Have fans sucked the magic out of Manchester United?
Background images: Ioannis Ioannidas, Xuanklpt
I’ve heard all the talk about the power, grace and beauty of a mother’s love. She’ll nurture you, guide you, defend you, stand by you, love you unconditionally, do anything for you. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman’s illegal bribes to college administrators to admit their daughters to elite American colleges stand as proof to the extremes a mother will go. Prisons fill with serial killers, rapists and murderers, caught dead to rights, locked away for life or awaiting lethal injection, whose mothers believe society made a horrible, terrible mistake. Their sons can’t possibly be anything other than completely innocent.
Sadly, not every mother loves her child to that degree. Nor does every child love their mother. Voldemort hated his mum for accepting death rather than fighting on for his sake. I don’t hate mine even though she lived, rarely fought for me and took much longer to abandon me.
Called into the principal’s office one morning when I was 15, I was told she didn’t want me coming home. If I wasn’t a child, I’d have seen it coming. If I was a man, I might have been more upset.
She rarely stood by me, loved me unconditionally or did anything purely for me. Instead, she was almost always bitter, manipulative, hateful, spiteful, in a word, toxic. If you don’t believe me, ask my sister. I didn’t turn into a serial killer and, I’m fairly certain, neither did Lisa, despite how sick, twisted, worthless and hopeless Mum constantly told us we were.
It isn’t just us. Our mum blames all those around her for every obstacle life sets in her path. She takes no responsibility on herself, finds fault in everything everyone in her circle and outside it does, distrusts anyone who works for or is lucky enough to be blessed with a measure of comfort, wealth or good cheer, scorns those who suffer misfortune and has no use for anyone who does not meet her unrealistic expectations. She believes she deserves far better from life simply because she is alive.
I haven’t spoken to her for 36 years. I miss her, if you can believe it. For the past few years, though, I am reminded of my mum every time I scroll through the Manchester United threads in my Twitter feed.
Inevitably, several are that toxic, that hateful, that unforgiving and condescending. Endlessly, they demand more than anyone should reasonably expect, believing they deserve happiness and glory simply because they are Manchester United fans. It’s disgusting, depressing and, for me, entirely too familiar.
I can tell you this much. I love Manchester United like a son should love his mother even though it wasn’t the club that birthed my passion for the game. The New York Cosmos of the 1970s died a death like Merope Gaunt’s, only much slower. Their reincarnation decades later came as something far less than they once were, a Horcruxe if you will.
Regardless, United rekindled my passion. Never mind Sir Alex Ferguson ran the Old Trafford clubhouse somewhat like Mick Carter runs The Vic in EastEnders. Top players were bloodied and sent packing. Youngsters were nourished and protected only so long as they had anything to give. The most respectful scions were kept at home to help run the family business. The cheeky buggers were ditched as soon as they became an embarrassment. Even if his methods reminded me of my mother, I respected and admired the man. He was fighting for something other than himself, trying to nurture United so it could continue without him.
We all know it didn’t but the difference between a Manchester United supporter and the toxic haters is we don’t despise Fergie for the failure. Sooner or later, everyone must stand on their own, accepting life provides no guarantees.
David Moyes was another who turned out to be like Voldemort’s mother. The former Everton boss surrendered to the criticism washing over him, allowed it to seep in. He put down his wand and didn’t fight back.
Louis van Gaal fought, as much good as it did. The Dutchman’s problem was that United’s Dumbledore is Ed Woodward. The executive vice-president has no stomach for confronting the toxic beast raging around Old Trafford like, to switch fantasy classics for a moment, Smaug whizzing around the Lonely Mountain. He’d rather feed it although he knows better than to try to get the haters to eat directly from his hand, lest they bite it off.
To appease them, he sacked LVG before the man could put down the FA Cup he’d just won. Then he handed the keys to Hogwart to Voldemort.
The thing about good and evil is competence doesn’t separate them. Neither does ruthlessness, as demonstrated by Fergie’s ability to make amends with David Beckham and Jaap Stam, if not yet Roy Keane. In the same manner Tom Riddle was a sorcerer of surpassing talent, Jose Mourinho is a supremely gifted manager. Even so, he never deserved his appointment at Old Trafford.
His work at Porto, in the first go-round with Chelsea and at Inter was masterful. But the way he abandoned the Beneamata when his goals were achieved, advertising himself to Real Madrid in clubhouse interviews while his players celebrated their treble triumph all around, revealed it had become, if it hadn’t already been, all about the Special One. For those with open eyes and free minds, the spell was broken.
When he arrived at the Bernabeu, he began to break down players for power rather than to make them champions. Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos fought back. San Iker was aptly named. His saintly image was rooted in naivete, costing him everything in the Spanish capital. Ramos held no illusions, fought back tooth and nail, eventually winning out.
Like the wounded beast the bounty hunter Johns thinks he’s tracking in the third Riddick instalment, Mourinho fled to familiar ground. Arriving at Stamford Bridge, he battled Eden Hazard, David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas for power in the clubhouse.
When hired by United, Jose made all the right noises. He was honoured to be manager at such a historic club. He would respect its values, its traditions. Then, when eyes were turned, he dismantled them. By the time Woodward realised he’d been duped, that one of his hands had somehow gone missing, it was too late. The squad was in complete disarray.
I’m not going to say Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is Harry Potter and everything will work out in time. I have my doubts but the truth is either it will or it won’t. The point is too many haters calling themselves United supporters think they know what a hero is. For them, anything the board, coaching staff or players do simply isn’t and never will be good enough to warrant their love.
They’ve always been around. I recall them when Fergie was boss both before and after the Glazers took over. Whether or not he was winning a title, they wanted him gone. His time was up. He couldn’t do more for the club. Only he kept doing more. For. The. Club.
Six years after his retirement, their attitude hasn’t changed.
With United two points above the drop zone, struggling to win games at home and away, starved for goals in the run of play, Liverpool came to Old Trafford on the back of a perfect start. Factor in all the injuries. Paul Pogba remained out. So too Luke Shaw. Axel Tuanzebe pulled up lame in warm-ups. Anthony Martial wasn’t yet match fit. No one expected United to take the game to the Merseysiders, to harry them, frustrate them, look the more likely or take a lead. No one expected Marcus Rashford to score without Martin Atkinson first pointing to the spot.
Still, when it ended in a draw, legions vented their anger on Twitter because United took their foot off the gas and surrendered the lead. Same old problem, they said. United’s predetermined destiny demands they always press the issue, go for goal until the final whistle, claim all three points. This was two points dropped rather than one earned. The opposition didn’t matter. We are United. This was unacceptable. I hate how people throw that word around.
The fact is the opposition does matter. Liverpool are European champions. The Reds topped the Premier League table by eight points after as many rounds. They were and, despite the draw, remain on a hundred-point pace. United lack their quality, experience and confidence. Taking it to them for 60 minutes meant punching far above our weight. If Pep Guardiola were special guest manager, he’d have shut it down and tried to preserve the lead when Klopp threw on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana.
In the last half-hour, the Red Devils didn’t play with the lead like they did against Wolves, Southampton or even Leicester. They didn’t kick the ball sideways and back with caution, trying to control possession with no intent to push for another goal. Solskjaer was aware Liverpool, when they’re level or ahead, love to press against teams trying to play out from the back. Chasing the game, they were only going to ratchet up the pressure. In possession, the Anfield mob shifts play from side to side until defenders are out of position, gaps exposed. United played ‘anywhere will do’ and sorted themselves while the Reds fetched the ball.
If you ain't delusional and understand this squad is a top 8 team then you should be #INOLEWETRUST #MUFC @ManUtd https://t.co/hnvOMwVP5h
Even the mistake that cost the lead was different from the usual collapse. Marcos Rojo wasn’t tentative or confused. He read the play, knew the cross was coming and tried to be in position to snuff it out without knocking the ball into his own goal rather than staying with his man as he should. It was stupid but aggressive. Coaches will correct it but, if you’re tired of United’s tentative play, unacceptable is the last word you should use to describe it.
Rather than encouraging United to carry that newfound aggression and passion into Belgrade on Thursday evening, taking it to Partizan for their first away win since Paris last spring, then doing the same in the Premier League against Norwich at Carrow Road, both venues where they shouldn't need to circle the wagons late, the toxic avengers bayed for blood. They want Solskjaer’s head, Rojo’s, probably even Rashford’s for not scoring a hattrick.
You call yourself United fans but you’re not. When the Red Devils are on top again, you’ll rub everyone’s faces in it as though it was something you accomplished. You didn’t. It’s not about you. That’s the part you don’t understand.
The club should be like a mother to supporters, the players like sons or brothers. Whether or not they are good enough, you should want the best for them. That’s what supporting is. It isn’t tearing people down. It isn’t hatred. I’ve had enough of that. So, let me repeat five of your favourite words back to you.
Get out of my club.