For most United fans on the internet, they’re too young to really the leanest periods of the club’s history. Munich, for them, is an anniversary to be marked rather than a visceral tug at the heart. The miserable times as United tried to replace Matt Busby sound like an aberration, a time served out by others as the countdown to Fergie Time began. Even 1991/2 and the failure at the last moment is probably too long ago for half the digitally adept United fan. Since the first Premier League season, United have either been successful, or plotting imminent success. The hairiest it got was when it seemed Jose Mourinho would never falter, but United ended that with Ferguson’s last great team, and a Champions League victory.
Disappointment comes from a position of privilege for most Manchester United fans, too lucky and cosseted to know what real failure is. That’s why this season is so scary. Failure, abject failure is inevitable this year, but the really scary thing is that there’s no indication of when it might be turned round. Transfer funds are promised, but who knows if they will be spent correctly by the man in charge.
With that caveat, here are five of the most disappointing United seasons:
2001/2 is an underrated season of disappointment, sandwiched between years that weren’t quite so miserable, and with few long-term problems introduced. But that doesn’t mean the memory can’t sting as hindsight makes starker the failing.
United had Juan Sebastian Veron to combine with Ruud van Nistelrooy, the £28.1 million signing promising to take United from 4-4-2 predictability to the erection central thrill of Argentine flair and guile. The Champions League was there for the taking, as was the league. But it didn’t quite work out like that.
At the start of the season Jaap Stam was sent packing to Lazio for correctly identifying the Neville brothers as stupendously irritating, and replaced with the ageing Laurent Blanc, whom Alex Ferguson had had a crush on for some time. Available on a free transfer from Inter Milan, it was evident why he cost so little as his body failed to adapt to the demands of the league as quickly as his mind still could.
It then kept getting worse. United lost five league games in seven between November and early December. In January, infuriating and notably-accented elf Danny Murphy gave Liverpool another victory against United.
Then Alex Ferguson decided that he’d retire, sending the season into buggery. For a horrible while, Manchester United almost became managed by nascent sex tourist Sven Goran Eriksson as contract negotiations took place behind the scenes. Fortunately for United, Ferguson changed his mind, but he wasn’t able to secure a recovery in time to win the title. But the Champions League stayed winnable.
United had got through their group with ease, finishing top, above Bayern Munich, and then met Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter-finals. Despite squeezing through, United lost David Beckham to an Aldo Duscher tackle, and Uri Geller had a career renaissance. That gave them their next opponent, Bayer Leverkusen.
Put simply, United had the players that meant they should have won. But events conspired against them. Gary Neville fell to the metatarsal curse, and Roy Keane couldn’t play more than eight minutes in the first leg. Beckham, of course, didn’t play at all. The blame lay with United though. They’d had injuries before and would do again, and the team still had Van Nistelrooy, Paul Scholes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ryan Giggs. This was United’s best chance to get through to a final until they met Porto in 2004. Given the genius of Jose Mourinho provides some retrospective mitigation, this failure should hurt more.
There are bad seasons, and then there are seasons where life as you know it is irrevocably ruined; stained, damaged and tarnished forever. 2004/5 is one of those seasons. It was a moment up there with the time your first-born son tells you he doesn’t respect you as a man, and doesn’t understand how you ever ended up manager of his country, and thinks you’re a wanker.
The squad was utter filth – as any squad that had David Bellion, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Alan Smith and Liam Miller would be. But that wasn’t all. Jose Mourinho was around, tossing United into the bin as he laid the foundations for his years of torment. He started the season by beating United by a single goal, and then proceeded to hammer home his superiority at almost every turn.
That was bad enough, watching the nouveau riche nonsense of Stamford Bridge, and the misery that comes with seeing Chelsea fans happy. It got worse, as United lost to a toothless Arsenal in the FA Cup final (dumb luck to lose to a side experiencing its death rattle). It then got worse again.
Liverpool went down 3-0 to AC Milan in Istanbul. Ha ha ha. At least the scousers were going to provide a cheering end to the season.
No. Rafa Benitez’s mathematical foul-up eventually alighted on a Liverpool team with Djimi Traore and Vladimir Smicer in it, and yet still performed a three-goal comeback of ludicrous excitement. Then the extended horror of extra time, when we all knew what was coming, which was then strung out over a penalty shoot out. Liverpool had heroes – and annoyingly those heroes had earned their praise justly, in a Champions League campaign of balls and tactical expertise – and United had nothing.
Throw in the fact that the Glazers had also completed the takeover which would see Alex Ferguson and the executives set about handicapping the side to the tune of half a billion pounds (and counting), and you can count 2004/5 as a foreboding, genuinely tragic glimpse into the future, not simply a nightmare from the past.
Some of us elected to sit out the end of the season, knowing that it would obviously end in a Manchester City league win. They had to beat QPR, woeful all season, and that would ensure their victory. Some of us decided to go to their local for lunch. Some of us were given a free bottle of red to match the roast lamb, and some of us decided that it would be best to have as much of it as quickly as possible to dull the pain.
Some of us were stupid to absent-mindedly check the scores as they came in, and found out that the title was weirdly, in the balance. City were losing, at home, to QPR. United were doing what they needed to and had taken the lead at Sunderland. Pints were ordered to settle the nerves. The phone was increasingly frequently refreshed to provide updates. As the stress started to be outweighed by excitement, more booze was funnelled.
Minutes to go, and United were going to do it. City had fallen apart. It was ridiculous. What a triumph. You sir, a bottle of champagne. United were gonna do it. Oh, an equaliser. No problem, there were only a couple of minutes left but it was getting a little stressful again.
Let’s get this one out of the way, then. Losing the best manager of all time, Manchester United replaced him with David Moyes, available on a free transfer and with no history of top level trophies or European success. Then, the sole transfer target delivered was Marouane Fellaini, who failed to impress and then got injured. Because of a mixture of incompetence, indecision and other less embarrassing circumstances, United tried to reinforce with Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara, Fabio Coentrao, Leighton Baines, Sami Khedira and Ander Herrera, but didn’t.
Then players decided to rebel against Moyes, as real or rumoured transgressions or general mardiness came from Tom Cleverley, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick and Robin van Persie. Phil Neville and Moyes undermined Rafael and chose to use the static Chris Smalling in his place. Shinji Kagawa was rated as less effective than Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia. Cleverley and Carrick were given the chance to prove that they never would be good enough, and no longer would be again, respectively.
Age caught up with Patrice Evra, and the central defence pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand dissolved. David de Gea didn’t quite regress to his weakest days, but he was less imposing than he had been before. Juan Mata was purchased for £37 million, and Moyes decided to use him as a winger, just one example of Moyes being unable – so far – to adapt to managing some of the best players in the world and instead getting them to get the ball wide and hit cross after cross after cross.
There were embarrassing results, with losses to Liverpool, Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion, Everton, Newcastle United, Spurs, Chelsea, Stoke City, Swansea City and Sunderland (in a pathetic League Cup exit), with poor draws with Cardiff City, Fulham and Southampton. More failures than successes for the first time in recent memory.
It’s not that there aren’t reasons for it – Ferguson and the takeover had left this implosion in the post. But it was Ferguson’s genius that masked just how bad it might get once he left – though he deserves much of the blame for creating the situation in the first place. It showed up that Moyes might have been able to take over a successful team, but not one about to collapse. On the season’s poor showing there is no evidence for fans to hope that he will make the best of the chance to rebuild. Now, that’s disappointing.