As the full-time whistle blew at Old Trafford this evening, the strangest feeling came over me. Prior to the match, if you’d asked me, I’d have probably said that I wanted Manchester City to win this match. It’s a reflex reaction to twenty years of unprecedented success from Manchester United – the taste of schadenfreude can be prove to be surprisingly enduring – and the lingering residue of the idea that Manchester City are the underdogs in these fixtures, an idea that became throughly ingrained in my psyche over the thirty years or so of my football watching life up to the point at which Abu Dhabi United took over the ownership of the club. I had become angry at Manchester United.
First of all, though, let’s get the flip-side of what this is all about out of the way. Manchester City were excellent this evening, brushing their city rivals aside as an elephant might do a mosquito. Always in control of the tempo of the game, they started the brighter of the two teams to devastating effect with a goal after forty-five seconds and, whilst Manchester United did occasionally fizz when they got into something approaching attacking positions, ultimately is was a more than comfortable win which demonstrated – as if their resounding win in the converse fixture at The City of Manchester Stadium earlier this season hadn’t already done this reasonably comprehensively – the full extent of the gulf between these two teams at the moment.
But this isn’t, for all of their many talents, really about Manchester City. This is all about Manchester United. Poor, wretched Manchester United. There was much talk over the couple of days building up to the match on the subject of whether David Moyes might finally have started to turn a corner over the last week or so. Overturning that two goal deficit against Olympiakos and winning at West Ham United last weekend without breaking into too much of a canter might have felt a little like that, but false hope can be a dangerous emotion and last night something approaching what passes for normal service these days returned to Old Trafford.
It took forty-five seconds for the rout to begin, the ball swept into the goal from close range as five Manchester United defenders stood around like mannequins in the Megastore window. The home side did eventually find a little composure in the latter stages of the half, rode their luck a little by keeping Marouane Fellaini on the pitch after his elbow-led assault on Pablo Zabaleta – that and a furious but mistimed tackle by Danny Welbeck were about as much as United supporters had to cheer for much of the first half – and forced Joe Hart into a couple of smart saves. As the clock ran down, though, and the fear in the whites of the eyes became more evident, City’s composure was the surer of the two teams.
Goals two and three came as the rictus grin fell from around Old Trafford. It had felt for long periods of the match as of the crowd might even be the key to United hauling their way back into the match, such was its force of personality when the team was a goal behind. With those two second half goals however, the mask – that Manchester United could in any way live with this Manchester City team – slipped beyond the point of redemption. Old Trafford has seen enough of these symbolic moments for the idea that this team will suddenly click into gear to be nothing but a fading memory. First Liverpool, now Manchester City. By the end of the match last night, David Moyes wore the expression of a man for whom the only escape route from being a laughing stock might well be to not be the manager of Manchester United any more.
Yet last night, to hold the manager alone responsible for what went wrong would be to miss the mark. Last night, the Manchester United players seemed slovenly and disinterested. It took less that one minute for five players to be standing around doing effectively nothing as the ball thudded out for the opening goal of the match to be scored. And it was this, I suspect, that made me so strangely angry last night. If a player or a group of players isn’t good enough, then that’s one thing. If a player or a group of players look as if they would rather be doing anything but playing for Manchester United against Manchester City, that’s another altogether. And last night, that was how it felt at Old Trafford.
To be absolutely clear on this, no football supporter has a “right” to success on the pitch. Manchester United supporters have, for the previous two decades, been incredibly lucky to have teams and players served up before them that they have. What supporters do have, however, is the right to expect their team to at least try. Heaven knows that we pay enough for the right to go to football matches these days, and if there may be no more powerful a symbol for the frankly dysfunctional relationship between the professional footballer and the football supporter than the sight of 70,000 supporters trying to will an equalising goal while the players go through the motions on the pitch itself. It’s a hackneyed criticism, for sure, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
So that’s where this anger came from, and that’s why it’s kind of irrelevant whether it involved Manchester United or not. Last night at Old Trafford wasn’t merely another home defeat. These matches carry a symbolism around their neck that everybody should be aware of. The supporters certainly seem to understand that, but last night out seldom felt as if the players did. Can or should the manager be held responsible for this? Well yes, of course, but there’s a finite amount that anybody’s motivational powers can do. For all the caterwauling in the direction of David Moyes both last night and today, however, it’s difficult to imagine that there would have been too many players who could look themselves in the changing room mirror after their abject performance last night. And the supporters of Manchester United, as should the supporters of any football club, certainly deserve better than that.
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