With the joy of achievement comes the burden of expectation, and there at few football clubs on the entire planet at which that burden is higher than Manchester United. Over the last twenty-one years, this club has enjoyed a period of success unprecedented in the entire history of English football, and unlike other periods of dominance at other clubs in the past, this one has been cemented in place by the reliance on ready money that professional football now requires and the lopsided nature of the distribution of that money, both through the Premier League and the Champions League, this one seems unlikely to end at any time in the foreseeable future.
And yet, and yet. Those who have hoped and prayed for an end to Manchester United’s dominance of the Premier League always had one moment upon which their hopes were pinned. All of United’s success had come under the managership of Sir Alex Ferguson, but he would have to retire one day. What then? Well, now that day has come, and we will find out. Ferguson’s retirement from the managerial position at Old Trafford was the biggest single football story of last season, and the second biggest was that of who would replace him. That burden has fallen upon the shoulders of David Moyes, of course, and the level of scrutiny that Moyes is under is already stifling to the point of suffocation. We can say with a degree of certainty that the new manager will not get the five and half years that Ferguson had to find the right balance to take the championship back to Old Trafford. If he’s lucky, he might get five and a half matches to start getting it right.
As ever in recent years, this has been a quiet summer in the transfer market for the club, whose pursuit of Thiago Alcantara ended with the Spanish under-21 captain signing for Bayern Munich rather than heading for Old Trafford, and whose other high profile target, Cesc Fabregas, also seems unlikely to be moving to the club after the new Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino insisted last week that the player is not for sale and remains part of his plans at Camp Nou next season, and Barcelona is one of the few – and it is a number that is increasingly diminishing – clubs in the world whose managers can make such a statement with any degree of confidence. In an era during which it has started to look as if bringing in expensive new players has become more of a vanity project for owners than anything to do with increasing the actual quality of a team, though, perhaps Manchester United’s cheque book is best left in their pockets for now, and if it isn’t, well, the club has almost a month to bring in the players that are required before the transfer window slams shut.
After all, Manchester United won the Premier League championship at a canter last season, and Manchester City, who finished a distant second but were the only club who ever looked likely to threaten them at the top of the table, are undergoing a period of change of their own this summer as well. There are likely to be challenges from elsewhere too this season – the return of Jose Mourinho may come to prove one way or the other whether that old motto “Never go back” actually has any substance to it or not – but, ultimately, Manchester United are likely to start this season with the same squad that finished last season with the rest of the division mere specks in their rear view mirror. Robin Van Persie isn’t suddenly going to forget how to play football because there’s a new Scotsman standing on the touchline, chewing gum and with a furious look on his face.
Still, though, all eyes will be on the new manager come the start of the season. Winning the Premier League in the stately manner in which the club managed it last season will be a push, but there is also the small matter of the Champions League to be taken into account when discussing Manchester United. It’s difficult to believe with a great deal of consideration that the club will be able to improve considerably upon their showing in that competition, considering last year’s performance and the amounts of money being thrown around by the likes of Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, but in what can only be considered a “transitional season” – indeed, we might easily consider the coming season to be the ultimate “transitional season”, so vast is the legacy that needs to be followed – that perhaps a season with greater focus on domestic competitions might be to Moyes’ benefit.
The level expectations at Old Trafford, however, remain unlike those at any other club in England. This is the cost of unbroken success and it is a choice that Moyes has chosen to take on. Certainly, there will be little sympathy from the supporters of other clubs if Manchester United have a season that doesn’t end with an open top bus parade, and it might even be argued that a period without success might even be good for their souls. The club’s financial weight means that a period of decline such as that seen after the retirement of Sir Matt Busby in 1969 seems almost unthinkable. A couple of seasons of finishing in, say, fourth or fifth place in the Premier League would be a walk in the park in comparison with most of the decade that followed the end of Busby’s spell of managing the club. And there’s little to suggest that next season is even likely to be that “bad” for Manchester United.
Next season will be an informative one for the supporters of Manchester United, if nothing else. Those that have wondered about what that post-Ferguson era will get an indication of how things might pan out, and all might get an idea of the uncertainty that the supporters of all clubs feel, all the time. It might end in a double or more. You never know, and with Manchester United only a fool would completely rule it out without even having seen the team perform on the pitch. The only thing that we can say about Manchester United this season is that it will be different. Like it or not, the Ferguson years are not going to be returning, even if the former manager will be casting his eyes over the running of affairs from his new position as a club director and likely advising his successor. Times, however, have to change and Manchester United now has to change if it is to build upon the legacy of its extraordinary two decades.
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