Manchester United: the emperor has no clothes
Old Trafford no longer has teams trembling with fear – and that decline started under Fergie.
Three: that’s the magic number. Three is the number of penalties awarded against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Those three penalties broke the Fergie spell. Never mind that United were out-fought, out-thought and outgunned, it was the three penalties that must have filled the United faithful with dread. Three spot kicks awarded against United? Blimey! When did that last happen? Never under Fergie’s reign, that’s for sure. If ever there was a sign that the United Empire had collapsed, this was it. The more their season unravels, the more the Fergie legend is enhanced. But mythologising Sir Alex Ferguson conveniently overlooks the cracks that had been evident long before the veteran Scot decided to retire.
For many hardened United-haters, Sunday’s penalty glut proved that the quasi-magical ‘Fergie Factor’ has finally been vanquished. Ding dong, the witch is dead! The widespread belief that Fergie terrorised referees into favouring United now appears vindicated. As former official Graham Poll put it in his Daily Mail column: ‘The difference at Old Trafford now is that referees arrive with the knowledge that Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer present; he is not waiting in the tunnel to rip into you for daring to award the opposition a penalty, nor is he going to charge into your dressing room with the ‘hairdryer’ on full blast, incandescent with rage at your audacity to do your job.’ To attribute all United’s good fortune to the magical power of one man’s personality is the worst kind of Fergie fetishism. There’s another way of looking at it. Opposing teams weren’t awarded penalties because they rarely got near the United penalty area. I certainly can’t remember many visiting teams running United’s defence ragged in the way that Liverpool did last Sunday.
It was always going to be a tough job to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. After Sunday’s defeat, it was looking like mission impossible for his successor David Moyes – and I suspect that the Champions League victory over Olympiakos on Wednesday will only bring temporary respite. In recent weeks, Moyes has looked increasingly weary and bewildered. Against Liverpool, he seemed to be incapable of rousing his troops. Liverpool fans gleefully unfurled a banner at Old Trafford declaring: ‘David Moyes is a football genius’ – a mocking reference to the late Brian Clough. For the first time since ‘The Chosen One’ took charge, there are rumours of discontent in both boardroom and dressing room.
Is Moyes out of his depth? It’s too early to call. However, his appointment didn’t have ‘sexy football’ written all over it. It was a conservative selection rather than a visionary one. Anyone with an ounce of ambition would have gone for José Mourinho, wouldn’t they? So, who was responsible for Moyes’s appointment? It wasn’t the Glazer family, but Fergie who anointed his own heir. Fun as it is to indulge in Moyes-bashing, such mockery merely obscures Fergie’s own role in the club’s decline.
One of Fergie’s strengths was his ability to rebuild teams. During his 26-year tenure he assembled three great teams. However, since winning the Champions League in 2008, United have been in slow decline. And Fergie’s Dr Who-like powers of regeneration seem to have deserted him. Sure, the winning culture he inculcated carried United to two successive Champions League finals and two further Premiership titles. But Fergie’s failure to replace the team’s ageing spine has now become a serious problem. It’s clear that the players who have been groomed to replace Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra, Giggs and Scholes are simply not good enough. It wasn’t Moyes who consistently failed to sign a creative midfielder, it was Fergie. The acquisition of Robin van Persie helped paper over the cracks last season. His goals – not to mention an uncharacteristic lack of injuries – combined with Manchester City’s inconsistency enabled United to win the league by 11 points. But with van Persie’s reversion to his default ‘sicknote’ factory setting, that may prove to be United’s last domestic title for some time. They’ve been knocked off their perch and unceremoniously trampled underfoot as Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have overtaken them.
It wasn’t just Fergie’s personality that was intimidating; the team itself had an aura of invincibility. As I wrote two years ago on spiked, that aura of invincibility had started to crack under Fergie’s leadership. At the time I suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, that it was Crystal Palace’s 2-1 League Cup victory at Old Trafford that destroyed United’s aura. Many a visiting team were so cowed psychologically that the game was lost as soon as they stepped out of the tunnel at Old Trafford. Palace showed no fear that night; they showed the world that the emperor had no clothes.
Okay, the demystification might not have been entirely Palace’s doing. But that result played a part. It was one of a number of humiliating home defeats that season that battered United’s winning aura like blows from a wrecking ball. City thrashed United 6-1 in the Manchester derby. Athletic Bilbao’s 3-2 Champions League victory was equally traumatic – it was the first time United had been totally outplayed at home by European opponents. These and other defeats served both to embolden visiting teams and corrode United’s self-belief.
There were, of course, other factors that contributed to United’s decline. The club’s ability to attract the very top players has been compromised by the need to service the massive debts run up by the Glazers. New chief executive Ed Woodward’s naivety in the transfer market led to United’s failure to strengthen in key positions last summer. Conversely, some of the club’s problems can be rectified. United might not have the financial muscle of City or Chelsea, but United are hardly paupers. The playing squad and the coaching staff can be strengthened. The unimaginative tactics can be overhauled. The Chosen One could be replaced. The problem is that myths can’t so easily be un-busted. Once that aura of invincibility has been shattered, it takes years to rebuild it.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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