United They Fall: The Misery that Comes with Supporting Man U

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United They Fall: The Misery that Comes with Supporting Man U

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

“F

ootball, bloody hell.”

One of the most memorable quotes in the history of the game came from Sir Alex Ferguson after the 1999 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in “Fergie time”. It was United’s Sharma ji ka beta era, winning titles and playing attractive football. Manchester United fans were spoilt by success as Sir Alex took seemingly average teams to glory. It’s the easiest thing in the world to support a football club that keeps winning. However, with the Scotsman’s departure after 26 years at the club, United have fallen off a cliff, and the football has quite metaphorically been hell.

For most of my time as a fan of United, their winning ways were my trump card in footballing debates. The other clubs in the Big Four had their own appeal, but for a United supporter, Chelsea were always mere spendthrifts, Arsenal were also-rans, and Liverpool were has-beens. United were an absolute unit, until suddenly they weren’t, and I was forcefully put in the shoes of the fan of a lesser team.

Manchester United has 99 problems, and football is just one of them. There are problems on the pitch. There are personnel problems. There are managerial problems. There are communication problems, and then there are boardroom problems. While failures off the pitch are behind closed doors and away from the cameras, the visible culmination of it all takes the form of poor performances on the ground.

Watching Manchester United play has become a painful exercise. When Victor Lindelof has the ball by his feet, it seems like he wants to quickly get rid of it like it’s the polio virus. The back four change as often as the petrol price in India, and when Plan A fails, it is time to hoop long balls to Marouane Fellaini, hoping he can channel his inner Harry Potter and come up with some magic. As a collective, the team gives off the impression that they are scared of keeping the ball and playing football.

The cohesiveness of Ferguson era is harder to spot than Anil Kapoor in Mr India. When United makes a substitution, it is seen as a matter of politics, as the camera pans to the player’s reaction and everyone expects drama to unfold in post the match. When a player is left out of the squad, there are automatic rumours that he’s unhappy at United and wants to move on. Jose Mourinho hasn’t helped his cause by blaming the refereeing and throwing his players under the bus at the first sign of criticism. There are rumours every week that he has lost the dressing room, or had a new fight with one of the players. Every pre- and post-match conference is a potential controversy.

The manager and the style of play has also drawn criticism from ex-United players and legends, resulting in an ugly war of words. As a United fan, no one wants to pick a side between Paul Scholes and Jose Mourinho, both having distinguished achievements in their respective careers. The United fan base on social media is also heavily divided, with one fraction wanting #MourinhoOut and the other staunchly defending him.   

United has lost the essence of what it meant to be United.

However, it would be a fallacy to lay all the blame on the players and the manager. The Manchester United board is “rotten to the core”, said former United player Gary Neville in his furious rant on Sky Sports. “I love that football club. I absolutely love it to death. It’s been my life. It’s given me everything, and I have to say that something has to change and it isn’t the manager, it’s above that” he added.   

The fans dislike the style of play and blame the manager. The manager blames the board for not buying players. The board blames the manager for not being able to do well with the players he has. The pundits blame everyone for the colossal mess. As a fan, watching the entire spectacle at Manchester United is more heartbreaking than the entire run of This Is Us.

Where one would earlier look forward to the weekend game hoping that a comfortable victory at Old Trafford would cheer up your workweek, there is now a sense of uneasiness and disappointment. You expect a drab performance from the United team and you know it will ruin your week, and more often than not, they oblige. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be an Arsenal or Liverpool fan.

Manchester United used to be about three things – stability, young homegrown talent, and quick, counter-attacking football. Since Sir Alex left, managers have changed faster than Taimur Ali Khan’s diapers. United have bailed out on its footballing philosophy the same way politicians in India change their tunes when moving to a different party.

United has lost the essence of what it meant to be United. It is just another club now, like Chelsea or Manchester City, that spends large amount of money to buy the best players and the best managers to win titles. And Manchester United fans are left repeating a cliche they once mocked Arsenal and Liverpool fans for.

“Next year will be our year.”

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