmatic indulgence, taught me about the nature of personal and institutional authority.
But fundamentally, it was by always being around, and always sticking to his principles even when things were looking tricky for United, that Ferguson taught me about the importance of constancy and dedication.
Since he left, sections of the United fans have been quite angry with him – indeed, sections of the support were opposed to him even when he was around. While I understand their reasons, I can’t help but feel that the anger is essentially part of a process of grief.
For people my age there was no United before Ferguson. The idea of United without him was just weird. It was as if your twin brother had announced he was going to emigrate to Australia. You could understand the concept, in principle, but your frame of reference would prove entirely insufficient to properly grasp the implications.
Ferguson had always defended us, always looked out for us, always led from the front against anyone who dared to take us on. And now he wasn’t going to be there ever again.
Learning to let go
I didn’t mind that David Moyes was out of his depth at United. I couldn’t get angry about it. I saw him as a palate-cleanser when he was announced as Ferguson’s successor, and assumed the proper new era would begin after he had absorbed the pain of Not Being Fergie.
We played some horrible stuff last season, though. Really horrible. But where I would have been angry and confused if a Ferguson team had been eviscerated at Anfield, as we were on a particularly memorable afternoon, I found myself watching with a strange feeling of detachment. It didn’t really hurt, even when Steven Gerrard was scoring against us.
I thought I was just in denial at the time, but looking back I think it was the start of something different. I was relaxing.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but throughout the twenty years of Ferguson’s leadership that I experienced as a fan, every game had to be won. We were always competing for something, so there were no days off. As a fan, just as for the players, you were always on.
And that’s quite exhausting. And it makes you irrational.
I hated the 98/99 Arsenal team, and the 2004 Chelsea team, and various Newcastle, Liverpool and Leeds United sides we encountered over the years. Properly hated them. If I watched them on TV, even if they weren’t playing United, I was willing them to lose. I couldn’t appreciate a thing they did – even the Arsenal invincible side (y’know, the ones who lost seven games en route to winning one trophy).
I don’t know if actually enjoyed football. It wasn’t really about enjoyment. It was about United’s mission.
As a result, I didn’t appreciate Bergkamp (nasty cheat), Vieira (whining cheat), Drogba (diving cheat) or Henry (flat track bully and wanker). I didn’t appreciate Wenger until he stopped being a threat (whining apologist for cheats) or Mourinho until he left the country (antifútbol conman). And the 2008 European Cup win was, as I’ve described, a relief more than a pleasure.
The exception to this was the Barcelona team who beat us in the 2009 and 2011 European Cup finals. They were, frankly, miles better than us, so I could accept that. I made paella for my family and friends before both finals and accepted defeat with good grace.
There was no disgrace in losing to a demonstrably superior team: and the greatness of Ferguson lay in the fact that I don’t really remember ascribing such superiority to any other opponent after about 1994.
But nowadays it’s commonplace. And I have to admit I don’t mind. I think I actually quite like United being rubbish.
This season, under Van Gaal, United have accelerated the policy begun with the signing of Van Persie, and revamped the side with a bunch of hired hands. I hope very much that they all stay for the rest of their careers, and become club legends, but the chances are that some or most of the new players will see United the way the rest of us see our workplaces. Whereas we needed to call the fire brigade to get the likes of Butt, Phil Neville, O’Shea and Brown out of the club, I somehow doubt that Angel Di Maria will retire at Old Trafford aged 36.
We’ve started playing fluid, exciting football again, albeit in front of a defence with a hilarious glass jaw. The 5-5 draw on Ferguson’s last day has surprisingly proven something of a portent of the Van Gaal era.
And it’s fun. It’s fun because the football is attractive, but more than that it’s fun because it doesn’t really matter. We aren’t going to win the league, and we aren’t going to get relegated. We might finish in the top four, but even if we do we clearly won’t actually win the European Cup next year.
There’s nothing riding on any of this. Consequently, United can be enjoyed without panic rising in the heart when the other side get a corner in the last minute.
I had no idea this was how other people engaged with football. Those people who weren’t Arsenal fans but still thought Bergkamp was a genius of footballing geometry, or who appreciated Drogba’s warrior-like determination without actually supporting Chelsea. Or who respected Wenger for making fitness and health a normal expectation to be placed upon a footballer. Or who recognised Mourinho as the finest defensive organiser of his generation, and a peerless motivator of men.
These people actually watched football without experiencing a visceral need for their team to win, and for their rivals to lose. They must have really enjoyed themselves.
Of course, I wouldn’t change anything about the Ferguson era, and it really was exciting and character building to feel part of United’s adventures over that period. But I wonder if I would actually be prepared to go through it again. I don’t think I would.
I think I quite like United being normal.
For twenty years, Ferguson ensured that United never regressed to the mean. We were always competitive. But now we’re a team like any other in the middle of the table, with the advantage of having a group of thrilling attacking players working prettily together. And I look forward to watching them, without having a clue what’s happening around us in the league.
Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams were a huge part of my life. I derived so much pleasure and excitement from watching them, and took enormous pride in their achievements. As a Glaswegian with no wish to become involved in Old Firm politics, United were my thing, the thread that ran through my life from primary school innocence and teenage confusion all the way through to thirty-something love and work.
And now that the Boss has gone, I don’t need United to win anymore. I’ve had my fill of competition.
For the first time in my life, United are now just for fun. And I think I can cope with that.
It’s a nice problem to have, I admit it. But on balance, I think I might prefer United to carry on being flamboyantly, enjoyably, unthreateningly rubbish for the foreseeable future.