Here we go again, then. This has been a summer of discontent at Old Trafford, with any activities in the transfer market comfortably overshadowed by the issuance of and reaction to a highly controversial IPO which has further divided supporters of a club which has seldom seemed ‘United’ in any sense other than in the continuing and relentless pursuit of success. Some have argued that this rancour is a prelude to the collapse of the Manchester United empire, but what we have seen since the end of last season has been little new, rather the reheating of arguments that have plagued – but only really partially actually affected – the club since the Glazers first rolled into town more than eight years ago. And perhaps the most noticeable symptom of this ongoing non-battle for power this summer has been that pre-season previews of Manchester Uniteds prospects for the coming nine months have been as much about the inner workings of the New York Stock Exchange as they have been about football.
Perhaps the question regarding the ownership of the club is not one of whether the current owners are good for the club. Perhaps even the question of what can be done about them is one that seems unlikely to yield a positive answer for those who regard the Glazers as no more than parasites leaching on the back of English footballs most famous name. We know that those who have walked away to FC United of Manchester seem happy enough. We know that the green and gold protests broadly failed, beyond raising the profile of a situation within the club which hasn’t been arrested by protest. And we can surmise from the events of the last eight years that the Glazers almost certainly don’t care about the opinions of those that continue to oppose them. Indeed, perhaps the only question that remains unanswered about the internal politics and finances of Manchester United is that of exactly how divided the clubs support is and whether this makes any difference whatsoever to what happens on the pitch. To that extent, a new season brings only the same story for Manchester United.
What did change this summer was the perception of some towards Alex Ferguson, whose comments regarding ‘real fans’ has only partially been offset by his subsequent disclosure that he will not be making any money himself from that nefarious IPO. It remains no-ones place to seek to dictate what a ‘real fan’ is, and Ferguson may have learnt a tough lesson this summer that even the most successful manager isn’t above any sort of criticism. Again, we will likely not know the extent to which he comes to regret such ill-conceived comments until things start going against him, and this being Manchester United there are no guarantees that there will be any bad times next season. The strength and depth of pockets of Manchester City offers him a degree of protection next season. Gone are the days of the minimum requirements of the clubs support being to win the Premier League at a canter, amongst other. No matter what the ultimate result of his involvement in this summers fussing and fighting, though, there can be little doubting that his own reputation has been damaged, even if only a little or in the eyes of a few, by his own comments and he, perhaps more than anybody else at the club, will surely be looking forward to the start of the new season and the more positive effects that getting back to the routine of winning matches brings.
Yet there has been concern that he has been getting more out his squad than other coaches might, and his squad this summer again has not at the time of writing been strengthened to the extent that many of the clubs supporters might want. In the Premier League, the club dropped what had looked like being an unassailable lead at the top of the table, whilst European adventures in both the Champions League and the Europa League ended in ignominious defeat. It is impossible to say whether these failures were a series of freak events or indicators of something more fundamentally unbalanced about the squad that he had last season and, while the return of Champions League football to Old Trafford and the enduringly fearsome reputation that the club has probably insulates the club better against long-term decline than any other in England, expectations will remain challenging for his team.
The summer transfer window has been quiet, again, with even the smart signing of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund not feeling like quite enough to set the pulses racing, whilst the arrival of Robin Van Persie at Old Trafford remains far from the done deal that some of the more excitable members of the fourth estate were claiming last week. The return of Nemanja Vidic from a long-term injury, meanwhile, is a definite cause for celebration amongst the clubs supporters, but the arrival of the eighteen year old Nick Powell from Crewe Alexandra is a signing for the future rather than the present and Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are not getting any younger. In a relatively quiet transfer window across the board so far, though, such concerns may not amount to much.
Perhaps the difficulty in assessing Manchester United for this season is that so much of went wrong on the pitch – the surrender of a commanding lead in the Premier League, eliminations from the domestic cups before the business end of those competitions and the tame submissions in Europe – was so uncharacteristic. Was last season a flash in the pan, or is there something more serious amiss at Old Trafford? The betting man probably go for the former, but the clubs needs an improvement of some sort this season in order to keep a lid on dissent amongst a section of the support. With Chelsea likely to improve on last season and Manchester City riding on the psychological lift of finally clawing the Premier League trophy from Old Trafford, winning the Premier League is likely to be, to put it lightly, a challenge and it’s possible that the one-off nature of the latter stages of the Champions League may be as good a place for the rediscovery of poise as anywhere.
For now, though, there is tension in the air at Old Trafford. In the past, Alex Ferguson has channeled such conflict into a bunker mentality that has served the club very well indeed. He may need to draw upon such reserves again this season, if Manchester United are to rediscover the swagger that has been one of the defining features of the first two decades of the Premier League. Again, though, it rather feels as if, whilst the short-term success of Manchester United will continue to judged on trophies won or how close they come to winning them, the longer-term goal of ridding the club the Glazer family seems as far from reach as ever and that, no matter what Alex Ferguson says, is a matter that will continue to concern many real fans. In a couple of months or so’s time, we’ll have a better idea of whether the club has found its feet again after last seasons aberrations, but for now there very few signs of long-term decline at Old Trafford. The mere danger of stagnation, however, is real enough.
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