Roy Curtis: 'The spineless nature of Man United's Goodison humiliation highlights players' failings'
EVEN in a state of mortifying disrepair, with the checklist for anarchic enfeeblement almost entirely ticked, Manchester United’s status in Irish life remains undimmed.
Though mediocrity currently touches every corner of their efforts and Old Trafford’s alias as a Theatre of Dreams feels blackly comedic, still a powerful argument can be made to support the thesis that across the spectrum, United remain the biggest professional sports draw on this island.
That assertion certainly gained traction on a weekend when some ten thousand Aviva seats were unoccupied for the most significant club rugby fixture of the season so far.
Leinster’s inability to sell-out a hugely hyped European Champions Cup semi-final contrasts sharply with United – and Liverpool – routinely filling the Lansdowne coliseum for meaningless, extortionately-priced, pre-season exhibition games.
If rugby has made huge advances from niche to mainstream, if the long days are pricelessly enriched by the timeless rhythms of a GAA summer, it is true, too, that for a sizeable church the Premier League is the religion of choice.
A great number worship at two storied Northern England cathedrals that are deeply embedded in the Irish psyche.
In any vote to identify this nation’s most beloved sporting figures of recent decades, Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish, Eric Cantona and Steven Gerrard would poll strongly.
The relationship between Manchester and Ireland is dressed in venerable clothing. It boasts a history forged by emigration, the passed torch of generation-to-generation devotion and tragedy.
On that bleak February 1958 afternoon when BEA Flight 609 carrying Matt Busby’s team hurtled down a slush-laden Munich runway toward its doom, an already deep connection grew unbreakable roots.
United and Liverpool, for one is always measured against the other, matter to a great swathe of the Irish public in a way that cuts right to the marrow of their daily lives.
The painful, chaotic decline of Old Trafford as a centre of football excellence, the tumbling into a black hole of the House of Best and Keane even as Liverpool threaten to rise up and leave behind three decades of subjugation, amounts to a profound existential crisis in so many Celtic households.
And a source of euphoric glee to those from the Anfield opposition party.
United’s fall, the speed of their journey from sovereign to subjugated, leviathan to palace of recrimination, would have seemed unthinkable in the last blizzard of Ferguson tickertape.
As a parting 2013 gift, the Scot had presented the club he so voraciously remoulded in his image with another league title. Among his historic final numbers were 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cup and two Champions Leagues.
The corresponding figures in those three competitions for the trio – Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho - who then tried and so dismally failed to fill the old laird’s boots, read 0-1-0.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s promotion initially seemed like a powerful, upbeat antidote to the recently departed Portuguese high priest of toxicity and perpetual conflict.
The Norwegian became the first manager since the revered Sir Matt to win his first five league games; he breezed to a club record eight away victories on the spin; there was a night in Paris that pushed the outer boundaries of even that great city’s capacity for romance.
Sunshine briefly dappled the Stretford End.
And then, the caretaker was appointed full-time manager and, immediately, the reservoir of stardust ran dry.
Any notion that Old Trafford had left behind the worst of its doubts were quickly exposed. If losing to Lionel Messi and Barcelona was hardly a mortal sin, an FA Cup capitulation to Wolves and an alarming slide in general form hinted at the hellish Easter Sunday fate that awaited.
The diabolical, chaotic, spineless nature of the four goal surrender to Everton, a team that had fallen to Fulham the week before, was accompanied by multiple sightings of the apocalyptic horsemen riding into the night.
The tattered remnants of Ferguson’s untouchable legions had found a new home in the tenements of mediocrity.
A glut of depressing statistics paint a harrowing picture of collapse: United are on their worst run of away defeats in 38 years; they have conceded more goals than in any previous Premier League season; their 11th game without a clean sheet represents a seven year nadir.
And, ahead of tomorrow’s Manchester derby, there is the ultimate abasement. In terms of the title, the world’s richest club are an insignificant afterthought, closer, in points accrued, to Crystal Palace and Newcastle than Pep Guardiola’s City or Jurgen Klopp’s buoyant Liverpool.
Even an unlikely touching of United's glorious past tomorrow would have the crushing downside of almost certainly facilitating a first ever Anfield Premier League season in the sun.
If the players hid behind the criticism of Mourinho, now their own failings are exposed and impossible to ignore.
Here is a club paying Alexis Sanchez €35m-a-year to do precisely nothing, a superpower at the moment of collapse. Facilitated by structural nihilism, grotesque boardroom mismanagement and an overpaid, indifferent roll-call of mediocre and listless footballers, they are adrift in the shadowlands, thrashing impotently.
Paul Pogba, a diamond-encrusted non-entity on so many big days, continues to pen love letters to Zinedine Zidane. Anthony Martial slings a hammock across a rectangle of grass and snoozes and shrugs his way through another 90 minutes.
Ashley Young gives the ball away so frequently he may shortly be declared a designated charity.
Even the ordinarily immune David de Gea has been infected by all the nasty pathogens swirling around Old Trafford. A superior goalkeeper has been reduced to the porous sieve who leaked goal after goal in Spain’s calamitous 2018 World Cup.
Then, there is Phil Jones, his features, it seems, perpetually creased in the unspeakable misery of a man who has come to understand he was placed on this planet only so, even on the darkest days, every other professional footballer could look his way and understand that life could, indeed, be worse.
Even if they were to place a puncturing stinger in City’s path tomorrow, it would be unlikely to restrain the sense of a listing supertanker on the verge of keeling over and pollute the oceans with its oily payload.
The club of Busby and Ferguson are in need of the sort of radical structural overhaul that could take upwards of a decade. Yet they are forever cursed to always pursue instant gratification.
For supporters who always measure themselves against their Anfield rivals, there is a suffocating terror.
It is the one that insists they now resemble late 1990s Liverpool, a club adrift and on the cusp of a long and terrible darkness.