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Eighth Wonder: The Pleasure in the Pain of Being a Manchester United Fan These Days

Eighth Wonder: The Pleasure in the Pain of Being a Manchester United Fan These Days

Friday, 4 October, 2019 - 06:45
The looks on the faces of the Manchester United players tell their own story after going 2-0 behind at West Ham. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters
London - Tim de Lisle

“And Manchester United,” said Mark Chapman on Match of the Day 2, “are eighth.” To supporters of other clubs, this may be a case of how the mighty are fallen. And yes, it is a crashing come-down from Sir Alex Ferguson’s day, but some of us go back a bit further than that.

This is my 50th season. I started off as a fairly typical United fan: born and bred in London, idolising George Best, no previous connection with Manchester. In that first season, 1969-70, the number eight loomed large. The first game I wouldn’t forget was the famous FA Cup tie at Northampton, the 8-2 win in which Best, returning from one of his many bans, scored six. The first league position I remember was the one at the end of that season. “And Manchester United are eighth.” Best, Law, Charlton, Stiles and Stepney: eighth.

Those days were formative – the first flop is the deepest. And finishing eighth wasn’t a one-off: United did it again the next year, and the one after. If there had been a trophy for coming eighth, they would have been given it to keep. In each of those seasons, Best was the top scorer with more than 20 goals. The board kept appointing different managers – poor old Wilf McGuinness, Sir Matt Busby (brought back as caretaker), Frank O’Farrell – to achieve the same result. Does this ring a bell at all?

I heard a lot about the European Cup win of 1968, but it was like England’s World Cup in 1966: a lonely triumph, mentioned rather too much. I didn’t expect United to appear in Europe on my watch, and they didn’t, until 1976-77, when their Uefa Cup run fizzled out in the second round.

Before that, they’d gone from mediocre to awful and been relegated. It was grim, yet some good came of it. For once in football, the chairman didn’t blame the manager. Tommy Docherty, who had taken them down, was entrusted with dragging them up again, and he did. After winning the Second Division in 1974-75, United made it to third in the First Division and became a good FA Cup team, with Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill whizzing down the wings. By the early 80s, they were top-four regulars.

When Ferguson arrived, they went backwards, threatening to make 11th the new eighth. Then the board showed faith again and everything slotted into place. For 22 years, United’s idea of a bad season was finishing third. To be a fan was to feel immense pride and joy, but also a certain weariness: the bereavement of repeated achievement. Sport is supposed to be a rollercoaster. When your team are struggling, you just wish they’d learn to grind out a 1-0. Then they do, and it’s not much fun.

After Fergie finally departed, supporting United became far more exasperating and far more interesting. The team went forward to the past. We’ve had more or less the same managers again, in a different order. David Moyes was McGuinness. The roles of Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson went to Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho. Ole Gunnar Solskjær started as Docherty and is now turning into O’Farrell. None of them is Ferguson.

And now they are eighth – eighth in a two-horse race. And it’s riveting. I go to more games now than in Fergie’s day. I became a member a few years ago and have the pack to prove it (the scarf is hard to warm to, but the coaster comes in handy).

Ole Gunnar Solskjær thanks the fans at Old Trafford but knows things must improve after Wednesday’s penalty shootout victory over League One Rochdale. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Solskjær is a better shopper than Mourinho – Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka – but he seems just as bad at selling. I mourn the proper United players now starring for Ajax (Daley Blind) and Lyon (Memphis Depay). I miss Ander Herrera, who had the heart of a captain, and Romelu Lukaku, whose goals often decided the matches United find trickiest, against middling teams. I even slightly miss Marouane Fellaini, who could always win a point off the bench. Personally, I would have let David de Gea go: Sergio Romero is easily good enough, and he doesn’t cost £375,000 a week.

This United can be turgid, tongue-tied, trigger-unhappy. But in every game there are glimmers of hope – in Marcus Rashford’s marauding and Anthony Martial’s panache, in Paul Pogba’s vision and Wan-Bissaka’s resilience, in Scott McTominay’s fire and Mason Greenwood’s cool. There is a United team in there, trying to get out. If they could just learn to take free-kicks, corners and throw-ins, they’d be fine.

As it is, Solskjær’s last 27 league games have yielded 48 points, the very same record that got Mourinho sacked. Solskjaer, who spoke the language of the six-yard box so well as a player, doesn’t seem to know why the goals flew in for his first 17 games and then flew away. “You are my Solskjær,” the crowd still sing, detecting some sunshine in him, and it’s certainly a relief to have seen the back of Mourinho’s sourness. But there’s a run of games in October that could finish this manager – six away out of seven, and the other one is against Liverpool. If the Glazers had wisdom to match their wealth, they’d be telling Ed Woodward the next head to roll has to be his. When Phil Jones joined in with that chorus of “sacked in the morning” at West Ham last week I like to think it was Woodward he had in mind.

United’s season may well be grim, but it will still be gripping. They’re like the England cricket team now – forever landing on the ladder or the snake, skipping the dull squares in between. Even when they’re losing at home to Palace or drawing with Rochdale, even when Solskjær prefers Victor Lindelöf to Axel Tuanzebe or leaves Greenwood on the bench, I’m still riveted. When I mentioned this to a sportswriter friend, he said he felt the same. It’s a mild form of torture, but it’s our torture. We are Masochists United.

The Guardian Sport

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