Fans of Manchester United have had to do a lot of soul searching over the last 18 months or so, the reality of post the Sir Alex Ferguson era has hit everyone like being suddenly dunked into an ice bath.
Theoretically at least, life after Sir Alex wasn’t supposed to be this complicated. He had left behind a team who had just strolled the league title that they essentially won by February. He had left behind a blend of experienced professionals, some players in the prime, and a couple for the future too.
It’s been well documented that David Moyes’ short tenure in charge at Old Trafford was an unmitigated disaster, there is no getting away from that. Failing to qualify for the Champions League was the final straw in giving Dithering Dave his marching orders and they appointed the renowned Dutchman Louis van Gaal as the new boss and United fans felt the only way was up – which leads us very nicely into stage one of the 5 stages of grief.
The situation isn’t that grim, is it? It was all David Moyes’ fault. The team was a team of Champions before he took over, van Gaal will get everything back to normal. The problems in the squad aren’t all that big. The formation will be fine.
I was never fully sold on Van Gaal. Never fully sold in the sense that he wouldn’t have been my first choice to be manager, or even second choice for that matter, but he probably would have been on a five-man shortlist. Maybe. Of course, he is a great manager, with a top pedigree and a proven track record – but some of the things he was saying before his appointment didn’t fill me with confidence. He was being linked with the Spurs job a little bit before the United one, and he was making comments in the press about being happy to retire after the World Cup should the Spurs job not materialize. Retire. That is a concern for me.
Getting in someone like van Gaal is a bit like QPR signing Rio Ferdinand. You have to wonder what they have left to prove, what is driving and motivating a person like this? Their legacy is already set in stone, regardless of what may happen at their new clubs, and there is always a bit of doubt that the job might just be one last big payday before heading off into the sunset.
Time is something that can be easily allotted when you see small signs of improvement, and you’re constantly reminding yourself just how badly the group’s confidence was damaged last year. It may only have been pre season, but positive results against the likes of Real Madrid, Roma and Liverpool; along with improved performances and new boy Ander Herrera settling in well, there was reason for optimism.
Then the real games started and United were back to being the dreadful team we all got so used to last season. An opening day defeat at home to Swansea, followed by dull draws away to Sunderland and Burnley had people scratching their heads.
Van Gaal went and bought himself an extended settling in period, but splurging the cash on the likes of Di Maria, Blind, Rojo and Falcao. You have to give a little more time when 4 new players are being introduced into the squad without any preseason, right?
The results got better, a 6 game winning streak no less, but by God the performances didn’t; and that’s leads to stage number two.
Why didn’t we sign more defenders? The balance of the team is all wrong. We’re paying Falcao how much? Why the fuck is Phil Jones taking corners?
I think United are a special breed of fans for scenarios like this. By in large, they have been spoilt rotten with glory and success of the last couple of decades, and that has had an interested affect on their response to not winning. It seems that in the short term at least, they would be more than happy with not winning things, so long as the team was entertaining to watch.
I’ve heard the expression; “I’ve been spoilt so much seeing United win things, that even if they never won another trophy in my lifetime, I’d still be spoilt”, from more than one Man United fan over the last season and a bit. I’m sure that would be a short-term state of mind, and if they went on an Arsenal style, near decade without a trophy, then the view might change a bit. But for now, playing well seems to be the number one priority.
And they’re not getting that. When the football is so atrocious to watch, anger can set in. When things are going poorly, you start to think about how expensive it was to assemble this non-performing bunch. You wonder how the most expensive team in Premier League history could be so cowardly on the pitch. How a team of extremely well paid international footballers can feel like the underdogs in every game, regardless of the opposition.
There is anger at the really odd way that United seem to be on the level of whomever they are playing that week, and can never find their own level of consistency. Like a chameleon adapting to its surroundings, United seem to be able to adapt to any team they play, but the most frustrating way imaginable. Play Chelsea? A well-earned draw in a game they were just as good as the league leaders. Play an hour with 10 men away to City? A plucky 1-0 defeat, where for large parts of the game they were the dominant team. Play away to Cambridge? Another plucky, well earned draw?
Bargaining is a stage that is pretty short in its own regard, but kind of overlaps and runs concurrently with other stages.
If we can just get through this season and get back into the Champions League, it’ll all be better next season. This season is a case of needs must, and we’ll play with more freedom and expression next year.
You convince yourself that you can put up with wanting to poke yourself in the eye every week so long as the required targets are met for this season. It was always going to a season of transition, wasn’t it? Yeah, bargaining can often be linked with denial. A denial that next season will be just as bad, if not worse. The assumption being that if we can get to next season, it will just sort itself out.
When the team plays football so dull you don’t want to watch it anymore. You know the situation, when you start to take a little nap during the second half of yet another tepid display. Or you turn to your mate and ask if they fancy a game of FIFA for 15 minutes just to break-up the tedium.
When United are playing at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, and you need to find some dodgy stream to watch them – but like a teenager avoiding studying, you’ll find a whole host of jobs to do instead of watch them play.
“I think I’ll cut the grass.” Even though it’s mid January, the grass isn’t growing, it’s lashing rain and it’s getting dark.
You resign yourself to situation at hand, and it actually becomes amusing to you.
You laugh your way through games, incredulous to just how poor the team is playing. You can set up a drinking game for watching United and it’s great fun. Drink a shot for every shanked pass. Drink half a pint for every misplaced pass under 10 yards. Take a sip for every time Van Persie is standing in space with his arms out desperate for a pass, only not to receive one. Down a full pint for every time a player opts to pass backwards rather than try and move forward with some aggression. And a Jager Bomb every time Phil Jones attempts a 60 yard cross field pass. And fails.
By about the 20 minute mark – or the very worst half time – you should be well smashed drunk. That in turn makes the late introduction of Fellaini into the game wildly engrossing for a group of mates. Do that “Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh” thing that’s in every Kaiser Chiefs song until Fellaini smashes into someone with an elbow. Tremendous fun.