Published: 22 Nov 2006
Celtic 1-0 United
I suppose we should be used to this by now. Another Champions League knockout section qualification hangs in the balance and Alex Ferguson trots out something like 'we always make it hard for ourselves'. Well I am pretty sure there are thousands of United fans like me out there who are sick to death of hearing this. It was fine to give us that line when we drew with Juventus at Old Trafford in April 1999, but eight seasons on that excuse rings hollow and betrays every single Manchester United fan.
We don't ask for much, but obviously in the eyes of the club we do. We want a team that plays football the Manchester United way, thrilling the crowd with youngsters waiting in the wings to take the places of those who might have grown complacent or let age get the better of them. After all that was the vision Matt Busby had when he set out to make us kings of football. Yet the medicrity and shameful excuses we are now fed week in week out makes us pine for those glorious night in Europe, not the ones we merely won, but the games that barely left air in our lungs. Those games like we saw in the last third of the treble season, or even the one nil defeats at home to Borussia and Juventus in the 1996-97 season seem so far away. Yes it was a decade ago, but it seems like a million years have gone by since.
Manchester United is now a franchise. For us, in our hearts it will always be something we cherish, an entity that made us walk faster to get to the ground, or feel butterflies in the stomach when sitting down in an armchair just before watching a big game. But now that's changed, both on the field and off it.
In the part of the world I hail from is a Rugby team that were crowned Champions of Europe in May 2006. They want to climb that mountain all over again because they feel winning one is not good enough. They have had a proud and seasoned professional speak to them to avoid complacency that kills off chances of retaining their title. That man is Roy Keane. While he was never my favourite player and while he never appealed to me as a player like Mark Hughes did, looking back on many things red, he was right. In April 2001 as we exited the Champions League rather tamely to Bayern Munich, Keane called for the team to be broken up. He wasn't talking about the team as 'them', he was talking about the team, including himself. He wanted to feel the pressure of playing for his future. His words fell on deaf ears. I stood in the South stand as the players paraded the championship after the Derby county game on May 5th 2001. Alex Ferguson made a speech and the last line of it will live with me forever. 'This team will not be breaking up'. We lapped it up and I cheered and thought Fergie was right. 'Nothing is wrong' I thought. But already the rot was setting in.
We all know the history but thinking on the Van Nistelrooy era, the word 'underperformed' comes to mind. In Van Nistelrooy's five seasons with the club we won one Premiership, one FA Cup and the League Cup'. In Van Nistelrooy's era we also saw Jaap Stam, David Beckham and eventually Van Nistelrooy himself shown the door. In that time we also saw United make a 14M loss on Juan Veron, a 6M loss on Diego Forlan and players like Phil Neville leave the club. If Ferguson heeded Keane's words of 2001, one can only think the wrong players were allowed to leave. Fast forward to now and how the mighty have fallen. The Manchester United side that went unbeaten in Europe in the 98/99 season against the quality Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Juventus (each club European Champions themselves in their respective history) is now not far away from being the laughing stock of European away trips. The Brondby side that was massacred 11-2 on aggregate in late 1998 has been replaced by Copenhagen beating United 1-0. Going to places like the Nou Camp and playing an exciting 3-3 draw has been replaced by going to Celtic and failing to hit the net despite ownership like posession of the ball. It's rumoured that when Keane left Old Trafford in November 2005, the bust up that convinced Ferguson to allow him to move on ended with Keane saying 'you and your f***ing racehorse ruined Manchester United'. And so ended an era of a player who ranted & raved on the pitch, but played like he was one of us living the dream. Sadly, and it pains me to say this, Paul Scholes apart, I don't see that desire any more.
Malcolm Glazer hasn't helped either. Apat from the fact I despise everything he stands for, his 'business model' has seen many promising youngsters move out on loan. Fair enough, Davifd Beckham went on loan, but that was to gain first team experience. I wonder why Giuseppe Rossi went to newcastle? Are they the only club who could pay his wages so United would not have to. United are behaving like Santa, handing out players to go on loan everywhere. I suppose it's easy to have a lot of good professionals when other clubs are paying their wages. Should we forget that when we lost Hughes, Kanchelskis & Ince in 1995, that we had young players who eventually replaced them and showed they were better? How can we feel like David Barsdley or Rossi are one of us when they play for Premier League sides in Scotland and England, teams we can potentially meet in Europe or England? What next? Loan Alan Smith out to Liverpool so he can get games? It all utter utter nonsense, yet it is us who are putting up with it.
I really am scared that we've lost something we might never get back. Opposition fans call it 'bandwagon support' but it's far from it. The hurt we felt in April 1992 on the night West Ham all but killed our title hopes or the disappointment at going out on away goals to Monaco in March 1998 has given way to an almost acceptance of the fall in standards we now witness. If we go on and win the treble this season I'd be amazed but it would in no way match 1999. You see nowadays players earn vast sums before a ball is kicked. What is the motivation to win after you've effectively won before going on the pitch. Why stick your head in the way of an about-to-score boot when it could ruin the photo shoot you've got the following day?
Off the field and on it things have changed for the worse. And although 'we always make it hard for ourselves', it's really hard to take. We paid Everton 27M for Wayne Rooney. He's just gone through some amazing form in the Premiership notching some great goals, yet V Celtic he played most of the game on the left wing. When we were a goal down to Bayern Munich on May 26th 1999 Ferguson threw on Sheringham & Solskjaer to win the game. Last night faced with the same situation he threw on Patrice Evra and John O'Shea. You just couldn't make it up. I mean surely a club like Manchester United has strikers to throw on, at least like Celtic had Kenny Miller? Surely Malcolm Glazer gave Fergie the funds in the summer to get us a Van Nistelrooy replacement? 'What's that Mr. Glazer, you can't make it to Old Trafford for work today? No problem we'll put you on sick pay for the 540th day running.' In the meantime Christiano Ronaldo is doing his photo shoots modelling jerseys on manutd.com instead of practicing his free kicks.
One day soon someone has to wake up and smell the coffee. Until then mediocrity on and off the pitch will rule at Old Trafford as long as the Glazers business plan's demands are met.
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