Humble pie on the menu for Manchester United
Humility does not come naturally to United or their fans
Manchester United manager David Moyes smiles as he leaves the pitch after his team’s 2-0 win against Swansea City on Saturday. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Manchester United fans are insufferable. They are patronising, overly self-assured and dismissive. I say this as a lifelong Man United fan. For the Kanye Wests of soccer fandom, humility is not a natural instinct.
Over the years I have been guilty of the arrogance typical of United fans. On one occasion, I was so confident of their prowess, that I bet a Liverpool-supporting friend United would beat her team in the 2003 Worthington Cup Final. The forfeit was the loser getting the winner’s name tattoed on them. United lost 2-0. Whatever. We still won the league that year, and if I remember correctly, Ruud van Nistelrooy emerged the top scorer in the Champion’s League. Michael Owen scored the second goal in that Worthington Cup Final match, and I was still sore about it when he was cleverly recruited to United six years later on a pay-as-you-play deal.
United fans stand over outrageous things. We defended Alex Ferguson’s often reprehensible behaviour when it came to berating referees. We defended his scraps with Keane, Beckham and Ronaldo. We defended Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant. Love of United is not something typified by a quiet appreciation, but rather a vehement, almost divine, right to perceived superiority. We deserve our victories and our supremacy because We Are United.
Growing up, I had posters of Denis Irwin and Lee Sharpe on my wall – and Cole on my jersey because four letters were the cheapest to get ironed on to last season’s shirt in the local shopping centre – but my real hero was Eric Cantona. As a child, I read that Cantona’s father had once told him that a perfectly weighted cross of the ball could potentially hold the same amount of beauty as a well-constructed line of prose. Cantona expanded on this years later, “An artist in my eyes,” he said, “is someone who lights up a dark room. I have never and will never find difference between the pass from Pelé to Carlos Alberto in the final of the World Cup in 1970 and the poetry of the young Rimbaud, who stretches ‘cords from steeple to steeple and garlands from window to window’. There is in each of these human manifestations an expression of beauty, which touches us and gives us a feeling of eternity.”
That sentiment confirmed what I believed football to be: as valid as art.
The extraordinary skills shown in football – and in every sport – are, of course, expressions of beauty. The ugliness in sport is the gross amounts of money that surrounds it. This ugliness is summed up rather hilariously by my favourite quote from a more contemporary footballer, Mario Balotelli, when confronted by police after being involved in a car crash. Balotelli was apparently carrying £5,000 on him at the time, a measly sum for a modern professional footballer. When asked why he had so much cash in his possession, he replied: “Because I am rich.” It’s an unintentially cracking and frank one-liner, summing up the disconnect between millionaire footballers and the rest of us.
Unusually for such an un-humble club as Manchester United, flourishes of extrovert beauty did not exactly go down well with the largest figure in the club’s history, Sir Alex. The coiffured styles of two of the club’s most high-profile players during his era – David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo – were ruffled by Ferguson’s hairdryer treatment. Beauty in its most floral form was mulched into a more brutalist beauty. Under Ferguson, United became a ruthless and finely-tuned machine, more about the engine than the bodywork.
Reading Eamon Dunphy’s memoir The Rocky Road over Christmas, Dunphy’s depiction of professional footballers during his era as almost serf- like, thrown around the pitch and from club to club like powerless and inconsequential Subbuteo figures, is as fascinating as it is now alien. Dunphy details this time with some literary skill, unlike the football autobiographies of now, where gormless millionaires stare vacantly from book covers, and whose writing makes Ann and Barry school books look like Tolstoy. What it drives home though, is the remarkable financial ascent of professional English football. It is a story of then and now.
At the time of writing, Man United are languishing in seventh place on the league table, Spurs and David Moyes’s former flock, Everton, cackling above them, like seagulls. A win over Swansea on Saturday has spared further blushes. However, after years of making rivals eat half-time humble pie, humility is now something both club and crowd will have to embrace. I’ve no problem with that. Let’s face it, we’ll probably be the best at it.