None of this should come as a surprise, I suppose. Still, the scale and speed of Manchester United’s miserable decline is truly remarkable.
Louis van Gaal looks utterly defeated. How he must wish that he had never taken this poisoned chalice of a job – that he could turn back the clock and ride off into the Algarve sunset to enjoy his retirement as a proud and successful man after his final flourish with a poor Dutch national team.
Alas, he chose to take on one more challenge – the greatest of them all – and now his legacy will be forever sullied. He found United in a state of disarray, put a few pieces back together, before the whole thing came crashing down once again.
This has the feel of a club beyond repair, rotten to its core, crumbling into rubble now that the last pillars keeping it standing, Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill, retired and scuttled off respectively.
Van Gaal must shoulder some of the blame for this disastrous episode, of course, but there is so much more to it it than that. After all, a fish, as they say, rots from the head down.
After selling their soul to the parasitic Glazers all those years ago, United have, in recent times, gone about systematically selling the family silver. In their world cash is king and the highest bidder, be it a noodle company, tyre manufacturer or kit-designer, can become an official partner and plaster the club’s name over its goods. Manchester United, the club that brought us the Busby Babes, now little more than a tacky brand.
As for the fans, the very lifeblood of any club, they are now second-rate citizens, an underclass not to be trusted or respected in any way. As long as they keep buying the merchandise, their voices are lost in the howling wind and whirring wheels of this relentless, money-making juggernaut. Indeed, many of the die-hard supporters whose deep affiliation with the club was passed down to them through the generations have already given up on what was one of their great loves, priced out and no longer recognising the Manchester United of the modern age.
Now the time appears to have come for yet another facet of the club to be cast asunder. Often the last rag to be ripped from the vagabond, the club’s dignity is being shed at an alarming rate.
Shambolic decision-making, both on and off the pitch, have made the club a laughing stock. Van Gaal, hitherto a man of admirable principle, has been convinced to stay against his better judgement on at least one occasion this season, while the walls are breached all around him. It appears that he recognised the grim reality of his situation long ago but was not allowed to walk away with his dignity, if not his reputation, in tact.
Ed Woodward, in his infinite wisdom, refuses to see what has been staring everyone else in the face for months – that Van Gaal has taken this team as far as he can and is now doing far more harm than good.
More concerned with his own position and reputation, Woodward’s vanity and pride appears to be standing in the way of his judgment. You have to wonder where his priorities lie – is he more concerned with the club’s fortunes or his own? Were he still in the banking industry, where he made his name, he would surely not have dithered so long in wielding the axe on a manager who is failing miserably in every way.
No other top club would have allowed such drift, let alone still be allowing it long after the horse has not just bolted but disappeared over the prairie. It is ironic indeed that Woodward, in trying desperately to not look like a fool and a novice, kept Van Gaal, and now looks more foolish and naive than ever before.
Van Gaal is not so much a dead man walking as a man who’s been flogged to within an inch of his life and whose cries for mercy have fallen on deaf ears as he’s dragged naked through the streets being pelted with stones. His press conferences have become an embarrassment as he attempts to stave off legitimate questions about his position and his team’s turgid football, like a man fending off a pack of dogs with a twig.
All the while, the menacing figure of Jose Mourinho lurks in the shadows, growing stronger with every defeat, every gutless performance. And, as if that isn’t enough, even Van Gaal’s right-hand man, foisted upon him in the first place, is after his job. And Ryan Giggs has influential friends both in Old Trafford’s corridors of power and the media.
United’s disarray is thrown into sharper focus still when you look down the road and marvel at the slick, ambitious Manchester City. Run by men who understand the game, when City want something, they tend to get it. Pep Guardiola is the latest acquisition and, along with the lavish new training facilities and impressive academy, it all adds up to a club being run with an eye on the future.
Suddenly, it is hard to escape the feeling that United are being left behind by their city rivals. While City purr along the road in a well-serviced, freshly valeted limousine, United, in their extravagant, suped-up monstrosity, veer this way and that, driven by a blind man, music blaring out of blacked-out windows. They have become a brash, brazen outfit, with oodles of cash but little class.
Ed Woodward and the Glazers fiddle while Old Trafford burns. Their astonishing arrogance saw the unproven David Moyes brought in to replace the greatest manager of modern times, and now it sees Louis van Gaal operating with a gun to his head – the players have given up on their manager, who has himself given up on managing.
Had United simply gone for the best man for the job in the first place, who knows where we would be now? After his travails at Chelsea this season, he may not seem like The Special One anymore, and he wasn’t The Chosen One, but maybe Mourinho is simply The One – the only man with the strength of character and sheer force of will to put this broken club back together.
United fans will have to hope so, or continue to watch helplessly as their club spirals ever downward into a cheap parody of its once great self, destroyed from within by the very people who are meant to be running it.