Manchester United & The Art of Never Forgetting

by | May 3, 2021

As with everything these days, you have to either be emphatically, 100% in favour of something, or absolutely 100% the other way. There’s no space for nuance in the modern world. Not when it’s easier to lob verbal bombs across social media, from the safety of our echo chambers. Nuance is good. Nuance is important. We should always be wary of those who preach simple solutions to complex problems. Occasionally, though, you do have to pick a side.

So let’s get the obvious arguments out of the way, first. It is perfectly reasonable to be unhappy at those Manchester United supporters who got onto the Old Trafford pitch before yesterday’s match against Liverpool, forcing its postponement, and those who became involved in some pretty ugly scenes later in the afternoon, while retaining the belief that they were right in their actions, and that their anger is fully justified. Two police officers were injured when the protests turned, yesterday afternoon, and this violence has predictably hogged the news headlines at the expense of the thousands who protested peacefully. Their efforts weren’t in vain, but it would be understandable if they felt that way today. It’s likely that they’ll be a little more than a footnote. For now, at least.

But forces are starting to swell, and the fightback is beginning. It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s co-ordinated or because any changes to the governance of the game that build in, say, community ownership or a golden share is bloody communist and therefore cannot be tolerated by some. It doesn’t say much for the condition of sections of the English press that few would be surprised if they performed a complete vote face and came down strongly in favour of the billionaires that are currently running the clubs.

The faultlines of this entire subject are starting to look a little muddied and blurred. Newspapers who had been supportive of the fans fightback against the now failed European Super League have begun to turn on the protesters themselves, but exactly where they stand on this matter doesn’t yet seem to be a black and white issue. Contrarians will have a field day. There will be backlash upon backlash, if certain sections of the media become sufficiently invested in it all. If there’s one thing the last few years have shown us, it’s that hoping for no backlash is a fool’s errand, in the modern world.

You can protest, but only in a way that is likely to be ineffectual, seemed to be the message coming from certain sections of the media overnight, but this caterwauling is a distraction from the fundamental truth that, no matter how they express it, many people who are deeply invested in this game are very angry at what is widely assented to be a failed or failing model of football club ownership. The events of yesterday afternoon were a symptom rather than a cause, and it’s increasingly clear that this might also be true for the European Super League itself. The issue, as an increasing number of people are seeing it, is a culture that allowed this level of explosive hubris for such a a tin eared idea to flourish in the first place.

Not all of the owners are unpopular with their own supporters. The Mansours and Roman Abramovich at Manchester City and Chelsea. From there on, though, begins a slide. Spurs supporters have Stockholm syndrome in relation to Daniel Levy nowadays, and the power behind the throne, Joe Lewis, isn’t even mentioned that often. FSG at Liverpool have capital from the successes that Juergen Klopp has brought to the club, but that patience seems to have run dry with talk of their being amongst the league’s most enthusiastic proponents. Arsenal supporters have been protesting against Stan Kroenke for years, when they haven’t been getting angry at Arsene Wenger or Unai Emery, but Manchester United supporters have been against the Glazers since before Kroenke even took control of Arsenal.

The arrival of The Glazer family at Old Trafford between 2003 and 2005 and its subsequent effect upon Manchester United on the pitch has been extensively documented elsewhere, but what has become somewhat dimmed in the brilliance of social media white noise is that the anger of seventeen years ago over the Glazers has never entirely gone away. The green and gold protests of 2010 were impressive in their scale, but the family remained. One of them, Malcolm, the patriarch, has died since, but his sons maintain his legacy.

But any feeling of detente is obviously fragile by its very nature. Manchester United still haven’t won the Premier League in eight years, and they haven’t won the Champions League in fourteen. Indeed, their entire record without taking into account Alex Ferguson and Matt Busby is very modest indeed. Only two of their league championships were won under anyone else – Ernest Mangnall, who happens to be their third most successful manager of all-time with five trophies. Ron Atkinson and Jose Mourinho, with three each, are tied in fourth. For 26 years prior to winning the first Premier League title in 1993, Manchester United failed to win the English league championship.

They even spent one season in the Second Division. And it ended recently enough for there to be people in their 40s and up who can remember this. Manchester United supporters of, say, my age (48) grew up in a state of torment. So much promise. So much opportunity. But a golden era’s worth of players wasn’t been adequately replaced, the club’s senior management ran the place extremely badly, and George Best ended up with an asterisk next to his name.

They’d warmed up by winning the FA Cup in 1990 and the European Cup Winners Cup the following year, but when Leeds United pipped them to the 1992 First Division title, it felt halfway between ominous that United were there in the first place and typical that they should lose out to one of their fiercest rivals, who’d only been promoted back themselves a couple of years earlier, after eight years away. There were FA Cups sprinkled throughout, in 1977, 1983, 1985 and 1990, but it wasn’t much of a return for the quarter of a century since they were crowned as the first ever English champions of Europe. Some supporters of other clubs have come to look upon Manchester United supporters as entitled, but regardless of what anyone may or may not think of them now, the bar for a quarter of a century at a club of that size is clearly set higher than four FA Cups and a European Cup Winners Cup.

Manchester United supporters in their forties. fifties or sixties are old enough to be able to remember that fallow quarter of a century, just as younger supporters will likely grow up with the post-Ferguson years deeply embedded into their consciousnesses. This runs deep, and it’s about considerably more than the news and events of the last few weeks that have brought it about. In amongst this morning’s breathless and hysterical headlines, though, such details will likely be lost, and arguably the biggest risk to those campaigning for serious reform is that this depth of feeling is overlooked in favour of cheap, tribal arguments.

But there can be little doubting what Manchester United’s supporters did actually achieve yesterday afternoon. Forcing the postponement of a Premier League match against Liverpool is pretty much unprecedented in the entire history of the game in this country, and if Manchester United fans as a whole are going to face criticism this morning, it will come from those who always defend the status quo, no matter what it is, no matter how damaging it is, and even if such criticism flies in the face of previous comments made.

The anger expressed out outside Old Trafford yesterday afternoon, however, was an expression of a rage that has been building up for far longer than just this last few weeks. Manchester United are not, of course, a microcosm of every last thing that is wrong with football in this country at the moment, but the events of a couple of weeks ago demonstrated the extent to which professional football in this country is not prepared for supporters to be more than mere passive consumers, and the events of yesterday afternoon indicate that supporters will continue to be a thorn in the side for governing bodies and clubs that have taken them for granted for far too long. We’ve been ignored, patronised and belittled, our best interests put some way behind those of all the people who make a handsome living from the game that we pay for, for much of the last three decades. Small wonder there was so much anger on display at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon, then.