Manchester United: That Was Then & This Is Now

by | Oct 24, 2018

This season marks the twentieth anniversary of Manchester United’s greatest ever season, which ended in unspeakable drama at the Camp Nou when, from out of nowhere, Alex Ferguson’s team pulled two rabbits out of a hat in a breathless couple of minutes to overturn Bayern Munich’s lead and bring the European Cup back to the city for the first time since 1968 to top of a season that had already been defined by winning the Premier League and the FA Cup. It was a season that quickly became a part of the folklore of the club, and remains so to this day.

That was then, though, and this is now. Two decades on, Manchester United no longer feel like one of European football’s true powerhouses. The trappings are broadly still present and correct. The high profile manager. The expectant, global fan base. The dizzying amounts of money. On the pitch, though, Manchester United are a busted flush, yesterday’s men to be swatted aside in order to allow the juggernauts of twenty-first century football to get on with altogether more serious business. There was a time when a match like last night’s Champions League group match against Juventus would have been An Event akin to two angry bulls locking horns. The results didn’t always go United’s way, as their Champions League record since that night in Catalunya confirmed many times over, but no matter what happened come the end of ninety minutes at least it felt as though a club of this grandiosity was performing on its rightful stage. Last night, however, was a hopelessly sodden squib. Manchester United, to put it bluntly, ain’t what they used to be.

It can sometimes feel as though media coverage of the Premier League is reducing to a Jose Mourinho-shaped singularity. The club’s manager now hogs headlines every single day as an endless cycle of speculation, fuelled by his behaviour before, during and after matches, and forensic analysis of that behaviour. And he doesn’t seem to be the manager that he was, although he remains a somewhat removed from the brooding character who saw out the last few months of his time at Chelsea with a dark, dark cloud apparently hanging over him at every turn, but there is a blind spot in the constant churn of articles that dissect his every decision, which is that a malaise which began before he arrived (and may continue after he departs, for all we know) feels institutional and can’t realistically be the fault of one person alone.

We talk a lot about “blame” these days, with its unsubtle, shaming, pejorative air, when perhaps “responsibility” – or, rather, a lack thereof – should perhaps be a more appropriate word for the position in which the club has found itself for so much of the time since Alex Ferguson finally retired, five and a half years ago. The club has bounced from manager to manager, occasionally splurging nosebleed-inducing amounts of money on Big Signings, but with little sense of any sense of coordination or a plan beyond the somewhat oblique “get back to where we belong.” If there is a strategy at Old Trafford beyond “make vast amounts of money for the owners”, it’s failed. If there isn’t one, then this in itself is a failure, unless you happen to be directly profiting from it all. And that’s where the problem rests for Manchester United supporters. The owners of the club are doing just fine, thank you very much, and for so long as they’re doing just fine the impetus to change is likely to remain conspicuous by its absence. There’s nothing that anybody can do to dislodge them other than protest, and they’ve tried that, on a scale that has never been seen at a football club in this country before, to little avail.

And this season has been pretty disastrous so far, all things told. It’ll soon be November, and Manchester United sit in tenth place in the Premier League table after having won four of their opening nine matches of the season. There have also been three defeats, at home against Tottenham Hotspur, and away against Brighton & Hove Albion and West Ham United. The Champions League, meanwhile, has already brought two home defeats and the distinct possibility of elimination in the group stages of the competition, and the League Cup brought a defeat on penalty kicks against Derby County, a side from the Championship, and at Old Trafford.

When they beat Newcastle United by three goals to two a couple of weeks ago, the extremes of the perceptions of Mourinho’s United were thrown sharply into focus, and arguably in record time. Two goals down at half-time, his sacking – as exclusively revealed a couple of days earlier with customary accuracy by a gutter-dwelling newspaper – was an inevitability, only for his players to pull their fingers out of their backsides and rescue a win. By the full-time whistle, of course, The Magic was back. But was it, though? Newcastle United have been abject all season but were allowed to race to a two-nil lead nevertheless. To have to come from two goals down against such opposition didn’t feel much like the dawn of a bright new anything.

Then there was the Chelsea match, which again brought about a substantial improvement in the second half, although there was a certain irony to the fact that it required two goals from Anthony Martial, whose rift with Mourinho became public knowledge during the summer, to overturn Chelsea’s half-time advantage, and also to the fact that Chelsea’s late, late equalising goal came during stoppage-time that was most likely added after referee Mike Dean stopped his watch with ten minutes to play over the vast amount of time that United were taking to withdraw Martial from the game with a little under ten minutes of the match left to play. “United are back” seems to be the one thing that the club’s supporters want to be able to say with confidence, but it’s difficult to do so when any progress that the team may be making seems so stop-start in its nature.

The Manchester United team of 1998/99 didn’t have a great first half of the season, either. They were comfortably beaten in that season’s Charity Shield match against Arsenal and didn’t fair that much better in the League Cup, going out against Tottenham Hotspur in the quarter-finals, whilst four draws from their six group matches led to them only narrowly edging through to the knockout part of that competition. On Christmas Day 1998 they were in third place in the Premier League table having lost their home match at home against Middlesbrough six days previously. That Middlesbrough defeat, however, turned out to be their last in any competition that season. They scored six goals away to Leicester City and eight away to Nottingham Forest, and marched through to two cup finals – winning them both – as well as the Premier League title.

No matter how remarkable and exceptional the Manchester United team from the first half of 1999 might have been, similar runs were not completely out of the question at Old Trafford at other times, either, but it feels like a stretch to be able to imagine this season’s team doing the same. There is obviously talent in the current Manchester United team, but much of it comes with question marks attached. Romelu Lukaku can be unplayable when he’s in his stride, but what proportion of his total time on the pitch is he in his stride for? Paul Pogba is lavishly gifted but seems to require careful management, so who is managing him carefully? David de Gea is amongst the best goalkeepers in the world, but for how much longer will he stay in this dysfunctional atmosphere? We all thought that Alexis Sanchez was struggling for form because he wanted out at Arsenal, but what if he is simply past his peak now, with United having seen practically none of the benefits of his talent?

And when Jose Mourinho states that “Juventus were at a different level of quality, stability, experience and knowhow” (despite having spent substantially less than United on players over the last couple of years), does he not see that, as the manager of the club, his own comments hardly paint him in a positive light? Manchester United are one of the richest football clubs in the world, with an intercontinental fan base, a 76,000 capacity stadium and commercial and television contracts that are the envy of almost every other football club on this planet. And this remains true even if we factor out the vast amounts of money that have been squandered as a result of the Glazer takeover. True enough, the Glazers are reprehensible, but they have spent considerable amounts of money on the team in recent seasons. That hasn’t been the problem. The problem has been building something coherent to follow Alex Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford.

Even the money thrown at Manchester City in recent years is something of a red herring, though, so far as Manchester United are concerned. City have had a higher net spend than United since Mourinho took over at Old Trafford, but they’re the only club for whom that’s true in the whole of Europe, and this in turn shines a light upon a fundamental truth about the megaclubs during an era when money rules all in football: there are no excuses, any more. Over the last three or four decades, concession after concession has been made to the biggest club, from the ending of the practice of sharing gate receipts for league matches – which lasted until into the 1980s – to forming the Premier League in order to clean up all the television money without having to share with those pesky lower division clubs whilst, on a European stage, competitions have been endlessly tweaked and they have benefited from rapidly spiralling commercial contracts. If Manchester United feel outspent or out-manoeuvered by  Manchester City or PSG, well, what they’re experiencing now is what the supporters of most football clubs have felt with regard to bigger clubs for decades and decades. Financial imbalance, whether through “financial doping” or not”, isn’t very nice for those who don’t benefit from it.

The 1998/99 team’s Premier League title was the first of three in a row, a feat that the club would repeat between 2007 and 2009, but that season was also the start of something else altogether. Rupert Murdoch made his bid to buy the club in September 1998, and it was in April 1999 that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission blocked the moved on the grounds that “the advantages which ownership of Manchester United would give BSkyB over other broadcasters in future sales of Premier League broadcasting rights would substantially increase its chances of winning those rights” and because, “the merger would damage the quality of British football by reinforcing the trend towards growing inequalities between the larger richer clubs and the smaller, poorer ones and by giving BSkyB additional influence over Premier League decisions about the organisation of football leading to some decisions which would not reflect the game’s long term interests.” The Glazers began their purchase of shares in the club in September 2003, completing the acquisition of a controlling stake by May 2005. It might even be argued – although several points in the club’s history have equally valid claims – that the sequence of events that has ultimately ended in where we are today began during that season.

It’s been five years since the retirement of Alex Ferguson. Since then, Manchester United have had three managers, none of which have been able to launch a serious bid for the Premier League title, never mind the Champions League. Money has continued to be frittered away on dividends to under-performing directors and increasingly on outlandish transfer fees on player who have broadly not lived up to expectations. And whilst last season they could hardly have been reasonably expected to do much more in the league than finish as runners-up to Manchester City, if the start of this season does indicate any sort of trend, it indicates that last season was the exception rather than the rule in the post-Ferguson era, as opposed to the start of a bright, new future.

Bu there is one name that has been missing from all of this, so far. Former chief executive David Gill left his position at the same time as Alex Ferguson, and if no-one has been hired to fill the hole that Ferguson left with his departure, the same might be said for Gill as well. Ed Woodward is, of course, the tailor’s dummy occupying this position. He’s been very good for the club’s commercial revenue income – the club’s commercial revenue grew £48.7 million in 2005 to £117.6 million in 2012, the period during which he was in charge of the club’s commercial and media operations – but he has been conspicuously unsuccessful since assuming his new position. Transfer window after transfer window has felt squandered (despite spending an amount of money on players that is beyond the reach of 99% of clubs), and at this point in time it’s likely that Woodward is probably substantially less popular than anyone else at Old Trafford, including the manager.

The suspicion amongst a large and growing proportion of the club’s support is that figures like growth in commercial revenues is considerably more important to the owners of Manchester United than anything that could ever happen on the pitch. They’re still here because the club is still making them money and are under practically no pressure to sell whatsoever. And this is where Manchester United’s post-Ferguson & Gill headaches start to feel intractable. Replacing Jose Mourinho and throwing another heap of money at big money signings may help, if it is part of a wider plan to get the right people into the right positions right the way across the club, as has happened at Manchester City over the last few seasons. There doesn’t, however, seem to be a coherent plan at Manchester United, no targets to work towards, just occasional bursts of throwing money at a problem that money on its own can’t solve. In the absence of having anyone specific to blame for the club’s lack of direction in recent years, it’s most likely that a little of the fault for the club’s current position rests with just about everybody from the very top down, and it’s going to get exponentially more difficult and expensive to fix this with each passing season.