It is impossible to escape the air of despondency that has engulfed Manchester United over the last three years. A quarter of a century in the making under Sir Alex Ferguson, the spirit and self-belief he fostered in players and fans alike has been entirely sapped.
That last title win of the Ferguson era seems like a lifetime ago and there is no telling when the next triumph will come. Perhaps we will win the FA Cup this term but, however welcome the sight of Wayne Rooney lifting that famous old trophy would be, it would be akin to watching a man attempt to paper over cracks in a landscape riven by an earthquake with a postage stamp.
Even if United do somehow manage to land some silverware in May, the memories of what has gone before under Louis van Gaal will continue to loom large.
As a thirty-five year-old man, I can honestly say that the last two seasons, other than a few fleeting performances, have been the most excruciatingly dull of my lifetime supporting the club. It has been so bad that, at times, I have found myself pining for eighty-one United crosses in one match. Perhaps the passage of time has softened the sense of desperation felt during David Moyes’ tenure, but it never felt as hopeless as it has under Van Gaal, the sense of drift never so pronounced.
Neither Moyes nor Van Gaal were right for the role, though the greater sense of expectation when the latter arrived perhaps goes some way to explaining the feeling of disappointment and despair that now weighs heavy on us all.
Still, as this season that never had a chance to fizzle out, because it never sparked into life in the first place, draws to a close, the tiny hopeful glimmer of a top four finish and the promise of a first FA Cup for a generation is like a life-support machine that refuses to be turned off.
That being said, it has strayed perilously close to flatlining, with empty seats, a phenomenon we have long ridiculed our city neighbours for, becoming an increasingly regular sight on match days. I know of numerous fans who, having gone to every game at Old Trafford with the zeal and regularity of those fulfilling a religious pilgrimage for years, now missing matches and choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere.
I myself wondered about taking my seven year-old son to the Aston Villa game. Having seen us beat Spurs 3-0 last season and Wolfsburg 2-1 this term, his next experience of a match-day was our 1-0 defeat to Southampton, one of the worst games I’ve ever watched at the so-called Theatre of Dreams, two teams hurtling into each-other with all the grace of a bull attempting ballet. My little boy, like the rest of us, left feeling flat, the trudge back down Sir Matt Busby Way lent apt pathetic fallacy by the freezing, pouring rain.
In the end I decided to take him to the Villa match, against my better judgement. I was fortunate that it was on that visit he noticed that Marcus Rashford wears the same number on his shirt as he does playing for his local under-8 side. And, just like that, he had a new hero and it was not a wasted trip, no thanks to the grim football on show.
If the empty seats and ‘if we have to’ listlessness of the atmosphere at that game didn’t give United’s decision makers enough food for thought, perhaps their latest experiment will. Having sent thousands of direct messages via Twitter to fans, practically begging them to renew their season tickets, they will have been left in no doubt about the mood among supporters. The club will probably claim this is simply their latest step in embracing the new world of social media but the message will be ringing loud and clear – sack Van Gaal and we’ll think about it. After all, a season ticket doesn’t come cheap at 800 odd pounds or, put another way, roughly £40 a goal so far this term.
In short, we’ve had enough.
So what next? Let’s assume Van Gaal will, indeed, be on his way come May. What will the next man inherit? After all, the last thing we need is more wholesale changes, upheaval placed upon upheaval.
The fact is that United do not have a terrible team, they just have a terrible manager, hence the terrible football.
Cut away the doom and gloom and there are the makings of a fairly strong spine in David De Gea, Chris Smalling, Morgan Schneiderlin and the wonderful youngsters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Luke Shaw, providing he recovers fully from his terrible injury, is one of the finest young players in the country, while Memphis Depay, if you strip away the ego, shows great promise. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind are fine footballers and there are other exciting youngsters emerging, particularly Timothy Fosu-Mensah, who looks more composed at eighteen years-old than most seasoned Premier League players.
The next manager certainly needs to flesh things out but the biggest problem by far is at the head. Remove Van Gaal and remarkable things could happen with a few astute signings added to the current crop. It’s amazing what a bit of decent coaching can do. Just ask Spurs fans.
A change of manager brings no guarantees that the good times will be rolling again any time soon, but it would at least lift the mood and offer hope of a brighter future. Which is exactly what United’s joy-starved fans and shackled players are crying out for – a shaft of light at the end of the tunnel.