For most of my football watching life, Manchester United were villains. They were the club I disliked more than any other, in any sport, if we’re being frank, the one side against whom a victory tasted extra sweet (increasingly unlikely for this West Ham United supporter).
While uncles and older relatives developed affinity for United after the tragic Munich air crash of 1958, I only ever knew United as champions and scoundrels. I knew only “Fergie Time” and Ruud Van Nistelrooy lingering offside before nodding across a key goal and Cristiano Ronaldo’s preening excellence and Paul Scholes scoring goals for his club (but never his country) and Gary Neville Gary Nevilling right onto my blacklist.
From the day I began watching football, Manchester United were the perfect object of my scorn and a source of endless frustration.
Before this season, I did not know Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson. While he’s “just” a manager and the players on the pitch win the games, Sir Alex is a larger-than-life figure. Under his watch, United reached the peak of the football world, becoming one of the biggest sporting brands on the planet.
The biggest brand with the most fans and the most success. It was more than just the titles and legions of adoring fans that made United so difficult to ignore. They were different. United were the ultimate bad guy. Other clubs stepped up and won the league or showed flashes of brilliance but, for this neutral, nobody got near the level of loathing reserved for Manchester United.
But now that’s all gone. Not because Sir Alex Ferguson stepped away or because they’re doomed to finish outside the top four for the first time in a generation. It’s more than that.
By firing David Moyes eleven months into a season which will see them lose Champions League football for the first time since 1994, Manchester United have become just another club. One with a sparkling history but without the ability to inspire fear, contempt, and well-earned awe.
It didn’t have to be this way. David Moyes was successful at Everton, running out highly competitive teams with a modest budget. With Fergie’s blessing, Moyes’ introduction did not spell the end of the United Age.
But the roster he inherited had some worrisome spots and Moyes didn’t do enough to address them. For those inclined to look hard enough, the writing was on the wall for dreaded regression at Old Trafford.
Faced with impossibly large shoes to fill, Moyes bottled it and was made a scapegoat. Rather that trust in the man they signed to a six-year deal, United ran the other way, believing David Moyes wasn’t up for the job.
In doing so they panicked, something Sir Alex Ferguson over his twenty-six years of success never did. The air of invincibility is gone, the belief that they know something nobody else does dissipated. Now they’re just another club. Desperate to catch lightning in a bottle, praying that their next manager will capture the the “omnipotent, omniscient uber-manager” of a bygone era.
Hating on United still doesn’t take much effort but they won’t generate the same levels of animosity among their rivals ever again. Can their youth system produce players capable of producing the kind of results the chairmen demand? Pulling another Big Name Manager off the Madrid/Bayern/Chelsea/Brazil heap seems unbecoming of the venerable Manchester side, especially for a team eager to lean on its glittering history and devotion to “commitment” and other traits commonly used to describe the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson.
History and mythology built Manchester United into more than just a big football club. Their success and the manner in which they achieved it pushed them above the other financial titans in the sport. Somebody forgot to tell the decision makers in Manchester however. Whatever their reasons, their inability to deal with Sir Alex Ferguson’s very long shadow while second guessing their own managerial hire let the air out of the balloon.
Limping towards the finish line this season, they don’t look anything like the giants of England. They look like any other big club, hoping to throw money at their problems and cravenly buy their way into the good graces of their supporters.
Feature photo courtesy of Carl Recine / Action Images