25th October 2019

Manchester United – The Theatre of Nightmares

This week’s blog may divide opinion and could even compromise my growing presence on Social Media. Indeed throughout my three years of Beyond The Title I have made a conscious effort to remain impartial over the many subjects that have been discussed. Yet the subject of football remains among just a handful of topics that have the power to ignite passion in me in a way which very few things can. Observing and cheering on your favourite football team, criticising manager’s selection and formation remains part of the magic of the beautiful game and has been a constant source of debate for decades. However, at what point does witnessing your team effortlessly transform from a world beater to a club fighting relegation become too much to bear?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a Manchester United fan through and through, I have been since the tender age of six. I’m not from Manchester, nor do I have emotional ties to the area, in fact I’m a quarter Geordie so I guess I should really be cheering for Steve Bruce’s men. Alas, being a product of my generation, I fell in love with the United team of the mid nineties before the phenomenon of Beckham, the treble and the young kid called Ronaldo. This was a time of grass roots football and fans were slowly starting to realise the magic of the ‘Class of 92’. Scholes, Giggs, Butt, and the Neville brothers, a group who would in time provide the backbone of one of the most successful sporting teams of all time. But of course at the very top of the club stood a formidable Scot who had carefully created a winning mentality and installed this into each and every player who entered the club.

He might have lacked the charisma of Juergen Klopp or the tactical finesse as Pep Guadiola but for twenty-six years Sir Alex Ferguson transformed Manchester United from a team of the past to one of the most conquering sides in football history winning an unprecedented 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, and two UEFA Champions League titles. In doing this he created a unique formula for success which arguably has never been surpassed. The development of youth has always been a significant part of the old Trafford make-up, yet under Sir Alex Manchester United were able to utilise homegrown talent like never before. In doing this, he helped to transform Old Trafford into a sporting fortress which more than lived up to its unofficial billing of The Theatre Of Dreams. For a generation Ferguson epitomised the passion and intensity of competitive sport and such strong leadership made United a formidable opponent for even the strongest of teams.

Even at the height of this unrivalled dominance, fans, journalists and critics often expressed an interest in discovering whether such a successful team would still thrive without the presence of the Scottish footballing mastermind in the dugout. Indeed in his time, Ferguson survived five British Prime Ministers, Four American presidents, twenty Chelsea Managers, eight Liverpool managers and nineteen Manchester City managers. Yet this unrivalled dominance had to come to an end at some point and such an occasion occurred on the 8th May 2013 when Sir Alex announced his inevitable retirement blissfully unaware that the chief executive David Gill was intending to make a similar statement just days after. Two instrumental figures within the club departing at the same time only spelt trouble for the club which had prided itself on a family ethos and now its two major father figures would no longer be in power. 

Newly appointed chief executive Ed Woodward oversaw the transition of new manager David Moyes who had enjoyed eleven successful years at mid table Everton. Staying true to their homegrown roots, United wanted a young manager with Premier League experience to hopefully remain as loyal to the club as his predecessor. But football had dramatically changed during the twenty six years of the Ferguson reign and was slowly adapting to the new era of the superstar manager. No longer was it financially viable for clubs to give managers time to carefully nurture and cultivate a team who all adhered to their agenda. Modern football is a results game and unfortunately David Moyes was collateral damage in United’s ongoing quest to regain supremacy.

For their next candidate United looked further afield and following guiding the Netherlands national team to a second consecutive semifinal in the 2014 World Cup, Louis Van-Gaal was thought to be the answer to Old Trafford’s prayers. Personally I feel that this was the beginning of United’s decline down the table and the beautiful football associated with the once dominant side was now a distant memory. The goals, the finesse, the passion had all dried up and suddenly Manchester United were slowly becoming the Liverpool side of the noughties; reliving past achievements. The 2016 saw their first win of a major trophy for three years when Wayne Rooney lifted the FA Cup. Yet for Van Gaal this was overshadowed by his dismissal just half an hour later.

The next replacement was a familiar face in the guise of a former foe. Josè Mourinho had put his indelible mark on the Premier League when he was appointed manager of the new look Chelsea in 2004. Winning a total of two league titles, two FA Cups and two league cups in his three years in charge at Stamford Bridge, when he returned in 2013 it was hailed as the homecoming of a hero. Following a title winning campaign in 2015, Chelsea suffered their worst ever start to a Premier League season which resulted in Mourinho being sacked in December 2015. Therefore by May of the following year, the onetimed ‘Special One’ was bound for Old Trafford.

In the ever-changing unpredictable world of competitive sport, the art of football remains in a constant state of transition. The phenomenon of the superstar manager had now infiltrated the Premier League and the appointment of Josè Mourinho already encapsulated United’s inability to keep up with modern football. The exciting, attacking football which was always associated with both the club and manager was over and even Ed Woodward’s extravagant £200 million transfer window budget still couldn’t bring success back to the so called Theatre of Dreams. Even returning Paul Pogba to the club for £200 million still couldn’t regain any of United’s former glory.

Sluggish, lacklustre and underachieving were just some of the words that were used to sum-up this failing team and last December enough was enough as Jose Mourinho was finally relieved of his duties. For his replacement Ed Woodward looked a little closer to home and placed Old Trafford legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær as temporary manager. Responding positively to this personal change United embarked upon an eleven game unbeaten record and closed the gap between them and the top four. It seemed that Old Trafford was once again living up to its former reputation, the pinnacle of which came on the 6th March when the Red Devils overturned a two nill deficit against PSV as Marcus Rashford’s 94th minute penalty secured three points and put them through to the last eight.

It seemed that everything was on the up at Old Trafford and that Ole had put the sparkle back to the theatre of dreams. Unfortunately this positivity wasn’t to last and to the present day United have only secured a grand total of four victories since that now infamous PSV win. This is clearly unacceptable from a club that once thrived upon world domination and were internationally known and respected as one of the footballing elite. Where’s the desire? Where’s the drive and passion which used to be strongly associated with Manchester United? I cannot believe that I’m living in a world where United fans are celebrating a nill nill draw with AZ Alkmar in the Europa League. Why is this an achievement? The simple answer is that Manchester United have lost their identity and have turned from a world beater to a mediocre mid table team with lowered expectations.

I love Manchester United. I always have and always will. However if they don’t regain some confidence and consistency I worry that they will be at risk of compromising their footballing status forever. In terms of the sport, this rapid decline is not only a shame for fans but for football as a whole. In an uncertain world which brings so much change Manchester United have always been bastions of success and let’s hope Ole Gunner Solskjaer can continue this for many years to come.

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