Monday 9 December 2019

Being boring is just about tolerable but being a boring loser is greatest sin of all

That Was The Week cartoon
That Was The Week cartoon

Dion Fanning

A friend recently glimpsed Louis van Gaal on television and remarked that he looked like a showband manager. It was a moment of searing insight which is hard to dispute. Louis van Gaal has always been a large, looming and erratic presence, but he no longer stands before us as a cosmopolitan in whom we have unwavering faith, but as one whose sensibility must be questioned.

Even if much of what he has done at Manchester United is consistent with his rigid approach wherever he has been, Van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford viewed as a sophisticate, a man of innovative and radical ideas whose methods would require a rewiring of the brains of footballers who had spent nearly a season trudging unhappily under the artless and unsophisticated David Moyes.

Maybe in Holland, they have always seen Van Gaal as a showband manager, and one is reminded that Mikhail Gorbachev was seen as a moderniser across Europe, but in Russia they had to first get past his broad regional accent which marked him down, not as an urbanite, but as a rural backwoodsman, as if Jackie Healy-Rae was telling them it was time to embrace change and open up to the world.

Van Gaal is now cursed by different perceptions. Everything is boring as far as Manchester United's supporters are concerned. Maybe Van Gaal sees them the way a parent views a recalcitrant teenager who is always self-consciously bored, even if the teenager's self-conscious sarcasm is tiresome too, as tiresome as the United fans' ironic cheers when their side had a shot against Sheffield United.

They have been encouraged in this view of their ennui as something tragic which must be acted upon by those like BT's Jake Humphrey who referred to United supporters last weekend as "long-suffering".

Van Gaal has admitted to some boredom himself at the performances of his team, a glimpse at honesty which was received in a manner which would make any other manager think twice about being honest.

Even the brief return to entertainment as glimpsed against Newcastle United last Tuesday night is only a reminder of how things should be.

Things should be different at Manchester United, as people like Paul Scholes are always reminding us. It may be ok to be boring elsewhere, but Manchester United was built on entertainment and flair, something everyone connected with the club is agreed on.

Last week, Marca reported that adidas were working on a deal to bring Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi to Old Trafford. The week before adidas's chief executive Herbert Hainer had commented that they were happy with their relationship with Manchester United, "even if the current playing style is not what we want to see".

If anyone wanted to be concerned about the traditions of Manchester United, this was as good an opportunity as any to take a stand. For a sponsor to be speaking about the style of play was not in keeping with the values of the club as cherished by Paul Scholes and many, many others.

For the commercial behemoth, it may be understandable. The club that has a savoury snack partner and has shilled itself to many around the world may feel it has to get used to a sponsor commenting on the way a manager decides to play.

They may also feel that there is no harm in a sponsor reportedly using its influence to bring the best player in the world and the most coveted manager, but maybe they would be more exercised if a key sponsor vetoed another signing.

But adidas are on the side of popular opinion so there was little reaction to their extraordinary intervention, and if they are responsible for bringing Pep and Messi to United, many fans will simply be grateful, even if it betrays everything that made Manchester United great. They have suffered long enough.

At Manchester United, they seem to be experiencing something close to freedom, a first taste of democracy where everybody has their say.

In 1995, Alex Ferguson was furious when the Manchester Evening News ran a poll asking if he should remain as manager. He crushed anything which looked like it could lead to a loss of power and control, but Manchester United today is a club where the manager seems powerless, and a great figure like Van Gaal is reduced to becoming a parody, as he loses a bit more control every day.

His is just one voice among many. With good reason, supporters insist that everything they are seeing is boring and, more significantly, they don't feel like they have to take it any more. As Arsene Wenger pointed out last week, social media allows people to believe they are part of a movement, usually a very angry movement.

Van Gaal has nothing left but his eccentricities, glimpsed after the Newcastle game on Tuesday night when he took on the criticism of Wayne Rooney, finishing by addressing one member of the press as "fat man".

Of course it was cruel and unnecessary and the fat man in question, Neil Custis of The Sun, responded by pointing out that he had recently undergone a knee operation. "Yes, I am fat," he admitted, before pointing out he was taking action to rectify his weight gain and he was confident things would change thanks to a 'dry January and calm February', as well as the use of a personal trainer.

Later, The Sun moved the story on, challenging Van Gaal to win more points between now and the end of the season than Custis loses pounds. Unlike Custis, Van Gaal is unlikely to have the benefit of a calm February. He faces into the headwind between now and the end of the season. He has entered this world now where he is easy to ridicule. He is not quite at the level of Mick McCarthy racing an Irish journalist to see who was quicker, but, who knows, he is capable of anything.

If he can alter the public's view from this point, it might be his finest achievement, but if he loses at Anfield today, he might be seen as not just boring but a boring loser, which could be a greater sin.

He can point to the mediocrity of the Manchester United squad, but he was a guru who was supposed to be able to overcome those problems once the synapses of the players adjusted to what he wanted. Instead he is helpless and alone.

Van Gaal is no longer the great Oz. He is the frantic and desperate man behind the curtain.

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