It was sheer boredom which allowed me to stumble across Rob Smyth’s damning report of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United which was written last summer. Twenty days before United opened the 2006/2007 season with the memorable 5-1 battering of Fulham, United had been written off. Our decline was evident, according to the likes of Smyth and pretty much every other sports writer, with the second place finish and Carling Cup being as good as it could get for us. Of course Jose Mourinho would lead Chelsea to their third title in a row, whilst Arsenal, Liverpool and even Spurs would be too much for United.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and of course it is easy to gloat once your team have proved themselves victorious. However, I never quite bought in to the “United in decline” stories which were printed over the two seasons preceding our 2007 title. I did consider that maybe I was going mad, that my bias was allowing me to see things which weren’t really there though. Looking at our first XI of Van der Sar – Neville – Ferdinand – Vidic – Heinze (before Evra emerged as the top quality left back we know him as) – Giggs – Scholes – Carrick – Ronaldo – Rooney – Saha, I couldn’t quite believe we would do as badly as the press told us we would. Maybe winning the title was out of the question, but a fifth place finish? Surely not.
Whether you too believed we were dead and buried, or if you always had faith Fergie would come up with the goods again, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading this article from The Guardian, dated May 31st 2006.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s brilliance famously knocked Liverpool off their perch. Now his incompetence is doing the same to Manchester United.
It was John Cleese, in Clockwise, who said: “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” Manchester United fans would beg to differ. Usually, the best thing about pre-season is the hope: reality’s incisors have yet to pierce the gums of optimism, and fans can live off the balmy, often barmy belief that this is their year. For supporters of most of the other 91 English clubs, that’s the mood right now. For United fans? Forget it. After three seasons of papering over the cracks, it seems most United fans are awaiting the moment that the fault lines tracing a veiny path across Old Trafford are exposed.
Almost everything about the club reeks of disarray. Owned by the Glazers, who push buttons from a remote hideaway like Dr Evil; run by a manager who shreds his legacy at every turn; almost exclusively represented by the inadequate (Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson) and the odious (Rio Ferdinand); unable to close a deal for The Shit’s reserve keeper, never mind the new Roy Keane. The signing of Michael Carrick, a Pirlo when a Gattuso was needed, is a band aid for a bullet wound, and a ludicrously expensive one at that.
If anything, it’s a surprise that United have bought anyone at all. This summer, they have been like a pathetic drunk lumbering across a dancefloor at 1.45am, trying to get off with everything that moves. No matter how many people they move in for – and if reports are to be believed, United have made offers for dozens of players – nobody wants to go near them. And the one person who surely would, Damien Duff, was allowed to slip into the arms of Newcastle for less than United paid for Patrice Evra. You couldn’t make it up. You don’t have to.
United finished second last season, but that as much about the deficiency of the Premiership as their own quality. Arsenal will surely not have a four-month blind spot this season, while all evidence suggests that Liverpool’s gradient will continue on its upward trajectory. With Tottenham getting stronger, even with the loss of Carrick, it is conceivable that, if they start slowly and get significant injuries, United could finish fifth; in today’s environment, that would be disastrous.
The problems are so obvious, so fundamental, as to be beggar belief that they have not been addressed. Just as the glory years of 1992 to 2001 will only fully be appreciated in 20 years’ time, so will Ferguson’s subsequent failure. It is particularly bewildering that a man who once exerted such an unyielding grip on every single aspect of the club that he had to be virtually coerced into delegating has let things slip to this extent. Take the Cristiano Ronaldo situation: Ferguson said recently that he had not even spoken to Ronaldo since the World Cup, a dereliction of duty that is in total contrast to the us-against-the-world protection that he gave to David Beckham – and for which, for a time, he was so thrillingly rewarded – in 1998.
Once upon a time Ferguson could play ‘who blinks first’ with fate and win every time, his iron will shaping his destiny exactly as he wanted. Now he is reduced to uttering garbage like “it’s like having a new signing” of Paul Scholes, Ole Solskjaer, Gabriel Heinze and Alan Smith, the irrational if-I-say-it-enough-it-might-happen gibberish you’d associate with a serial loser like Kevin Keegan. These days, the man they call The Hairdryer is full of nothing but hot air.
Ferguson’s squad, once so taut, is a baggy mess of has-beens, never-will-bes and Liam Miller. The simple repetition of 4-4-2, of Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Beckham, Cole and Yorke, has given way to myriad tactical and personnel changes, to a ruinous obsession with utility players and tinkering. It’s a truly appalling fact that, with Ruud van Nistelrooy gone, none of United’s outfield players have played in only one position at the club. A nadir was reached in the FA Cup game at Wolves last season, when nearly £60m of defensive and attacking talent (Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney) was used in the centre of midfield.
It is an increasingly inescapable conclusion that, unwittingly or otherwise, Ferguson is winding down, a prizefighter who no longer has the stomach or the wit for an admittedly enormous challenge which, once upon a time, he would have fervently inhaled. Like he did with Liverpool. Ferguson’s almost maniacal yearning to “knock Liverpool off their fucking perch” was arguably the single most important factor in United’s 1990s renaissance. It makes it all the more vicious an irony that, 10 years later, he should knock United off the perch he had made for them through increasingly rank mismanagement.
Indeed, it must irk him beyond belief that United are making exactly the same mistakes that Liverpool did: lack of pheromones in the transfer market; laughable, fall-back signings at suspicious and ridiculous prices; deluded ramblings (“we are as good as Chelsea, no question”) – and, worst of all, a dressing-room where playing the field seems as important as playing the game. Liverpool’s Spice Boys were bad, but they have nothing on Merk Berks like Ferdinand, Richardson and Wes Brown.
Ferguson has taken this end-of-an-empire template and, incredibly, managed to develop it: he’s added a sprawling, outsized squad chock-full of obscenely well-paid deadwood; insultingly obvious spin that a two-year-old could see through (the Van Nistelrooy saga); economy with the truth (Ferguson ridiculed a journalist for saying that Paul Scholes had been scouting for United; a few days later Scholes confirmed the story); a coaching set-up that had Wayne Rooney playing wide for a season and turned Ronaldo from the world’s most thrilling off-the-wall talent into a run-of-the-mill winger when he plays for United, as was confirmed by his liberated displays for Portugal at the World Cup.
Ferguson, an essentially honourable man, is partly suffering because of the impossibly high standards he set, and he carries the fatigued incomprehension of a man who is out of time. When he cites his favourite United team it is not the Treble-winners of 1999, but the Double-winners of 1994: Schmeichel, Bruce, Pallister, Ince, Keane, Hughes, Cantona, Robson – a team that dripped masculinity, who bonded over blockbusting Saturday-night sessions, who embodied the old-school values to which Ferguson can relate. Real men. The gentrification generation – sarong-wearing, pink champagne-swigging metrosexuals – are entirely beyond his comprehension. He could handle one, David Beckham, for a time before eventually giving up on him. Now he has a pack of them, for whom the hairdryer means only one thing – a trip to Toni & Guy. It is a different world. Ferguson probably doesn’t even know what ‘merk’ means.
Everywhere, principles are being sacrificed. In years gone by Ferdinand – who for all his irrefutable ability is the type of character whose presence in a United shirt symbolises much of what has gone wrong with the club – would’ve been out the door faster than Paul Ince could say ‘big-time Charlie’, but now Ferguson can’t afford to lose his only world-class defender. In years gone by he wouldn’t have considered signing someone like Patrick Vieira, on grounds of age or character, but now he is left looking for someone, anyone, to appease the fans. In years gone by he would never have given a game to someone like John O’Shea, whose sole use is to put the podge in a hodgepodge midfield, or someone as meek as Darren Fletcher. In years gone by, he would never have sanctioned the mediocre football that, except for a few giddy weeks in the spring of 2003, United have played ever since Carlos Queiroz arrived in 2002 spouting gobbledygook disguised as continental sophistication.
And the thing is, it is only going to get worse: Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham have all made shrewd, cheap signings and are going in one direction. United are going the other way: they are hugely dependent on Ferdinand and Rooney, but no number of Carling Cup medals is going to sate their ambition. Then there is the Glazer factor, the full, inevitable horror of which is only just beginning to emerge. United fans think this season is going to be bad. It hasn’t even started.