Past time to break the Manchester United code
Let’s keep this in context. I’m a Manchester United fan of more than 20 years now although too many of my brothers and sisters in arms make that if not difficult, then embarrassing. It’s not a personal issue even though a] I’ve been told any number of times I’m not a real United supporter because I wasn’t born in Manchester nor take in the games live and b] although I could give a damn what you think of me, that is exactly the same arrogance and bias that does piss me off when applied to players. Any United player. Every United player. Any time. All the time.
Here are the facts:
- Like it or not, Manchester United can only be the biggest club in the world if it has global support and signs players from all walks of life.
- Having the luck to be born in Manchester and raised red doesn’t make you better than anyone. Luck never does; it only makes you luckier.
- You are a United follower. That means you fall in behind while others lead.
You don’t have to like the leaders. You can question where they’re taking you, their intent as owners or style as a manager. You don’t have to like the players. You can criticise their effort or ability. You can call for the Glazers to sell the club, the manager to be sacked or a player here and there to be sold. When those calls become ubiquitous, however, a line has been crossed.
While I'm happy to say it's not anything near a majority, too many United fans act like the Queen of Hearts. They say people must “leave the club” as often as Lewis Carroll’s villainess shouted, “Off with their heads!” Too often, the reason given is they are “not a United player”.
I can think of only five players who [largely] escaped that judgment this season from the 20+ who regularly feature.
David de Gea’s performances in goal extend immunity to the Spaniard even though he delays in signing a contract extension amid intense and repeated interest from Real Madrid. People ask why the club hasn’t signed him rather than why he hasn’t put pen to paper. In their minds, he deserves whatever he asks even if making a goalkeeper the squad’s highest earner suggests the club’s priorities aren’t in proper order. To my mind, he does deserve to be paid. His play reflects it. That said, if he doesn't sign an extension, he soon won't be a United player.
Ander Herrera’s passion for the club offers immunity as well. Rash tackles, spats with officials and limited talent are excused by a tremendous work rate both kicking ass on the pitch and kissing it on social media.
Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard’s status as academy products, the former with the potential to be as talented a forward as De Gea is a keeper, the latter with Herrera’s work rate and social media presence, place them largely above reproach as well, although Lingard's recent slump attracts naysayers.
Luke Shaw rounds out the quintet. To be a United player, however, the left-back endured abuse from his manager and Mourinho supporters on a level and for so long as to make Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister appear a walk in the park.
Beyond that, everyone is fair game to have “not a United player” branded on his forehead. The reasons are various and sundry. Nemanja Matic, Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Antonio Valencia and maybe Alexis Sanchez are too old. Andreas Pereira, Diogo Dalot, and even academy product Scott McTominay are too inexperienced. Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, Matteo Darmian and Fred don’t have the necessary talent. Phil Jones, Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo spend too much time on the trainer’s table. Romelu Lukaku is inconsistent. Anthony Martial doesn’t smile. Paul Pogba smiles too much. No player is perfect, which makes the code a convenient label to put on anyone just to bring them down a peg.
As it happens, Young, Valencia, Sanchez, Pereira, Smalling, Fred, Bailly, Rojo, Lukaku, Martial and Pogba also have too much colour in their skin and aren’t from around these parts. By no means do I think every United fan is racist or nationalist although I know, as with any cross-section of people in society, too many are. There are other ways to be implicitly biased. When used, they provide overt bigotry with cover.
Compare Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera for just a moment. We can agree on which has the greater talent and that the other displays a more industrious work rate. But like De Gea, who may or may not sign a contract extension and could leave for Madrid despite supporters’ desperation for him to stay, Herrera is rumoured to be on his way to Paris Saint-Germain this summer on a free transfer. The player was upfront about the situation in a recent interview with El Periodico.
It's logical when you have three months left on your contract and it is the international break. I knew something would come out. I take it with a pinch of salt. I'm focusing on playing football in the remaining month and a half of the season. The rest I leave to my agent, both a possible contract renewal with United and talks with another club about my departure.
That’s uninhibited professionalism. Herrera intends to go to the club that will pay the most, whether or not it's United, yet no one considers him or De Gea traitors to the cause.
Then there is Pogba. Forget that he came up through the Carrington academy. Forget that his so-called dream job with Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid was on the table three summers ago and he chose to return to United instead. A polite reply to a reporter’s question now proves him a traitor. He wants out. Let him go. He isn’t a United player. Has anyone considered the possibility Pogba knew and stressed the difference between a dream and reality when he answered the question?
I’m not so naïve to think race and nationality are foremost in everyone's mind. You shouldn't dismiss the fact they still colour opinions on a subconscious level. When it comes to the double standard applied to certain United stars, I'll admit work rate and humility are predominant factors but there’s a distinct undercurrent.
Try this exercise. Name as many United legends as you can, as quickly as you can. How long did it take you to list players of colour? Or those who weren’t British or Irish? How many were there?
The club’s own legends page lists our top 25 in appearances and goals. Rio Ferdinand and Andy Cole are the only two black players on the lists. Rio is the only player of colour to crack the top 25 in appearances. Cole is the only one who was kept long enough to make the top 25 scorers. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo are the only three among the 42 legends listed who aren’t British or Irish. For a club with United's influence and reach over the past generation, that seems a shame.
Manchester United fans are rightly proud of their history even if they remember mostly good times. But there were bad times. They define United as well. How far you rise must be measured in comparison to the depths you’ve plumbed.
The Red Devils won just two First Division titles before Sir Matt Busby arrived and none between the time he left and Sir Alex Ferguson took the reins. Translation: only two men in the past 118 years managed the club to the title. Two. Between their reigns and before Sir Matt’s, there were hundreds if not thousands of footballers who put on the shirt. Today’s entitlement-suffering supporters would term most “not United players.” In fact, do any of you think there was an entire squad of top-class “United players” unable to break into the senior team until the Munich Air disaster? United’s best squads featured plough horses and thoroughbreds pulling in the same direction, neither group looking down their noses at the other.
However you mean it, the phrase “not a United player” is discriminatory. Whether they aren’t white, English or just up to your standard, the remark expresses the opinion that the target belongs to a lower class than the person casting judgment, that anything they do or say is meaningless due to whatever quality makes them unworthy in your eyes. The truth is they aren’t unworthy nor of a lower class. In fact, just uttering the phrase makes the odds overwhelming that it’s the other way around.
The same humility and respect current fans loudly demand from Pogba, Martial et al are qualities they should first demonstrate themselves. You can purchase a United kit at Old Trafford, online or in any number of shoppes around the world. That doesn’t make a fan worthy of putting on the shirt, only lucky enough to afford one. Consider that the next time the term “not a United player’ tries to force its way through your lips or out your fingertips.