Transition is rarely easy. Whether it’s learning to perform a new job role, adapting to a new boss, moving to a new area, learning a new language, coping with failure, or losing influential people from your life, most of us go through some if not all of these sorts of challenging times. The players and management of Manchester United have to varying levels been through the heap in the last year or so. The fans now have a very different football club. Where has it left us?
There will be no uniformity of opinion on the goings on at Old Trafford. The swift change from England’s footballing super-power into a weekly advert for catastrophe has been as painful as it was inevitable. I am not old enough to remember a Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson, just like any other child of the 80’s. I can speak for those of my generation and say that to us, that man was our football club. He was the constant factor. He was the boss. Other clubs were up and down the division, changing coaches like they were running a bus station, but United were different. There was one man who had everyone’s respect, he had total control, total authority, an unparalleled autonomy over this huge club. Take him away and it’s impossible that things could ever stay the same, without breaking stride.
I’ve heard more than one fan say that it can just never be the same now that he has transitioned into a looming presence in the stands at each of the games. I can understand those feelings, albeit I don’t agree with them. Whilst it may have felt that way, Alex Ferguson was and is not bigger than the club, and despite his unquestionably large ego, he would be at pains to make that point himself. However, those feelings of loss and instability are compounded by the retirement of the last surviving member of the ‘Class of ‘92’, with Ryan Giggs now permanently consigned to his place on the bench.
Younger fans have been spoilt rotten with a consistent blend of exciting attacking players, locally produced talent, a steady flow of icons and superstars, and above all else unrelenting success. In our somewhat understandable naivety, we believed a difficult and unsuccessful season amounted to finishing second in the league and getting beaten in cup finals.
Last season was essentially a lesson in being a real football fan. Some older supporters may find what I’m about to say difficult to grasp, but when I was growing up, part of me wanted the club to finish lower in the division just so I could prove I wasn’t just a glory hunting fan. That was the scale of the success. Now that has actually happened the entire football community is revelling in the current state of this ‘fallen’ great club. The mainstream media has been chomping at the bit to write their obituaries and label United as a club in terminal decline. After a seemingly easy opening five games, the current side has managed just one win, and the most recent humiliation in losing 5-3 to newly promoted Leicester was the latest in a string of comedy results.
In light of all this, you could allow yourself to get quite down about what the future holds. Please indulge me for a few philosophical moments: many of those reading this may already realise this, but this is just the normal life of a football fan. Other clubs may be laughing right now, but every other side currently competing towards the top of the table have waded their way through significant miseries in order to reach this point. Liverpool have gone 24 years and counting without winning the league title, Chelsea were facing bankruptcy until their Russian Billionaire bailed them out, Manchester City dropped into the third tier of English football before they spent their Sheikh-inherited fortune, Spurs have annually replaced their manager and remained stagnant, and Arsenal now call finishing 4th winning a trophy. The fact is it was a never-to-be-repeated freak of nature that Sir Alex kept us at the top for virtually his entire tenure.
The reality is that we are in a temporary decline. It is incredibly difficult to predict how long this will last or what the long-term future holds, but there is plenty to be positive about:
- The turnover of Manchester United continues to boggle the mind. Despite onfield shortcomings, with income for the year ending 31st March 2014 totalling £422 million. The commercialisation for some is too much, but the financial power of the club remains vast.
- The club has spent in line with these earnings, with the arrivals of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao seen as a clear statement of intent on behalf of the club’s money men to catapult the club back to the top.
- Louis van Gaal has been appointed, and has a clear footballing philosophy and a track record of success.
Personally, my biggest relief has been the removal of the unfortunate David Moyes. I am proud that most of the support refused to lobby against him and did their best to get behind him, but right from the start it was patently obvious that this job was not for him. He had been a solid and pragmatic manager for a stable Premier League club, but he simply didn’t have a kindred philosophy or a plan for progression, and that’s ignoring the fact that the players appeared to have no respect for him.
The start under Louis van Gaal has thus far been less than impressive, but in the context of what we have talked about, I have to say I’m not worried. Performances have varied from woeful to inadequate, but I have confidence that there is at least a renewed attacking vigour and defined style which in time can reap rewards. Injuries to each of the senior defenders have been unfortunate, and worryingly will be worse than before for the visit of West Ham, but at least watching United is fun again. They have recently been set up to excite and score goals, and they actually possess some of the world’s very best attacking players. Until things click and there is some consistency in team selection and performance, it is likely to be a roller coaster season, but don’t we watch to be entertained? Are we not incredibly privileged to have unbelievable players like Di Maria, Falcao and Herrera to bolster our ailing ranks? Relative success this season is a top four finish, which is still eminently achievable. Beneath City and Chelsea, no team looks convincing and each side will drop points.
Manchester United will be successful again. For balance sake though, I’ll finish by sharing what I deem to be the failures of the current regime and the problems needing to be addressed. Anyone with functioning eyes is aware that the spine of the team has needed strengthened since the final years of the Ferguson era, and the failure to buy a dominant and experienced centre back is unforgivable amidst the crazy amount of money that has been spent.
The club has also, in my opinion, been incredibly profligate in their spending. The amount of waste has been massive, and very uncharacteristic of a previously very well run club, illustrating a combination of inexperience, panic and a lack of planning in their transfer dealings. They have brought in some unbelievable talent, but they wasted a giant fee on Fellaini, bought Mata just because he was available, and paid well over the odds for every player brought in this summer after Woodward’s announcement to the world that Manchester United appear to have too much money. This scattergun approach must change. It is not sustainable and not a template for success.
The other obvious problem is the character of the collective playing staff. The winning mentality must be re-discovered, the self-belief must return, and the swagger must be par for the course. There have always been huge characters who could drag the team through difficult times: Schmeichel, Robson, Ince, Cantona, Hughes, Keane, Vidic, Scholes, Giggs. Those players are no longer around, and if Wayne Rooney is to be relied on as a motivator and leader then there will continue to be problems in that department.
Transition takes time. Louis van Gaal has vowed that he will win the Premier League with Manchester United, and he is a man with a track record of achievement. The change has been difficult, and it is likely that there will be several more dips on the journey before we reach the destination, but we will get there in the end. What is crucial in hastening the process is the continued support and patience of the fans, and the stability and consistency that comes with persevering with the right men at the helm, steering our ship.