Manchester United are in demise and it's fine to revel in it
Breaking news: President Obama is in talks to persuade Louis van Gaal to take charge of North Korea. He’s convinced it’ll stop them attacking.
Hey, did you hear that Manchester United are thinking of rebranding as a rugby club? Apparently they like the idea of a sport where you can score loads of points by passing the ball backwards.
Why is Wormwood Scrubs prison like Old Trafford at 4.45pm on a Saturday? Because it’s full of Londoners trying to get out.
Plenty more where those came from, although judging by your glazed expressions and the giant ball of tumbleweed blowing across the page, best leave it there. Besides, if you are even remotely conversant with social media, you will already have been exposed to a lifetime’s worth of United jokes, memes, GIFs and doctored Love Actually videos in which Jose Mourinho turns up at Ed Woodward’s door begging for a chance.
Back in the traditional media, meanwhile, the reaction to United’s arthritic decline has been rather different. There a certain wistful melancholy prevails, punctuated by frequent and often mythological references to thunderous European nights, Fergie fledglings, sumptuous attacking football. The phrase “once-great club” will almost certainly appear at some point. At times the melancholy verges on genuine distress.
“An unsettling, rather sad place to visit,” was how one newspaper described Old Trafford at the weekend. Try telling that to Southampton fans.
On television, United’s troubles are discussed in the sombre, reverential tones once reserved for ailing statesmen or tragic Zeppelin accidents. One of the defining emblems of this season has been the tortured, crumpled face of Paul Scholes as he tries to process yet another United defeat: that weird and discomfiting blend of resignation and defiance, like a man forced to eat dog food on live television, secretly worried he might enjoy it. The overarching message is unequivocal: United’s downfall is something to be lamented, not celebrated.
Why the great divide? Generational factors, I suspect, may be at work. The days when you applauded the opposition’s best player off the pitch, or supported all English clubs in Europe regardless of your personal allegiance, are passing into memory. Old media has been slow to pick up on this shift, which is why it is now encouraging us to mourn rather than revel in United’s demise. The preponderance of ex‑United players in the media is also a factor; it is not uncommon to turn on BT Sport and see Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves sitting in a row, like defenders in a free-kick wall. Yet even the unaffiliated are afflicted by this curious nostalgia: “It’s not the Manchester United I know,” bewailed Thierry Henry on Sky a few weeks ago.
For some reason, nobody ever demands that the current Blackburn side play with the panache of Kenny Dalglish’s title-winners. Nor has there been any significant wave of public grief at Chelsea’s recent collapse, or Wigan’s tumble through the divisions. In the eyes of many, United remain English football’s default elite, its champions-in-exile, its natural party of government, its Princess Diana. This perhaps explains why their FA Cup game this weekend will be televised for the 49th time in a row.
Meanwhile, if you canvassed the vast majority of fans, you might pick up a slightly different vibe. Modern football is tribal and global and merciless. Deriving glee from the misfortune of other clubs is part of the rich tapestry of fandom. Liverpool’s failure to win the league in 2014 was hilarious. So too Chelsea’s pitiful title defence this season. Likewise, if you support any of the 91 Football League clubs that are not Manchester United, their current plight is, like Woodward’s transfer policy, the gift that keeps giving.
This is exactly as it should be. Footballing empires draw strength from the envy of rivals. When they crumble, nobody should be surprised when those rivals do not stand and weep, but point and laugh.