United these Reds can make a stand, but divided and Moyes falls
Has English football become so manufactured that Manchester United cannot be permitted to have a poor season anymore?
The dismal performance by the Reds against Olympiakos was regarded by many as conclusive proof that David Moyes – seven months into what has become a chastening debut season in charge of the most famous club in the world – is just not up to it.
The unspoken mood afterwards was that United are not supposed to lose to inferior continental teams, least of all to a side from hapless Greece. This was the clearest evidence yet that mighty United were in free fall. And unlike Liverpool, they hadn’t even been knocked off their f***ing perch. They simply fell.
The reaction to what has been an underwhelming season by United is hysterical. It says nothing about Moyes and everything about the way that player power and obsession with the financial incentive of a top-four finish has warped a football tradition.
United have always been a big club. But a scan of corresponding seasons in decades past reveals a picture of how the club has bounced around the league tables. In the 1933/’34 season they finished 20th in Division Two. A decade later, football was suspended as most of the stars were busy fighting in the second World War.
At the end of the 1953/’54 season, United finished fourth in Division One. Wolverhampton Wanderers were league champions that year. They finished 1963/’64 in second place, bridesmaids to Liverpool. Ten years later, they had a disastrous year and finished 21st.
Denis Law’s infamous back-heeled goal while wearing the sky blue of City in a derby game consigned his former club United to Division Two. By 1983/’84, they finished fourth in the First Division and were thoroughly tired of Liverpool’s all-conquering reign.
All had changed by 1993/’94 as they retained the Premier League title, the second of 13 league titles they would win under Ferguson. The 2003/’04 season was not one of those: they finished third.
So United’s fluctuating fortunes are part of what sport is meant to be about: good times and bad, in the doldrums and top of the world. United fans have been blessed. Those who grew up in the Premier League era had a distorted understanding of what it was all about: silverware to the soundtrack of Andy Gray has been the predominant experience.
For the vast majority, following English football clubs means learning how to cope with long-term disappointment and to take the rare triumphs – an FA Cup run, a home win against one of the gilded clubs – for the aberrations that they are.
During Ferguson’s 26-year reign at Old Trafford, it was easy to believe the club was still very much in touch with its tradition. In the early days of Ferguson’s dynasty, Matt Busby could be seen at games and Bobby Charlton’s high-profile role within the club maintains a flesh-and-blood connection between today’s club and the grand, romantic past.
In the meantime, United was floated on the stock exchange. Following the pattern at England’s great clubs, ownership has been transferred from local captains of industry to international businessmen.
The worry for United fans is that the Glazers’ reserves will not run deep enough to retain the big names. That United played so apathetically against Olympiakos, in the very week that Wayne Rooney signed his five-year €360,000 per week contract, seemed to illuminate how much had changed and how quickly.
Ever since United won the treble in 1999, Ferguson was able to run the side with absolute authority. He demonstrated time and again his willingness to show great players the door once they threatened to become an obstacle. Reputations meant nothing to him: United was his school and he was headmaster.
Ferguson’s ferocious energy and burning ambition has been the narrative which shaped English football for well over two decades. His departure was always going to cause tremors. And David Moyes is on the fault line.
The whispers concerning Moyes’s qualities – that he is tactically limited and can’t handle the stars in the dressingroom – may be borne out. But if he was so tactically inept, how did he manage to impress so many at Everton? And how was it that his record convinced Ferguson that he was the right man to take over?
Several forces have combined to leave United reeling. It could be that Ferguson’s departure signalled a chance to relax in the dressingroom while Arsenal, and Liverpool in particular, are experiencing a long-awaited resurgence.
Sure, United are league champions. But teams age and lose their edge overnight. The predicament begs more questions about loyalty than it does of Moyes. Did Robin van Persie need to moan about his team-mates after Wednesday night?
There is no doubt as to how Ferguson would have responded to Van Persie’s uncertainty about his Old Trafford future. He would have got rid of him. There is a poetic justice about Roy Keane’s turn as a television analyst with ITV these days, the ultimate ghost in the machine. His presence must drive Ferguson daffy, not least because the erstwhile midfield maestro is not gloating about United’s downfall, but is concerned and dismayed by it.
That was Keane’s point about Michael Carrick’s post-match interview. Where is the anger? Why aren’t these United players fuming with themselves? Why isn’t Van Persie apologising for his sub-standard play rather than bitching about team-mates? Who are the leaders?
The underlying fear is that without Ferguson, United could slip – that they will miss out on European football for a few years, that stars won’t want to come and the club will become a regional outfit with an illustrious past.
This could happen. It may well be that United and Ferguson got a jump on other clubs in the first 20 years of the Premier League but that the rest have caught up.
It could well turn out that the club requires a manager who can duplicate Keane’s fearless reputation. After all, it was Keane who embodied Ferguson’s competitiveness and ambition on the field. Whether Moyes has the Midas touch remains to be seen. But having been given perhaps the most demanding follow-up act in professional sport, the under-fire United boss must be given a chance to succeed or fail; as was Alex Ferguson.