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Manchester United: What A Mess!

By Dhruv Munjal
February 06, 2020 11:03 IST
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'Pure, unadulterated football joy has been in short supply for United fans for a long time now,' complains Dhruv Munjal.

IMAGE: Manchester United Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks on during the Premier League game between Manchester United and Burnley FC at Old Trafford, January 22, 2020. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

'You can change your wife, change your politics, change your religion. But never, never can you change your favourite football team!'

The above line is borrowed from the 2009 British film Looking for Eric, in which the lead character, a middle-aged postman frustrated and disenchanted with life, seeks inspiration from his footballing hero, the maverick Manchester United midfielder Eric Cantona.

The film is a brilliant example of how football can lift the soul in the most desperate of times, a buoyant reminder of sport's palliative qualities.

You can't help but wonder what the life of Eric Bishop, the fanboy idolising Cantona in the film, would look like if he were a Manchester United supporter today.

Instead of alleviating his pain, the team would, in all probability, shove him into an even deeper mire of misery.

Pure, unadulterated football joy has been in short supply for United fans for a long time now; recent weeks, however, have exacerbated that malaise to unprecedented levels, making everything related to United -- football or otherwise -- utterly insufferable.

That's why they sang so passionately the other night at Old Trafford, wanting their 'United back', and calling for the owners to be ousted.

One chant even suggested chopping up Ed Woodward, the club's executive vice-chairman who has been routinely called out for his embarrassing incompetence in handling football matters.

All this whilst their team stuttered to another limp defeat, this time against strugglers Burnley. So downcast -- and angry -- was the mood on this most abject of evenings that a lot of the iconic stadium had emptied out by the 85th minute.

 

IMAGE: Manchester United fans leave before the end of the game against Burnley FC. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

United has a fan base like no other in the world, one of the largest and most loyal, a constant source of praise and encouragement.

Yet, the Burnley game felt significant, a seminal moment where a palpable sense of disillusionment had outstripped all hope and optimism.

Yes, the fans mainly sang in protest of the owners's negligence and lack of care, but there was little to suggest that they weren't fed up of the team itself, and the kind of timidity that it has come to represent.

No fans are, of course, entitled to success -- a truism echoed by former United player Phil Neville in the aftermath of this latest embarrassment -- but followers of United have seen their club slide into mediocrity in front of their very own eyes, mostly on the back of gross incompetence off the field ever since Sir Alex Ferguson departed as manager in 2013.

It's almost like the Glazers -- the American family that owns United -- and Woodward have taken a piece of the world's most precious jewellery, ripped it up and tossed into the nearest sewer -- all in the short course of seven years.

IMAGE: Jack Cork and Chris Wood of Burnley celebrate victory over Manchester United. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

How did it even get this bad?

The Glazers were an emphatically unpopular arrival in the first place, having taken millions of pounds out of the club in debt management in the last 15 years.

The board's managerial appointments have been poor, some very high-profile who weren't afforded the resources they desired and were eventually sacked due to unfavourable results.

The buying on the player side has been even more catastrophic, with business and scouting being conducted in a ham-fisted way that would embarrass a second-division club, let alone a team with the might of Manchester United.

IMAGE: Manchester United Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward. Photograph: Peter Powell/Reuters

Numerous players have been signed for ludicrous amounts of money in the past few years -- not one has delivered.

This, even as many of them get paid so much more -- after Barcelona, United have the highest wage bill in the world -- than their counterparts at Liverpool, the team running away with the league at the moment amid a run of form that is absolutely staggering.

And even as most of the fans's ire hasn't been directed at current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer -- he is seemingly being cut some slack because he is a former player who is viewed as a legend at the club -- the blunt reality is that the Norwegian is terribly out of his depth.

The fact that he is a lesser problem than the Glazers and Woodward doesn't mean that he isn't culpable for the mess that the team has become.

Replacing a beleaguered manager is the easiest fix there is in football, but that just isn't reason enough for Solskjaer to stay.

You just can't give someone more time when he was so evidently the wrong choice in the first place.

IMAGE: Manchester United's Jesse Lingard shoots at goal against Burnley FC. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Right now, it isn't one thing or the other at United. They find themselves in an extraordinary situation where every stakeholder -- the owners, the chief executive, the manager and the players -- is responsible for where the club is.

They may be in fifth place in the Premier League, but in actuality the chasm between them and the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City is, quite frankly, frightening. This is a club crying out for change from top to bottom.

Which leaves just the fans. They've stuck by the team for long, but on the basis of the evidence against Burnley, it's clear that some of them have turned on the club.

The Glazers would do well to understand that the club's commercial success, which they cherish so dearly, has been made possible by devoted fans who buy their shirts and dutifully invest in season tickets.

Big brands come knocking at their door because United, historically speaking, are still the most successful club in England. Over the years, they've earned that reputation.

Clubs have both good times and bad, but United's status as a commercial behemoth can only survive if they start winning again.

Teams finishing sixth and seventh and eighth in the league just do not appeal to prominent advertisers in the long run. Success on the pitch leads to commercial viability, not the other way around.

As for the fans, it is unlikely that they won't stick this out. Being a football fan is tough: you can't control what happens at your club, yet your peace of mind is so closely linked to how it fares.

You can alternately hate it and love it, but what you can't do is abandon it.

Letting go is simply never an option -- no matter how hard the times, giving up on a lifetime of attachment is almost impossible.

The question is: How long can the people running the club keep taking this allegiance -- albeit slightly frayed -- for granted?

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Dhruv Munjal
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