by Chris Shaw
Whilst on holiday at Butlins in Pwllheli in 1980, aged 5, a bright red cap with a devil on caught my eye in the gift shop. I persuaded my parents to buy me the cap and that decision has led to many ups and downs as a Manchester United fan over the years. I think that this season though has been more of a roller coaster ride than any other I can recall and I wanted to give my views of the past, the present and the future as a lifelong Manchester United fan.
This season’s highs include the Community Shield comeback win over City, the 8-2 win over Arsenal, three 5-0 away wins, the FA Cup win at City and 8 league wins in a row. Lows include the humiliating 6-1 home defeat by City, the early Champions League exit, the stat-defying home loss to Blackburn, a late FA Cup defeat at Liverpool, being outplayed by Bilbao, the critical 1-0 loss at Wigan, throwing away a 2 goal lead late at home to Everton and the pathetic performance at the Etihad. At times, it feels like I’ve hitched a ride on a yo-yo.
The last five seasons from 2006-7 to 2010-11 are the most successful five year spell that Manchester United have ever had, with 4 league titles, 3 Champions League finals (although only a solitary win), one World Club Championship, 2 Carling Cups and 4 Community Shields. They were unfortunate to come up against one of the best ever club teams in Barcelona in two of the Champions League finals. Maybe it is because of this recent success that this season seems particularly bad as a Manchester United fan. Early exits in all cup competions are especially painful. I should be grateful for the past 20 years of success as I remember before I was 18 when we just won the odd cup every few years. There didn’t seem to be much stress back then as I didn’t expect us to challenge for the league and winning a cup was a rare occasion that was celebrated wildly. With only the odd cup game to get anxious about at the end of some seasons and a largely meaningless league campaign it must be what it’s like being a Liverpool fan these days.
The last four games of this season though have been very depressing as a Manchester United fan and probably the worst few weeks I’ve had as a fan since 1995 when we lost the title on the last day of the season by only drawing with West Ham (with Andy Cole missing a bagful of good chances) and the FA Cup final a week later. I am a born pessimist, but after City lost to Arsenal, the bookies, City’s poor form and pundits had even me believing that we were going to retain the league title. The performance at an in-form Wigan however was really poor with only three shots on target, but United had won eight games in a row before this so a poor performance was due. This was followed by the easy win over Aston Villa, the only shining light from the last month. Then an in form Everton rolled into town and produced an excellent attacking performance. It looked like United had managed to overcome a spirited performance from the blue half of Merseyside with four well-taken goals but poor late defending from United and good finishing from Everton produced a second late two-goal comeback from Everton against United in two seasons.
Finally, United arrived at City, clearly playing for a draw despite Sir Alex denying this, in a plan that failed miserably. They did restrict City to few chances but the loss of concentration at a corner from Smalling was very costly. Maybe the formation from Alex Fergsuon was understandable but the players chosen to fill the positions was mystifying. Leaving out two of our form players in Valencia and Welbeck was strange. It was clear for all to see that there was not enough pace in the midfield to counter attack effectively. Even more surprising was the fact that substitutions and changes to the formation were very slow to occur despite the fact that United had not had a solitary shot on target. Valencia was not brought on until there were only 12 minutes left, and Young with only 7 minutes remaining, hardly enough time for them to make an impact.
Who am I to criticize a manager who has won so many trophies but it did seem like Fergie had finally lost the plot? He seemed to play it like it was a two- legged Champions League semi final. Not one shot on target and lost with a whimper. I’d rather United had a go and lost 6-1 like the home game than play like that; it was just not the United way.
Ultimately, for United to have any chance of winning the league this season, their fate now rests on the performance of another of the Premier League’s form teams, Newcastle United. Newcastle earned a fortunate draw at Old Trafford but outplayed United at home to earn a 3-0 win. This is the sort of performance that Manchester United will be hoping for from the United of Newcastle although they will be surely grateful for a draw that will give them the chance to retain their league title and possibly save the season from being a disaster. Even then though in this topsy-turvy season for Manchester United, you can foresee them dropping points against either Swansea or Sunderland to pass up the chance to take the title if City do drop points at St James’. It is that sort of season. Whatever happens, we’ll keep the red flag flying high, ’cause Man Utd will never die.
It has been written in the press that this Manchester United team is not a patch on some of the former United teams of Alex Ferguson and I would agree. The first choice 11 from the double winning teams and treble winning teams from the 1990s both seem much stronger on paper although this season’s United squad had 12 more points after 32 games then the treble winning side of 1999 and 7 more than the double winning side of 1994. Has the quality of the lower and mid table sides fallen that much in the last 15-20 years? If United manage a win and draw from their last two games and finish in 2nd, it will be the highest points total for a runner up in Premier League history. Ultimately, it means nothing if they finish trophyless with 87 points or 67 points but it does seem to make a point that this Manchester United team is not as bad as the press seem to be making out. This is despite United losing their captain and best defender, Vidic, to injury for more than half of the season.
I don’t buy into the media’s view that teams bottle it though. Things happen and form is temporary. These are professional footballers at the top of their game but they all have bad games, loss of form or make mistakes. They are only human; even Messi misses penalties in Champions League semi finals and the great Barcelona team will not win either La Liga or the Champions League this season. I do not think that City ‘bottled’ it when there was a ten point swing in Manchester United’s favour. They had an understandable loss of form, they hadn’t had a sticky patch in the league all season and with a couple of key defenders out injured during some of those games and a loss of form for Silva, one of their most influential players, and Balotelli losing his head, it was almost inevitable that they would drop points. Manchester United had won 8 games in a row and it was inevitable that they too would lose form at some point.
There have also been articles in the press about how the outcome of the next two games could be the changing of the guard from United dominating to City going on to dominate the English Premier League. United’s squad clearly needs an overhaul soon, central midfield especially, and it’s exigent that the Glaziers make significant funds available to Ferguson to keep United at or near the top as the net spend for the last few years has been much lower than other top teams like City and Chelsea. Ferguson has recently said that he expects to stay another 2-3 years. If a major overhaul is needed though, it might be better to give a large sum of money to the next incoming manager who can buy the players he wants. This may mean money is restricted and United don’t get the investment they need to stay near the top this summer.
Personally I’d like to see a younger manager like David Moyes come to United in the next couple of years, and be given plenty of money and time to create his own team. Whether City stay near the top challenging for league titles, or go on to dominate ultimately depends on whether their rich arab owners keep investing money and whether they can find a way around the incoming UEFA financial fair play rules. It is those two factors that will determine whether they turn into a Blackburn or a Chelsea. The only teams that have been able to challenge United over the cash rich Premier League era are the Arsenal teams of Wenger or the teams built with money invested from outside the club like Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City.
Being a Manchester United fan has certainly given me many great moments of pleasure over my lifetime, but it has also given me many moments of depression and sadness too. I wish that I could watch the games and switch off afterwards and not let the results affect my mood but unfortunately this is not the case. The results can affect my mood for several days after and surrendering an 8 point lead with 6 games left to the rival team from Manchester, when even a pessimist as bad as me was quite sure we almost had it in the bag, will be as depressing as it can possibly get when it comes to football. Probably losing a Champions League final to Liverpool would be worse though.
According to the odds given by the bookmakers, there is between a 60% and 65% chance that I will indeed be depressed at the end of the season. Just four weeks ago, the odds that I would be depressed at the end of the season were about 5%. Always look on the bright side of life, unless you give up an 8 point lead over City to lose the league title. In that case, find a good hiding place until next season.