Twenty seven years. That’s longer than a lot of the players at Manchester United have been alive. But time is ever a fleeting illusion and to me the early trying days, the initial triumphs and the glorious golden age that followed are all layered atop one another, a fluid tapestry of emotion and love.
I’m 31 now and still remember the first Manchester United game I ever watched.
The week before, at about four years of age, and of a firmly GAA background, I had watched a strange new sport with my older brother. As a result, I had become intrigued by a sporting outfit known as ‘The Toffees’. They sounded delicious. I intended to learn more about this motley assortment of sugary wonders. Unfortunately, when I went to watch them the following weekend, they had been replaced by two different teams.
My brother insisted that the game stay on nonetheless. He was a tyrant! My mind suggested I find myself something else to do but in the end, curiosity got the better of me. After a time, I noticed that the team in red had an amazing name (The Red Devils), not to mention some very interesting players. Or interesting to four year old me at least, in that I really liked their hair! All side-burned and quiffy it was, like Elvis and James Dean had parented a Scottish baby. Brian McClair. What a gem; outlaw, footballer and cheeky chap. Although, in hindsight, it isn’t difficult to spot that the Elvis/James Dean hybrid that I remember from those early Halcyon days, was in fact an uncouth young Scotsman with a mullet; more Billy Ray Cyrus than Billy the Kid.
That didn’t matter though. Whilst McClair was my initial link to soccer and to Manchester United, he was soon to be replaced by a new hero. In May 1988, Mark Hughes returned to the club from Barcelona for a then club record fee of £1.8 million. First off, let’s talk about his hair.
It was terrible; Curled ringlets of apathy shaking atop the head of a quiet savage. He looked like a surly ‘Brillo Pad’.
Thankfully, by this point, I had come to understand the rules of soccer and to develop an affinity for these ‘Red Devils’ that went a bit deeper than what hairstyle I might recreate. I’d even come to love the cranky, red faced manager who prowled their side-line like some mythic beast.
Hughes was, to my mind, a warrior-magician. He scored some of the most sumptuous volleyed goals I have seen to this day, his hold up play was never wanting and, every so often, he kicked someone for no apparent reason. To add to his aura, Hughes scored twice against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup Final during the second year of this, his second spell with the club. United drew the game 3-3 and went on to win the replay, collecting their first trophy under Alex Ferguson in the process. Not before we caught our first glimpse of Dennis Irwin, however, who almost knocked United out single handedly in the Semi-Finals whilst playing for Oldham.
The following year, with Irwin now in their squad, United claimed a European Cup Winner’s Cup Trophy before winning the inaugural ‘Premier League’ in the 92-93 Season. That was the first season at United for both Irwin and another United legend, Eric Cantona, who brought a whole new level of flair and style to proceedings. Ryan Giggs was also emerging around this time, gradually taking over the mantle of ‘flying winger’ from the talented but wayward Lee Sharpe, even usurping his title as young player of the season in 1992.
Those were exciting days to be a Manchester United fan. Even more exciting than I realised at the time, having been lucky enough to first encounter the club on the verge of beginning the most successful period in its history.
Roy Keane signed in 1993 and quickly replaced Hughes, McClair and even Giggs as my idol.
In those days, Keane was a phenomenon. His energy reserves were like nothing I had seen and his rough and tumble attitude, expletive filled tirades, insane challenges and steely glares were a joy to behold. He went on to stoke Manchester United fans’ passions and reaffirm our faith in the club right until his acrimonious departure towards the end of 2005.
During this period, Manchester United established itself as a dominant force in both English and European football, just as Keane established himself as a key cog in one of the most impressive midfield foursomes of recent times. Alongside Paul Scholes and flanked by the speedy Ryan Giggs and the frighteningly accurate David Beckham, this foursome dominated most teams and counter attacked brilliantly against those they couldn’t dominate.
The celebrity sideshow generated in the aftermath of Beckham’s relationship with a Spice Girl was a demonstration of how quickly both football and society in general were changing. Opinions varied. Beckham was either a problem or a saviour depending on who you asked. He was certainly a saviour for me, especially in the famous 98/99 season where he seemed to supply an endless array of goal scoring chances for the brilliantly synchronised strike-force of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. That season, United famously won the treble; two injury time goals against Bayern Munich securing their first Champion’s League since 1968 and only their second in total. I remember running from room to room in my parents’ house during that match, hoping that a different TV would bring changed fortune as Munich looked comfortable for much of the game. In the end, I had just about given up, slumping back into my original perch, awaiting the inevitable.
Then, everything went crazy, fast! I had barely gotten over the equaliser when they scored again. It was incredible.
United’s success continued but there were to be no more European Cups for the time being. It was around this time that many in the press began to question whether Ferguson’s time in charge of the club should be drawing to a close. In 2002, he announced his retirement, sending shockwaves around the world of football, only to reverse his decision as his self-imposed deadline approached. I remember dancing a clumsy, drunken jig when I heard he was staying on, never dreaming at that stage that he would stay for another 11 years!
In 2003, Beckham left the club, amidst tales of flying tea cups and ninja football boots. United fans despaired, many of them underwhelmed by Beckham’s replacement, a goofy young Portuguese winger named Cristiano Ronaldo.
I remember trying to convince them that I had been watching United for quite a number of years and had NEVER seen talent like this before. But these were the same people who had begun claiming Alex Ferguson only won trophies due to an over-abundance of financial resources.
Ronaldo was an unpolished diamond but his quality was clear to see. From the very first time he played for United, it was apparent that he possessed a combination of strength, speed, skill and determination which I am yet to see repeated. Initially, his end product was lacking, but given his apparent willingness to work on his flaws and the obvious esteem in which Ferguson held him, it was another exciting time. Wayne Rooney joined Ronaldo at United in 2004 meaning that even as some of the previous generation of ‘winners’ began to wane, new lights were already burning brightly.
In the 2006-2007 season, United won the first of three consecutive league titles and in 2008, they won their second European Cup under Ferguson, beating Chelsea in the Final. That penalty shoot out is one of the tensest times I can remember as a United fan. The celebrations in its aftermath were some of the maddest. By this time, Cristiano Ronaldo had grown into the player many of us had hoped he would. Some of his goals in this period will live long in the memory, in particular a headed goal against Roma in the 2008 Champion’s league.
In 2009, after years of speculation, Ronaldo finally left Manchester for Real Madrid in a then world record deal worth £80million. Was the success finally over?
United went on to win the Premier League in the 2010/11 season before being beaten to the title by local rivals Manchester City in 2011/2012. City had recently been purchased by Qatari owners, who rendered the club almost unfathomably wealthy, whereas United had taken on huge debts when they were purchased by American owners, the Glazers. People said it was the start of United’s decline. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this. They said it when Blackburn won the league in 94/95, when Newcastle pushed so hard under Kevin Keegan, when Arsenal began to enjoy success under the European style management of Arsene Wenger and, of course, when Chelsea won back to back Premier League titles under Jose Mourinho.
The following season, Manchester United won the league by a comfortable 11 points, once more demonstrating the dangers of writing them off too soon.
It was an exciting season, with poor defending requiring the team to win from losing positions time and time again. Having previously admired his career from afar, Robin Van Persie became the latest in a long line of great strikers I have had the pleasure to watch on a weekly basis. He was somehow reminiscent of one of my earliest heroes. Sure, he had no curly ringlets on his head, but his aggressive nature combined with huge natural ability and a driving will to win echoed many of Mark Hughes’ better qualities.
Then, as the season drew to a close and minds turned to the summer transfer window, the unthinkable happened. Alex Ferguson announced his retirement. Everton’s long term manager, David Moyes, was to be his replacement.
It wasn’t the glamour name some had hoped for in this situation but Moyes was another Scottish manager and proven at Premier League level.
Some said he wouldn’t be able to attract top players. Others that he was Ferguson’s choice and should be given time.
So far, things have not gone as hoped.
Many fair-weather fans were calling for Moyes’ head before he even started the job. More long-term supporters have joined the chorus as results started bad and then got worse.
There have been positive signs too, however. Adnan Januzaj looks like a star of the future and has been signed up on a long term deal. Juan Mata was signed for a club record fee during the January Transfer Window. In the last few days, Wayne Rooney has signed a gargantuan new deal intended to keep him at United for the rest of his career. There has been much talk of a squad overhaul during the summer and these three players along with the increasingly impressive David De Gea will surely make up the core of any new squad.
We will learn more about Moyes over the rest of this season, assuming he lasts that long.
Champion’s League Qualification looks unlikely at this point, a sad state of affairs for last year’s league champions, who now trail 4th place Liverpool by 11 points. But a strong finish to their league campaign would help build momentum for next season if nothing else.
In this season’s Champion’s League, United have the second leg of their Last 16 tie with Olympiakos to navigate, having lost the away leg 2-0. Whilst a 3-0 home win in the second leg would get them through and, whilst such a result should be viable given United’s squad and pedigree, it seems hugely unlikely. All season, people have been waiting for the squad to wake up and play to their potential; for the players to show some pride and belief.
With every passing game, it seems increasingly less likely to happen.
I had originally penned a different ending for this article. A positive ending, looking to the future. After watching the game in Olympiakos, I can’t bring myself to leave it in.
I planned to argue that it has been a difficult transition for fans and that for the players, who have known the aura of Ferguson for so very long, the effect must be so much greater still. The sense of invincibility is suddenly gone. The knowledge that no matter who was in the opposing dugout, we had better in ours is gone too.
Alex Ferguson gave United the most amazing twenty seven years. Having watched Brian McClair and Brian Robson retire, Mark Hughes leave, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince leave, Roy Keane leave, David Beckham leave, Ruud Van Nistlerooy leave, Cristiano Ronaldo leave and Eric Cantona, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes (twice) retire, I’ve learned that the club is bigger than the players.
It can take time to adjust but Manchester United does adjust.
Bobby Charlton is still in the stand. These days Alex Ferguson is up there with him and another of the stands has his name all over it. These are men who love and understand the club and who will do everything they can to ensure that its traditions are maintained and its success continued.
But it’s hard to be optimistic right now. Our bulging-eyed new Scotsman doesn’t seem to know what the hell he’s doing, having apparently missed out on the whole idea behind the club.
The winning mentality might understandably take some time. The flair shouldn’t. Even Moyes’ replacement at Everton, Roberto Martinez, seems to have a better grip of the ‘You score five, we’ll score six’ attitude that made Manchester United great.
Robin Van Persie has today accused other United players of getting in his way on the pitch. Tom Cleverly has publically tried to blame everyone but himself for being utterly useless. Chris Smalling looks increasingly like a man at odds with his own legs. Ashley Young…well…I’ve never known a United player to be so disliked by his own fans. When I compare him to the previous wingers at the club, his very existence makes me sad.
If the glory fades for a time, so be it. Some fans may turn to other teams but no-one needs those sort of ‘fans’.
Me, I’ll still be watching every game, hoping against hope that the players remember what it means to play for Manchester United. I’ll also be reading about the up and comers and looking for the next Ryan Giggs; for the next Paul Scholes; for the next Roy Keane; for the next Cristiano Ronaldo.
I’ll even be cheering on Moyes, much as I’d love to see him crushed by a giant anvil right now.
Mostly though, I’ll be waiting for the next great day.
In the meantime, there’s always ‘Evil Kagawa’ to keep me entertained.
Update (23/04/2014): David Moyes was sacked yesterday. To investigate the pros and cons of that decision, click here