Manchester United: A Fairytale of Yore
Commentator’s voice: “Can you believe the genius of this man. He smashed it into the back of the net and it gets even better. It’s Cristiano Ronaldo who makes it two. It’s a shot of superlatives and not many have scored past David James since the inception of Premier League in that fashion. David James stands like a statue to that unstoppable shot.”
This Premier League match of Manchester United against Portsmouth was one of the earliest memories that I have of the club.The comeback kings, they say, Manchester United had never failed to entertain their fans at home and away with their unbelievable attacking prowess and never ending spirit of the players. The club is criticized to have “over –enthusiastic” fans who live by the past glory of the club. The history of this club can be so overwhelming to the rival clubs that the reminiscent past of this club can never make the fans less “bossy” about it. Every fan boy can boast about the number of Premier League titles, domestic cups and leagues and their European title campaigns as it always stood as a matter of pride for them to highlight their distinguished tradition, consistent success and a great history.
Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Club was formed in 1878 and their entrance to English football was marked during that year. Football was dominated by the working class and the sport became the centre to several employment opportunities back then.
It entered First Division football during the season of 1892-93 where the club became independent of the railway company. The club was relegated after two seasons due to their disappointing performance and in 1902 the club attracted interests in investment by local businessmen and the club was then named ‘Manchester United’.
The club won its first League in 1908 followed by FA Cup in 1909 under their new manager Ernest Mangnall. Under the new manager the club started to achieve new heights by winning several titles and also signing star players for the team. United had moved to their new stadium from Bank Street to Old Trafford in 1910.
The departure of the new manager had caused several ill effects leading to a stumble and closely escaped relegation by a point during the 1914-15 season. The World Wars had rendered the club bankrupt and devastated in terms of fan base and performance. The German bombs severely damaged the stadium at Old Trafford in 1941 and it was not reconstructed until 1949.The managerial appointment of Sir Matt Busby was the turning point in the history of the club. He wanted “unprecedented level of control” over the affairs and matters of the club.
He placed faith in youngsters and committed himself to the development of a team of young talent. This strategy was unheard of in that period and it proved to be astonishingly successful. The late 1940s and the early 1950s saw a progression in the performance of the club by finishing second place in the leagues for consecutive three years and winning the FA Cup in 1948. The average age of the players in the club at that point were 22 and the club went on to win back-to-back league titles in 1956 and 1957. The team came to be known as “Busby Babes” and was the youngest side in the history of English football to win a league title.
The Busby Babes started to create history by becoming the first English team to compete in the European Cup. They lost to Real Madrid in the semi-finals that year. The following season was struck by the greatest tragedy of football at Munich. The aircraft carrying the players of Manchester United, officials and journalists claimed 23 lives while attempting to take-off. The Munich Air Disaster, as they called it, led to the loss of lives of 8 players and injured many beyond recovery that they can never play again. The manager Sir Matt Busby was also severely injured in the air crash and Jimmy Murphy, the reserve team manager had to take charge as the manager of Manchester United.
Busby took over as the manager after two years and underwent the process of rebuilding the team around the survivors especially ‘Bobby Charlton’ who was one of the best players at that time. He wanted to change the way in which the club was perceived by the opposition and thus portrayed Manchester United as ‘The Red Devils’.The period of the 1960s saw the introduction of George Best and Denis Law and thus the ‘Holy Trinity’ took birth comprising the above mentioned players and Charlton. They led United to the first ‘Decade of Glory’.
The rebuilding process was complete and the club went on to win the League titles in 1964-65 and 1966-67. Manchester United became the first English club to participate and win the European Cup when they were crowned the Champions of Europe in 1968.Manchester United faced another set of disappointing seasons after 1968 and Sir Matt Busby gave way for new managers. There was no outstanding performances from the club during those years. The club was able to win the FA cup twice in three years during the years 1983-85.
The period from 1986 created a history for United in such a way that, the Decade of Glory of the sixties was eclipsed by the managerial finesse and accomplishments of Sir Alex Ferguson. The widely praised and acclaimed 13 league titles, two Champions league titles, 5 FA Cups, 4 Football League Cups, 10 FA Charity/Community Shields, 1 European Cup Winners Cup, 1 European Super Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 FIFA Club World Cup which adds to 38 titles during his tenure at United. He led United to its first ‘double’ in 1994 and a historic ‘treble’ during the season of 1998-99.
Ferguson was known for his undivided attention towards the academy side of the club and scouted players from across the world bringing in diversity to the club. He was criticized and appreciated regarding his use of Manchester United academy products in his main squad. This tactic, which was criticized as an ‘antiquated’ approach, proved to be a success and led to the exposure and recognition of several players like David Beckham, Paul Scholes etc.
Sir Alex stepped down as the manager of Manchester United after winning his 13th Premier League title in the year 2013.The successors of Ferguson couldn’t provide any outstanding results despite record breaking transfers and star players being included in the squad. The ownership of the club of Manchester United was took over by the Glazer Family in 2005 and since then United has won 5 Premier League titles, 3 Football League Cups, 5 FA Community Shields, 1 UEFA Champions League, 1 FIFA Club World Cup and 1 UEFA Europa League.
After Sir Alex Ferguson, United had David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho as managers and Mourinho was successful in leading the club to a UEFA Europa League and finishing second in the Premier League in the following season. He was succeeded by one of Manchester United’s veteran players Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the manager midway through the 2018-19 season.
The Cultural Change
Manchester United always exhibited a type of football that never lacked spirit and gave hope even in the last second of the game. The Champions League final at Camp Nou in 1999 is the most quoted example in this regard and the pre-quarter against Paris Saint-German where the club sought an unbelievable comeback victory in 2019 is the latest addition to the list of Manchester United comebacks. What has changed at the club? The new management has several trophies to show, 16 in number, and if they are criticized about the current situation of the club.
Manchester United was a club that was sinking in debts since their inception and they have transformed into one of the richest clubs in the world. What characterizes the club from its contemporaries is its history, managers, players, trophies and money. The current situation highlights just one factor from those characteristics and that is money. After Sir Alex retired, the club has just 6 trophies in the past 6 seasons and it doesn’t include a league title or a Champions league title.
The success of the Busby Babes during the 1950s showed how an approach of committing towards young talent can attain success in an industry such as football where a culture of money domination had started. After the Munich Air tragedy, the club rebuilt itself by recruiting new players by actually spending money which was totally a new strategy for United. The success of the ‘Holy Trinity’ gave the club the luxury to spend money on acquiring new talent. The club was even labelled as ‘Moneybags United’ back in those days similar to “Moneychester City” as Manchester City is called today.
After the ‘Decade of Glory’ during the sixties, United suffered a harsh setback for almost two decades. This can be considered as the club’s first decaying period after being recognized as one of the best clubs in the world. The club had experienced several managerial tactics, methods and approaches ranging from a primitive military style approach, where the whole team had to follow the orders of the management and had no voice of opinion in the team, to another form of management where every member of the club had their input towards the club’s development.
Ernest Mangnall “preached the gospel of physical fitness and team spirit” during his tenure in the early 20th century and the players were given ball only once a week. From then, the club had reached a position where the number of goals they concede didn’t matter because they were sure to score more than their opponent. Such was the attacking flair of Manchester United football where the Trinity in the sixties, Ferguson’s magical products of the academy (Scholes, Giggs, and Beckham), Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie proved to be exemplary.Jimmy Murphy was in charge of the academy during the sixties. He managed the team in the absence of Sir Busby and played a key role in the rebuilding of the club. The key advice that was given to the players by him was that “the public will always forgive you if you shoot and you miss, but will never forgive you if you don’t shoot”. The players were found to have taken this advice seriously for decades.
The most memorable goals at the Champions League were of that fashion, taking the example of Paul Scholes scoring against Barcelona at Old Trafford sealing their victory during their 2007/08 campaign. A similar goal was scored recently by Vincent Kompany of Manchester City which played a key role in their claim towards the Premier League title.The club after their first decade of decay during the eighties, Sir Alex took the club towards their next ‘Decade of Glory’ and the progression of the club transitioned into a sudden decline of success. The club started to underperform towards the end of Sir Alex’s managerial career.
The big name players have utterly failed to provide success to the team with Robin Van Persie as an exception. The club has had several overpaid marquee signings which did no good to the development of the club. The large fan base, the sponsorships, the advertisements and the promotion have blinded the management of the reality of the changing culture of Manchester United football and the setbacks they have been facing for almost a decade.The record breaking signings have proved to be beneficial to the sponsors for their advertisement and not for the development of football.
Over 400 million pounds have been spend on players since Sir Alex’s tenure and it has proved to be not worthwhile. Manchester City has spent almost the same amount of money in players and have won 3 Premier League titles and 7 domestic titles. David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal and until recently Jose Mourinho have failed to bring united to the standards of a club that was undoubtedly feared by most of the clubs in the world. Manchester United has suffered a losing streak that has ruptured the morale, spirit and confidence of the players and the supporters. They have failed to finish within the top 4 at the Premier League and in turn qualify for the Champions League this season. The club is going through one of its worst years since 1992.
Mourinho stated that his greatest achievement was making Manchester United finish second during the 2017/18 Premier League season. His tactics of football, especially ‘Park the Bus’, did not suit the style of attacking football at United. He boasts of the number of cups that he had achieved at various clubs, big and small with that style of play but he failed at Manchester United.
The main allegation against the management was that ‘unprecedented control’ over the football matters at the club was denied to Jose Mourinho unlike their former managers. These circumstances forces an immediate check on the current state of the club and do what is necessary for setting things right at the club.Gary Neville, a former Manchester United player, has been disheartened by the current state of the club. He says that, “Spirit, hunger, quality, resilience, toughness, going towards any end for victory. Everything is right about the clubs I dislike the most”. There is a necessity of ‘cleansing’ of the dressing room.
A club should always compartmentalize their priorities. There should be a properly functioning financial side and a football side. After the taking over of Glazer in 2005, everything about the club was based on the ‘football market’.Taking into account the number of trophies that were won after the change in management, the number is 16 and 6 after the retirement of Sir Alex. Ed Woodward has the complete autonomy over the management of football and finance and reports to the Glazer family. The culture of Manchester United football had changed ever since.
Woodward had 7 years of running the management of the club and the depth of the problems are now highlighting itself at this juncture. The decisions were bad and the choices were poor and it has reflected badly in terms of the development of football at the club.Manchester United hadn’t won a single trophy since 1967 until the arrival of Sir Alex in 1986. The core of home grown players in the club gave the spirit of Manchester United back. The chant of ‘Busby Babes will never die’ started to become a reality during those years.
All sections of Manchester United players worked hard to earn a position in the main squad. To ensure the consistency of the players even after their continuous winning streak, Sir Alex had made sure that the players were trained to ‘think, behave and train like they were number two’. It showcased the ‘attacking flair of football’ at the Theatre of Dreams. Every match became a spectacle and every trophy became a source of unending pride. The club was unpredictable in every form of their play, be it in the formations, style of play, tactics and even the members of the squad. All of this has gone down the drain and yet another ‘Decade of Decay’ has dawned upon the club.
Manchester United has reached a point where a rebuilding is inevitable. The team itself has proved to be a mistake in terms of the players that they contain in different positions of play. The club should concentrate on a project of rebuilding even if it takes several years. There should be a development of a team that the fans will be proud of.
Manchester United should regain their lost glory rather than surviving on past glory. Just like any other Manchester United fan boy, I firmly believe in a comeback of this club that the football world is yet to witness.As it is said “Manchester United never loses, they just run out of time”
Glory Glory Manchester United.
The writer is an integrated masters student of sociology at University of Hyderabad, India.