Football is meant to be fun.
Football is meant to offer a release from the stresses and strains of everyday life, a means of escape from reality, which can, at times, be grim.
My own life has been thrown into turmoil of late. Without boring you with the details, suffice to say, over the past few months the darkness has never been far away, always threatening to engulf me, to drag me down into the abyss.
In the past, at such times, Manchester United offered a way out of the black hole, even if the respite only lasted the length of a football match. It gave me something to look forward to when all else seemed lost. This may seem absurd to those who do not love the beautiful game, who mock and belittle it with talk of blokes booting pig’s bladders about a muddy field like heathens. Yet those people fail to grasp the enormous power of football to wash away life’s cares, however briefly. It is why we keep on coming back, week after week, in wind and rain and hail and snow. For, however bleak our lives may seem, we know from past experience that football, on its day, can supply us with moments of joy so great that we are able, unthinking, to cast aside the cloak of despair and gratefully forget ourselves for just a little while.
During my recent struggles, however, for the first time in my life, United have failed to transport me from my despondency, even for a flickering second. I’ve watched most matches this season with the air of a man momentarily looking up at a passing train – unmoved and uninspired.
Football is meant to be fun. Yet under Louis van Gaal it has become anything but. Watching United has become more an act of endurance than enjoyment. Gone are the moments of sheer joy. Gone is the sense that anything, even in the dying seconds, is possible. Gone is the magic. Gone is the quintessentially United-like trait that led to Old Trafford being called the ‘Theatre of Dreams.’ That sense of beauty and adventure we all sing about week after week. Gone. Old Trafford fast becoming known as the Theatre of Dreams for all the wrong reasons. Manchester United, with all our rich history, all our romance, suddenly become the footballing equivalent of counting sheep, a sleepy fug of a team, shorn of self-expression, imagination and freedom.
Many fans, like me, will feel a sense of sadness at present, for it wasn’t meant to be like this. Louis van Gaal, with his ludicrously impressive CV, was meant to sweep into Old Trafford and restore Manchester United to their former glory.
He has failed to do that. But that’s not where the sadness stems from. It stems from the sense that, had Van Gaal believed in himself, had he believed in his players, had he not given in to fear and doubt and settled for unspeakably dull, hard-to-beat pragmatism, things could have been different.
It’s hard not to feel that Van Gaal’s time as United manager has been almost completely defined by that infamous second half away to Leicester City last season. He said himself he’d never been so humiliated. Yet it was just one of those daft games. If only he’d seen it as such, one of those crazy performances that happen occasionally and should simply be swept aside with a wave of the hand. If only he’d put that ludicrous second half down to a bad day at the office and concentrated, instead, on all the many positives from the first half, when United looked like United for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement – full of verve and panache and self-belief and footballing artistry. Instead, he allowed the second half capitulation to cloud his judgement. And his reign, from that point forth, has been sullied by self-doubt.
Well over a year on, United need a change. We have an incomplete yet talented squad, but we are crying out for fresh ideas, fresh impetus, a loosening of the shackles that were fastened so tightly after that debacle at the King Power Stadium last year.
It feels like the Louis van Gaal era is drawing to a close; like the club is clinging on to it through fear, foolish pride, and the few remaining remnants of hope that, miraculously, he will turn things around. Last time they did that was when David Moyes was in charge, leaving it until it was mathematically impossible to qualify for the Champions League before pulling the trigger. Fans had seen the writing on the wall long before that day and many are currently experiencing a nauseating sense of déjà vu.
Van Gaal recently admitted to being bored by his team’s performances. Yet he does little to change this and fans are becoming increasingly bored by him. Even as Wayne Rooney scored his unlikely winner at Anfield on Sunday and all about him were busy celebrating, there was the manager still scribbling in his notebook. Perhaps he had just remembered that Mrs Van Gaal had asked him to bring home a bag of sugar and he was adding it to his shopping list, so weary has he become by his mind-numbing team, no longer capable of enjoying even a last-gasp goal against United’s biggest rivals.
It feels like United is a club in limbo, clinging on to a lame duck of a manager, clowns in the boardroom running a circus whose performers’ hearts are no longer in it.
Old Trafford, packed to the rafters for years, is home to an increasing number of empty seats on match-days, those who continue to go week after week sloping away weary and demoralised at full time, wondering why on earth they continue to bother.
Football is meant to be fun. Sadly, under Louis van Gaal, it stopped being fun a long time ago.