Manchester United's decline shows why we should cherish golden eras
Leaving the great amphitheatre where a 0-0 home draw was hailed as progress, it was hard not to feel a rush of nostalgia for the days when Manchester United glowed across Europe, when Old Trafford was a stage for mighty players and visitors crossed the threshold merely hoping to escape with dignity intact.
You did not have to be a United fan to experience these sensations. Anyone with an interest in great institutions - great traditions - could have driven round the old haunts on Monday evening and remembered how it felt when Sir Alex Ferguson's teams were racking up Premier League titles and hosting huge Champions League nights.
These golden eras are not to be taken lightly. They can stall, or disappear all together, leaving a sorrowful rump of supporters who live on memories or vent their anger (example: the United fan who held up a banner translating LVG as "Leave Vanish Go").
The rest of English football might think United are due a little spell in the gutter, after 20 years up there in the stars, but there is still a shock to be felt from examining the current team and their struggle to achieve a 0-0 draw with Chelsea.
For United's dominance to stall is fine. For it to disappear is not. The vast financial firepower built up by the rampant commercialism of the Glazers exerts a powerful logic in favour of eventual recovery. But nobody should consider it a given. The succession to Ferguson has misfired twice now; the squad is imbalanced and short on world-class quality; and, most of all, United have started to look like a deal-making factory with a football team attached, rather than a football team so good that sponsors are desperate to hook their cause to the wagon.
This is the critical point. However many potato snack partnerships they sign in Asia or Africa, United have to be a football club first and a commercial juggernaut second. But what if the second inevitably destroys the first?
Well, it seems not to have done at Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, who are almost equally acquisitive, and who would walk all over the team who drew 0-0 with Chelsea.
Noticing the subdued mood around Old Trafford, I began to reminisce about the days when finding a hotel room in Manchester for a big Champions League night was a Herculean task; when Cristiano Ronaldo would flash by in a sports car; when the Cheshire mansion belt was abuzz with sightings of United legends; when the whole area around Old Trafford seemed to rise on the tide of the club's success: and when the strong local connections of the Class of '92 would lend the starting XI an authenticity no other Premier League club could match.
To be given a team-sheet that automatically listed the names of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, Rio Ferdinand or Ronaldo over 20 years or more was to inhabit a world of incredible privilege. Like all people in the land of milk and honey, most spectators probably assumed it would always be this way, on the basis that success is self-replicating - which it turns out not to be, if the new manager gets it wrong, or the recruitment becomes substandard or even shambolic.
The good times kept rolling, of course, from Ferguson's first Premier League team, adorned by Cantona, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis, to the home-grown core who conjured the miracle of the Nou Camp in 1999, to the Ronaldo/Wayne Rooney-based constellation who won Ferguson's second Champions League title against Chelsea in Moscow. Such was the sense of entitlement that United fans could dismiss Ferguson's final Premier League-winning team as average. What they would give for it now.
During two-and-a-half seasons of drift the rest of the division has not stood still. Manchester City have taken aggressive strides to corner the youth market, while spending £50 million on both Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling. Arsenal have regained some of their old strength, Spurs have shot up under Mauricio Pochettino and the Premier League's middle-classes have scouted well while paying more to retain some of their best players.
Ferguson's challenges were the rising empires of Arsenal, then Chelsea, then City. Now, Van Gaal lays on 11 goalless draws at Old Trafford and scrapes together 30 points from 19 games - United's lowest haul at the midway point since the Premier League began. To look backwards is justified. Necessary, even, because United teams of yesteryear displayed immense pride, aggression, positivity. Their spirit was built not on coaching theories but a set of values that married expressive talent with a compulsion to impose it on the rest of the league with no mercy or let-up.
To be a regular at Old Trafford in those days was to tap into an energy source. The magnetism of the stadium and the team out on the pitch spread itself across the city and was a major element in Manchester's urban regeneration. It set a tone.
United's owners, though, behave as if the success of the past 20 years is a kind of birthright: a gift that will automatically keep giving.
You used to travel to Old Trafford energised, excited to share a space with brilliant footballers and an indefatigable manager. Now, you go armed with questions. Chiefly: what is happening here? (© Daily Telegraph, London)