Offside, 18 March
United secretly love to be hated.
It is a hoary old truism that you write off Manchester United at your peril. But as a hoary old folk singer once observed, the times they are a-changing.
After their season imploded so spectacularly last week, dumped out of the European Cup by Porto and then spanked 4-1 by Manchester City, many commentators have felt sufficiently emboldened to declare that Fergie’s empire is crumbling. United chief executive David Gill gamely rejects any talk of a crisis. ‘Eighty-nine other teams would like to be in our position’, he insisted. But Gill sounds increasingly like the Iraqi information minister (‘we are slaughtering the infidels at the gates of Old Trafford’). Even Sir Bobby Charlton admits that ‘there is a crisis’.
What does the British sporting public make of United’s travails? A national outbreak of schadenfreude would best describe it. When the Football365 website polled fans on how they had responded to Costinha’s last-minute winner for Porto at Old Trafford, only 11 per cent said they had either moaned or cried while a massive 80 per cent said they had ‘pissed themselves laughing’.
But just what is it about Manchester United that inspires so much loathing? We hate their fans for being prawn-sandwich-munching glory hunters and we tell jokes about their Home Counties origins (How many United fans does it take to change a light bulb? Two: one to change the light bulb and the other to drive him up from Surrey.) ‘We support our local team’, we chant like village simpletons. ‘Stand up if you hate Man U’, we sing often in unison with rival fans. We cheer on United’s opponents – the Anyone But United phenomenon. The traditional British love of the underdog is one thing, but the deep-seated antipathy to all things United is something altogether different.
Does the answer lie in the British sporting mindset? Have we got too used to coming second – 30 years of hurt and all that? Have we become too comfortable in our role as underachievers that when we finally produce a team that can compete with the best in Europe, we can’t bring ourselves to applaud them? ‘But they’re arrogant’, some people say. So what? Humility isn’t a sporting attribute. Winners tend to be arrogant. It goes with the terrain. When we complain about United’s arrogance we are really saying that we don’t like their winning mentality. It’s all too vulgar and, well, American for our delicate Corinthian sensibilities.
One might argue that Arsenal do not attract the same opprobrium as United, proof that we are perfectly capable of appreciating footballing excellence. It is true Portsmouth fans applauded their opponents when Arsenal thrashed their team 5-1 at Fratton Park in the FA Cup. Would United have received the same ovation? Probably not. Personally, I was reaching for my sick bag as Motty shamelessly fawned over the Gooners (it was only Portsmouth for God’s sake, not AC Milan or Real Madrid). ‘Arsenal don’t so much pass the ball as caress it’, drooled Motty.
Right now the country is in the grip of Arse-fixation. However, the good will currently enjoyed by the Gooners is still largely coloured by an Anyone But United sentiment. We admire Arsenal precisely because they are not United. We applaud them because, to borrow Sir Alex Ferguson’s phrase, they have knocked United ‘off their fucking perch’. We’re even prepared to overlook the fact that Arsenal’s players are a bunch of mincing foreign poofs who wear gloves in winter. But if Arsenal succeed in supplanting United as the dominant force in English football we may in time turn against Thierry and co.
But we don’t just hate United because they win too much. We also hate them because they are so rich and corporate. United have become a repository for all our contemporary prejudices about the ruinous influence of money on the game – soccer’s equivalent of Starbucks or McDonalds. For many of us, United are no longer a football club but a global marketing operation. United’s board, we suspect, are primarily concerned with selling replica shirts and Red Devils’ duvet covers to Japanese teenagers (plus the merchandise was probably made in third world sweatshops using child labour).
United, of course, secretly love to be hated. Fergie has used this paranoid sense of United contra mundum to motivate his players and foster team spirit. But if United’s domination of English football does come to an end, will our burning hatred of the Reds eventually start to cool? Stand up if you’re not really that bothered about Man U? Now that would really infuriate them.
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