A confession, or why I want Manchester United to win the title this year
I should be working on my dissertation right now. But I feel the need to post this.
I always hated Manchester United. There are two things at the heart of this – my dad being a closet Arsenal fan, and the kids at school that bullied generally being United fans of the glory-hunting sort (we’re talking circa 1999 here). It wasn’t just any old hatred – it was a hatred with a passion, with full-scale denial of how good they were. When the kids at school used to say they were the best team in the world, I always refused to believe it, but in hindsight, they were probably right. This continued above all else until a year or two ago. I warmed to them a little as I grew up but I would always accept anything as an alternative to United winning things.
But lately a few things have changed this. First was my trip to Old Trafford last year for the play-off final. I got a real feeling for what the club was about. It’s easy to assume from the outside that Premier League dominance and Glazer ownership has turned the club into a bland corporation for southern middle class businessmen, and there is indeed an element of that. But actually it is all presented there very well, and Old Trafford is a magnificent stadium.
Secondly, I’ve started reading more opinions from United fans on Twitter and the internet, and while I’m sure they do have plenty of glory-hunter fans, there are plenty of ‘genuine’ United fans still around. And (I know some will laugh at this) it’s not easy. Expectations are so incredibly high, it’s hard for them to be particularly pleased about anything. Plus there’s the trouble with the Glazers (which is incredibly serious) and having two or three players on board who aren’t particularly well-liked. As a result (or at least I believe to be as a result), the United fans I’ve come across have generally been some of the most rational, reasonable, realistic football fans I know, and more than capable of criticising their own club and the way it’s run. Meanwhile, Liverpool fans continue to mark themselves out with typically high levels of delusion and myopia…
Following on from that, this season has seen a number of moments of controversy that after which I can no longer have any sympathy for some clubs, particularly Liverpool and Chelsea over the way they have handled their respective racism scandals. It defies belief how anyone, regardless of club allegiance, could defend the individuals in question, let alone entire institutions, though obviously John Terry has not been found guilty of his offence. I’ve never been a particularly big Liverpool fan, but exploring the internet a bit more this season has been a real eye-opener, and the same goes for Chelsea as well to a certain extent – in some ways, I’ve become more aligned with United largely out of frustration and disappointment with their rivals.
But the clinching point has been the football. While I did predict United to win the league at the start of the year (as I do every year), I wrote them off pretty early on – I didn’t think they had the squad depth, particularly after the 6-1 defeat to City and Vidic’s injury. Perhaps this was also down to reading the negative views of United fans about their own squad!
But my views changed over the Christmas period. After City stumbled out of the Champions League, along with losing a couple of games, they lost their invincibility and have retreated into their shells. Mancini’s tactics have become very negative, and the team have lost the attractive swagger they had in the early months. United, meanwhile, bounced back from losing to Blackburn, Newcastle and Liverpool. Though it is a team that is not as strong as previous United sides, they have ground out win after win and slowly reduced the gap as City’s away form has slipped. I don’t want to brag, but I called it back in January – I said then that United would win the league. My fellow radio pundits scoffed and sneered at the time but here we are – the table doesn’t lie.
And this has changed my opinion still further about United, to the point where I’m now actively supporting them to win this title. It was easy to support City when they were playing well, but it’s a lot more difficult to support a team and manager that has become negative, and slowly losing the plot and blowing what should have been an easy title. Mourinho’s tactics have been described as negative but I don’t agree – I would describe them as ‘correct’. He is managing loads of flair players at Real Madrid very effectively. Look at all the flair players Mancini has that he isn’t starting in favour of James Milner, Gareth Barry and Nigel de Jong.
Mancini is not a good manager. He’s been given one of the biggest transfer funds in football history. He has bought, and has at his disposal, a bunch of very good players, a much better squad than any other team in the league that’s probably only third in Europe behind Real and Barca. They were in a position to potentially win as many as four trophies at one point – you wouldn’t have discounted it. And yet he’s totally cocking everything up. How is this even possible?
Questions are now rightly being raised about his previous record, with comments muttered about how he fluked into success in Italy due to Calciopoli and was sacked in favour of Mourinho because he couldn’t get success in Europe. Exactly the same is happening here. The only way City will win this at the moment, this year or any other year, is by other teams having major problems – in fact, United have had major problems this year and are still beating them. Add in the Tevez situation, which has left him in a much weaker position in the club and with the media, and you can see why there is discussion over his future.
How can a neutral support a club in this situation? The massive spending on the dream team of players they have isn’t so much the issue, as there’s a certain element of fun and unpredictability about it that makes it exciting to watch (until they start winning year after year, that is – having said that, early Abramovich Chelsea never got that far, did they?). What is annoying is taking that opportunity and wasting it by being negative.
This was City’s downfall last year too – people will be saying “ah well, it’s City’s first opportunity, they’ll learn and come back stronger”. But that ignores the fact that this is the second year with the majority of that squad – and at least they did actually win something last year. Players will be getting impatient if there’s no success and the manager is being shown to be mediocre – as I’m typing this, a story has just come up on my Twitter feed linking Aguero to Real as a swap with Higuain plus a bit of cash. The likes of him, Silva and Yaya Toure in particular will be highly sought after by successful clubs, as well as the inevitably-departing Tevez.
So when it comes down to it, it’s very difficult to support such a frustrating club. Similarly, Arsenal keep lurching between winning brilliantly and losing farcically, and the fanbase are split between constantly whinging about Wenger and constantly defending him, with no middle ground. Spurs are OK but their manager is odious and overrated, and, while they huffed and puffed this year, they never really looked like being serious contenders beyond the odd optimistic fantasy. They may not even make the Champions League now. Newcastle are good underdogs, as it’s funny to see the conflict between them doing well and the fans’ intense hatred of Mike Ashley. But they are still some way off the big boys in terms of squad depth and overall ability, although a couple of shrewd summer signings may change that.
So United it is. In many ways, this is because they are for once the underdogs, which is always quite attractive – they’ve been constantly up against this year: the Glazers are leeching money out of them and are restricting Ferguson’s transfer spending; their captain is out with a long-term injury; they were smashed 6-1 by their neighbours; they were forced to bring one of their old-timers back; they’ve had serious injury problems at certain points of the season, particularly in midfield; and their team consists largely of young British players who haven’t been at the forefront of something like this before. The likes of Cleverley, Smalling, Welbeck, Evans, Jones and, to a point, Ashley Young in his first season at a ‘big club’ have been key to their success. They have improved over the course of the year and have earned this position they are in.
Apply this to most other clubs and the neutrals would be backing them all the way over the big-spenders. But because it’s United, they don’t. And in some ways, that makes it even better – there are more people that actively want United to lose than those that want them to win, which I guess makes it quite exclusive. And that makes it more fun, which is ultimately what football’s all about.